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Advice for Design Students

I’ve been a part-time design instructor for over 29 years. I’ve watched many students work hard and succeed well professionally, and I’ve seen others give up. No matter what instructor or course, students’ successes in school and then as professionals depend very much on them. If the quality of instruction is top-notch and is provided to every student equally, it’s what each student decides to do with it that determines their result.

If the quality of instruction is top-notch and is provided to every student equally, it’s what each student decides to do with it that determines their result.

I cannot make anyone learn anything. My role as an instructor is to present information, encourage, exhort, train, correct and give feedback. Each student who enters my class is responsible for his own progress and success.

This is what I advise design and illustration students who want to be successful:

The teacher is there because you are there.

It may appear that you are there to jump at the instructor’s beck and call, but you should consider that the instructor, especially if they’re also practicing in the field and sector you hope to, knows the industry standards and what’s expected.

You pay tuition to reserve your seat in the class. Invest the time well; show up and do the required work. Don’t waste your money.

Every teacher was once a student. It is hard to put anything over on them.

Listen to what your fellow students are saying in class.

Students talk a lot outside of the classroom or online discussions. But what they say during class — the questions they ask, the responses they give, and what they say about their work and yours during crits — can be invaluable to you. Don’t miss it.

Invest in a quality camera.

Because of our portfolios and social media marketing, quality visuals are a requirement whether you’re looking to work with clients or on a creative team at a business. Get the best-quality camera you can afford — one with f-stops, aperture options, and video recording. A smart phone camera is very capable, but you’ll enjoy more versatility with a digital SLR.

Invest in a tripod as well.

And then document, document, document. One thing I learned as a student at Art Center was to take lots of shots of my work — both in progress and final. If you’re spending all that time and money on tuition, supplies and materials, document your process and finished designs with a good quality, high-megapixel camera. Back up your photos on in the cloud and on external drives. If you work in 3-D, take still photos of a project from different view points. And shoot video.

Keep a design journal.

This would look like a sketchbook. Put your ideas, doodles, sketches and comments in it. Document your projects in it. Record notes and ideas. Do your concept work in it. The design journal is a great substitute for the paper napkin, and everything you’re thinking and seeing is all contained in one easy-to-carry place. Become famous for keeping journals. 

Using a computer does not make you a designer.

The computer is a tool.

Use a pencil instead, and you’re still a designer. Having a computer or tablet and knowing software does not make you a designer. Design is concerned with thinking, observing and execution. We use tools to observe and execute but they don’t solve the creative problems for us. If you can’t design on paper, you won’t be able to in the digital environment.

Don’t work for the grade.

The reason you have chosen to be in school is because you want to succeed as a designer in some capacity. If your first question for any teacher is “What does it take to get an A in this class?” you’re missing the point entirely. That would be like asking a client, “How much will you pay me?” before their job is even defined.

Pay attention, do the work, invest in the extra effort, and the grade will follow.

Plan your time.

Build in margin for the unexpected. Studio classes require a larger percentage of time spent outside the class environment in research, preparation and execution. Trial and error are a regular part of the design process and will require time. Best practice is to identify your time-wasters (How many hours a day do you spend watching TikTok clips or debating on Facebook?) and get rid of them while you’re in school.

Use inspiration.

We do not design out of nothing. Pursue inspiration. Then make sure it remains inspiration. In other words, don’t copy. It’s unethical.

It’s important for designers to know current trends, historic contexts, and the bases for art and design movements. Develop a habit of attentive observation and work at becoming aware of the design that’s all around you every day. You never know where your inspiration will show up, and if you’re not looking for it you are likely to miss is. This is one reason why you should keep a sketchbook, commonplace book, or design journal.

Be creative but solve the problem.

Design is not self-expression. Designers solve problems for people and businesses. Every design brief comes with restraints, requirements, and criteria that cannot be dismissed or overlooked.

If your goal is to express yourself creatively, become a fine artist. Designers create for the benefit of others.

Get everything on the course supply list.

Learn how to use the tools, whether analog or digital. You can’t substitute scissors for an X-acto. Use the right tools in the right way for the job at hand.

Learning anything should change you. Change is uncomfortable. You won’t learn anything without becoming uncomfortable in the process.

Make the commitment.

Coursework is meant to be difficult. If it’s not difficult, you’re not learning.

Learning anything should challenge and change you. Change is uncomfortable. But you don’t learn anything without becoming uncomfortable in the process. You will not like every course or every instructor. For the few years you’ll be in school, suck it up and press through when things get difficult.

Be wary of the easy classes. The idea that a design class is an easy A is a myth.

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.