Three Things I Grasped After Design School
…and am sharing because they’re conveniently applicable to us all:
1. Know Thy Self
Learning to think conceptually was my biggest take-away from the design program. Research was stressed in every class, and although checking out library books and surfing the web for hours before even beginning to think about the design of a project made my brain numb, it afforded me extra brownie points. Each time class critique came around, I could justify every design decision I made. This was great for the sake of getting A’s and expanding my mental creativity, but it didn’t really allow me to explore my design tastes and identify who I am as a designer. I spent all my time doing historical research, but I wasn’t pairing it with enough visual research. Therefore, my design creations, although conceptually sound, weren’t visually reflective of me, and nothing that I made resembled what I liked. That’s because I wasn’t researching imagery that I liked.
It wasn’t until I finished the program and was able to create personal projects that I really began exploring my own design aesthetics. I learned that I gravitate toward hand-drawn letterforms, happy illustration, and most of all, imperfection. For someone who was a self-proclaimed perfectionist and not comfortable with getting a little messy, this was a terrible realization. I’d been designing opposite of what I liked.
2. Get Out of Your Head
As mentioned above, I wasn’t fond of getting “messy”. Therefore, I stayed away from sketching (a fast, untidy process that enables you to illustrate multiple ideas as a means to finding solutions). As someone who struggled with the unobtainable goal of perfection, naturally, I didn’t like all of my crappy ideas staring back at me from a sheet of paper. I couldn’t get past the fact that my sketches weren’t immediate works of art, and they looked more like the creative genius of a first-grader than an adult designer. Man, I had issues.
Because I did some weird finagling of classes with my full-time job, I was able to skip some required art courses prior to the design program, but I had to pick them up once I’d finished. Drawing II was one of those courses, and it truly changed my life. The instructor had the most amazing disposition, combining highly-structured organization with a passion for creative exploration. I learned from Dr. Russell that my expectations of perfection were causing me to be a “commit-a-phobe” in my line work. (And the key to successful drawing is confident line work.) At the beginning of the course, my drawings were fuzzy and indecisive, but by the end of the course, I had produced drawings that shocked me. The expressive movement that I admired in works we studied became apparent in my own work. I had stopped judging myself so harshly, and therefore, I was able to break free of the crippling fear of screwing up and just allow myself to explore.
This breakthrough helped me find an appreciation for sketching, which allows me to work fast without obsessing over the quality of my work. I can try out numerous lettering and graphic layout compositions, and I don’t even worry about being highly detailed. I’m able to see and choose the best idea, which is far more useful than trying to find the answer in my own head, then jumping straight onto the computer only to find that my “perfect solution” doesn’t work. Now, as a rule, sketching is the first stage of my design process, and I never jump onto the computer before doing so. And to be fair, the design program tried its darndest to instill this principle in me; I just couldn’t get out of my own head long enough to grasp it.
3. Learn to Walk Away
This may be the most important lesson I’ve learned when it comes to design work. I’m not talking about giving up on a project, I’m talking about knowing when to take a time-out and physically WALK AWAY. Designers tend to become obsessed with the tiniest of details in their work, and when this starts to happen, the project as a whole begins to suffer. The problem with focusing on one area for too long is that it causes us to ignore the design in its entirety. If we’re too concerned with perfecting one area while ignoring the rest, the whole thing is just going to end up looking funky.
This is the point at which I get up from my chair, leave the room, and do something else that is NOT design-related. Taking a walk, watching a movie, or just going to bed will enable me to clear my head enough to gain some fresh perspective. Maybe my time-out is for a couple hours; maybe it’s a couple days. But nine times out of ten, when I return to the project with a fresh pair of eyes, I notice something glaringly awful that I didn’t see before because I was too concerned with some silly area. Or, while on my design hiatus, the solution to my problem comes to me out of thin air, because my mind is free enough to accept it, and I’m able to move forward.