3 Fundamental Lessons Design Students Need To Learn. Now.
My years at design school were the best years of my life.
My design program, run by several esteemed faculty, was extremely rigorous and packed with projects that concentrated on proper concept development, meticulous attention to craft (both physical and digital), and creating fully visual experiences down to the last pixel. I had crazy days and nights filled with stress, self-doubt, and probably 30 energy drinks in my stomach per week. In the end, I walked out of there with a great portfolio, great friends, an undying love for black coffee, and a path laid out before me to succeed.
Looking back on my education, while what I was learning was extremely important, there were other lessons that I was not taught. I ended up learning them on the job at my first place of contract/employment, and to be honest, when it came down to a possible full-time position, I didn't get it because while my design chops were good, they felt that I didn't have a solid grasp on the production aspects. It rocked my world at the time, but after that place, I ended up getting better and better with every position I took on. Now at known.creative, LLC, I'm the one who takes on the print and packaging design and/or I oversee its development and release into production phases.
In my conversations and interactions with design students over the years, as well as other design instructors from other programs, I've come to realize that it's fairly common in the design programs to solely focus on the design and creative process aspect, while the rest of the craft is looked to be taught "on the job" at an internship or apprenticeship. The only problem is that not all design students end up getting internships, let alone internships of real substance, and end up having to try to learn those skills even harder during the curriculum. As someone who is passionate about design and design education, I truly believe that there should be just as much focus on the creative processes as there should be on the following:
Production: This should be almost equally stressed as much as the designing. Anyone can design something beautiful, but without solid production chops, the product ends up having huge flaws; flaws that could end up wasting a lot of money (especially for print). Fundamentals such as effective dots per inch (dpi), file formats of all sorts (i.e. fonts, images, docs), print production and digital production should be introduced early on, and heavily monitored throughout student body progress. While most internships will place those grunt-work type duties on an intern anyway, they'll most likely expect the students to have a decent grasp on these principles beforehand.
Presentation: Talking about design is not like talking about art. It's a bit more concise in language, yet effective at presenting the concept and objectives. In the business world, effective pitching can do just about anything from compelling decision-making to converting sales and interest. As students transition from their foundation years and into their design curriculums, there should be a slow but steady introduction of presentation skills and public speaking principles. They must learn to keep their statements short but sweet. Further commentary about their creative process should be saved for when the interviewer asks, and students should be effectively weaned off of giving "real-estate" tours ("This page layout has the headlines at the top of the images, and when you look down, you'll see three images..."). Concepts first, comments later. And most of all, students should learn to present their work with confidence and conviction.
Freelance: I've been approached a few times by students who have said they wished there would be more conversation about freelancing in their classes. It's often a very overlooked topic, but the truth is all designers will end up freelancing at some point in their careers, whether for fun or out of necessity. It can end up being very lucrative, and it can ultimately result in a graduate setting up his or her own studio somewhere down the road. With that said, there are so many obstacles, myths, and risks that should be identified, especially when it comes to client negotiations and paperwork. Supplementary to their school projects, students should be encouraged to freelance and begin to learn these lessons early on; starting with smaller projects such as a postcard design, menu design, or t-shirt design. Over time, they'll be able to take on bigger projects such as branding and website design.
Design student life is a crazy life, but at the end of the road begins a new one filled with as many rewards as there are challenges. There's never been a more interesting time to be a designer, but with that said, design students should be as prepared as possible to take on their education first, and then, the world.