Design OD (Vent warning!)

When I first started design school, I was super enthusiastic about everything design related. I thought I had a perfectly clear core identity as a designer. What I mean by that is I’ve always had a very engineer-like, direct approach to design.
Approaching graduation I could really not care less and I feel confused about what I’m graduating to. I feel I’m done with everything design related. I feel uninspired and I’ve lost all confidence in my creativity. To be honest, I can not think of someone less creative than me right now, and this has been going on for a few years. For one assignment, I wrote a whole essay about why I think the word “design” should be banned and how design has become so overly romanticised. I know this is not the whole truth, and I know there are a lot of designers out there who do genuinely good things and make peoples lives truly better, but I still feel design is too often perceived as something magnificently transcendentally awesome. And I am uncomfortable and fed up with that.

I’ve always dreaded the “innovation project” (this was an actual assignment):
Super Innovative Commuter Bicycle
*Innovative < must absolutely be something very uniquely awesome
*Ecological < oh please….
*Likeable < ditto
*High Quality < too expensive
*Easy to use < ?
*Personal < for whom?
*Cost-effective < low quality

I would go sketching maybe two ideation sketches (200 required) and end up modeling a very average commuter bicycle with maybe the obligatory swoopy curve.
Worst part is, when I was given this assignment, I immediately felt my inner defeatist raising his head. And there were many assignments like this.
I’ve always been terrible at ideation. Now I can’t help but think that fact makes me a lousy designer.

I believe getting inspired is definitely one of the more important skills for a designer, and I say skill because no one can constantly be naturally inspired and create wonderful and great things. It’s something that requires work and effort. So, like many others, I go online looking for inspiring things and most of the time I end up feeling discouraged by the vast plethora of stuff. Services, products, apps, you name it. I could go on and on. It’s all there. I like sketching, but I can’t come up with anything to sketch and you can’t evolve by sketching cubes all day. Shiny cubes. Matt cubes. Stacked cubes. An endless ocean of cubes.
I feel like at the moment there is a surplus of everything (not least cubes). Not only is there some gadget or app for every purpose, but there’s also a surplus of ideas from everyone but me.

So I’ll grind through the rest of my studies, taking the path of least resistance and aiming just for graduation. I don’t care for grades anymore, and I don’t care if I land a job or career as a designer because to be honest, I don’t know if that’s what I want to do anymore. Maybe I need a timeout or maybe it was never meant to be, but for now I’m going to do something that has nothing to do with designing. I’ve lost my mojo and I’m depleted of drive.

And that’s the story of design school in a nutshell for me.

Hey Panda
I think what you’re going through is something every design student has gone through to some degree at some point in their studies.

Often times when I introduce non designers to the world of ID they have this same view point and say “Wow I wish I could do that, I would be so much happier and change the world!”. But when I start explaining everything that goes into getting to that final glossy image, 9 times out of 10 they end up saying, “Oh that sounds like a lot of work, never mind.”

I think the design process is often like sausage making. It’s a messy process that is not something most people actually want to do even though they salivate over the savory end-results of the work.

So I guess my question to you is what do you like? The bloody messy sausage-making process or the final cooked sausage? If it’s the cooked sausage, then I would stop right now. But it seems like you like the process, it’s just that you’ve become too distracted with all the extraneous crap that often circles around design.

People will call it Design Thinking, then Universal Design, then Innovation, then Sustainable Innovative Thinking, etc. I’m not saying there’s no value in these phrases, there is, but don’t let them distract you from why you were interested in design in the first place. Let the messy process be the reward.

You’re going to run into the same thing when you hit the job scene, so although I’d love to say it will get better once you graduate it probably won’t so best for you to figure it out now. I think it’s good that the shiny veneer of design is evaporating because now you have to see it for what it really is and isn’t and decided if it’s something you really want to spend the rest of your life doing.

First, I am sorry to hear of your frustration, I think it is easy to become cynical of anything, including design.

Second, employment as a designer is vastly different than school as a designer.

Maybe that second thought can help. As your potential employer, I don’t give two rat’s craps if you are inspired or not. Your opinion whether something is innovative, ecological, likeable, or anything on your list is also not worth two rat’s craps. The only opinion I care about is my customer’s. Your job is to make new ideas and communicate those ideas. Only the customer can evaluate those ideas to the requirements you listed.

So either you enjoy coming up with ideas and communicating them, or you don’t. Either you enjoy doing any career, or you don’t. But you obviously have access to a tremendous amount of opportunities. Whatever you do, don’t squander them.

I know exactly how you feel, and I felt that way in school as well. Maybe it was a little different for me, my problem was that I would see the same thing you’re seeing and feel overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities that I could apply creativity to, and I had a hard time finding a staring point (or direction) that would motivate me. A few school projects aside I found that student design competitions provided some good direction and motivation so I took a few on.

Right now, in school you lack real direction or real end-user problems to solve, and you probably aren’t teaming up with other disciplines like engineering and marketing. Innovation project? I agree, sounds like a terrible assignment that’s prepping you for corporate design speak nonsense. That kind of project postulates that you will learn to, and then arrive at an original thought or idea, but the project itself is too vague and too narrow all at the same time. The reality is that almost all (and in terms of universality, all) of the design work that you have ever seen is a derision of something else, a connection of dots, ideas, or concepts where the designer connected them in some different direction that solves a problem. But, you have to have compelling criteria or direction to kick that process off. Some people have great self direction, some need it from a source like a client or creative director, but in either case a broad knowledge base gained by doing research is a really critical part of the design process that is easy to gloss over if you take the end results at face value.

So what I’m saying is that, with your school assignments, look for the design problem they require you to solve. If they put forth too many problems to solve, challenge the ones you think don’t make sense. If you can’t identify any real problem to solve in an assignment, ask your prof what you’re being asked to solve, if you don’t get an answer, or you get a non-answer, then look for one yourself and research it from many different angles, develop a concept, and the present it all together to show how you objectively solved a real problem while completing the assignment.


Frustration is always critical to growth. It evolves the society/group/individual to a transcendent level. School is vital to instill the process of designing into the student. I’m wondering what your attitude is towards your project critiques. How do you take criticism from your professors and peers? Do you find it constructive or to do you pass it off as, “well that’s just their opinion”. Come to terms with your attitude before throwing in the towel. You will go much further when you graduate and dialogue about design, career advancement and projects. I’m not saying your bad at what you do or you need to change your attitude. Just take a moment and reflect, think and really talk to a lot of folks before forming conclusions. Our playing field is changing everyday and labels are changing as well. You will only see yourself as a designer if YOU see yourself as a designer. No one else.

Second, design is also about bringing value to the banal. The projects are meant to exercise your ability into building value towards your projects. If you don’t get it the first time, learn, move-on rework. But keep pushing through it. Designers build value, period. We always have and always will. Develop an attitude to see opportunity for value building, the rest will fall in place…

As a design student, I wholly empathize with your feelings and I feel the same a lot of times. In fact, me and my roommate who is also in ID feel like we’re completely lacking in inspiration these last few months which makes us question our place in ID.

I think what gets me is the whole “innovation” aspect. I know school is a place to experiment without the nitty gritty constraints of the real world, but it gets to me sometimes how gimped I feel about this way of thinking; what it amounts to is that everyone in the class comes up with something new, innovative(hate the word as well), and revolutionary and I design something and get the “well what’s new about that?”. It gets to me sometimes because from what I can tell, usually those who don’t go the “innovation/new trend” route tend to like to do revamps, stylizing and whatnot and I’m not very good at that either so I feel like I don’t know my place (or if I have one) in the design world.

The thing is, I genuinely like designing, I just don’t know if I’m any good at it if I can’t fit any of the above criteria. So my advice to you as someone who has similar feelings is, ask yourself: do you like designing? Let alone the fact that you can’t seem to come up with a million dollar idea, do you LIKE designing? If the answer is yes, then I feel that at some point, you will hit that vein in the product world where you’ll find the path where design “happens” for you (for lack of a better term).

Some good advice already above. I’ll add that in my opinion school is an artificial construct designed to get you to a level where you are just good enough to get your first job where your real education will begin. The moment I accepted this as a student, I got much better. I almost failed out my sophomore year for similar reasons you stated above, but instead of feeling defeated (an inward reaction) I rebelled (an outward reaction) and ignored my instructor’s assignments, created my own assignments, and was just generally difficult, surly, and a smart mouth. I worked hard, but it was not productive.

After the administration tried to unsuccessful get me to transfer (I get it, I was a huge pain in the butt) they helped me to structure my remaining 2 years around what I wanted to learn. I ended up spending most of the two year doing independent studies, industry sponsored projects, and doing a semester and a summer at different schools where I could take in all different kinds of ways of doing things, different influences, and synthesize them into my own thing.

School is not designed for this kind of individually tailored approach. It is more like a factory, which it needs to be to control costs. So I am super grateful in hindsight that enough people believed in me to make it work.

OK, let me get to the point. What I’m driving at is that while the academic environment was not a fit for me, the professional world was. All of a sudden my pain in the butt traits became assets in the real world where you have to largely be a self starter and navigate with little input a lot of times. Maybe you will have a similar experience, or maybe it really isn’t for you, but you’ve come this far. You owe it to yourself to give it everything you have to fully explore this path before abandoning it.

And, you can always rebel.

Oh, was this meant for the original poster?

The OP seems more bored than frustrated…idle hands. Make trouble!


My sincere apologies. Yes, I did intend it for the original post. Freudian slip on the keyboard…

Thanks for your supportive replies. My faith in these forums was once again strengthened.

I think bored is maybe not the right verb in my case. I still feel like designing is what I want to do, in one way or the other and I still do have a genuine interest for some areas of design. Rather I’m just fed up with the creativity mantra that we’re bombarded with on every blog and publication and in school all-of-the-time. And I believe this is a skewed view about the design profession. I’m sick of how design and designers alike are portrayed. I feel like I’ve somehow been manipulated into thinking that a good designer equals a super creative one. But I’m also well aware of my narrow perception of this profession and I know there are many designers out there who do great things with true value. But I long for perspective and alternative stories. Everything else is just getting old.

I come from a woodworking background with 10 years of experience and a great passion for furniture. I can honestly say that in the process of making a piece, all the mistakes and frustration along the way makes the end-result all the sweeter. I love hard work, even when it pays very little. I believe in solving problems during the process. It’s impossible to solve all possible future problems on a piece of paper. When you get there, your work will tell you how to proceed.
But one of the reasons I applied to study design was to get a broader view and a new angle at my work. Now I feel like education has in fact done the opposite. It’s like school (and much of the media) is trying to root me into a certain way of thinking while telling me to be creative and think outside the box. It’s pretentious.

One of the reasons I read core77 is that it’s so down to earth. It’s about sowing buttons on a jacket! And different tapes… and zip-ties… It’s got the right proportions of real things like tools, methods and Karim Rashid. And I wished for more of that in my education as well. Practical things. I might be old-school but I still believe that the hands-on approach is the most effective. To design succesfully you have to know the craft. And that’s just not done solely on a computer.
So my beef is really with my university and the media and all authority. Maybe anarchy is the way to go…

That’s a really interesting story, love it! It resonates with what I’ve been going through for almost two years, I’m glad it gets better.

I don’t really have much to add, but what gets me through each week is doing my own projects, and tailoring them so that I decide what I get out of them.

super-panda, I also went through the same problems. I think you’ll find that a lot of working designers had the same beginnings as you.

Be prepared to struggle with existential questions and frustrations for a while, maybe even for life. It gets easier and smoother but it doesn’t go away, it just evolves.

Don’t listen to the design school narrative about the classic career path. It’s a minority of designers who went to design school and pleased all their instructors, and then went to a career fair and had five job offers, and then neatly funneled into their favorite company or studio and worked there for decades.

People come from strange backgrounds, get fired, get laid off, job-hop, take sabbaticals, go to rehab, change careers, etc. It’s much more chaotic (and interesting) than the narrative would suggest. I know machinists and programmers who could design circles around some educated industrial designers, and I do mean the entire design skill set. It’s all in your experiences and what you set out to learn.

So stop worrying about the obnoxious fluff of the design world and cultivate your own path.

Take a two or three week camping trip, away from free WiFi and cell phones. Recharge and get inspired.

If you want to be a designer, keep doing it. Don’t give up and don’t let your inner doubt factory take over.

Yes, its a hugely complicated process. Everyone has an opinion on your work. I like to think I have 100 bosses (everyone in our organization). People will get angry when your designs don’t do what they want, or assumed they would.

Sales people and production workers will try to change your designs to make their jobs easier (without asking). Suppliers will stop making the part you need. What was cool last week will suddenly be uncool and you should have seen it coming 6 months before it was cool.

It’s all part of the fun of being a designer, and it’s worth it. Trust me. I worked in factories and labour jobs for 7 years after dropping out of high school at 16 so I know what the alternative is.

Well, starting mid April until mid September I’m going to be working as a park manager (signed on Thursday). Summer filled with boating, a quad, chainsaws, rakes, hammers, nails and the great outdoors with loads of breathing room. Not only a great summer ahead, but it may be exactly what I need to contemplate my next move.

Anyway, thanks to everyone for your constructive feedback and support!

Have fun this summer, but remember to keep drawing, whether it’s still lifes of pinecones or sketches of kids in a lake; take it from me, being rusty sucks if you want to get back to designing.

And if I could just add a bit to the good advice above, learning to rewrite your brief is a skill you’ll use in your career, so you might as well start now. Sometimes you need to reign someone in when they ask for something like the bike project and sometimes you need to fill in the details when they just want something “nice” (though the bike project needs filling in too). So if you get an assignment like the bike one, acknowledge that most of those things are nice to have but find a focus. Go to bike stores, watch bikers, talk to bikers, and figure out for yourself which of them is most lacking and focus on that. Throughout the process you can review the original list to see if improvements to those aspects can be made, but keep your focus.

Something else that has occurred to me which may be a good way for you to think about “innovation” is that innovation is more of an adjective than an aspect. It’s like saying make it good. You could have innovative style, durability, low cost manufacturing method, etc. which means you can ignore that requirement. If you do well with the other stuff there is a good chance it’ll be innovative enough.

And when it comes to sketching and creativity, sometimes you just gotta push through the crap. Don’t worry about making every sketch super innovative or unique or special, especially in the beginning. Just start making square bikes, round bikes, triangle bikes, silly bikes, tough bikes, whatever. Make a middle ages bike or a communist bike, just keep sketching. Evaluate the sketches against your brief later. You’ll come to a few spots where you think you’ve thought of every variation possible, then realize, for example, that while you’ve changed up the frame every single sketch has the same handlebars. And when you start varying the handlebars you think of new frames somehow. Usually you have to clear out all the obvious ideas in your head by putting them on paper before the great ones come.

Anyway, good luck to you.

For a very long time I have been trying to find a place to fit in the professional world. I’m 34, and as I’m writing this I’m still looking. But as my idealism has slowly faded with age, I’ve begun to put more emphasis on the how rather than the what. It’s not so much about what you do anymore that counts, it’s how it’s done.
As I’m closing in on my graduation and I look at the smorgasbord of professions and fields available for a designer, finding the right one is like trying to hit a piñata blindfolded. It’s exciting and a bit scary at the same time. I’m quickly approaching an age-threshold in my quest for a career. Some might argue I’m far beyond. I know this. But I try to keep an open mind.
I have to be very honest here. I’ve struggled for a very long time with my inability to find a career. I’m in my mid 30’s and I still don’t know. As I’m becoming more comfortable with the thought of never knowing, wether that’s a good or a bad thing I don’t know.
The challenge with a degree as universal as design is that it becomes that bit more challenging to choose your plate if the cuisine is unfamiliar.

A while back I wrote the OP rant about how I was completely fed up with design. I had hit a wall in my studies and the mountain ahead that was my thesis seemed an impossible crux. I found myself in a familiar place where I just wanted to give up, right at the final stretch. Education had slowly revealed to me what design was about, and I didn’t like it at all.

After a bit of meditation and time off I realized a few things:
I think a good education is supposed to challenge your conviction, seriously. It’s important to go through deep dips in order to reflect effectively and grow. Otherwise we’ll just end up mediocre amateurs.
Whichever way you end up going, well almost, you can become an expert at your field. If your working environment is supportive and engaging, you have the opportunity to dig through many the many levels of your field that you simply can’t see from a distance. As that happens you realize that what seemed mundane for afar might reveal something very interesting up close. The challenge is to look. The deeper you go, the more interesting it becomes. This is what I mean about “how”, the environment has to be right.
Feed your curiosity, and hopefully one day it will end up feeding itself.
Be humble. Humility, in my opinion, is becoming a rare virtue these days. Especially in creative fields where flamboyant egos reign. Work with people that are more talented than you. It’s the most effective way to progress. Remember your motives and be honest. What was the original, maybe completely naive thing that got you interested in the first place? In my case, it was the curiosity of how things worked, how materials were manipulated and processed to make something and how they were then assembled into something. It’s really that simple. Remember this as it will help to keep you in the right track.
Be mindful of your interpretation of other peoples opinions. I’ve realized I’m nothing what you read about the designers on blogs or magazines or books. I’ve realized I’m not a super creative designer inventor. I hate trying to come up with ideas. While some people thrive on a blank canvas, I hate it because I simply suck at ideating. It’s these fantastic inventors that usually end up in the headlines, and for a good reason. Reading these fantastic stories I, quite falsely, became to believe that was what a designer was supposed to do and in all honesty, it felt intimidating and completely unnatural to me and almost made quit. These people we read about and adore, however only represent a minority of designers.

Feel free to compile this into a motivational seascape poster if you want, but know that was never my intention. This is just to say dang if it doesn’t feel good to be in better touch of your identity. Whatever it is.

And thank you all for the replies and support! Sorry for not replying earlier. I was off duty.

Keep on keepin’ on.