Becoming a design student is easy. You grow up loving to draw and paint, always receiving praise no matter what your piece looked like. Then you start grade school, where they offer several artistic courses required by the school. You, the designer, always take these classes a little more seriously than the rest of the kids. Your assignment is to cut out a circle. You take a moment and watch the other kids. Sloppily, they fold the paper, cut a half circle around the crease, and unfold their wobbly oval after a process that took a mere ten seconds. Seven-year-old you is better than that. You pull out a pencil and trace the nearest circular object and take too much time precisely cutting along the pencil line. But by God, your circle is the best-looking circle in that class.
I remember walking into my first college class at the School of Advertising Art twenty minutes early because I was terrified of the attendance policy. Our first assignment was to create a collage in Photoshop using different words we pulled out of a cup. Social, lizard, movie, copper. There were no boundaries or rules laid out for us except for using every word somehow in our collage. The coolest part about this experience was seeing what everyone was drawn to, what their style was, how willing they were to be a little crazy. Our only objective was to be creative—there were no critiques, and we were only required to meet with our instructors once.
Giving us the responsibility to execute something creative was probably the best way to start our journey as student designers. Based on the decisions we made—the colors we chose, how many times we broke the grid, how we chose to use symmetry—our instructors got an idea of who had natural talent or previous experience, and who was going to need a little more guidance, especially in composition and color choice.
Although I enjoyed the freedom, it was hard for me to design something without rules to follow. I had previous design experience in high school and had an (extremely rough) idea of some of the “rules of design.” The deeper I got into the school year at SAA and the more critiques I participated in, the more I began to understand what works and what doesn’t. Meetings with our instructors became some of the most vital stages of my process in becoming a better designer. They pushed me to do more—do more sketches, do more mood-boarding, push yourself to think differently from the things you see on Dribbble. It’s because of this advice that I did things outside of what I knew was “right” in the world of design. It’s not always about what looks “right” or what follows some set of imaginary yet very specific set of rules that we as designers start to mold our minds to. It’s those of us who stretch our imagination to break all these rules we set for ourselves, who create new and exciting things that aren’t just another variation of something we’ve seen before. As students, especially in the beginning stages, we aren’t bogged down by many rules. Since we don’t know what’s “right” or what’s “wrong,” we are freer to make mistakes. Yes, many of these mistakes are just that—a mistake. A flaw in design that a professional would know right away isn’t going to work. However, occasionally a mistake made by a student who has no boundaries is a beautiful disaster. It becomes something intriguing that wouldn’t occur otherwise.
I think my favorite part of being a student is encountering these, in the words of Bob Ross, “happy accidents.” Fumbling around in Photoshop, trying to memorize key commands and accidentally hitting the wrong letter has helped me more than once in my work. These accidents happen more often to us because, quite frankly, we don’t know what we’re doing. All we know is that we want to create. Create something badass, create something heart-wrenching, create something with a purpose. We want our work to mean something.
Becoming a design student is easy. Becoming a professional designer, well, maybe not. We may not know how we’ll get there, but it’s through these accidents that we flourish. It’s through these accidents that we are inspired. It’s through these accidents that we too, inspire.
Please see our complementary blog post from SAA’s Brent Presley here.