5 Things I Wished I Knew Before Pursuing a Graphic Design Degree

The good🏆, the bad🚨, and the ugly🌪.

As a rising senior at my university, I have experienced the majority of a design student’s career in what seemed like a blink of an eye. As each semester passes, I uncover more about the industry, my teachers, as well as what it takes to have the best possible experience as a design student. Sometimes, I have had to learn the hard way. After speaking to a group of my friends in my AIGA AAU Student Group, I devised a list of 5 things I and a bunch of other people wished we knew before pursuing a design degree.

By Daniel Korpai

1. The definition of graphic design.

This may sound like an obvious one, but believe it or not, I didn’t fully understand what graphic design entailed until the first day that I walked into my first graphic design class. I had an idea that graphic design had something to do with book making, typography, and some logos.

I wasn’t wrong, but I also wasn’t seeing the full picture. During my first class, my instructor Phil Hamlet planted a seed in my mind. This is one of the first things I remember him writing on the green and gritty chalk-board in front of the class:

Ux Design Animation by Studio Moso

Words +/or Pictures = Meaning

The key point to this is the answer with meaning. Before this point, I didn’t recognize that graphic design is not fine art. Through his answer, I truly felt like I could distinguish myself from other artists around me. In addition, I didn’t recognize all the different types of graphic design that is out there in the world around me. The truth is, the subject of graphic design is an umbrella term for an industry that has a plethora of avenues.

Here is an overview of the different areas of concentration within graphic design:

  1. Communication Design

  2. Editorial Design

  3. Environmental Design

  4. Branding

  5. Packaging

  6. Typography

  7. Experience Design

  8. Innovation

This is how my university broke down graphic design, but you can also view this article which explains the types of deliverables you would make in each type of graphic design realm.

2. It’s an investment—an expensive one.

I remember when I walked into my typography class, and my teacher unapologetically told us that we would be spending approximately $1,000 on our first project of the semester. This is what everyone’s face looked like in the class:

🤯😒😞😖😤😭😳🤬

Art is, on average, the most expensive major according to trade-schools.net . Not only are design universities are generally expensive, it is the fact that you have to purchase software, hardware, and project materials in order to succeed. Spending money on printing hundreds of process work, project iterations, as well as extra pages in case you mess up with comping is honestly the bane of my graphic design experience. In a syllabus for every class that I take, the instructor outlines the projected costs for each project.

The further I got into the degree, the more expensive the cost was per class—but if you think about it, it makes sense. With more complex design systems and more sophisticated deliverables, prices will go up. However, the further I get into my degree, the more I realize that these are investments in making me a kickass portfolio.

3. Deadlines will be your best friend and worst enemy.

I have always underestimated the time it would take me to finish a design project. My design school claims that every hour that is spent in class equates to at least 3 hours of homework to complete a project. It seems like an over exaggeration, but it was very much true.

Deadline GIF from hotinfographics.club

From the creative process of ideation, doing research, and being able to iterate and create different options for review, design work is not easy and takes more time than you will think. To add onto that, you will need to think about the time it will take to print something, to comp something (if you are presenting a physical deliverable such as packaging ), or to cut papers to sizes that you need them to be. My rule of thumb is to add 3 more hours to what I predict it will take me to accomplish a project, and that way I set my schedule up for success.

That being said, deadlines have forced me to work smarter and not harder. They have made me make quicker decisions and to trust my eyes and creative gut in order to move forward to the next step in my process. I have learned that having full control of your schedule is a huge skillset to have in order to live a balanced college life as a graphic design student.

4. Your brain may or may not explode (critical thinking is essential).

Verbal and visual communication, business strategy, human psychology and behavior, research, design history, understanding of tools, art theory—this knowledge/skills and a laptop that can take it are all things you need to think about in order to create successful design.

Confused Math Lady GIF https://gph.is/g/ZkVoAMp

Designers need to wear many hats in order to please their clients (or teachers). There are so many different things that need to be logically thought through in order for your design choices to be created, and as a designer, you need to make sure you make purposeful choices that you can defend when presenting your design solutions. Your concept will always outweigh your technique.

Just like a business pitch, you are trying to persuade your audience to understand that your solution is the best solution. One thing that I have seen differentiate good designs to the best designs are the thoughtfulness that the designer has put into the concept. Merely having the skills to use specific tools is not enough to ring you success as a graphic designer. So be prepared to use your brain and think critically when designing.

5. Process First

Another thing that I wished I better understood before getting through all my classes is the importance of the creative process, and how it is always evolving. There is no easy way to get a successful graphic design project done, and there is also not just one way to get to the same answer that everyone else in your class has to deal with.

Creative Process GIF by Jackie Lay

However, there is something that can make your experience of trying to solve a problem more painless and more structured than your peers, and that is: your creative process. One of my favorite things about graphic design is that there is a sort of equation/guideline that you can use to solve creative problems which helps you get into the flow of any project.

Many people have different ways of calling the creative process, but generally speaking, most cover the following stages:

  1. Discover – figuring out the problem, brainstorming, understanding the scope

  2. Define – addressing what your specific problem is that you’re solving, your deliverables, and timeline

  3. Develop – designing iterations, improving your design upon critique

  4. Deploy – presenting/pitching your designs

Through these steps, you are able to figure out the best methods for producing the best designs possible.

So what next?

If you’re thinking about becoming a graphic designer, critically think about the points that I made and see how your perspective changes on your excitement for the major—does it scare you, make you dread it, or make you feel excited?

Ask questions! I’m here to answer them all. As someone who was unsure about pursuing graphic design, I can honestly say that it is the best decision that I’ve made in my life thus far.

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