Five Surprising Things I Learned From Going to Graphic Design School

Are you a self-taught designer? Are you passionate about design and wondering how to learn the skills to become a great designer?  Have you been thinking about signing up for graphic design school? If you answered any of these questions with a yes, then this post is for you!

I have loved design for as long as I can remember. I would spend hours scrapbooking as a teen and young mom. I loved creating beautiful layouts and seeing a piece come to life. In 2010 my sister in law introduced me to the site JessicaSprague.com. Jessica Sprague teaches digital scrapbooking using Photoshop. I admit that I became completely obsessed with her courses and bought every.single.one.

From there I moved on to learning about design through YouTube, Skillshare, and Udemy.com. I could not get enough design education because I always felt like I was missing something.

In the summer of 2017, I happened upon a blog post by Dawn Nicole Designs where she detailed her experience in graphic design school. I became intrigued. I talked it over with my husband and we decided that I would sign up for the fall semester of graphic design school. The school I chose was Sessions College for Professional Design. I can say with complete honesty that it is the best decision that I ever could have made.

Here are five surprising things I learned from going to graphic design school.

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Graphic Design School Taught Me That I Wasn't An Imposter

Imposter Syndrome is real guys! Have you ever heard of it? The Harvard Business Review defines it as:

" chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.  They seem unable to internalize their accomplishments, however  successful they are in their field."

https://hbr.org/2008/05/overcoming-imposter-syndrome

That described me perfectly! Even though I was self-taught, I often felt like a fraud when I told people I was a graphic designer. Like, who was I to say that I was a graphic designer when I never went to school for it? This came into play when I wanted to start teaching others how to design.

The moment I realized I wasn't an imposter, but that I legit knew what I was doing was in my very first semester. I was in a Photoshop class and already knew everything the professor taught. Not only did I already know what I was learning BUT I was crushing every assignment. Now I don't say this to be braggy.

I tell you this because there is a confidence you gain when a professor repeatedly tells you that your work is "spot on" or "flawless." When assignment after assignment there is nothing they would suggest you can improve. That, to be straight up, is the number one reason I wanted to go to design school.  

I never knew I was craving that validation until I got it from a professional.

Work from my first semester as a graphic design student.

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The Second Thing I Learned was That I had A LOT to Learn Still

While I realized I was better than I thought was . . .  there were still A LOT of things that I didn't know.  

Here are a few bullet points of the things I didn't know:

  • I knew nothing about art history
  • I didn't know how to write about design
  • I had zero knowledge of how to write code for a program (to be honest I still don't - I'm not even sure how I aced that class!)
  • I knew very little about web design.
  • Learning to draw was a challenge (still is)
  • What the golden ratio was
  • How to design to a grid
  • The history of graphic design

And the list goes on.

My second main reason I went back to design school was that I knew there were gaps in theories and history of graphic design that I wasn’t learning through one-off design courses online. Before going to school I knew that it was important to have a design process, I just didn’t know how crucial that was! I also didn’t realize the various avenues designers could work in, from a simple birthday card to coding software – my mind was blown away at the options!

More important, I didn't even know that I should know those things! It's one thing to take an Illustrator class and think you know how to design . . . it's a different story altogether to understand the why behind the design

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The Third Thing I Learned From Graphic Design Was: Balance is Everything!

Before going to graphic design school I knew how to follow a tutorial and create an interesting layout. I kind of understood some basic concepts of layout design. I knew you should use a grid when you design (but I didn't know how to).

When you watch a lot of videos on graphic design you hear a lot of people talk about the golden ratio / golden section. Hearing the golden ratio always conjured up scenes from the Da Vinci Code and I couldn't quite grasp the concept. This term is thrown around a lot and I FINALLY got it! Before I went to design school I knew there was some magical formula you should follow but it took working through multiple lectures and a lot of supplemental videos for me to have that a-ha moment! You can see how I applied it in the design below:

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Cover for a children's book using the golden section
Cover for a children's book showing how I used the golden section to balance the elements

An added bonus layout tip I learned was the acronym CRAP – contrast, repetition, alignment, proximity. If you have these elements in your work you are 99% there. Before design school, I had never heard that acronym before! It's those little nuggets that made the investment worth it.

I also found that in order to be successful as a mother, wife, friend, designer, and student I had to find balance in my life. The weeks I had the most success were the ones that I was able to prioritize the most important things first and fill in my time with the "like-to-do" stuff as I had time. It meant saying no to a lot of things I didn't want to say no to. And saying yes to a lot of things I'd rather not do (like writing code for a program when I didn't want to be a software designer but wanted an A).

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Graphic Design School Discovery Number 4: There's a Right Way and a Wrong Way to Critique Art and Design.

One of my least favorite classes I took at Sessions College for Professional Design was Art History. It was also the class I probably grew the most in. I was often tempted to throw tantrums when I had to write an essay about an art piece that I didn't care about, but I'm an adult and adults don't throw tantrums (at least they shouldn't).

Most people know that when you critique someone's work it is best to follow the sandwich theory - you sandwich any negative feedback in between two compliments. For example, if you were to ask me what I thought about a photograph, I might say something like this:

"I really love the placement of your subject. One thing you might try to do is brighten it up a bit. I also really like the use of complementary colors." this is an effective way of offering constructive criticism. It is also NOT how you critique art or design. Trust me on that one! It took me quite a few weeks of writing about art before I finally got the  -"this is perfect" comment from my professor. (I'm a perfectionist - what can I say!)

When critiquing art you have to go DEEEEEEP into the meaning of the piece, the reason why it works and why it doesn't. It's more than saying, I like it or I don't like it. It's going further by talking about the message and purpose of the piece. It's an incredibly difficult skill to learn, but once you learn it - man is it a game-changer! Let me know if you want me to do a post on how to write about art!

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The Fifth and Final Thing I Learned From Going to Graphic Design Was Finding My Style and Defining My Niche.

When I applied to Sessions College for Professional Design they asked me what my goals were. At the time I thought I wanted to be a typographer with my art prints being sold at Hobby Lobby and Target. While I still think that would be cool - I realized that my true passion is in working with businesses. The assignments I excelled at were packaging and identity designs.

I loved discovering a business idea and creating an entire identity for that concept. From Logo design to the packaging of the project there wasn't an aspect I didn't love. It was through completing my capstone project that this realization became even more clear to me!

For that project, I had to create a company identity for a sustainable laundry detergent that would be sold in health stores and laundromats. It was by far the most challenging and fun project I took on. It was as I working on that project that my path became clear.

Concept for BriteWash Logo, brochure and package design.
Britewash Package Design

Final thoughts.

Going back to school in my 30's was not easy. I had to say no to a lot of things. I was no longer close to a lot of friends. I missed out on volunteering at my kids' schools. It was hard - but it was worth it!

If you are thinking about taking the leap and enrolling in graphic design school, I say go for it! You will get clear on your style. You will understand how to make smart design decisions. You will gain the confidence to overcome that annoying imposter syndrome. You will be thankful you took the leap!

If you've gone to graphic design school I want to hear from you! What's something you learned about yourself or design that surprised you?

Thinking about registering but on the fence still? Tell me your concerns and I'll let you know if I think it would be a good investment for you!

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Let's create something awesome together!

If you are in the market for a professional graphic designer, I would love to work with you! I help small business owners get clear on their visual identity and help them stand out in a saturated visual market. Reach out to me today!

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