What do you wish you had learned in school?

If you studied graphic design in college, what do you wish you had learned—what weren’t you taught or taught well—that would have been helpful for your design career or freelancing?

I studied graphic design in the 90s and, I must say, I am glad there were some helpful printers around to help me resolve certain issues at my first design job out of college (especially so my boss never had to know). So what about you?

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The main thing I did not learn in my design program is that the profession of design exists as part of the business world, not the art world.

My program was part of the University of Utah’s College of Fine Arts, and everything was skewed in a fine arts direction. So with all the drawing, painting, sculpture and art history classes, my design classes were skewed in that direction too — with art, coolness and creativity trumping any real-world practical concerns.

  • We were taught nothing about what practicing this profession outside academia would be about (I suspect mainly because the professors knew little about it themselves).
  • We were not taught that all design projects would be limited by budgets.
  • We were not taught the difficult task of negotiating with clients over their less-than-great ideas or that this would even be a problem.
  • We were taught nothing about the importance of contracts, taxes and various legal issues.
  • We were not taught that graphic design, as it exists in the real world, would be more like a subset of marketing than art.
  • We were not taught that graphic design is a form a visual communication intended to influence a target audience.
  • We were not taught that problem solving and strategy would play as large of a role as aesthetics.
  • We were not taught that clients and employers would be far more concerned with making money and achieving objectives than they would be with us making cool stuff for them.

I wish we had been taught more production end stuff. Student work should not only be graded on aesthetics, but also on practical, properly built digital files.

As a printer now, I can see even less is being taught today.
“Just B’s” list is still pretty much spot on, except for stuff coming from design grads of the top echelon schools. The best production files seem to come from tradeschool grads. A tech high school is more about preparing their students for the real world. And I know some of those schools around here have print shops where the students have to learn the production end by actually doing it.

Same here. There were zero production classes in my fine-arts-oriented design program — everything was geared toward making cool stuff, winning awards, and impressing the professors and instructors who were tenured (and somewhat clueless) design teachers but not professional working designers. Plenty of life drawing and art history classes were required, but not a single production class. Crazy.

I actually ended up taking a newspaper production class in the university’s communication college and counting it as an elective (which ended up serving me well later on when I worked at a newspaper). In my junior year, I finally signed up for some after-hours, non-credit courses at a local community trade school just to answer some of the production questions that I was struggling with and that my state university professors seemed equally clueless and totally dismissive about.

This was a long time ago, though, and before web searches and forums, like this one, existed to find answers.

After graduate school (an even bigger fiasco), I sort of lost touch with what goes on in university design programs. My general impression is that there’s still a huge quality and emphasis difference between different schools’ programs. It’s really too bad because young students deciding on careers usually don’t know enough about the fields they’re interested in to make informed decisions about which schools to attend.

It would have saved me years of frustration if this forum had been around when I was 17 (assuming, of course, that my 17-year-old self would have even listened to the advice).

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Hmph. I just wish I’d gone to school.

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Yeah, but look at the bright side: all the money and frustration you saved on a less-than-stellar and incomplete design education. :wink:

Yes. At my first job out of college in the 90s, I remember having some issues with clipping paths and DCS color separations a few times. Luckily, the printer helped me out.

I don’t recall when I did learn this, but at that time I don’t think I was aware that colors darken when they soak into uncoated paper, and some change color (like some yellows turning orange or some blues turning purple).

Yeah. There definitely was nothing about the business side of things—rights, contracts, clients, marketing.

This was something (thankfully) I learned early on in design school. I still find there is a stigma for non-design folk to view designers as the people who ‘jazz up’ their poor attempt at visual communication.

How do you guys usually respond to people who view graphic design[ers] as fine art[ist] in a business setting?

To be honest, the program I was in taught a lot (if not all the basics/principles/history), and taught it well. The toughest aspect was focusing on everything that was taught. After being in the workforce, I’d like to go back and pay more attention to the classes that were relative to my career path now.

Also, print production is a big one. While we were taught pre-press, it’s one of those things that slips the mind once in a while when working on a print project. When the projects ready to goto print, I’ll face palm and convert images, do colour separations etc. In school, but especially in the workplace you find out real quick that the relationship with your printer is more valuable than gold :sweat_smile:

Part of me wishes I started work at a print shop to really engrain it in my mind. But I was offered a job by my placement right out of school, and the pay was to good to say no.

One of the things I try to stress to people who want to study design, is to look at the curriculum. When I was looking at programs, I noticed a lot had emphasis on the “art” aspect, while the one I ended up choosing was not.

I also agree with @Just-B regarding “young students deciding on careers…” and you see it in these forums of students getting a glimpse of design via visual arts, and asking what it is. But it’s difficult to explain all the fields.

I’m not even sure if I could define all the fields of design, let alone explain some of them - and how they intertwine.

Not only that, but as new challenges in business/the world arise, new design fields emerge.

I was looking at the curriculum from my program while writing my post to try and remember some of the courses they offered, but I didn’t take. There are new design studies and practicum courses I’d never heard of!

Of course a lot of colleges could be a little more comprehensive, especially when it comes to production, processes and, well, pretty much everything you mention. I definitely agree print production could do with a lot more attention before students are let out into the wild.

However, given that, as soon as you hit the real world, you learn all this pretty sharpish anyway (or you’d be dead in the water in about the same timescale), then I think it is a good thing that time spent in college is concentrated more on developing lateral thinking, creative solutions, etc, etc. Without that, what you do in the workplace would quickly become pretty dull.

Over the years, I have learned how to deal with clients, how to prepare and spec a spot uv, what my accountant needs and when. The practicalities of the business. That’s life. That’s experience. You are not expected to know all this at 21, which is why you are paid a lot less than you are by the time you are in your 40s. Your value to the money-making machine is so much less at 21 (despite what we all think at that age).

By the time you are 40, you have the ability to use your skills to make money for yourself, or others and are rewarded accordingly. But – and here’s the rub – without that college grounding and that ability and time spent nurturing an innate creative ability, the knowledge of where design sits in a marketing strategy alone would be worth very little.

College is a great cauldron for giving you what should be a life-long ability and passion to come up with new, fresh ideas.

I know I am about to be blown out of the water here an by the thousands of exceptions that prove the rule, but, largely speaking, when you look through portfolios, you can usually tell apart those who have been to college and those who haven’t. As I say, this is not always the case – and I have been positively proven wrong in the past – but there is a quality and brevity of thought and an ability to distill (sometimes quite complex) ideas into clear, considered visual communication, that is not as often there, or as developed, with the self-taught.

I, for one, am eternally grateful for the time and space afforded me in those years to be able to develop my creativity. It has stood me well over the years I have been working.

My first post here seems to have become a bit of a tome. My apologies. It was only going to be a one-liner and I got a bit carried away.

Anyway, that’s my two-penn’oth – for what it’s worth.

Good first post Sprout!

Like you, I appreciate my college education, and I agree with what you’ve written, but I have a slightly different take on one thing.

I totally agree that college should concentrate on developing lateral thinking, critical thinking and intellectual development. However, it’s also a place to get an introduction to the practical skills needed in whatever profession the student is pursuing.

I don’t expect newly graduated students to be experts, but I do expect them to have an introduction into the technical aspects of the profession they’ve entered. Way too many of them are lacking for the simple reason that it barely came up while they were in school. A couple of good internships can mitigate this, but there’s just no reason for four-year university design programs to neglect introducing students to the real-world knowledge and skills they’ll need to have to succeed in their first jobs.

You’re right, newly graduated designers will either adapt quickly upon graduation or they’ll fail in this profession. Unfortunately, way too many of them do fail because they don’t make the transition that school should have prepared them to make.

I’ll even say that it’s frequently one step worse than that. Many university design programs actually instill in their students attitudes and priorities that will not serve them well in the real world. Unfortunately, most design work is rather mundane and more focused on concerns other than making the cool, innovative, creative stuff that got them good grades by impressing peers and instructors in design school.

Unfortunately, most real-world projects are more about getting things done on time, within budget and producing business results for the client or employers. If a designer can win a design award while doing this, great, but that’s rarely the primary objective, which way too many newly graduated designers have trouble accepting.

When I get interns who have never heard of Pantone, let alone cracked a Pantone book, who can’t use a tape measure, who don’t know what bleed is… and a myriad of other simple design related skills, there is definitely something lacking in the design programs out there.

Every year we get a spate of projects here on GDF up for critique where the students are doing corporate office branding, things that have to interact with real world office walls and floor spaces. Not one of those projects has ever shown any indication that the instructor is teaching these kids how to actual do something like this. No scale, no dimensions, no methods, no materials, no nothing except a very preetty picture.
Even an introductory project should take into account at least some of the parameters. ie, give the students an actual live space to work within, like an office on campus, not some stupid mockup they find online. (pet peeve of mine.)


I think someone mentioned earlier, this could be because many of the lecturers probably haven’t seen the inside of a real world studio in 20 years – if ever.

I agree, even if they can’t know it all as young graduates, they should at least, have some knowledge of what they don’t yet know. As you say, just looking around here, some of the stuff presented for critique is woefully off the mark. I am sure I was just as wet behind the ears at that age, but I don’t remember being so quite ill-prepared.

I’d also suggest some problem may well lie in the fact that education has become less about educating people and more a profit-making venture. I can only speak as I find here in the UK, where the profit motive is becoming more and more invasive and cancerous in most public and social services on recent years.

Back when I was in graduate school in about 1990, I was assigned to teach a 2nd-year design production course under the supervision of a tenured design professor. He never attended the course, but gave me a syllabus of what I was supposed to teach.

At the time, desktop publishing and computers were obviously the future. I’d been using Macs to the exclusion traditional tools and mediums at my job for, probably two or three years.

The course syllabus I was required to follow, however, had me teaching these university students how to use ruling pens, calculate sizes with proportion wheels, cut amberlith, spec type and perform other obsolete skills that nobody would be using three or four years down the road.

It was awkward when some of the students would confront me about it. It was even more awkward when I confronted my graduate committee about their outdated coursework I was required to teach. Blank stares and defensiveness on their part told me they didn’t have a clue.

Not all, but many tenured university graphic design professors live in their proverbial ivory towers and, for whatever reason, just don’t keep up. When it comes right down to it, many of them are professional teachers and not working designers. They would never admit to that, though and probably don’t know enough about how the real world operates to even question their own incompetence.

That was a harsh statement, but luckily that incompetence isn’t the case at every university. The better schools seem to hire working professionals to augment their design faculties as adjunct professors, and I’m certain that many of them are fantastic. Unfortunately, 17-year-old kids making choices to attend this school or that one often don’t know enough about what they’ll be studying to differentiate between them.

Yeah, that’s the case here in the U.S. too. For-profit design schools are popping up all over the place and flooding the profession with new designers trying to make a go of it. Most of these students will never succeed over the long haul, and it’s sad. There are just too many new designers and too few jobs to go around.

A few months back, I was offered the chance to advise one of these schools in revamping its design program. I turned down their offer, but I got the impression that, unlike the university situation I mentioned, this school was concerned with its students developing aesthetic judgment and making sure they also graduated with practical, employable, hands-on know-how.

It is slightly different here, in that, we don’t have private design schools. Degrees still come from traditional universities and accredited courses (as far as I know). What is happening is that more and more squeeze is being put on them as the government continuously reduce funding and increase student fees, that the universities are forced to get private sponsorship, which, in turn, introduces different influences.

When I went (I think, around the same time as you), most kids got some sort of grant, on a sliding scale, with parents expected to contribute, more, or less, depending on their income, down to zero for parents on the lower end of the income scale. This meant that students usually graduated without debt – depending on how much they like beer!

Now kids are coming out with debts upwards of £50k. That, to my mind is immoral. The ethos here, used to be that a government invested in the education of its nation and reaped the dividends later. A while back, I read somewhere, the government get an average of £250k more in tax over a working life from a graduate, than they get from non-graduates. Enough to find a margin to invest a few tens of thousand. Now, I am sure the amount is the same, they just passed the debt on to kids. Anyway, I can bore for Britain on this (don’t even get me started on the continued erosion of the National Health Service).

Like you, I went to college right on the cusp of the Mac becoming a thing. We were given cursory instruction. Thankfully, I saw the writing on the wall, so spent many many evenings staying late and teaching myself to use it.

I am also glad of those hours spent burning the midnight oil with a Apple Macintosh IIse, as 18 months into my first job, the company I worked for at the time bought a Ilcx. (What a beast; I am sure there was at least a whole meg of RAM installed on it.) I was the only one in the company who knew anything about it.

I was lucky in that I went to a good college, that constantly had well-known industry specialists come and teach us various disciplines. Even then, as you say, the dinosaur of academia was consistently about five years behind what was going on out in the industry.

That said, I am also glad I had the benefit of learning the whole casting-off and type galleys malarkey, for two reasons. Firstly I needed it in my first job for the first 18 months and secondly, those hours of hand-rendering 11pt Bembo gave me an understanding of type that has developed into a life-long love – I can spend hours kerning letter pairs and refining curves to the Nth degree!!

On the other hand, I am not sure an exclusively digital, on-screen only approach to teaching type instils the same understanding of the beauty of letterforms, apart from for a few natural-born type geeks. The quality of type-setting out there, appears to be generally pretty poor, and declining, these days – I am not going to even begin on the quality of spelling and grammar, (I sound like such an old fart ‘The country’s gone to the dogs, its not like it was in my day.’)

I know a guy who used to be a book binder at one of the pre-eminent letter presses over here – sadly now defunct. He keeps showing me examples of type setting that are jaw-droppingly stunning. All done when people were physically hand-spacing every single letter. Unbelievable.

Yes, I feel the same way. Judging from your entire post, we have a lot in common.

Even though the hands-on skills and tools I used before Macs arrived are no longer especially useful, the behind-the-scenes insight gained into how things work is still very much relevant.

For example, when CMYK percentages had to be determined without visual feedback from a computer, one needed to develop a very good sense what percentages would be needed to get the color only envisioned in one’s mind.

I could give other examples, but I’ll just say there was a much more intimate connection with the work than there is today since we literally built it by hand. I’m not complaining, though, I wouldn’t want to return to those ways of doing things, but I do miss them and am very grateful to have been part of it.

No, I definitely wouldn’t want to go back. I still remember that sick feeling you got when you found a typo you’d made when you got the pages back from the phototypesetters. Those were fairly expensive mistakes.

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