idsgn (a design blog)

Four years

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September 21 2010

As a recent graduate, I’ve taken the summer to think about my four years of design school. I decided to go to an art school with very little classical art training in high school, but had a love for design nonetheless.

That lack of traditional training made my first year equally exciting and confusing. Although I’d like to think I can wield an X-acto blade like no other now, there was a time when I didn’t even know what a #11 was. That first year was an awakening, and it was thanks not only to my classes, but to a drive to push myself into accepting my ignorance and discovering things on my own. A few trips through the art supply store became an awakening, as did every interview in the first design book I read, Adrian Shaughnessy’s How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul.

Looking back now, there are many small things that can tremendously shape you as a designer. That book, for instance, most definitely changed my outlook in some ways, I’m sure. But it helped in that it became a spider web for me, the somewhat ignorant, to seek out other bits of information. Every interview contained a website for me to jump to and learn from. For those of you in school now, I’d say that personal drive absolutely makes those years of education.

One of the most general trends in design students is that of worrying too much and self critiquing. You will—hopefully—be confronted with difficult tasks and challenges, and constantly see work that you envy; work that you think is better than yours, and maybe it is. Despite this, you should always ground yourself in the realization that there are millions of amazing designers that you don't know exist—but they are well known and respected in their own realm. We may learn of Paul Rand and Michael Bierut, but much less often do we hear of the still-very-talented-famous-and-equally-deserving Aaron Draplin or Jason Santa Maria—and even less do we hear of many other firms doing work we would drool over. Yet they exist, and they are all amazing. Right before graduating, I scoured the San Francisco area for firms, thinking i had found every one, and yet here now nearly nine months later there are still some I’ve only recently discovered. The point is this: there is so much good work out there, so much, and so different.

Have a philosophy. Not necessarily a manifesto, but ideas and decisions that made up your role as a designer. Reading through that first book of Shaugnessy’s put me on a specific track to constantly improve my work: A part of my philosophy that developed in school was ‘if you always follow, you will never lead.’ Try to avoid getting caught up in fads, trends, or even aesthetics that you particularly like. Instead, expand upon them. Use your own experiences, and in the process make your own mistakes. As much as we'd like to objectify design, and as important as that is in design school, it is still, in many ways, subjective. You can see something that is great and make something completely different that is in no way related, yet equally charming. It may seem obvious, but it’s helpful to be reminded of.

Speaking of inspiration, there is a curious curse that comes with it: a lack of creativity. I specifically remember the start of one of my first open-brief projects. I was excited and directionless. I had so many things to say, I thought—so many pieces of culture I’d like to touch on—so many deliverables I hadn’t had a chance to work with up until this point. My ideas overwhelmed me and I went to the internet, seeing piece after piece of beautiful work. I went to design annuals, noting every clever project they featured. To a degree, these things help with our creative juices, but they mostly have the bad habit of distracting us. Seeing too much can simply overload you and lead you in to making decisions that aren’t right for a particular brief.

Utilize your professors. Look for the non-obvious pieces of advice, look for how they made decisions in their career. Those questions that strike us the most in design school often revolve around what I had mentioned earlier: our philosophy, and often by paying close attention to the cues of our educators, we can get a glimpse of their own process, mistakes, and decisions. I had professors from all spectrums: some ran design firms, some had degrees in psychology, and some had received their BFA and MFA from my alma matter. All had different stories and equally important advice.

My favorite part of my design education happened at some point near the beginning of my senior year. I had discovered this rift in the design professors philosophy that was very clearly expressed in all of the higher level classes: some extremely post-modern, some extremely Swiss. I would literally spend two and a half hours in a typography class with a professor who talked about his days on acid, praising the post modern movement and pushing us to destroy our well set type, followed by a class in strict commercial branding developing a system that required very strict grids. This was a hilarious and wonderful experience. Both professors expected two very different things, and as a student you are bound to lean to one at that point in your education. This forced me to be out of my comfort zone, no matter what that was, at some point. It taught me to appreciate every aesthetic, movement, and opinion.

That specific post-modern professor, for one project, continuously told me to “feel it in my gut” along with a few other non-objective terms. I had no idea what he was talking about at the time, and I was lucky enough to be both confused and frustrated.

Relish these moments—seek them out. They're growing pains. This kind of situation shaped the most and is what I’m most thankful for from my education. “Feeling it in my gut” is something I now remind myself of daily. It isn’t just about the specific advice we receive, but the process we go through to understand it.

Process is key. The major benefit of design school is that it gives you structure and requires you to complete projects, but outside of that, self-motivation and learning on your own are the only way to push yourself. Take inspiration from other hobbies you might have. I’ve always had a particular interest in simply talking to people and hearing about whatever stories may have affected their lives, and built a brief around this idea. Dig through those ideas, try working with different materials, and let culture and history influence you.

As communicators, we must make decisions. With any brief, half of the challenges we face revolve around those decisions. My retrospective of my design degree was an opportunity for me to push boundaries and ask questions. It was a time for learning, and with any luck, a few headaches. As Robyn Waxman of The Designers Accord said, we as designers are not problem solvers, but opportunity seekers. The most beneficial thing I learned while in school was to seek out those opportunities that force us to make decisions about ourselves as designers, and to be passionate and thoughtful in those decisions.

Aaron Heth is a San Francisco-based designer and recent graduate. In addition to his work, he founded and co-hosts Read Between the Leading, has been lucky enough to write for various design sources and drinks at least eight glasses of water a day. You can find his work and side projects at

Filed under: design

By Aaron Heth