Surviving Design School

survive design school

Surviving Design School

As a recent design school graduate, I don’t have a whole lot of fancy tricks up my sleeve on which to base a tutorial. However, as a recent design school graduate, I do have some advice to share on getting out alive. Whether you’re just starting or you’re in the home stretch, this should be beneficial to you. If you’re anything like I was throughout school, you’re probably juggling that with work and a social life. Maybe you have a band. Maybe you have a kid (in which case, I can’t really speak on the subject, so forget I brought it up). Maybe you’re trying to bring in some cash on the side by working freelance. Whatever your situation, design school is a job unto itself. It’s a gauntlet of X-Acto knives and Prisma markers that seemingly never lets up. And while it’s true that it prepares you for life as a designer, don’t expect life as a designer to be anywhere near the level of madness you’re enduring now. It probably feels like it’s going to last forever, and it did for me, too. I am here as living proof that it does come to an end eventually, and you will be better off for it.

Allow me to paint a picture of what my school experience was like. I started at the Virginia Marti College of Art and Design in the Spring of 2006. I was working part time, and I was putting a lot of focus on my band. We would play shows once or twice a month, and spend a lot of time promoting them. We would practice every week, and eventually we found the time to record a demo. In 2007, I took on a second job when I had to buy a new car. Pile 3-4 projects any given week on top of that, and you’re looking at a pretty hectic schedule. And yet, despite the chaos, I stand here before you today to pass on my wisdom.

art supplies

Tip #1: Get Your Supplies in Order

If you’re a new or future student, you may not realize the investment you’ll be making in your first quarter on art supplies alone. I spent somewhere between $200-300 on my first supply shopping spree. That’s okay though, that’s what financial aid is for. And trust me, generally this will be your biggest purchase while you’re in school (not including software), because most of this stuff will last.

So, what will you need? You’ll have specifics for each course, but there are a few general tools you’ll need for now and forever, so pay attention.

Get yourself a good 9×12 sketchpad. This will be one of your best friends, along with a set of drawing pencils. You’ll also likely need an 18×24 pad of bristol board. As for tracing paper, you probably don’t need to go bigger than 9×12. For larger projects, it’s probably better to use multiple sheets of tracing paper anyway.

For coloring, you’ll want sets of Prismacolor pencils and markers. And don’t hold back, either. While they make them in smaller sets, you might as well go all out and get the 48 pack of markers and the 120 set of pencils. I’ve had my pencils for five or six years now and they’re still in fine condition.

There are some other odds and ends you’ll probably want to grab: T-squares (12” and 18” should be good, though I also have a yardstick T-square), watercolors and brushes, drafting tape, Windsor & Newton bleedproof white (for correcting the inevitable mistakes you’ll make), and various erasing tools would be good for starting out. If you can, stock up on matboard and illustration board, though I would buy the stuff on a project-to-project basis. And lastly, get yourself a sturdy portfolio case and a tacklebox so you can carry all of this stuff. You’ll need it.

Got it? Let’s recap:

  • 9×12 Sketchpad
  • 18×24 Bristol Board
  • 9×12 Tracing Paper
  • Prismacolor Pencils & markers
  • T-Squares
  • Watercolors & Brushes
  • Drafting Tape
  • Various Erasers
  • Matboard
  • Portfolio Case
  • Tacklebox for Supplies

build your portfolio


Let me repeat that: YOU ARE BUILDING YOUR PORTFOLIO! With all of those assignments cluttering up your not-so-free-time, it’s going to be a challenge to make each and every one your best work. Actually, just putting that in words makes me see how laughable that idea really is. In a perfect world, you’d do perfect work all time. Unfortunately, the world we live in is far from perfect, and sacrifices will need to be made.

What I’m saying is that it’s important to choose which projects you’ll be putting the most effort into and which projects you’ll have to, for the lack of a better term, half-ass. I may or may not have focused on the wrong ones when I was starting out. To me, the best way of doing things was to do the fun ones and put the more challenging or uninteresting ones on the backburner. I ended up doing a lot of work that just referenced pop culture, whatever I was into at the time. Very little of this work actually held up enough to be included in my portfolio. So, instead, I would recommend that you focus on projects that could have potential real-world applications. Stay away from copyrighted work. I did one project, a stamp book layout that was based on Mortal Kombat characters. I loved it at the time, but looking back on it, I realize I should have gone with something more universal, like flags, or cars, or something.

You can also narrow down projects by the weight they carry towards your grade. I had one class that required me to develop a fictional product, and then create the entire marketing campaign for it. This was the only project for the course, and was due at the end of a ten-week span. I should have been putting most of my energy into it, but what I ended up doing was trying to balance it evenly with the rest of my classes. The fact is, it couldn’t have been balanced evenly, because it was a huge project, and a great potential addition to my portfolio. So, in the end, did I meet the requirements? Yes. Could I have exceeded them and done something incredible with the project? Hell yes. Is it in my portfolio now? Nope.

Last, I’d recommend focusing on what you know. Say you’re pretty skilled in Photoshop, but you’re relatively new to Illustrator, and you have projects due in each program. Why not focus your time and effort into the Photoshop project? Sure, you can whip up a Photoshop project in no time and then focus on learning Illustrator as you work on that project, which is admirable. However, I’d focus on refining the Photoshop project until it’s portfolio-worthy, and just focus on the basics in Illustrator. You have the rest of your life to learn Illustrator, right? So why worry about making your first attempt at it a masterpiece?

Now, this may seem like I’m trying to teach you how to cut corners, but really, this is about finding the optimal path to success. If you know early on what potential employers will be expecting of you, it’ll be easier for you to zero in on a project that you know will wow them. Also, I’ve never been one who was too big on getting straight A’s. Once you’re out of college, the grades won’t matter, but the work you’ve done will. So you do a few projects that are C’s, but you end up with a handful of portfolio pieces in exchange. Some may disagree with this approach, but like I said, sacrifices will be made, and you’ll see that’s a recurring theme in this article.

manage your time

Tip #3: Learn how to Effectively Manage Your Time

I’m probably the last guy on Earth you should be taking time management advice from, but hear me out. Actually, I’m still trying to figure this one out. Everyone’s life follows a different schedule, so I can’t get too specific, and what you do in your own time is up to you. One thing I would do that I would advise against is brushing off a project as quick and easy. It finally dawned on me late into my second year of school that with design, there is no such thing as quick and easy. Be prepared to spend an average of ten to twenty hours on a project. Any less, and it will show. Oh, and it’s worth noting that presentation is just as important as design, so give yourself at least an hour to properly mount your projects.

Really, time management is going to be the biggest problem you’ll face while in school. There’s not a lot more I can say to prepare you other than you will be challenged. If you’re more of an organized type (though in my experience, designers are a highly unorganized bunch), perhaps you can schedule specific times when you’ll be working on your projects. All I can tell you for sure is how things went for me, and let me tell you this: no matter how hard you try to keep organized, it’s not always going to be in your hands. The printer will break, your computer will crash, your dog will eat it, whatever.

I probably averaged about three to four hours of sleep a night while I was in school. There were two separate occasions where I worked for more than twelve hours straight, right up until that point in the AM where I had to leave for class, and then spend the rest of my day at work.

So… just don’t get to comfortable with the idea of sleep. I didn’t say this would be easy. I just said you’d survive.

take it easy

Tip #4: Take it Easy

As important as it is to set aside time for your projects, it’s also just as important that you give yourself a chance to unwind. I don’t know about you, but unless I have something due in less than a day, sitting in front of my computer trying to will myself to make awesomeness happen just doesn’t cut it, especially after a long day of work, school, or both.

You hereby have my permission to chill. Need a couple hours to rest up before diving into a project? Watch a movie, play a video game, read a book, work out, take a walk, anything. Do what makes you happy. Hell, take the whole weekend off and go camping. You’ve got to treat yourself. Look at it this way: you’re going to school to do what makes you happy, so why be miserable?

On that note, one year when applying for a loan, I requested an extra $500 so I could look forward to a Florida vacation at the end of the quarter (Hey, I was already tens of thousands of dollars in debt because of my student loans, so what’s a little instant gratification?). It might seem frivolous, and again, might not be the best course of action for everyone, but for me it was a great motivator. Like I said, treat yourself. You’ve earned it.

artist reference

Tip #5: An Artist is Only as Good as His Reference

This is piece of advice straight from the mouth of one of my teachers. I’ve gotten in the habit of collecting travel brochures, take out menus, mailers, catalogs, fliers, and anything else that could come in handy when I need inspiration somewhere down the road. These are good for finding measurements, layout ideas, and even graphic concepts. Of course, I’m not expecting you to have physical reference for everything you’ll be working on. Luckily, the internet has you covered there.

I so badly wish someone would have told me that I had more options than just Google Image Search when it came to finding reference for my projects. Unfortunately, I wasn’t enlightened to these sources until the middle of my last quarter. Bookmark these pages and refer to them regularly:
Free stock images. So awesome.
A blog dedicated to the art of package design. I wish I would have known about this one when I was in my 3D/packaging classes.
A blog all about vector design, with tutorials, freebies, and other goodies.
Design blog that focuses all aspects of design. The offer free textures, fonts, and other freebies, as well as regular tutorials and links to hundreds of other blogs I can’t list here.
Free textures!
Image bookmarking site, great for finding inspiration.
Great blog for aspiring/active freelancers, but also useful for students in that it has plenty of articles on maximizing productivity.
Thousands of free vector logos

And as always, check back here on the GoMediaZine for design tips, tutorials and inspiration.

Your Thoughts?

I hope you’ll find this article more than useless. If you have any questions or wish to debate my survival techniques, I’ll be keeping an eye on the comments section, so, fire away!