Why I dropped out of design school

It was 11am on April 4, 2012, which means I was halfway through my last interaction design critique of the semester. Our assignment: create an interactive sculpture based on some short stories. For 2 weeks, I had spent time buddying up with the technician in the electronics department (he responded well to petty bribery), learning how to build a circuit with Arduino, and writing a simple code that would control my sculpture. I rigged the electronics so that when a viewer approached the sculpture, a fan would turn off, and the plastic figure would deflate. When they walked away, it re-inflated.

It wasn’t profound or innovative. But I learned some skills, and all of my electronics worked. I felt like that was the point of the exercise: to try something out. We spent 90% of this class’s time discussing “the importance of electronics and interfaces in the future of humanity” (that’s verbatim from the syllabus). Learning a little code seemed like a very clear connection to the purpose of the project.

The next person to present came up, and announced that her piece was two-pronged. With care, she pinned up a poster. The background featured colourful, shiny bubbles that I presume were found somewhere in 2011 Word’s clip art. All the titles and body copy were printed, cut out, and glued onto the poster — ransom-note-esque. She carefully placed her sculpture on the table: a tinfoil tree.

“This is a wifi tree, that turns solar power into wifi in public spaces.”

How does the tinfoil tree convert air into wifi? No one was sure. I was left with a lot of questions. I felt fairly sure that this was a waste of time.

We were two years into a pricey, prestigious design school and there was a lack of emphasis on using Adobe creative suite–the functional foundation of the design industry. No one instilled a working knowledge of the basics of a good portfolio, or an effort to master the basics that direct you down the path of becoming a halfway good designer. The most frustrating part was that she likely got a B-, and didn’t have to learn Adobe Illustrator for another year.

I worry that some students are enabled to be bad designers because they belong to an institution that needs attendance (and money) as much as you need the skills they are proffering. The myth that design school gets you a job is about as reliable as a tinfoil tree that bestows wifi. In a real university, a shitty Engineering student would not be permitted to float through their degree relying on effort and participation alone.

Since leaving design school and working in the industry, I have seen a lot of portfolios. I have learned from looking through them that there is a distinct difference between what the industry is doing and what design schools are teaching. When a company is hiring a designer and they come across a design school portfolio, the best case scenario is that the company sees potential. Not one prof told me that, and it is such an important lesson. Regardless of having gone to school, there’s going to be a steep learning curve. It’s just important to actually know that. You’ll save yourself from suddenly feeling under-appreciated and overwhelmed.

I’ve never been asked where I studied. This industry is portfolio-based. Companies looking to hire designers simply want to know that you can do the work well. How you demonstrate that has no set formula. Most of the applications will involve a design challenge where the company will have you sort your way through a problem, and then explain your thinking. Teaching students critical thinking is great, but it’s unspecific. If we’re going to ask a school to help us get a job, they need to respond by teaching us the kind of things we’ll be asked to produce in an interview. The interfaces I was designing in the classroom have no place in my portfolio today. The work that we’re producing in class will not compare to the portfolio of someone who has been sitting next to senior designers and developers for the last few years. And damn. That sucks. Because you have spent a lot of time and money preparing for that interview-moment, but you’ve spent your education trying to impress the wrong people.

So here’s my advice, if you want it: If you are passionate about design, I recommend getting into the design industry as fast as you can — not wasting your time at design school.

While I was in design school, I met an executive of MetaLab at a party. I asked him if he was looking for an intern. I sent him my work. He told me it was all bullshit (it was) and asked me to design him 2 Tumblr themes by the end of the week. For the first time since I started school I had to research what design practices existed in the real world, and try and make enough sense of this information to make my own viable product. After I sent him my terrible themes, he somehow saw a shred of potential and offered me an internship. I dropped out at the end of the semester. From there, my education began. Bad pay, good people, boring work, great basics. I was lucky, but I was also ready to do that work. The foundation is boring, but essential.

For the next year, I siphoned knowledge from some of the best designers in town. Pixel Union’s head designer, Carlo Franco, gave me my first useful design exercise. He had me design a theme using no shape elements. I was only allowed to use images and one font family (Georgia). Carlo drilled typography into me with polite patience. I learned more in that exercise than I did in my second-year typography class. Unlike the class, Carlo showed me practical examples of how good typography is the basis of beautiful web design. Thank you, Carlo.

If I were to teach a class, this would be my design syllabus:

1. Self educate.

I acknowledge that you need experience to get a job. But you need a job to get experience. The internet is the most accessible, inexpensive, and relevant place to get experience. There are lots of online communities where skilled working designers freely share their knowledge. Dribbble and Skillshare are great places to start learning the standards of the industry.

2. Look at tech colleges

Or intensive courses taught by people in the industry. A good one to check out is Lighthouse Labs in Vancouver. These are classes taught by the very people you will then go on to ask for work.

3. Get some internet mentors

Study good designers who are currently in the industry. Lots of them write extensively about their processes. Frank Chimero’s essays were a godsend when I was starting out.

4. Fake a portfolio

If you can justify your decisions, then it doesn’t matter if it has been commissioned by a paying client or not. You don’t have to lie. You can redesign something you think needs redesigning. Here is a project my friend Edmund did where he designed the mobile app for Ello — a new and emerging social network just for fun. If you do this well, you can use it as self promotion. My old boss Andrew Wilkinson, the CEO of MetaLab, did this often, calling out large companies like Zappos for their bad design.

5. Bite the bullet

Work for free, or charge what your time is actually valued at. Contrary to what every recent grad of design school will tell you, it’s OK to work for free, as long as it is benefiting you. All the designers I know still do work for free on the side, because it is the easiest way to get a chance to prove you can do something you wouldn’t have had the chance try otherwise. The goal here is to eventually be paid to do the kind work you want to do by communicating that you can do it well.

In summary:

Instead of going to school, build a stable of mentors. Find mentors who epitomize what art school promised to teach you. Find people who produce design that is compelling, empathetic, and beautiful and study, imitate and steal from them. The internet is a great tool for this, because you never even have to meet these people. I am resigned to accept the fact that it’s going to take me a whole lot of work and failures and creative directors asking me if a project “is REALLY my best effort” if I want to be a mentor one day. School isn’t bad for everyone; but what you hope to get from design school should be investigated before you commit your time and money. Lord knows that my tinfoil friend is in for a VERY big wake up call.

So. Before we go about changing the world with motion-tracking projectors, and before we start exploring user interfaces that Jony Ive can’t even imagine, can we have a talk about text hierarchy? Because if I see another business card that I can’t even read… I’m going to lose my mind.

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