Be Confident and Dedicated to Exploration In Design School

May 18, 2010
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Be Confident and Dedicated to Exploration In Design School

My students are excited about the new Adobe CS5 Master Collection we just had installed on the lab computers. (Well, they’re as excited as summer school students can get, anyway.) They’re excited about its new features they’ve been hearing about, from Photoshop CS5’s “Content-Aware Fill” to the Code Snippets panel in Flash. It is always an exciting time to be a designer and design instructor, and be able to teach the new features. The software tools are getting better all the time and promise much. In fact, here’s what Adobe says about the latest CS5 offerings:

“Adobe® Creative Suite® 5 Master Collection software enables you to design and develop amazing work, collaborate effectively, and deliver virtually anywhere.”

As a student, it’s probably comforting to believe the Adobe marketing and know that the software will allow one to “design and develop amazing work.” Certainly, there are templates, filters, effects and presets that will help bang through the class project, right? It is tempting to work within the top-layer interface limitations and suggestions of a graphics program, or to just mimic what is seen being designed around us by the cool kids. With continued usage of such powerful and easy-to-use computer applications, it will be increasingly easier for students to mimic the trendy, in the form of the subtle gradient, the sinewy, organic stems and leaves that come sprouting out of the corners, the shiny table effect, the doubly shiny buttons, the rounded corners and the paint splatters. A main challenge of teaching design is helping the students see the importance of designing the unexpected and the new, and being able to discern the requisite avenues to discovery and to trying the seemingly unsafe.

To help students avoid rehashing tired trends, we strive to help them find the wellspring of inspiration and clever solutions, such as mining personal experience and background and studying history. Below are some questions for the design student to constantly consider throughout his or her time in school. In fact, if I could add it as an Actionscript 3.0 Code Snippet on the new palette in their heads, it would look something like this:

while (inSchool) {
		askSelf {
			worth_the_time();
			is_it_new();
			is_it_clever();
			}
		}

Worth the time?


Has what you’ve designed been worth the time to make it? Millions of designs are being made every minute. Why is yours interesting? Will it be worth the viewer’s time to look at it? Spend enough time to make it so, even on a seemingly small exercise or project. You’ll never have enough time, or as much time as you think you need, so use it wisely. Successful design graduates who stand far above their peers in both work ethic and portfolio strength, will (among other things) have slept very little during their college career. These students spend every possible moment learning, experimenting, sketching, investigating and observing and being fascinated. One social networking caveat to mention at this point: Don’t friend me on Facebook, then come in to class on Monday and tell me you didn’t have time to complete the assignment. I saw the bar crawl pics.

Is it new?


Is what you’re doing new? Have you seen it done before? Once? A thousand times? Has the viewer seen it a thousand times? Should you continue to use all lowercase letters, since it seems so rebellious and “designerly,” and Target does it? Should you run two words together with one of them bold because so many logos do it? Should you use handwritten, illustration-style letter forms that are so popular instead of the Type tool, like they did on that Juno movie? Look through the latest design magazines and blogs to see what’s successful, mostly for inspiration but also as a caution. Treat each project, or design solution for a client, as a unique opportunity. While you’re at it, don’t be afraid to look at design history. You’ll find some startling examples there that will inspire. Take a look at the Constructivist posters of the Stenberg Brothers, or Raymond Loewy’s beautiful 1930s GG-1 locomotive, or even Maurice Binder’s title sequence for Dr. No, which provided surprisingly direct inspiration for the early iTunes/iPod commercials with the colorful silhouetted dancers.

GG-1 locomotive pic by Thomas Merton on Flickr

Stenberg Brothers poster

Stenberg Brothers poster

Maurice Binder's Dr. No Title Sequence

Maurice Binder's Dr. No Title Sequence

Is it clever?


As you start the design process with research, word brainstorms, sketches and storyboards, keep in mind the reaction of the viewer. Are you striving to change his or her perception of an issue or idea? Very few ideas seem to be entirely brand new with a population that doesn’t read or discuss many issues at great depths, so, many times with your design, you’re attempting to change or reinforce an existing concept with a very time-limited viewer. Make sure your solution to the problem makes the viewer stop and take notice of something they haven’t seen before and make sure it communicates effectively. How? Get into the class critiques. Ask your business school or Classics friends to look at it. Post it online, bravely, and get some brutally honest feedback. Listen to all of the feedback, dredge up some humility and take the best.

Above all, design students should go into the design process with confidence: do research, make word lists and mind maps, brainstorm, draw thumbnails, sketch, shoot reference photos, storyboard, get critiques, and at some point, sit down at the computer and fire up Illustrator CS5. It'll always be there waiting for you whenever you need it. Just remember who is boss.

Tom Hapgood

Tom Hapgood

Tom Hapgood is a designer in Northwest Arkansas, USA, who teaches in the Visual Design area of the University of Arkansas. He teaches motion design, typography, web design and animation. Before moving to Arkansas he lived in Boston, Arizona, Germany and Italy.

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