Not in this for the warm fuzzies: an Open Letter to teachers everywhere

So as some of you know, I recently became an instructor at my alma mater.  In the eight (nine?) months I’ve been here, I’ve learned a lot about my chosen profession, graphic design, and I’ve also learned quite a lot about student-teacher interaction.

Specifically, I’ve learned that not every student is the same; some must be handled with kid gloves in order to avoid ‘breaking’ them.  Some can take a hardy critique, using the feedback they receive to help better their design and further themselves as designers.  Others cringe away from any interaction at all, remaining silent in class, in the lab, and producing sub-par work because they’re too shy and too afraid of criticism to ever step forward and ask for help.
Do I wish that I could offer the support that those painfully shy student require?  Yes I do.  I hate to see any of my students fall behind; I hate to see any of them show substandard work come presentation day, and I hate knowing that they probably aren’t going to have a career outside of college because of their crippling inability to simply ask for and receive help.

Some students consider themselves to be the end-all and be-all of graphic design; when I critique their work they become angry, storming out of my lab in a huff and vowing never to sit in my class again.
How do I deal with such behavior?  It’s simple: I let it slide off of me.

As instructors, we have to realize that we’re never going to make all of our students happy, but in this industry, it’s vital that a student learn how to properly express him or herself to a client.  In order to be a good graphic designer, you have to divorce yourself from your personal feelings about a piece you designed; your client, nine times out of ten, does not know anything about graphic design.  You client wants what your client wants… and God help you if you’re that graphic designer who doesn’t interview your potential client for at least an hour before taking a job.
The foundations of design are vitally important; a designer must learn them, know them, and retain them.  The foundational design principles must become second nature in everything a designer does.  Typography, hierarchy of information, color choices, layout, and consideration of whether a piece is to be for print or for online display are the very minimal concerns that a designer must always have in his or her head… but design itself is of secondary importance to knowing why the foundational design principles work the way they do.  Why is that?

Because as a graphic designer, you have to deal with clients that don’t know a single thing about design.  You have to be able to justify your design decisions to a client beyond “Well it just looks good!” or “It’s a great design and you don’t know anything so shut up!”  (And believe me, I’ve heard both of those and more from students.  When it happens I just look them in the eye and tell them that, as their imaginary client, I’ve just fired them and they’re about to be escorted by security from the premises.)

I live my life in ten-week chunks; from the first week a student enters my classroom to the final week of exams and presentations, everything is geared toward helping the student understand why graphic design works the way it does, so that three years from then, when a client is asking for some God-awful design, the former student can then politely and knowledgeably explain why that won’t work and suggest alternatives that do.  Even then, it’s not always guaranteed that a client will listen; sometimes, no matter what you do and what you say, a client just wants to stick a rabbit somewhere on their logo even though it makes things lopsided.  Your job as a graphic designer is not to argue to the point of frustration or to fire the client; it’s to figure out how to incorporate their insane ideas into your design as if it happened by plan.  One of the things I always tell my students when they’re giving a presentation and something goes wrong is, never say ‘oops.’  As a designer, you should be able to just roll with anything that comes up, organically; there’s no such thing as a mistake in design.  Merely an opportunity.

As a teacher, I’m not in this for the warm fuzzies.  I’m certainly not in this for the money.  Most nights I go home frustrated at my students, at their design, and at the politics that keep me from telling them what I really think of their art in a lot of cases.  I’m sure my students go home frustrated as well.
And that’s the point.  If, as a college student, you’re not going home angry and frustrated every night and pounding your pillow because you can’t live up to your instructors’ expectations, then you’re not doing college right.  If you don’t care, if you just want a passing grade, if you just want to squeeze through the cracks in the system and squeak by with a diploma you really didn’t put the effort into earning, that is entirely your prerogative.  After all, you’re the one paying the tuition.

…But if you want to learn, if you want to really really learn, then come to my class, take my critique, listen to my suggestions, learn how to hold a discourse with someone intelligently, take notes, make a scrapbook of things that inspire you, experiment, try new things, look at the classics, and always try to better yourself.

Do those things, and you will become a designer.  A good designer.

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