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What design students should be studying

What design students should be studying

Today’s design students face a terrible job market. Here’s what I believe they should be studying or augmenting their college education with on their own.

Design history

Perhaps times have changed, but in my college years, the education focused on design theory and development of creativity. These are good, but knowing a bit of the history about your industry is a good thing. What were the defining movements and who were key influences. It dumbfounds me when I’m interviewing interns or new employees and they have no idea who Paul Rand, Saul Bass, David Ogilvy, or Milton Glaser are - and the later is still working and influencing (even 20/20’s knows Paul Rand - satirically admitting if you don’t, you’re lost).

Learn marketing

Maybe I’m getting grouchy about this as the years pass, but design is not about making things look pretty, design is about selling things. Graphic design is essential to all things commerce. It can create demand, it can encourage purchase, it can influence paying a premium price. Advertising, point of purchase, and packaging all play a silent, some might say sneaky, part in manipulating consumers (including me). When you design something, you should have a reason for why you’re doing what you’re doing (design-wise). Why are you using that color? Why did you choose that font? Why are you insisting that a specific printing process be used and how can you justify the additional cost? I’m not saying you have to slap down a volume of research for every design decision, but when asked, you should be able to state a reason beyond, “I thought yellow looked nice.”

No, you don’t have to go to business school and take advanced marketing classes, unless you want to. But you should read. Read influential marketing books ñ old ones, news ones, as many as you can. And keep reading them as they’re published. Your education is never complete.

Learn how to write

Writing is essential. Whether it’s writing an email to a client or providing some basic copy for an ad or brochure you’re working on ñ you shouldn’t be fearful. And you should know the basics of grammar, and if you can’t spell (I can’t) embrace your spell check function. I think my push for designers to be pseudo copy writers stems from my prior advice to learn marketing. Graphics are intended to accent and extend the message in the copy - it helps to make the marketing point. If you’re not part of this process, you’re a tool, and you’ll end up “making things look pretty” for no reason.

Some of the best designers often worked in teams with outstanding copywriters. But the designer didn’t simply sit and wait for the copy - it’s a combined effort, a sharing of ideas that creates the best work. So be part of that - offer ideas, copy, etc.

If you’re a designer that can also write, you’re also more valuable. You can help write proposals, blogs, and add to your design concepts by offering headline or copy improvements. Clients and co-workers will usually appreciate your participation and suggestions, even if they don’t accept them all.

Learn web design

How a designer could leave school today and not be well versed in html/css coding and the basics of good user interface design, I’ll never know. The world has changed, it’s not segmented like it once was (and I’m talking only a few years ago). Today, if you design a website, you should be able to at least build the website as html/css template pages. So you can provide it to a web developer/programmer to make it function. Sure, some will argue they can do a design in Photoshop and have it “sliced-up” by cheap services - but what happens when you need a quick change or an addition? Or how will you know “what’s possible” with modern web design if you don’t immerse yourself in it. The world is going mixed media (print, web, mobile)... study it, learn the basics, or be left behind.

Apr 03, 2011
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