Three Things I Grasped After Design School

Category : Design insight

Three Things I Grasped After Design School

…and am sharing because they’re conveniently applicable to us all:

1. Know Thy Self

Gracie and meLearning 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.

final semester drawingBecause 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.

sketchingThis 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

scenery from Centennial, WYThis 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.

Strive for…Failure?

Strive for…Failure?

FAIL is a Four-letter Word

We all hate it; we’re all scared of it. We pass up opportunities every day in order to avoid it. It drives the first questions that come to mind when we consider change: What if I try it and disaster strikes? What if I’m not any good at it? What if it humiliates me? These are valid concerns, but allowing these concerns to keep you from trying means you’ve already failed.

Get Uncomfortable

The reasons above were my excuses for never testing my own limits. If I continued to do what had always worked for me, then I’d never fail, right? …Not exactly.

Prior to enrolling in UW’s graphic design program, I had this nagging suspicion that I was missing out on something. Although my marriage was strong, my spouse and I had just moved into a brand new home, and my job was stable, I couldn’t shake the feeling.

When my father passed away in 2009, it hit me hard that life does not wait for you to accomplish your goals. I realized there were so many things I wanted to learn and do. I wanted to knit. I wanted to create things. And most of all, I wanted to change the stale path that I had been paving for myself. But I’d been holding back….For what? I couldn’t say.

Don’t Be a “Commit-a-phobe”

The month after my dad’s passing, a couple friends took me under their wings and helped me buy a pair of knitting needles, some bulky yarn, and the how-to book Stitch n’ Bitch. They taught me the knit stitch, and from there, I was hungry for more. I bought more books, watched numerous tutorials, and I learned advanced techniques. It took me a long time to get really good, and I made some huge mistakes along the way, but the fact that I never gave up is what caused my life to take a new direction.

As odd as it sounds, my success in knitting drove me to enroll in the graphic design program. There were numerous times that I wanted to put my needles down and say “I give up; I’m never going to master this stitch!” But I didn’t; I always found a way to solve my problem. Through commitment, my confidence increased immensely, and I found myself thinking: “If I can teach myself to be this good at knitting, I can pretty much do anything.” Wow; having a thought like that was pretty unlike me.

What If You Succeed?

The graphic design program was trying, to say the least. I didn’t join with the intent to become a graphic designer. I went into it like I went into knitting–wanting to learn more about something that had always intrigued me. However, there were many long nights, many tears, and MANY thoughts of quitting…because that would’ve been so much easier.

Only half of the students who started with me ended up graduating from the program. Those who stayed, including myself, did so because they wanted it badly enough, and they had the moxie to finish. What I took away from the program was confidence in myself and my perceived limits. I learned that I’m only as strong as my most condemning thought. I learned to think differently about my capabilities, and I began to associate failure with the willingness to try and see what might happen. Thus, I surprised myself by realizing how much I really LOVE TO LEARN.

My Ownership of “Failure”

Own It blog image

Last weekend I took Jeff Rogers’ online class on painting letters. Now, paint is not my typical medium, and he is quite a bit more free-spirited than me when it comes to art-making. However, I challenged myself to give it a go and just see what would happen. I chose the phrase “own it”, because I wasn’t sure where this project would end up, but the point was to not let that bother me. After all, I was exploring a new process and medium. What I found is that since I didn’t follow my regular, regimented creative process, the piece emerged more organically than what I’m used to. I continuously slapped on new layers of color without judgement and let the piece shape itself (which was a little scary). Once I finished, I noticed some things in my own work that I tend to be attracted to in the works of others, like Jeff. Most importantly, I allowed myself the possibility of failure; I owned the fact that it might turn out terribly. And because I did, I learned some things about my skills, and I got a glimpse of some new possibilities. None of which would have been possible had I not tried.

If you take away anything from this post, I hope that you’ll reconsider the word failure and what it means to fail. Failure is the undesired result of trying. It’s almost impossible to not learn from failure. And as long as someone is learning, he/she is succeeding.

Postmodern and Proud

Postmodern and Proud

The Fallacy of Originality

A common misconception when it comes to art creation is that a truly original piece is the result of something that has never been conceived of or done before. The truth is that it’s near impossible to create something 100% unique. We all have a zillion things that contribute to our frames of reference and influence the ways in which we interpret our world. Therefore, it’s rare that any of us has an idea that someone else hasn’t already thought up. But that’s NOT A BAD THING.

What’s Old is New

Postmodernism is a current art movement that recognizes/honors what has already been done and strives to “make the old new again”. For example, there’s a huge trend right now to refurbish household items, giving them fresh life rather than discarding them for something brand new. It seems wasteful to throw away something that is perfectly functional; not to mention the fact that it’s so much cooler to own something that already has a story behind it! These same principles apply to postmodern art.


Those of us who create do so from inspiration. Something as simplistic as a walk in the park to exhaustively reading multiple texts pertaining to one subject can serve to inform a successful work of art. I will not jump onto the computer until I’ve doused myself in research and imagery, made various sketches, walked away from my project to gain fresh perspective, and then come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes. It’s a tedious routine and it’s not for everyone, but an uninspired process produces uninspired results.

Postmodernism in Action

Many of my hand-lettered phrases come to me out of the blue (although nothing is really “out of the blue” since our thoughts are a fusion of personal experiences), and make me laugh out loud. If I’ve determined that one is illustration-worthy, I research the idea to gain an understanding for its origin and meaning, and then I seek visual inspiration.

My most recent design combines my nostalgia for 90’s music and appreciation for my adopted hometown of Laramie, WY. I referenced specific song lyrics (If you can’t place the song, click on the image.), and I explored downtown Laramie imagery, as well as 19th Century type specimens and advertisements. The result is something new created from items of old, containing a little research, history, and pieces of myself.