Recently, I had the opportunity to go to a senior portfolio show at a local art school. It was an interesting experience being on the other side of the process as a potential employer rather than a student, and my colleagues and I had the opportunity to do a lot of talking about the state of graphic design programs in 2014.
Some quick background about me: I’m a mobile and web designer at a small development shop in Chicago. I’ve worked here for about a year and a half, and before this I bounced around at various startups and freelance roles – all in web or mobile design – since I graduated in 2010.
I never intended to be a web designer. When I started journalism school in 2006, I planned to be a newspaper page designer. I give the College of Communication, Information and Media at Ball State a lot of credit for being forward-thinking enough to teach us that design principles apply as much to digital work as they do in print. Going through the program, we were taught some basics of web and interaction design (although, sadly, in Flash), and we were encouraged to put our design portfolios online.
It’s because of this experience that, when I graduated in 2010, I wasn’t afraid to look beyond newspapers for career opportunities. Until recently, I didn’t feel that my undergrad experience was unique, but after talking to a few recent art school graduates and the seniors at the portfolio show, it seems like the prevalent opinion is that designing for the web or mobile devices involves actually writing the code for websites and apps.
This is simply not true.
While it’s great to understand the basics of how websites and apps are built, designers don’t need to be experts. Instead, focus on the exciting part of digital design, like animated gifs and the ability to affect your audience in a way print never could. Check out sites like Awwwards and UI Parade – opportunities for subtle details and animations are everywhere.
The fact is that where you end up may not be anywhere close to what you expect to be doing when you graduate. The visual design world is an exciting and quickly evolving place, and the most successful graduates will be the ones who embrace digital design trends. Nothing is more distressing than talking to new graduates who shut down when digital design opportunities are mentioned.
The blame doesn’t lie solely with students, of course. From the sounds of it, learning about web design in a graphic design program was unnecessarily difficult, with classes either focusing on development or bounded by prerequisites that made it impossible to get into classes. If this is true, it’s up to you as a student to seek out alternate ways to learn, either through online resources (Skillshare has some great classes), or give yourself mini projects to teach yourself.
Be open to new experiences, but don’t lose sight of the basics. A strong understanding of typography, color theory and spacial relationships are important no matter what type of design you end up in – there’s just a whole lot more opportunities out there for designers who understand the digital space.