Note: This blog post was originally written for Active Ingredients.
When I was in high school I had to make a decision: Should I go to an art school or a traditional 4 year college? I knew I wanted to study graphic design and I knew there were valid programs regardless of the path I chose.
I ultimately decided I didn’t want to restrict myself to an art-only education, and that choice played a major role in shaping me as a designer. In fact, it provided the foundation for the way I think about what a great designer is today:
A great designer has more than just formal art skills and training. A great designer is a great thinker with the drive to learn and discover.
I was somewhere in between the nerd and the art-kid in high school. I took mostly honors classes; I was interested in all kinds of subjects and curious about the world in general. So, when it came to choosing a college, I knew taking a wide variety of classes and getting that classic college experience was important to me.
I ended up choosing Cal Poly, an academically competitive 4 year college with a solid design program. I took plenty of art and design classes, but I also took literature, statistics, philosophy, air and space, poetry, economics. I made friends with people outside the art department and with cultural and religious backgrounds different from my own.
Acquiring a body of knowledge
Early in my design classes at Cal Poly, I ran across this quote from designer William Drenttel:
"Designers talk about creating a body of work, but they seldom talk about acquiring a body of knowledge. They take pride in being makers, but seldom identify themselves as thinkers. They claim to be emissaries of communication — to give form to ideas. And while we would like to believe this is true, it seems to us that all too often, we, as designers, are called upon merely to make things look good — rather than contributing to the evolution and articulation of ideas themselves." 1
I remember how much this struck me when I first read it. Our goal as designers isn’t just to make things look good. Our goal is to contribute to the evolution and articulation of ideas themselves. WOW. I had found my design compass.
The idea that design isn’t just about making things look good brought my design work to a new level. All of a sudden I felt like I had something to strive for. I wasn’t just creating something beautiful to look at, I was attempting to convey a concept in visual form.
And the deeper I got into the design community, the more I saw evidence that the best designers were the ones who never stopped learning, who wrote critically about design and who seemed to be the smartest people in the room.
“He absorbs and retains everything. If knowledge is power, then Michael Bierut is the most powerful person in the entire design community.” 2
Making creative connections
Exploring unrelated subjects allows me to make unusual connections. I love to read poetry and philosophy, books on the history of cooking, business, theories of happiness and social science. I often find myself connecting the dots across subjects to discover new insights and gain deeper understandings.
Beyond simply soaking up information, translating those ideas into writing has always been the best way for me to organize and clarify my thoughts. Literature courses in high school and college arguably prepared me for my career as well as any art course I took. The ability to analyze information, make connections across seemingly unrelated topics, and communicate my discoveries in clear prose has proved invaluable.
All this knowledge makes me a better designer. It fuels my ability to make creative connections. It helps me understand my clients and their users. It enables me to effectively explain and convince others of the value of my work.
Never stop learning
With the seemingly endless amount of information on the internet today, the opportunities for learning — and therefore improving any creative craft — are vast. Beyond simply browsing interesting topics on Wikipedia, websites like Khan Academy, Coursera, and Skillshare make traditional learning attainable regardless of budget. And you can always read a good old physical book.
Because we aspire to do great work, we encourage everyone at Active Ingredients to continue learning and growing as a person. We encourage each others’ non design-related hobbies whether that be brewing beer, doing calligraphy, tuning cars, listening to podcasts or biking all over the Bay Area. Eventually that knowledge always circles back around and makes our work smarter and more powerful.
*Note: Art schools can be a great way to get a design education. Yes, you can learn about the greater world in many different ways. I just preferred the traditional college route.