How design school broke me

…and 4 valuable lessons I learned there.

The most dramatic image I could find of my university.

A friend asked me on a recent Monday morning how my weekend had gone. After responding with something along the lines of, “I don’t know. I kind of just kept working,” she seemed a little concerned. “So like, you just work all of the time? Do you ever do anything fun?” was the response.

My initial thought was, “Well yeah, designing is fun.” But I just shrugged. I don’t like getting into the “slow down” discussion.

Designer burnout is a huge issue out here in the SF Bay Area. I’ve been out here for only five months or so, and it seems every veteran I meet warns against long hours and the huge turnover rate. If you’re reading this from SF, you know probably better than I do what’s up. Kevin and Rafa actually just put out an episode of Layout describing this. The energy, production rate, amount of ongoing side projects, and coffee consumed out here is incredible. And to be honest, it’s what I’ve been craving for a while now.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m immune to burnout. Everyone talks about it and everyone tries to fight it. But to be honest, the SF working mindset seems to be: work harder, work longer and don’t enjoy time off.

And it’s extremely contagious. I find myself seeking out side projects that I wouldn’t have dreamed of touching a year ago. For instance: anything involving coding. Like, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. But you better believe I’m going to keep doing it. And it’s entirely possible that I’m focusing on a niche group of workaholics who never stop. But one thing is certain in my naive, new SF mind: keeping up is not enough. I’ve always been one to push myself to impossible goals. It’s actually something I’m fairly proud of. But out here the bar is just so damn high.

But it’s okay, college prepared me for this

There will likely always be an ongoing debate as to whether or not design school is necessary. I hear both sides of the argument loud and clear. And really I stand on neither side. It would be insane to try to convince an entire community why going to school is necessary, especially when quite a few of the community’s forerunners (and some of my favorite designers) don’t have a formal design education. I can only tell you why college was beneficial to me and how it prepped me for the relentless onslaught that is SF.

Design school broke me.

Like a horse who needed to be trained to ride, I needed to be trained to grind. (That almost rhymed. But like, I did my best here guys.)

I went to school for Industrial Design. We studied products, human interaction, ergonomics, sketching, 3d modeling, etc. We were closely affiliated and took several courses alongside Architecture and Interior Design. And for anyone else who went through four years of those programs, you know exactly what I’m talking about when I say it was some of the most fun and grueling years of my life.

We quickly learned in school that there was no time to think of anything other than working. When your professor assigned you 150 sketches on Monday and expected to see them on Wednesday, you just did it. When a project was finally due, you stayed awake for three straight days sanding, painting, documenting and portfolio building. It was an environment of pure limit pushing and caffeine. And for the students who didn’t spend 70+ hours a week on studio projects? They just disappeared.

I feel like I can’t stress enough how many of us did not sleep throughout the week. I can’t even remember how many all-nighters we pulled to finish projects. It’s not like we had the hardest major. I would never claim that. But we laughed at the old college adage of “spend three hours studying outside of class for every one hour spent in class.” Our program was the outlier on university surveys that asked “how much time do you spend working on school assignments every week?”

And boy were we relentless with one another. Friday critiques were a pit of despair that we willingly jumped into. We took verbal beatings from each other like it was our job. Blunt phrases like “that looks like absolute shit,” or “do you even know what the fuck you’re talking about?” were a daily occurrence among fellow classmates. I’ll never forget what my professor said at one of our last thesis critiques before graduation. After sitting back and not saying a word for the entire critique, he looked around the room laughing and said “Boy you guys are mean. I wouldn’t want to work with any of you,” and walked out.

Don’t get me wrong, school was a blast. I had an incredible time and met friends who I’ll have for life. I actually got my second tattoo from one of those guys on a kitchen table about a forty in one night.

But with all of those nights spent sketching, researching and building presentation boards, I found my passion. And when you’re making a living doing something you love, it truly is hard to stop. It didn’t hit me until a coworker asked why I “just work all of the time” that my entire education can be summed up in one lesson: You will spend countless hours busting your ass in this industry.

But with all of those nights spent sketching, researching and building presentation boards, I found my passion. And when you’re making a living doing something you love, it truly is hard to stop. It didn’t hit me until a coworker asked why I “just work all of the time” that my entire education can be summed up in one lesson: You will spend countless hours busting your ass in this industry.

So when it comes to keeping up with SF designers and the “can’t stop, won’t stop” mentality, I feel especially trained. Going to school didn’t necessarily teach me design skills that I wouldn’t have been to learn in the industry, but it did fast track me straight into developing the nonstop-grind work ethic. And for that I’ll always be grateful.

What I really learned

Here’s a list of things I learned in design school that a university program’s synopsis page won’t tell you:

1. Clients (teachers) are never happy with the product until the day it needs to ship. You’ll critique, trash, redesign and tweak until the hour it’s needed. There is no done, there is only time’s up.

2. Critiques are always constructive. They make our work better and, more importantly, make us better designers. We may not always be happy with the delivery, but pleasant or rude, there is always value behind someone’s word. I wouldn’t be here today without hearing the occasional “Are you serious? That looks like shit.”

3. Putting in a ridiculous amount of hours is okay. Don’t burn out and remember that no one is asking you to keep working on a Saturday. But if you’re having fun doing it, why not keep going?

4. You still have to sleep.

So yeah, sometimes I work all night. And sometimes I find myself working on pointless side projects at 4am on a Friday. But I love it. And had it not been for school, I don’t know if I’d be as willing to spend so many hours doing this whole “design” thing.

I’m also going to take this opportunity to point out that my manager constantly tells me to take it easy and to not kill myself. He’s never once asked me to work nights and weekends. Shout out to having the best higher ups out there. (But for real Josh, I’ll be fine.)

I’m a designer, maker, and wannabe writer. You can wander over to http://maccormier.com to check out a little of my work or to just say hey.

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