10 things you need to learn in design school if you’re tired of wasting your money
I hope everyone had a good summer. It’s hard to believe it’s over, yet here we are. Still feeling the summer breeze of warm ocean wind. Still smelling the sunscreen, the taste of cotton candy, the mind still wandering to that summer crush we’ll never see again and sloppy awkward kisses under a summer moon. But as it does every year, and much too soon, summer ends, the Earth tilts, the leaves begin to turn, and we head back to school.
Welcome back, design students. It’s time to get back to work. Some of you may be entering your first year of design school at one of our fine design institutions. Some of you are mysteriously returning to finish those degrees. Either way, I wish you the best of luck this semester.
This article is for all of you. I want to help you make your design education as good as it can possibly be. This article is for everyone who’s ever said “I wish I’d learned that in school.” And while it’s certainly not exhaustive, I’ve compiled a few things that you should make sure you’re learning in school.
Also, these aren’t things that you need to be in school to learn. But for those of you who are there, might as well learn them early. You’ll have a leg up on everyone.
Let’s start at the top, shall we:
1. Design education is broken
So here’s the deal. I’m not going to lie to you. Design education, with a few exceptions (you can pretend your school is in the exception if it makes you feel better about that fat check you wrote), is inherently broken.
How do I know this? Good question. I run a design studio. I interview design school graduates for a living. And while I see many talented people, and a few people with the potential to have careers as designers, almost every single person I’ve interviewed lacks the basic core of what it takes to become a professional designer coming out of school. This isn’t their fault. Their school didn’t teach them what they needed.
This is how I want to help you. I want to help you have a successful design career. Which has nothing to do with how creative you are. I’ve seen plenty of creative people’s careers derail because they couldn’t manage their shit. I want you to manage your shit. Realize right now that no one is going to be so dazzled by your work that you don’t need to pay attention to this stuff. Because no matter how good your shit is, at some point you are going to have to sell it, invoice for it, and collect your money. Those are the things that prolong your career.
Your school probably has something called a portfolio class. Or a professional services class. It’s the class you don’t want to take. When I was your age I didn’t want to take it either. And it’s probably taught by someone who drew the short straw. They want to teach it as much as you want to take it. Thing is, you gotta take it. And you have to demand that it’s taught correctly. So feel free to show this list to that professor. Feel free to ask them if these things are in the class curriculum. Tell them these are things you want to learn.
What if they tell you this stuff isn’t important? One, they’re lying. Two, get out of there. You’re wasting your money. And don’t let them tell you these are “soft skills.”
Being able to pay your rent is not a soft skill. It’s a life skill.
2. Design is a business skill
You’re probably in the same building as the art school kids. Design has as much to do with art as a lobster has to do with a carrot cake. If you truly want a career as a designer, you are going to need to speak about someone’s business and organizational goals. You’re going to have to learn how to analyze data, you’re going to have to learn how measure effectiveness. You’re going to have to learn how to build and extend brands. You’re going to have to learn how to do goal-driven work. Goal-driven. Design is notabout expressing yourself. Design is not about following your dream. Design is not about becoming a creative. If that’s the kind of stuff that you’re interested in that’s absolutely fine. Walk across the hall to the art department and learn how many yams you can shove up your ass. (For the record, I have an art degree and that is an excellent reference. Look it up.)
Design is not about following your dream. Design is notabout becoming a creative.
But if you want to be a designer tell your professors you need business skills. If they roll their eyes you’re in the wrong school.
3. Design does not sell itself
At some point in your design career you are going to have to show your work to a client and convince the client that work is correct. You’re going to have to be persuasive. You’re going to have to work a room. You’re going to have to repeat some of those business goals from the previous point back to them. And you’re going to have to explain how your design will achieve those goals. Never, in the history of design, has good design sold itself. Never has a client been blinded by true genius. No, you’re not going to be the first. You have to work it.
Tell your professors you need presentation skills. You need practice in front of a room. And it should be a room of people who don’t give a shit about design, not your classmates. That’s called a critique. We’ll get to those in a minute. You need to be able to talk about your work in a way that the people who will hire you understand. No, they don’t give a shit about fonts.
4. Learn how to ask questions
Your first day at the job someone will throw something on your desk. They’ll say “Make this.” Your reply needs to be about 500 questions. “Why?” “Who is it for?” “How do those people behave?” “Can I talk to some of them?” “What are we trying to achieve?” “How will we measure its success?” etc etc etc. Design is the intentional solution to a problem within a set of constraints. If you don’t know what the problem is, you can’t design a solution for it. Because you have no idea whether your design would solve it. So the first step in any design exercise is to understand the problem. To do that you have to ask a lot of questions.
Learning what questions to ask, who to ask them to, and how to ask them is a skill that needs to be taught.
5. Learn how to say no
Throughout your career you will be asked to work for free. You will be asked to work against your own interests. You’ll be asked to design things counter to goals. You’ll be asked to design according to whims. All those things will fail. And those failures will be on you. As a designer it’s on you to do the job to the best of your ability. Learn how to protect yourself by saying no.
Being able to say no without coming across as a petulant asshole is a skill. A skill many people don’t have. Ask your professors to teach you how.
6. Learn how to write an invoice
Your career will be short if you can’t get paid. And never accept someone else’s terms without question. This also goes for writing statements of work, proposals, and change orders. Change orders can change your life.
7. Learn how to steal
Be aware of your history. Design is the oldest profession in the world. You’re not the first person to tackle whatever design problem you’re tackling. See how others tackled it. Take the best solutions you find and improve on them. Don’t burn time solving things from scratch. Make use of what others have learned.
8. Learn how to read and write an email
Your success is going to be determined by how well you can communicate. And possibly a little talent. But seriously, it’s about 10% talent. I’m not even kidding. Most of that communication will be done over email. Most email is written badly. On average in every 100 words, five are important. You’re going to need how to find those. Clients will write every manner of bad email. (It’s not their fault. No one taught them how to do it either.) It’s on you to figure out how to read those emails productively. And then reply to them in a productive manner. You’re going to need to learn how to write short, succinct to-the-point emails. And you’re going to need to learn when the correct reply to an email is actually a phone call.
Tell your professor that designers need to be communication professionals. If they start talking about the AIGA* just walk away.
*The AIGA is a professional organization that holds poster contests.
9. Design the right thing
Like all professions, there is an ethical component to design. We make things exist! That’s pretty powerful. But we also need to be gatekeepers to the things that we allow to exist. And we need to make sure that the things we build are as safe as possible. This means that we need to think about contexts which are not our own, and people who are not like us. (Feel free to define “us” to your particular context.)
A designer’s job is to solve problems. And you have a very limited amount of time on Earth. And limited resources. So make sure the problems you take on are worth solving. Your job is not to do what your told. You not only get to ask why, you have to ask why.
Working ethically is a skill. And it’s a skill that needs to be taught. It’s not easy to tell the CEO of a Fortune 500 company that the product they just asked you to design is harmful. And it takes more than guts. It takes training. Make sure that your professors are giving you that training.
10. Learn to be critical
Throughout your career people will tell you your work is bad. They will be right a majority of the time. Doesn’t matter how good a designer you are. You’re going to have to learn how to take and dish out criticism. There’s a respectful way to do it — focus on the the work. But if you withhold criticism because you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings you’re doing them a disservice as a designer. More importantly, you’re doing the people who eventually come into contact with that designer’s work a disservice.
So learn how to kick the tires on an idea. Good ideas can take it. And they’re made better by it. Look for the holes so you can plug them. Be honest with each other when work doesn’t meet the standard of excellence. Do it fairly, do it kindly, but do it. The most unkind thing you can do to another designer is to withhold your criticism.
But Mike, I want to be a designer!
I know you do. And I bet you’ll be good at it. I bet you’re very talented. Even very creative. You’ve also decided to make a career of it. For which I applaud you. We need good designers. But we need designers who know how to deal with their shit so they can earn an actual living.
This is what you need to be learning in design school. You need to come out of there ready to enter a professional service. Obviously, this is stuff you should be learning in school. But school is only as good as you want it to be. You can fuck off and get a degree. (I did.) Or you can hold your teachers’ feet to the fire and say “I’m paying a lot to be here. And I’m willing to put in the work. And these are the things I need to learn.”
Welcome back to school.
Mike Monteiro is a nice guy or a total asshole depending on your opinion. He is also the Design Director at Mule Design. And the author of Design Is a Job and You’re My Favorite Client.
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