A Reply to a Graphic Design Student

by Jack Curry. Average Reading Time: about 8 minutes.

About a month ago I received an email from a student looking to apply to the BFA Graphic Design program at Cal State Long Beach; the program from which I will graduate from this coming December. Our BFA program is particularly competitive in that students must undergo a portfolio review process in order to be accepted into the program. This review usually occurs in the 3rd or 4th year of college (once all the requisite foundational classes have been completed), and the “junior portfolio” typically consists of 6–10 pieces of work, ranging from personal design projects to advertising campaigns to branding projects. Students have two chances to apply and, if accepted, will then spend an additional two years (four semesters) with their cohort going through the program and its curriculum, at the end of which they will graduate with a shiny BFA in Graphic Design (hooray!).

Being a state university, we don’t have the same kinds of resources as private institutions, and thus the selection process is much more incisive and discerning than one might assume—we have a tight budget, so not everyone that applies will be accepted. And as the overseer of the review setup—in which students come in to our studio on campus to set up their work to be reviewed—I have seen all the junior portfolios that have come through the doors in the past year and a half. I have also seen the sleep deprivation, the jittery caffeine shakes, a fair amount of tears, and—yes—blood.

It’s a stressful time for students. It’s a stressful time for me. Over the past couple years in this program, I have tried to alleviate some of this stress on all sides by holding informal workshops leading up to the portfolio review date each semester. Dubbed Studio Sessions, they are a chance for applicants to ask questions and get a bit of insight (on the student side of things) into the program to which they are applying.

So when this student that is applying sent me an email asking for advise, I took it as a chance to really amalgamate all of the various things I have talked about in these workshops over the past couple years. It is reproduced here.

Hi Jessica,

Portfolios of applying students should show a range of design work—projects demonstrating proficiency in branding, packaging, advertising, typography and art direction are definitely a good thing to have.

Now that being said, they don’t have to be these things that have a flawless professional polish to them—the graphic design faculty realize that those applying are still students, after all. I’m also the graphic design lab tech, so I’ve overseen the portfolio review set up days for the past year and a half, and I can tell you that there have been plenty of people with work that looked very professional and polished who still did not get in. Fit and finish of a final product—at this stage in your education and career—should not necessarily be your biggest concern (although you should make a good effort at producing work that is presentable; just because flawless-looking work isn’t necessarily expected doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try your best to strive for it).

The one big thing that should come across in your work is concept. Why did you choose that shade of green for the logo? What was the reason for going with Typeface A over Typeface B? If someone were to look at your work and ask you any question about it, you should be ready with an answer—everything about your work should have a good reason for being the way it is. Otherwise you’re not designing, but rather simply decorating. Strive to back your design decisions up with a solid foundation: I chose this color of green because it represents the rich and vibrant culture of the peoples whom this organization speaks on behalf of; I went with Typeface A because it is not only more legible in both large and small applications, but it also has an appearance of solidity and tradition, both of which are traits that this organization seeks to project; etc. These are very simplified examples, but you get the idea.

A good designer should have a sense of systems and the inter-relationship of the elements of that system. Look at any brand and you’ll begin to get a sense of how this works: the combinations of colors, type, proportion, all of these things are deeply considered, not only in isolation, but also in conjunction with one another. The system must harmonize, not unlike the different instruments that come together to make a song. The BFA program very much gets to these foundational aspects of design so that, again, we are making considered decisions with a clear rationale behind them as opposed to simply slapping colors and typography on a piece of paper and calling it “design”.

Going even further, you—as a designer and as a student—should be willing to take risks and actually be willing to accept failure and learn from it. Now, that’s definitely easier said than done—we would all much rather take the easy way out of a design problem and produce something that’s conservative and non-threatening and that appeals to the lowest common denominator. Indeed, that’s how the vast majority of design out in the world gets made. The thing to remember in applying to this program is that you’re a student, not a designer working for a firm; this is the exact time and place that you should be experimenting and taking risks with your work, not just taking the easy way out. Now, that doesn’t mean that all your work should be extremely edgy and experimental, because again you should be showing that you can produce a range of work. So you have to think about what kind of stuff you’d like to do that’s more on the experimental side, and what you’d like to try out that’s perhaps more conventional. This is a balancing act that only you can figure out.

This program is really a place to incubate your ideas for a couple of years—not everything that everyone does during their two years is 100% successful. There are some projects that I’ve kind of treated as experiments, and while there may have been a couple details that I really enjoyed about a particular project, the project as a whole may not really be super-successful; some of them have kind of been really crappy, in my estimation. But again, that’s all part of it—at the end of the day, you’re a student, so even failure has some measure of success because you’re not afraid to try something new. Learning to fail is a huge part of being in any creative profession.

And you should always be learning. I think that graphic design students can get especially complacent when it comes to art history—a lot of them think that because we’re working on such “modern” projects with modern tools and technology, they don’t need to know the history of drawing, printing, painting, film, typography, etc. This is unfortunate for a whole host of reasons, but the biggest ones that come to mind for me are the fact that those that don’t have a good grasp of art history are always “fishing” around for aesthetic solutions. As a result, they usually end up looking at contemporary work that’s being produced and simply copy it in one way or another.

Now I’m not saying that there isn’t value in looking at something that you admire and copying it in order to gain a better understanding of how it was done—the Impressionists were very well versed in, and indeed had to copy, the styles of old masters in order to learn form, proportion, shading, etc—but if that’s all that people do, then design becomes this very incestuous, closed-loop kind of profession. Look to art history to get a better idea of what has come before so that you can make informed decisions in your designs. We all rest of the shoulders of giants, and everything that has come before us has in some way influenced the world that we live in and the visuals that inhabit that world. Wanting to be a visual artist and being ignorant of the history of the visual arts is like wanting to be a surgeon and being ignorant of human anatomy: you probably won’t get very far, and if you do you probably won’t do very good work.

Look to things outside of design. Again, it comes back to that idea of not having design be a closed-loop profession. Whatever else you’re interested in will have some kind of validity when it comes to your design work, be it fashion, music, architecture, printmaking, film, industrial design, etc. Graphic designers make cultural artifacts, and as such we should be students of culture—we should always have an interest in not only our own culture, but in all the others around the world. You’ll find that an earnest interest in expanding your world-view will not only help you as a designer, but also as a person. Listen to the radio, read the news (and not just CNN or something, but international organizations like the BBC that give a wider view of the world), have an interest in weird things like neuroscience or Egyptology or ballroom dancing or whatever. The more well rounded you are, the more informed, and ultimately mature, your work will be.

Many opinions and thoughts that will—more than likely—inevitably change in the course of my career. But it’s good, I think, to get these thoughts out; to make your ethos something you can actually look at and evaluate rather than just keeping it locked away in your head. Hopefully I can make a regular thing of it.

Photo on the homepage is of my junior portfolio when I applied to the BFA program.

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