3 Valuable Lessons I learned in Design School

3 Valuable Lessons I learned in Design School



In spring 2011 I graduated from university after completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Design at Concordia University. While I was full of hopes as I got in three years before, by the end of the first semester my illusions had been crushed and replaced by a sour taste of disappointment in my mouth. I went on though and completed all the requirements as I am not one to quit, especially when education is on the table.

Design school was pricy and, although I have learned some useful things, I still cannot decide if it was worth all the money I invested into it. But eh, at least now I have a paper with a stamp on it certifying that I am a real designer. If you’re on the fence about pursuing your degree in design, make sure to compare and contrast programs at different institutions.

This blog post will be a series, so get ready for some action. I didn’t spend thousands of dollars on my education to write only one article about it. I also purchased with all that cash the right to criticize the university I attended for 3 years. So here we go, starting 3 valuable lessons I learned in Design School:


1. If you really want to learn something, learn it on your own

If the university or college you attend(ed) is anything like mine, you’ll realize soon enough that most of what is taught there is theoretical and that there’s hardly anything you will be able to apply in your real life job. You might tackle useful design principles once in a while in some classes but you won’t master them unless you push yourself further and work on your own. That means not limiting yourself to the project requirements.

Unlike your teachers, your clients will not grade you and move on. They will request and expect from you quality work. They will also not hire you ever again if you fail to provide the services they’re paying you for. Unlike school, it will be very detrimental and near impossible to BS your way out of a situation where you lack the practical knowledge to offer good design solutions for your clients.

If you really want to master a skill and improve as a designer, learn it on your own and practice outside of school. That’s what will differentiate you from the other students; you’ll be a true designer among amateurs.


2. Pick your partners well to avoid teamwork disasters

University promotes teamwork and there’s really nothing wrong with that… unless you don’t get to pick your team members. Although I met some incredible people on a few occasions, I can think of more times when teamwork with students I didn’t know or like led to headaches. We’ve all met them; the control-freaks who want to take all the decisions, divas who will attempt creating drama within the group and slugs who say they’ll work but you know damn well you’ll end up doing all the work. Sometimes, a great idea can mutate into a hideous design because of a single team member. Although those teamwork-centered classes in design institutions have fancy names (i.e. Integrative Design Research at Concordia), they’re really just code names for “Handling Teamwork Disaster 101”.

If you work in an office, you may have to live this all over again and you’ll have design school to thank for preparing you for it. But if you work as a freelancer you’ll get to pick your partners and, based on your design school experience, you will know what type of people you must stay away from as well as which you work best with.

After experiencing disastrous partnerships in university, you’ll know how to handle them or avoid them altogether in your professional life.


3. Titles and degrees mean nothing without experience

Holding a degree doesn’t make of you a real designer or professional. I can say in all honesty that at least one third of all the design students who graduated at the same time as me in spring 2011 lacked both the talent and motivation required to succeed in the field. Their work was often mediocre, boring at best, and would I have been their teacher, I would have failed them. That did not stop them from acquiring their degree and calling themselves designers even if, clearly, they’re not able to produce anything good.

I witnessed the same phenomenon with teachers who called themselves experts in some field because of their fancy degree, when in fact they clearly had no idea what they were doing. One of my web teachers was like that… He was a really nice guy but didn’t have a clue of the class he was supposed to teach. At least he was self-conscious enough to invite a guest speaker to class who would explain the students how to code HTML, CSS and Javascript. Only problem is that in his total ignorance, he invited to teach in his place another so-called professional programmer who, in 2010, still used tables in her designs. She had no clue what programming in the 21st century was. Similarly, I had a teacher who’d call herself a practicing architect while she had never contributed in her field except for some research here and there. What she really was was a researcher, whatever else she pretended to be.

What makes a designer isn’t the degree. It’s the knowledge and the experience. For example, you could say you’re a swimmer all what you want, even if you read a thousand books about it, but until you jump in the pool and actually swim, you wouldn’t be one. It’s the same thing in any discipline. So don’t just sit on your degree; earn it.


Have you learned anything valuable in school you’d like to share with us? Please leave a comment!

About the author

Tina Mailhot-Roberge is a graphic designer, illustrator and co-founder of Veodesign. She holds a BFA in Design from Concordia University, Montréal. She loves to help people and wirte about arts, design, web and technology. Find her on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.