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5+5: Things I Did and Didn’t Learn in Design School.

boy assembling project circuit board

I’ve been working as iD’s Lead Designer for four and half years now and I, along with many of my co-workers, can tell you that running summer programs for teens and kids is a tough, but fun job. And that combination of hard work and fun sure makes time speed by. (Did you know our CEO plays golf on the desks at work?)  Ever feel like time flies by when you’re having fun? I sure do.


While there are times that it still “feels like yesterday” that I went to college, I have to realize that there’s been quite a few years from the time I put on my graduation honor chords and walked to the tune of Pomp and Circumstance. In keeping with the theme of this blog post’s title I have to admit it’s actually been five years since that milestone. I know–crazy. Five years! There’s a lot people can do in that time span. Seriously, you could attend quite a few iD courses; maybe even attend different locations. You could even attend iD as a camper for a few years, graduate from high school and then work at one of our summer camps and experience of the best summer jobs you’ll ever have in your life. (Trust me, I’ve worked out at camp and it’s also hard work, but pure fun.)

Yup, five years is no short amount of time, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While I know I still have much to learn and can’t consider myself an expert yet in the field of design, I do know that my years of professional design experience doesn’t make me a newbie anymore either.


What has being out in the real working world taught me? So much. But it’s also safe to say that my college education was pivotal in fine-tuning my design knowledge and skills so I could go out and get a career that I love.  So with all my “worldly wisdom”, I give to you five things I did learn in college and five things I learned while out on the job.



  • Critiques happen in real life. It’s called pleasing your boss or client. Some of the toughest critics out there are design professors. Most are nice, but let’s face it; design profs are there to make you a better designer. Often the tough ones are the ones that will prepare you for when your boss or client tells you that they don’t love the design yet. At iD, everyone is pretty nice, so if I design something that isn’t what someone had in mind, they always want to let me down gently. And my response to that? I always tell them that I’ve already had the toughest critics out there, what they say won’t offend me. Those nerve-wracking critiques in design school really were worth it.


  • You need a solid design process. In design school, I took multiple courses with a professor who made sure that we always followed a strict design process. One of our deadlines would actually be to create our timeline of when we would accomplish things. I never enjoyed this process because often I would want to just jump in and begin designing. While I didn’t know it then, he’s the one who is responsible for my design process now. My process usually goes something like this: Research, Sketches, Photoshop or Illustrator Comps, Final Comps & Edits, Clean-Up Files, Submit Files. Following a design process is something that you will find at every professional design studio. It’s what helps makes projects exceptional.
  • Sometimes you need to pull an all-nighter (or at least long hours) to make an outstanding piece. Before college, when I thought of all-nighters, I imagined it was something that ended after you graduate. Not always. Especially in the design field, there are times when a project needs to be completed in a short amount of time, but done just as well as if you had a lot of time. That’s when long-hours come into play. Some of the pieces that I’ve spent long hours on are some of my favorite and rewarding pieces. Take the iD catalog…did you know this year we managed to design the catalog in about a month? A lot of hard work from a lot of people here in the company, and I was able to be a part of that experience.all_nighter
  • A professional portfolio is a necessity. I can’t remember how many times we got this assignment in design school. Create a digital portfolio. Sometimes a bit boring of an assignment, but I think my professors were just trying to hammer in the fact that portfolios are no joke. If you’re looking for a design job, you must have a portfolio that looks nice, runs well (if it’s on the web) and is comprised of only your best pieces (don’t just throw everything in).  Design is visual. No design company will hire you if you have a great cover letter but your portfolio is subpar. So taking the time to make an outstanding and current portfolio is one of the best things you can do. You may even need one before you get to college. Many design universities require having a portfolio to get accepted into your desired program.


  • Networking: It’s all about who you know. The best part about college is that there are so many free resources at your fingertips. Use them. Those seminars that you’re not required to go to? Go anyway. That guest speaker that comes to speak to your class? Ask him or her some questions. Get to know as many people as you can and you’ll be glad you did when it comes time to find a job.



  • Handing in a project doesn’t mean you’re done with it. In school when you hand in a project you basically brush off your hands, relax and spend the next week waiting for your respective grade. While it’s true that in the working-world that once you hand in a project the bulk of the work is complete, you’re definitely not done. You’ll more than likely have multiple edits and minor tweaks after you hand in the first draft. Information may change or need to be added. You’ll also need to clean up any files depending on if it’s a print or digital piece.
  • You won’t need to be a jack-of-all trades and create a project entirely on your own. During my college years there would be times when I would work with a group, but often assignments were an individual task. In the job force you’ll be working collaboratively with others and concentrating on doing one specific thing like designing the interface or coding the site. Though it may not be the same thing each time, (which is why it’s beneficial to know as many different programs and platforms as possible) you won’t need to know every programming language, Flash script and why Bodoni typeface looks better on the piece than Myriad.
  • With that said, learning doesn’t stop after you graduate. I know this sort of counteracts my last statement that you don’t need to know everything, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep learning as much as possible. Technology moves like a jet—as in fast. What you learn in college will probably be outdated within the next two years, or will at least evolve. So taking summer courses or online courses like iD 365 to learn or sharpen your skills will make you even more successful.learning
  • Deadlines will be short and meeting them is critical. In college if you miss a deadline you get a bad grade. No biggie, you can always make it up later. At a professional design job if you miss a deadline, it means that you’re letting someone else down as well. To add even more excitement, deadlines aren’t nearly as long as the ones that professors give you, (and for good reason, in college professors are trying to hone your skills, once you have those, working fast is the next step.) and you’ll more than likely be juggling multiple projects at once. But that’s part of what makes being a designer fun.
  • Attitude is everything because you won’t be in complete control of your projects anymore. In design school, the professors will give you a project foundation, but ultimately you get to decide what to make. You don’t have to answer to anyone, except yourself. Enjoy it, because when you begin to design professionally, you’re designing for other people. So that layout that you’re in love with might not look anything like the original once everyone who isn’t a designer gets their hands on it. Someone may want a specific word to stick out or an image to be bigger and while you may cringe at altering your design, you can’t really fight it too much. I’ve found though, that even when I don’t want to change my design, if I try to make the edits with the best possible attitude, I can usually make something that I thought would look terrible into something that looks good again. That is, after all, why they hired you in the first place.



That’s what I’ve learned thus far in my design career. It will be interesting to see how much I learn in the next five years. I have no doubt it will be a lot! What about you guys? Students and professionals alike…what have you learned in your experiences so far? Anything big that I missed that you think people should read? Leave a comment and let us know…because there’s still much to learn.

  • Jimmy

    Great information from a great designer. Nice post!

  • MaryAnn

    – I am very happy to see these concepts here – but I don’t think they are transferred to the camps. My son was in 2 camps last year (he was 15) and I would have liked to have seen more input on the process and production of game design in addition to just letting them make something that was ‘cool’. I don’t know in actuality how much critique they actually got. And I don’t know that there was actually any design process – steps taught. I like giving him the exposure to the concepts but I really am hoping that he gets more formal thought process and step instructions. Example – written creation of a story and goal of the game – story boarding? Not just wandering around some little imaginary world collecting coins. There are psychologies to all of the successful programs that I understand are way beyond the capability of being taught here but maybe some discussion with them about why they like specific games so that they might get some of the ideas.
    They all come out of camp thinking yeah I can do this (GREAT!) and it is easy (WRONG!) and I can make lots of money with it (HOW?)
    He is probably going again this year – so you didn’t scare him off – but I think he is really not prepared for real life programming and the process involved.

  • Marta

    MaryAnn, thank you for your comment. You bring up some great points. The professional creative world is much tougher than many people anticipate. When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to be a graphic designer, but I had no idea what it meant to achieve that goal. It wasn’t until college that I realized it required hours of fine art classes, graphic design classes , multimedia classes and even some programming and some business classes. I stuck with it, and boy am I glad I did. I love what I do and realize that my college education was well worth it.

    It would have been great to have experienced something like iD Tech during my elementary and high school years that could have started me out at a younger age. The initial exposure that students get at camp can be a catalyst for the desire to learn more about technology. Also, students that go to iD are well ahead of their peers when it comes to technological skills.

    I also appreciate the fact that you mentioned the importance of students actually using an ideation and design process. In my experience from being an iD web instructor, I’ve come to realize that iD Tech students learn things in one week that could easily take months in college and instructors need to utilize as much time as they can to work time so that students go home with a polished working project. We do encourage students to take time to storyboard their projects and create a theme to build around. Some students gloss over this part and want to dive right in to the creation process.

    The desire to learn more about the professional creative process is one of the main reasons we created the iD Teen Academies. Each academy runs two-weeks, is over-night and the atmosphere is run similar to a creative studio. The fact that the students have more time after-hours to work on their projects allows them to experience what they would in a professional career. Your son sounds like he would be a perfect fit for the iD Gaming Academy and might want to check that out. Best of luck to your son in whatever career he chooses!

  • Bastian

    To Maryanne’s point:

    I definitely understand that we want to prepare our children best for the world. What we’re usually saying is we want to prepare them a job. As the father of a 6 month old, I already find myself teaching ABCs, etc.

    But I actually don’t believe formality matters very much in teaching a 15 year-old video production, computer design, or any other vocation for that matter. The only arena where that kind of preparation can and should be similar to the professional world is sports, considering how rudimentary the acts are (i.e. dribbling a soccer ball, pitching a baseball, swinging a golf club, etc.)

    I don’t think we should prepare our kids for “jobs” necessarily. We should prepare them for “work”. And the hardest thing about work is motivation. Camps, whether they be technology, sports, outdoors or music, are all about motivation and inspiration. Properly inspired, students become employees who are able to find joy in their work, and that quality is more tied to success than any process.

    I used to teach at iD when they did movie making. I had students write the story out and then do storyboarding. If I had been firm, however, I would’ve made them prep scene masters, production strips, editing press, etc. But storyboarding is FUN. So is shooting. So is editing. Fun is what inspires young people, so that as the get into their 20s, they recognize the difficulty of a job, but still have a nostalgic connection to their work. That’s what camp is about. One week isn’t enough to learn how to do a job. But it is enough to inspire your work decades later.

    That’s my take anyway. Nice post.