The State of Student Design

A Call To Relevance

I am a student. And I have a problem (spoiler alert: it’s not with an addiction or debt - but please, keep reading). You have the same one too, actually, whether you’re a fellow student, a professor, institution, or even practicing professional.

The problem, in a nutshell, is this: students are being cultivated in a fabricated world of design that exists as a reality only within their classrooms. There’s a disconnect between the Professional World and what’s taking place inside the classroom that’s causing a fatal flaw in the state of Student Design, and it needs to be remedied.
But before I get too far ahead of myself, I’ll slow down to address a very, very important question: who do we get to blame for this?!

Now that I’ve had a few weeks to experience what being twenty years old is like and my rebellious teenage spirit has matured into a wiser manly man, I know what taking responsibility for your actions means (like if I burn the toast for breakfast, that’s all on me). However, I’m also not so far removed from my years of swag that I’ve completely forgotten what’s cool and what’s not. And I know that taking the blame for your own problems is very uncool. So to begin, I’ll place the blame somewhere else - the very context in which our problem originates.

Professors and the Classroom

In my past two years of art school I’ve realized that while there is a small overlap between the world of Professional Design and both Students and Professors, these shared areas of knowledge are largely ignored within the classroom.
Professors become professors for a reason - they believe in something strongly and feel it’s their duty to pass that understanding down (or just had more school spirit than Kanye West ever did) - but those beliefs have had decades of calculated curation to gradually morph into a personal agenda that translates into an alternate (and at times, antiquated) reality of truth when presented to students.

For example, every professor I’ve encountered holds a vehemently different view than that of their peers on the use of hyphens. Some believe hyphens are valiant soldiers of legibility and should always be deployed, some think they should be used sparingly or depending on text alignment, and still others maintain that only the devil himself uses hyphens (which means if you’ve ever hyphenated a word…). This is not the problem.

The problem is that Professors continually push their personal agendas onto students as if it is the only reality that exists while differing view points remain unmentioned and left to the students to discover independently. Professors need to present common design solutions in a manner that clearly lays out all the options and reasoning behind them before elaborating on their preferred method and why they believe it’s best - and back their claims up with both historical and modern support.

But unfortunately, Professors often eschew this opportunity of providing contextual relevance in favor of falling into a totalitarian regime where they play Dictator. This is often disguised as the Professor playing “client.” Nothing could be less accurate than this charade. With real clients, you get to spin your own narrative from their story and sell it as truth. In school, Professors are the ones pushing their predefined truth upon Students until the outcomes align - without a chance for meaningful discussion.

Students will create something only to have the Dictator come in and say “change this, change that; there, isn’t that better?” Whether it is or not, students will think it’s not, because they attribute their resistance to the fact that their Dictator is basing his or her decisions merely on personal preference or intuition (aka their personal agenda), and after all, that’s the same power students harnessed to create their design in the first place.
This, in turn, cripples students, because their professors don’t exemplify the vital and learnable skill of defending intuitive choices that form design as a result from logical process or as gleaned from the global design milieu.
While this one dimensional teaching style is a danger, nothing is worse than when a Professor’s lack of contemporary knowledge is exposed. For every time a Professor compliments a Student’s color scheme that’s partying like its still 1996, openly proclaim they know nothing about Illustrator, suggest as hallowed typographic ground, or laud a Student’s web design that reeks of Web 2.0 gone horribly right - they lose credibility as a legitimate source of guidance for students.

How are Professors supposed to be leading the next generation of designers if they don’t even know what the current generation looks like? While it’s an excellent question to ask of Professors, it’s an even better one to ask of Students. And that, my colleagues, superiors, and minions (I kid, but you can follow me on Twitter), is the real heart of the issue.

We, the Students

Students choose to earn a degree in design because somewhere along the line they have discovered that they possess God-given artistic ability and want to explore it further (that, or picked it randomly, but definitely not because their parents told them go learn something useful).

And so they come into university with an internal ability and knowledge that is at the source of everything they do - but has almost solely been in the context of fine arts where the outcomes of an exclusively internal process are rewarded; making for an awkward transition into university and the commercial art sphere where everything is suddenly contextualized externally.

In high school Students didn’t have a reason to be conscious of what was going on around them because what they made wasn’t defined by its relationship to similar work being done at the professional level on a global scale. Now in college, they are blind to the greater context of the design world because just as they have been doing their whole lives, they are depending only on their internal process in creating work.

This unawareness often dilutes the quality of peer review and critique into puddles of baseless claims filled with I feel likes and If I were yous; and because Students are unable to identify if the advice they’re offering is concerned with the intelligence of choices being made or personal preference, they are administering blind direction to their equally blind comrades (exacerbated by the selectively blind Professor).

This is wrong, and this is lazy. It’s time for Students to take independent initiative and place the burden of relevancy onto their own backs. Inner talent serves only as roots to a tree that needs watering and sunshine to burgeon and produce, and the classroom isn’t a big or bright enough place to be the only source of nutrients for Students’ growth. What Students need is a commitment to both actively research and participate in the Professional Design sphere.

Becoming Relevant

I am playfully mocked by my designer classmates for being a “nerd” because I peruse Dribbble nonstop, own a Behance t-shirt (it was free, ok?), point them to resources I’ve found after hours of hunting, and spend my Saturdays doing stuff like this just for fun.

Little do they know, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But honestly, should those things be considered abnormal? They are normal for me because I am fortunate enough to be so passionate about design that wanting to absorb everything about it comes as second nature. Keeping my finger on the pulse of the design world is a hobby. I love it.

However, I’ve discovered the hard way that not all of my graphic design peers share my level of zeal for what we do. So I suspect that they view keeping pace with the world of Professional Design as a cumbersome task not worth the effort, or perhaps as something graduation will thrust on them when it’s time because they don’t see the value in it now. But that does not change the fact that the dividends of such research are critical in providing a necessary foundation for creating relevant work that can reap immediate rewards.

If Students and Professors are building their foundation for relevant work through active research, both should be able to pass a litmus test of relevancy by knowing the answers to questions like who’s absolutely killing it right now? What styles of design are trending? What are the current design issues being debated and why?

My feeling is that these questions would stump many Students and Professors currently in the educational system for the same reasons mentioned above - they are uninformed, aware of only what’s inside the classroom environment. Being able to make informed decisions as a result from our research enables us to avoid mistakes, properly utilize cliches, and supersede expectations.

But possessing that knowledge, though a crucial first step, is worthless if it isn’t applied. Luckily for us (in this situation, at least), we’re a generation that doesn’t even require putting on pants to contribute. There is immediate potential for Students to be relevant beyond school because they can be involved in the Professional World with just a click of the mouse. I know this because I’ve experienced the benefits of it.

Buy a domain name, post work, and I guarantee clients will find you. Join Twitter, reach out to your favorite designers, and the next thing you know you’ll be having a starstruck phone call with one of them. Nab an invite to Dribbble, build a presence, and earn follows from the very designers you admire most. Submit your work to blogs and inspiration sites and gain exposure with an interview or feature.

The point I’m trying to make is this: great things happen when you’re doing relevant work. And we don’t have to wait our turn to do that anymore because our turn is out there waiting for us to grab it by the horns. The boundaries that used to keep Students on the sidelines are now blurred. Graduation no longer serves as the only gateway to relevance, but it will act as a rude awakening of such if we remain passive. So why wait?

The Challenge

If you’ve read this far you might be thinking boy, this guy must think he’s the last Coke in the desert. I promise you, I don’t even think I’m the last cactus. Nor am I egotistical enough to think that I am always right. But I do know that I will always be informed and practice what I preach. Not to preserve my pride or out of obligation, but because I care. Tremendously so. I care so badly it physically hurts to see when others don’t.

So my challenge to every single Professor and Student out there, including myself, is this: inject Student Design with relevancy. It’s time we shed our institutionalized shells and refuse to be defined merely by the context of the classroom.

Think bigger. Don’t settle. Seek relevance.

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