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Letter to a Design Student


I want to formally welcome you into your first semester in design. As you begin your core classes, you will be embarking on a journey filled with many challenges. Think of this epistle as a short guide. Not all of this will make sense now, but my wish is that, unlike a text or an email, you will revisit this now and again during your time in school.


Why are you here? Presumably you want to be a designer. Maybe you saw a flash of glamor on high street or perhaps were dazzled by some crunchy posters on your way to a concert. Some of you might be here as digital mercenaries or perhaps your parents were convinced that this was more palatable than art. Whatever it is, I do not doubt the sincerity of your conviction. But conviction is not enough.

You might hear in class:
What is your project about?
Which really means: Why are you passionate about this?

For starters, do not confuse your hobbies with your passion. You can live without your hobbies. Passion is a fire that consumes your waking moments; it is an obsession that drives you forward. Do not fret if you do not think yourself passionate. Passion starts as a spark and is fanned by attention. As it grows, it changes.

Passion is also not necessarily a topic or an idea. It may be some sensory phenomenon, a way of working, or any combination thereof.

For you to be passionate about something, you must have will and skill. If you only have will, it is a mere interest. If you only have skill, it is mere work. It is rare that you will have both at the start, but being honest with yourself will help you understand what you need to build that fire.

How do you acquire will? In order to want something, you have to be exposed to it. Take a walk. Meet new people. Read books. Listen to music. Learn from others. And don’t read design magazines. Your will—your want—your interest comes from you being struck by the wonderful things in this world and chasing after that fleeting moment.

How do you acquire skill? That’s what you are in school for, isn’t it? Take the opportunity to learn from your colleagues and your teachers. Remember, also, that your teachers are here because they want to be here. And trust me, they are not here for the money.

So, I ask you again: why are you here?


Your parents love you for who you are. We love you for who you will be. You will be challenged every day by your peers and your instructors to fulfill that potential. In design, when you lay your passion on the line, any type of criticism can hurt. But, remember that a critique is about your work and your way of working. Critiques are not ad hominem attacks, no matter how closely it may strike your heart. It has been said that Paul Rand would rip down student work that did not meet his satisfaction. We don’t do that sort of thing anymore.

Critics respond to the presenter. Speak clearly. Don’t mumble. Look at the critics and your colleagues, not your presentation. Don’t tell us how bad your project is, but be honest and forthright. Believe in yourself, and we will believe in you. And if you don’t trust yourself, ask a classmate to take notes for you. Your imagination and the reality of the critique are quite different.

And should you receive less than a gold star, try and try again. Hard work does not guarantee success, but not working hard absolutely guarantees failure. Working hard really means making and remaking. This is where much of your learning will occur.

If you are not convinced, allow me to let you in on a secret: grades don’t matter in design. No design firm in the world will hire you because you made an ‘A.’ They will hire you because you offer them a different way to see the world.


All designers will tell you that great designs are the result of constraints. Each designer has his or her own limitations in skill or technique. Being resourceful means knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are. Play to your strengths and try to improve your weaknesses. If one method is not working, then try another method. You will find that over time, these methods become a part of your practice as a designer, and they will make your work unique.

You will quickly find that the tools you use in design change all the time and more frequently than you imagine. Looking past the affect of the tool and into the principles governing it will save you a lot of pain and suffering when that tool becomes obsolete. It will also help you ask the right questions when the time comes for you to learn everything over again.

Finally, being resourceful means respecting and interacting with the people that form your creative community. First, there are your teachers and mentors: they are on your side. Ask for help. They will be glad to give it! Do not be afraid to say, “I don’t understand.” Then, there are your fellow classmates. Some of them may be better than you in some areas while you may be better than them in other ways. Each of them can teach you what to do and what not to do. And you can teach them, too. When you help others, you become a better designer. Every time you help others solve a visual problem, you sharpen your own skills.


And while we are on the topic of helping others, let me mention that it is important to be civil. These days, being civil and being nice are often confused, but they are not the same thing. Smiling and saying trite things during critiques may seem nice, but they do not help you grow and become a stronger designer. Don’t insult the intelligence of your colleagues: say what you mean and mean what you say. Civility means being open and honest with one another with the intention of helping each other become better.

Civility also means respecting the different types of relationships that exist between your peers and with your instructors. Do not be beguiled into thinking that formality does not exist. For instance, emails are not text messages. When you receive one, it is courteous to respond, even if it is a word of thanks. The design world is very, very small. You do not do yourself any favors by being rude and ungenerous because these things will haunt you for the rest of your career.

I want to end by saying that the precious few years you have at university will be some of the most thrilling times in your life. You might be a chancer or a scholar, but you are here at university because you want to explore and learn. If not, then you should reorder your priorities. The time you spend learning through making will push you to your wit’s end. But it is only by knowing your limitations that you will discover the fullness of your potential and find the means to govern your creativity with intentionality and purpose.


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