Note: Most of you won’t be going on to an exciting career in graphic design (of course I’m not talking about you, just the students around you).
First a bit of background
During my senior year studying architecture at the University of Illinois, one of my professors informed the class that less than 10% of us would wind up as practicing architects. In spite of our protestations he was, of course, correct. Within a year of graduating, I was back in school taking art (and the occasional design) classes. And, the few classmates I’m still in touch with aren’t practicing architects either. They’re working for contractors, managing construction projects and more but they aren’t designing buildings.
In retrospect the reasons are obvious:
- The licensing procedure for architects includes several years of involuntary servitude under a licensed architect.
- The competition for positions that actually allow for creative expression is intense.
- Many students choose to pursue careers in related fields such as interior design, store planning or the construction industry.
- Many students lack the talent and drive needed to succeed in the field
- The education we were offered
didn’t adequately prepare us for the “real world.”
As I gaze at your expectant faces…
Today, when I face the young students who populate my web design classes, I’m reminded of my old professor’s warning. Most of won’t end up as designers. The reasons, for the most part, are those I’ve already mentioned (although thankfully there is currently no licensing requirement for designers).
There’s not much that can be done about the competition, the lure of less creative but more lucrative professions, or the lack of talent and drive (although I suppose it wouldn’t hurt if I flunked a few of you).
However, there is something that can be done to address the problem that our design education programs are not preparing you for a career in the “real world.” This is especially critical since the computer and Internet revolutions mean that you’ll have even more competition from people entering the design professions through paths that bypass a traditional design education.
The modern day Académie
Twenty years ago your professors were scoffing at desktop publishing and went happily about their business cutting and pasting. Today the typesetters have disappeared and every designer has a computer on his desktop.
A few years later, they were laughing at websites that looked like “they were designed by a programmer.” Today some of those same programmers are creating sites that are damned attractive as well as being functional, easy to use and packed with worthwhile information. Your professors’ websites, if they have them, might be damned attractive but that’s probably all they are.
The fact is that, while design educators were busy debating questions such as the role of computers in design education; the world was passing them by. Today, while magazines are dying and Bill Gates is proclaiming, “Reading is going to go completely online,” graphic design education is still focused on ink on paper (even if it is from a digital printer). That’s not really surprising since most of your professors came of age before the digital revolution and know less about the computers on their desks than you do.
Sadly with a few exceptions, today’s old guard of design education is the modern day equivalent of the French Académie of the late nineteenth century which derided the “new” painting of Cezanne, Monet, Gaugin and the other impressionist. While engaged in teaching you “pure” design, they are in fact failing to prepare you and your classmates for careers in the “new” media.
What you can do
Your only hope is to quit being a passive recipient of information and take charge of your education. After all, you are children of the digital age. You probably have a better grasp of the opportunities the future presents than your instructors. Create a list of the skills you want to acquire and pursue them relentlessly in class and out. Remember you aren’t limited to the art department. You can also find relevant classes in the computer department, the journalism school and elsewhere. Find a professor (not necessarily a design professor) that you can work with and pursue an independent study program. Collaborate with your fellow students (a programmer might benefit from your design suggestions and teach you a little code at the same time). Take a job that will offer you the chance to learn while working (maybe the student newspaper) or turn your assignments into real projects by finding a (paying or pro-bono) client whose willing who’s willing to let you learn on the job.
What you need to know
You’ll need to create your own skill list based upon your goals but here’s a few suggestions to get your started:
Design skills: All that stuff about kerning, white space, color theory, etc., etc. is really pretty valuable. And your old-school professors probably have a lot to offer in this area.
Applications: If your looking for a design job in today’s market you should know your way around Adobe’s Creative Suite. That means proficiency with Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and Dreamweaver. You should plan on being an ace in at least one of them (it’s always helpful if you can show a potential boss a thing or two they don’t already know). Adding Flash to the list will be a real plus.
Jargon: Just like the design world, the computer world has its own special language. You need to become fluent in both.
Communications: Design is ultimately about communication. Unfortunately you won’t be operating in a totally (or even primarily) visual world, so learn to write well.
But wait there’s more
If you plan to work on websites (and they’re hard to avoid these days)
Domains: You should be able to register a domain and set up hosting for the domain with a service provider.
Servers: You’ll need to be able to send files to a server using the ftp (File Transfer Protocol) function built into Dreamweaver. And, if you’re going to get serious, you need a basic understanding of server operation, for instance using a stand-alone ftp program to transfer files and change file permissions on the server. It will help if you know why you might want to change file permissions.
Sounds like a lot of work
Well, they’re always looking for help at McDonalds.