10 Things You Can’t Learn in Design School
And some things I’ve learned along the way
In the last decade working as a designer, I’ve realized that I’ve picked up so many lessons that I simply couldn’t have learned in design school.
I did attend a traditional four-year university, where I studied design, and I loved the experience. It was amazing to get my hands on resources that I never would have been exposed to otherwise. Not only that, I met some professors and practitioners whose wisdom still influences my career. This has proven to be invaluable.
But here are some pieces of wisdom I’ve gleaned along the way, out of school and in the field. And to give credit where credit is due, everything you’ll read are things I’ve learned from the talented folks I’ve worked for and with. There’s no substitute for spending time watching others design incredible things, but I hope these lessons will cast an imagination for your career as a designer.
01. Master the craft
Tools change quickly, so concentrate on learning the craft of design instead of unnecessarily focusing on the ever-evolving tools of the trade. New tools can be intimidating. In my experience, design tool innovation has been more evolutionary than revolutionary — which is to say, new tools often just improve upon the old ones. Study design theory and principles. These will outlive every tool on the market.
02. People are strange
There’s no sugar-coating it: People are hard to work with. I get a good chuckle at the designers who daydream about creating art without any other humans to mess it up. But remember: You’re a designer, not an artist. Humans are who you serve.
03. Trends are temporary
Aesthetics are like fashion: They will change over time. Don’t over-invest in one visual direction. Think ahead. I’ve been around long enough to observe the sea changes of design trends. It’s wise to watch them but foolish to go all-in on something that may soon shift. I often see designers flock to the latest design trend like moths to the flame before ever allowing real humans to test out their visual theories.
04. Dream up your job
Our industry moves quickly, so your ideal position may not even exist yet. Be patient and innovative with your skills. Keeping an open mind with how you might apply your design skills is not only beneficial to you, but also to the people who may want to hire you. New technology brings new skill sets, so keep an eye out for what skills may prove to be valuable in the future.
05. Never stop learning
You will likely learn more in your first month of work than in your last four years of school. This may sound like a knock against a formal design education, but rather, I’d emphasize that there’s no substitute for experience. If design school taught me anything it was how to learn. May you never stop learning.
06. Pay it forward
Remember the folks who helped you along the way. Become that person for someone else. You’ll never regret it. Teaching others isn’t just compassionate; it’s a good reminder of where you’ve come from and where you’re headed. I’ve found that there’s no better way to test my skills than to teach others.
07. Inspiration is everywhere
Design inspiration is necessary, but always seek to expand your horizons. You’ll find inspiration anywhere you’re paying attention. Some of the best inspiration I’ve encountered came from the most unlikely places. Things like music, poetry, or architecture can teach you a lot about design if you let it. Expand your inspiration outside of your field of practice and even your era of time. You’ll find some incredible work if you’re looking for it.
08. Don’t fear hard work
All of my favorite projects were the most challenging ones I’d encountered. Hard work is the only way to grow. Don’t be scared to get in a bit over your head. It’s often in these moments you can become the most resourceful and creative. Constraints aren’t limiting; they are opportunities to innovate.
09. Be humble
Own your skill level. Being a beginner is nothing to be ashamed of. All the best designers I know were once apprentices, too. I’m a huge fan of studying under and/or alongside peers and seasoned designers. You will learn their point of view and begin to form your own from that wisdom and experience.
10. A better way is possible
Creating compassionate work for other humans will take more effort; it won’t be as efficient; and it may even cost you more money. However, it could change your community for the better.