Back-to-school advice for design students & recent grads

Written August 21, 2017 by Kevin Gamache

It’s happening. I just heard my first back-to-school ad, which means our brief summer is quickly coming to an end. Before we know it we’ll be back under the gray skies, constant drizzle, and for students, piles of homework. Ugh. Didn’t summer just begin a few weeks ago?

My stepson graduated from high school last June and I was talking with one of his friends who will be enrolling in graphic design classes at the Art Institute of Seattle starting this fall. In that conversation, he asked me about what I liked best about graphic design and what my design style was.

That last question struck me as kind of odd because I don’t feel like I design in any certain style. I do appreciate a clean, simple, modern design aesthetic, but I don’t actively seek to design that way for every project I work on.

In fact, I think the mark of a good designer is the ability to create in any style. When I was just getting into design, there were definitely some basic styles and tricks I used as a crutch (clipping paths and typewriter fonts…so cutting edge!). But as I grew as a designer, I pushed myself to study different styles and try to add new techniques to my own design arsenal.

After all, a project shouldn’t be driven by what you personally think looks cool or what you’re most comfortable doing. It should be driven by the client’s goals. What are we trying to communicate? Who are we communicating to? Are there any constraints or style guides to be aware of? These types of questions should inform your design decisions.

One piece of advice I could give designers just starting out is take a look at some award-winning work and try to figure out how it was done. What specific effects were applied? Is there a grid system being used? Pay close attention to the details — kerning, textures, alignment, consistency — because that’s what takes a design from good to great.

A recent article by Erik Kennedy in Smashing Magazine spoke about “copywork,” or the act of reconstructing a design (or book, or painting) to learn how it was made. It’s kind of a weird thing to blatantly copy somebody else’s work. But when done right, it’s a method of immersing yourself into the small design decisions made by excellent designers and learning from them. Why did they use this font at this size? Why this pattern? It’s a fantastic way of quickly learning new skills and gaining appreciation for different aesthetics.

“The trick is to pick a design that is better than what you are currently capable of. By copying something outside of your wheelhouse, you will be expanding your skills,” Kennedy wrote. “So, if you want to improve your use of color, copy something with some crazy gradients or a bold palette. If you want to get better at luxury branding, copy a preeminent website with a ritzy look and feel.”

Writers and artists have been doing such exercises throughout history. Benjamin Franklin would recreate novels he enjoyed to study the flow. Leonardo DaVinci learned by copying his teacher and encouraged his own students to do the same.

So as you’re heading off to school or beginning your own design career, don’t pigeonhole yourself into designing in only one style or doing only what you’re most comfortable with. Give copywork a shot to expose yourself to new styles and techniques. If it’s good enough for DaVinci, it might be good enough for you.