Latest Publications

10 Essential Tips for Current Design Students

I read 10 Essentials Every Design Student Should Know on Print’s web site yesterday, partially because I love lists of all variety and of course because I was curious about the author’s definition of “essential,” which would play out in the list itself. This list was a result of a survey “primarily from the MFA Designer as Author program at School of Visual Arts,” and as all schools have their own way of approaching pedagogy, design, art, and life, the essentials are likely to convey the SVA way. For the most part, I agree with the list, but I want to make some comments here for students who are already enrolled in programs, especially for those who are enrolled in any program not in, how shall I put this, one of the top ten art or design schools in the country. Let’s face it, most of us teach or are educated at a non-top-ten school. So this is for you, my common people.

1. Picking a Design School

Well, OK, there is some good advice there, but what if you’re already in school? What if you are beyond this “Essential” and what is essential for you is making lemonade from the lemons you have? Here’s my advice: Find a guru. No matter how crappy your school may seem to be (and almost every student, at some point, thinks their school sucks), there is someone you can learn from on your campus or in your community. Find a teacher, a lab manager, a grad student, someone who can offer you a glimpse into the kind of knowledge that can not be wrapped up in a lecture, classroom, or formal learning environment. Then spend as much time as you can with that person. Maybe you can assist their classes (I always try to have TAs in my classroom – it’s good for all of the students involved), help out in a lab, or join a club. Your school experience is a collaborative effort between your professors and administration, and your willingness to invest time in related experiences outside of the classroom.

2. Style Versus No Style

Understanding the history of style is important. I agree with this, but wait, there’s more: Understanding the politics ruling the cultures that produce the art that is interpreted through style will give you a critical appreciation for the relationship between the signs and significations produced in particular eras. There is no such thing as no style.

3. Developing a Personal Voice or Building Character

This seems like a strange “Essential” on a list for undergraduate students. Perhaps this was meant for graduate students. Your voice is a natural extension of yourself. You have to live, grow, suffer, and find your way through this crazy world for a good long time before your voice will be easily recognized (and this may sound abstract, but I mean this voice as one that is both audible, visual, and witnessed in your relationships with others) by yourself and others. Instead of worrying about a personal voice – you’ll get to this later, focus on something more tangible. What are you doing with your time? Join a club, find a cause that speaks to you, volunteer, build your character. Your voice will come later, and it is related to your character. Spend time developing yourself by getting off of the couch and doing something for somebody else.

4. Accepting Freelance Work from Teachers

If a teacher offers you (paid) freelance work, you should accept it as long as you are not enrolled in her class and if you do not intend to be her student again. Student and freelancer are entirely different roles and you do not want to try to wear both hats at once. Nor do you want to act as student, then freelancer, then student again.

5. Getting Internships

I agree with the author of the Print article that an internship, no matter what the actual job ends up being, is always beneficial to a student’s career. What if your internship employers want to hire you when the internship is over? There’s a post for that…

6. Coping with Absurd Deadlines

The Print article highlights the following advice and realities: you will always be on a tight deadline for several projects or classes at once, your teachers usually do not care about your other obligations, you should create a schedule for uninterrupted time dedicated to each project, you should not complete the easiest projects first, and you should treat classes like a job – finishing assignments one day before they are due. This is good information but there is little advice here about methodology. So I will elaborate:

  • Uninterrupted time means turn off email, Facebook, your phone, and all other distractions while you are working on a project. You would be amazed at how much time you can lose to an interruption from email.
  • In a study last year, Dr. Thomas Jackson of Loughborough University, England, found that it takes an average of 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after interruption by e-mail.

  • Work when you know you are less likely to be interrupted by roommates or friends. Early in the morning or late at night are common times that students block out for work.
  • Work in a location where you are unlikely to be interrupted, such as the library, a room with a door you can close, or a lab at school.
  • If you know there is no possible way that you will finish an assignment on time, speak to your professor before the deadline.

7. Typographic Fluency

Typographic fluency is absolutely essential – this includes families, styles, and the authors of some of the most commonly used type faces. An easy to read introductory book is Erik Spiekermann’s Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works (2nd Edition). You should also know each of the “few good fonts” on Ellen Lupton’s site; and I love, use, and recommend her book Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students (Design Briefs).

8. Couture and Fashion

I used to joke about this with some of my design educator colleagues – it is weird to see design students who don’t seem to have an idea of popular culture, especially in regards to fashion. Look, you don’t have to wear Paul Frank glasses or Converse sneakers, but at least be aware of this stuff. Truthfully, this doesn’t belong on an essentials list – it’s more of an aside. However, designers are just as petty as everyone else in the world. If you find yourself losing jobs or internships to the kids with the glasses and chucks, consider a makeover.

9. Achieving Success

Success is a portfolio you aren’t ashamed of showing to anyone, including your teachers, parents, and future employers. I have seen countless students think they were being funny with a portfolio full of F-bombs. It’s your set of projects, ultimately, but unless you’re off to work with Seth Rogen, cool the fuck down. And a single word about grades: meaningless. In the end, your teacher’s approval or disapproval is outweighed by your life after school. We can all assume that an A student will have an easier time finding employment than a C student, but if you are constantly earning As and Bs you should let go of thinking about your grades. Don’t try to negotiate for an A, it really will not help you.  No one will ask if you made the high honors list. Nobody cares. Eh, OK, maybe your parents care, but unless they’ll be your future employers, don’t worry about it.

10. Ensuring Happiness

I don’t know why this is on the essential list of tips – there is nothing I can write that will ensure your happiness. This is your boat to sail. So let’s get to something more practical, a new number ten:

10. Back Up Your Work

Really…save your work in more than one place. Save your best work in three places. Your computer hard drive, a CD or DVD, and an external drive should be used for backing up work all of the time. Not once a semester. Not once a year. Do it once a week. You should develop a routine that is easy to maintain. I back up every Sunday night before I go to bed. For Mac users, Time Machine is great – learn how to use it.


I heard a snippet on the radio yesterday of Davis Guggenheim (the documentary filmmaker who made An Inconvenient Truth and just released It Might Get Loud) during his guest DJ session for KCRW. He “chose artists who capture[d] the experience of being a creative person and ‘what it means to put yourself out there in the world'”. I heard him speak about the Wilco song What Light as one that inspires him. He said, “It’s a song about what it means to be an artist…If you’re trying to paint a picture and no one else knows what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter.” Whenever he gets down, this is his song. Of course this resonated with me because I, too, am a fan of Wilco; and I too have many sources of inspiration and pick-me-ups.

As much as music can be inspirational and accesses our feeling bodies, books can also be a resource for creatives that will lift you when you’re feeling down.

I know, with the title Letters… you probably thought I was referring to typography. Not this time. These letters are written intensely, and they have the ability to change your fuzzy mind into something even more remotely abstract. If you ever feel lonely, incomplete, or anxious, the person you need to read is Rainer Maria Rilke. You have to read Letters to a Young Poet. It belongs on every artist, designer, writer, and otherwise soulful person’s bookshelf.

There is here no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything! (page 30 in the 1993 reissue)

The book is a collection of ten letters sent from Rilke to a young poet who initiated the correspondence. Although the text is aged over a century, the letters were written between 1903 and 1908, you will find that Rilke’s advice, convictions, and precise articulations speak to all of your inner struggles. The translator notes that although Rilke’s letters to his young recipient read with “a wisdom and a kindness that seem to reflect the calm of self-possession, his spirit may have been speaking out of its own need rather than from the security of ends achieved, so that his words indeed reflect desire rather than fulfillment.” (7)

If I had to relate this book to typography, which is a stretch but I’ll do it anyhow, this book is about the negative space. It is about everything else aside from what is happening in life. It is about the inner lives of artists, rather than their accomplishments. If Rilke were a designer, his work would be stark. There would be something calming about the intensity of contrast in his composition. You would look once at his work and be able to see truth as a visual entity.

At the close of his eighth letter, Rilke writes,

Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty and sadness and remains far behind yours. Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find those words. (72)

Q. Can you recommend some books about design?

A. Sure! But what do you mean, exactly?

It’s the first day of class. I have the usual long talk about the difference between learning design and learning software skills; and I assure the students we will be tackling both issues. At the end of class, one of my students asks if I can recommend some books about design. Well, sure, but which parts of design? Information design? Interior design? Web design? Green design? Typographic design? Using the grid? Or maybe he meant historic influences?

This time around, and it usually goes this way, the student wanted another resource for learning formal principles of design, or what Donis A. Dondis calls visual literacy. Here is a very short list of books sitting on my shelf next to me that I would pull out for the student if here were here right now. You can find these in your libraries and of course they’re available on Amazon or wherever you shop. Educators, would you like to add to this list?

Design Basics by David A. Lauer and Stephen Pentak

Primer of Visual Literacy by Donis A. Dondis

Principles of Two-Dimensional Design by Wucius Wong

Design and Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus and Later, Revised Edition by Johannes Itten

{Author’s note: of course I would add my own book to this list, ha! But we are using it in class already…}

WordPress SEO fine-tune by Meta SEO Pack from Poradnik Webmastera