If you’re studying to be a designer (or just trying to max out your professional skillset), there are standard skills you’ll need to learn: what programs and tools are being used in the industry and the basics of composition, color, and typography. But some of the most important skills you’ll learn come from reading between the course lines. Let’s talk about what you’ll want to know before you graduate with that design degree to give you an edge over all those other portfolios being reviewed.
The history of fine arts and design
Design often leans heavily on appropriating visual elements from the world and from historical design, so you need to understand the framework of that history. I became a designer after everything went digital, but I was was lucky enough to be exposed to the process of paste-up, mechanicals, layout boards, and all those hands-on print production techniques that existed for decades before computers ruled the world.
A firm grasp of at least contemporary art history is so helpful, too. Design and art are inextricably intertwined. It’s easy to be inspired by the masters, and this knowledge gives you a place to turn when you’re in need of some creative juice refills.
The fundamentals of illustration and painting
This one is a gimme, but it’s more true than most neophyte designers realize. You can utilize drawing skills in almost any project and they can make brainstorming far more effective. Is it required to become a skilled illustrator to be a designer? Nope. But it definitely allows you more creative options in your design process and opens more career doors.
Every typography course you can take under the sun
This is especially important in print design, but any facet of design benefits from more exposure to typography. Few elements of design are more subjective, trend-based, and easy to expose inexperience than fonts and type layout. Embrace it, live it, be the type.
The basics of other types of design
Just because you study one aspect of design does not mean it will be your career. Design can be an incestuous field where you’ll end up creating 3D models instead of designing print ads like you did in school. And when you have a solid base of design education, you can keep learning new programs and techniques that allow you to cross over into new careers.
Understanding elements of design for print, web, illustration, 3D modeling, web development, video production, photography, UX design, and so on is helpful in giving you the full landscape of your options and allowing you to jump ship if you desire.
The basics of business and entrepreneurialism
Most education, be it in college or high school, does not teach anything at all about running your own business, finances, or marketing yourself in an industry. And if there’s one career where you’ll likely find yourself interested in working independently, it’s design.
Arm yourself for that challenge by taking courses in entrepreneurial business, marketing, advertising, and small business finance, if they are available. And if not, search for appropriate online resources to supplement. You’ll at least want to know your options if this type of work will be your jam.
Be globally aware and socially conscious
Your competition for jobs and many projects is international. Being aware of trends, cultural context, and sociology can keep you from making blunders with international clients or for broad web audiences. This is an ongoing skill — it requires continual understanding of social issues, as well as accepting that you’ll be learning from a lot of your own mistakes.
The ability to take criticism
If you’re in art school, this one is a given. Art school usually prepares you for the harsh world of client criticism by bringing you to your knees with failure. Don’t worry, we all went through it. But it never hurts to keep practicing how to separate yourself from your project so that when it’s scrapped or completely changed (and it will be), you won’t be crying into your pillow. This one isn’t a course or something that can necessarily be taught, but it’s a skill that you’ll definitely need to acquire in order to thrive in a critical, client-pleasing environment.
The drive to keep creating for yourself
Oh wait, did that last point bum you out? I don’t blame you. So here’s where I get philosophical. Find a way to keep on making art for yourself and within your hobbies. Nothing keeps your skills fresh and your eyes open like working on something you love. It will make your professional work better and can lead to more independent work doing what you love.
The best method for preparing yourself to be a design professional is to remain curious about all elements of what you’re studying and to not box yourself in. Design is a technology-based industry, which means things move ultra fast. Continually keeping up and learning new things is the way to stay alive in design and find your passion.
Take control of your design education by making sure you are acquiring the right skills for the job market. Technologies and software may get the job done, but fundamentals and business savvy get the promotion. Prepare yourself for graduation beyond your coursework.