What I Learned While Studying Graphic Design

seven tips for graphic design students

When I left home to study college three hours away in a much bigger city than my hometown, I envisioned the all the people I was going to meet, the things I was going to learn and all the things I would do. It was in some cases what I expected and in some cases not.

Though everyone else’s college experiences may be different, I’m sharing mine in hope that design students and future design students would know what to expect:

You’ll meet the most amazing of people.

In South Africa, colleges are significantly smaller than universities in terms of campus size which was one of the reasons why I chose to go to college instead of university. I wanted the smaller classes. Anyway, I was lucky to walk the passages of that campus with really awesome people; people who were all talented and created amazing artworks, some of which decorated the walls of the bright red campus. Because it was a small campus, we know each other and if not, we knew about each other. All of them were colorful characters and I loved talking to them and bantering with them and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone there who wasn’t friendly. I loved talking to everyone from the lecturers, the students to the office staff and even the campus security guard who I always found an excuse to talk and laugh with.

Tip: Don’t keep to yourself. Talk to people, get to know them. Art and design people can be intimidating but most of them are easygoing and friendly.

It is challenging.

This goes without saying and it’s attestation that graphic design is not easy. There are so many people out there who think graphic design is just making pretty shapes using Paint. When I got there, I knew it’d probably be tough but I had no idea how much. There are times when it just gets so hard that you are reduced to tears. I’ve seen classmates break down and cry and I myself once excused myself to go to the bathroom and have a good cry. One classmate dropped out during first year because it was too challenging for him. There will be a time when you’re overloaded with so much work and struggling to find the time to meet project deadlines and you’ll have to sacrifice on sleep. The most hectic it had ever gotten was when I came back to my flat from a 5pm class and worked until 4am on a project. I slept for 2 hours then it was off for an 8am to 5pm class. I thought I’d be pretty tired when I got there but surprisingly I wasn’t. I remember being in that last class with my friends and the sun was setting, casting its last rays into the classroom and my friends were bathed in golden light. It was amazing and it made it all worth it.

Tip: You might have a few of them but don’t make all-nighters a thing as your body does need to rest. Instead practice good time management and never do something last minute, ever. Design projects tend to take more time than ‘last minute time’ can provide.

There will be students who are much, much better than you.

This was a reality I had to deal with. I consider myself a perfectionist so when some of my work was not as perfect as the other students’, I would resent my own work and think myself not good enough for the college which was absurd. I learned not to compare my work with others’ and to focus on my own work and my own goals. I may have not been super great in some classes but I was great in certain ones and that became enough for me. Even now there are graphic designers out there who are a thousand times better than I am. Instead of harboring resent, I learn from them because let’s face it. In all of us, there was once a time when we really sucked. If you suck now, chances are you won’t suck in the future.

Tip: If there is someone who is much more talented and better at something than you are, learn from them. Ask them for tips and let them show you how they do something. Then focus on your work. Focus on being better than you were yesterday, not better than the person you sit next to. You’ll feel a satisfying sense of achievement this way.

Always back up your work.

I learned this the hard way. When studying graphic design, you’ll have files and files of projects you’ve worked on, photos you took (especially if you take photography as well) and important files you wouldn’t dream of losing. You may have all of them on one place; your computer but if you only have one copy of everything, you’re treading dangerous waters. In final year, I worked mostly on my laptop and since I had improved significantly in final year since first year, I had most of my best work there but I made a huge and costly mistake. I didn’t back up the work on my laptop. I had been home for the holidays and a few hours before I was to leave for college, my mother’s car was broken into and my laptop bag was stolen. I didn’t just have my laptop in there; I had other items in it which were a great hassle to replace. So my laptop was stolen including a children’s book I had written, illustrated and printed which I was especially proud of. The digital copy of the book was on the laptop. Just like that, I had lost an already compiled final year portfolio filled with my best work and my first ever completed book. It was a devastating blow to me and had I backed up, I would still have my work.

Tip: Always back up your work. Not next week or next month. Create a regular weekly back up schedule. Backup on clouds like Google Drive or DropBox or invest in a few good external hard drives.

Don’t fit in, stand out.

This is very important in developing your own personal style. Don’t design like you see the other students doing. Actively stand out and think outside of the box. Ultimately that’s what colleges try to teach you. They would tell you what to do but how to do it is something you are encouraged to figure out for yourself.

Tip: don’t be afraid to test the limits or try new things. Think bigger, crazier and much more awesome. However, don’t fret if you are struggling to attain your personal style. I myself I’m struggling with this but the more I try new things, the more my style develops.

It really is the journey, not the destination.

Although being called on stage to be handed my degree was great, those three years of college were even more wonderful; they were the best 3 years of my life yet. I loved the challenges, I loved learning and improving my skills and knowledge, I loved the people, I loved that little campus and I loved every minute of it. Other than once when my flat mate accidentally locked me inside the flat and I couldn’t attend class because I had lost my keys, I have never missed class. The journey is always much more interesting than the destination.

Tip: Try your best to be present in every moment. Learn actively and take advantage of the opportunities given. College would go by so fast and before you know it, you’ll have graduated and you’ll be missing it!

Have fun!

This is very important. You don’t want to be lost in everyday process of attending classes and getting projects done. When I was at college my friends and I were always up for some fun. College is less strict than high school so we’d talk and laugh in classes while designing or drawing (I loved drawing and illustration classes because they were 3 hours of arbitrary fun where jokes were exchanged and I was mercilessly teased about liking Justin Bieber’s music). Usually we were given creative freedom and we always tried to have as much fun as we could.

Outside classes, at the end of semesters either the college would host a fun day or night somewhere where we would always go and have fun. To further demonstrate how awesome the college was: they once hosted a night for us at a club and the lecturers even came out to dance with us. If there was no official college get together, my friends and I would host our own fun nights which were always a blast despite being so rare and far between and restricted to the end of semesters.

Tip: Take advantage of every outing your college puts together or go out with your college friends. You could go clubbing or to the local art gallery/museum or even just out for lunch and coffee.

If you’re a current or future art and design student I hope you would use these tips to make the most of your college experience (and to minimize stress). I invite other students to offer their own tips in the comment section below as well. J