There are a million things to learn in design school, but what about the things you need to know "about" design school? In an effort to be clear and concise—something your teachers are always bugging you to do—here are exactly 1000 words of advice for design students (clichés included):
Keep your ear to the ground.The best gossip is any gossip. Start there and then do your homework. If a course or a teacher is reputed to be great, odds are that there's something there. Same for the inverse, but don't be dissuaded by advance reviews of a difficult or challenging teacher or course—sometimes the best fit is a tight one.
Do your homework.There is no question that in design school, what you put in is what you get out. It's not exciting and it's not revelatory, but it really does turn out that the students who work the hardest and commit themselves the fullest end up with the best stuff. Inspiration and perspiration. You need 'em both.
School is expensive. Come on time. Stay late.College in many countries is prohibitively expensive, so make sure you're getting your money's worth. Arrive on time and insist that your teachers do too. Stay after class and ask questions; find out about more than just what the class covered. Don't be a pest, but don't be a pushover either. Why? Here's why:
We work for you, not the other way around.Teachers have an annoying habit of setting up the power dynamic to make you feel like they're in charge. I hate to roll out the "you are consumers of an educational product" argument, but the reality is that teachers, administrators, librarians and deans are all there in the first place because you decided to attend. And they really do work for you. So be clear about what you want and need, and team up with other students to make sure that those desires are communicated to the people in power. Use the library; ask for help. Make us work for you. You've already paid, right?
Hone your presentation skills.Walking the walk and talking the talk are different skills. And no matter how good a designer you are, without a certain level of presentation skills, nobody will ever know. Practice public speaking, present your head off in class, and write, write, write. There is no underestimating the harm to your future that bad presentation skills can unleash. Really. You could stop reading this now and you'd have the best stuff.
Photograph everything.If you do one thing in preparation for the new school year, buy a camera. We miss the old 35mm SLRs, but we're realists and recognize the irresistible benefits, instant gratification and economies of digital. Buy as many megapixels as you can, and if you can swing one of those sweet prosumer SLR digitals, do it. Make sure you bring your camera to class (not the expensive one though—your roommate's) and have fellow students photograph you presenting your work, conducting interviews, that kinda thing. Finally, have others take pictures of you making your models up in the shop. When you've looked at enough portfolios (car, toothbrush, chair, toy, form study, car, toothbrush, toy…), those "process" photos are positively the most exiting thing in your book to a jaded interviewer. "Did you make this model?" Well, yes. I did.
Do more; consider auditing a class."The people who do more are people who get more done." Duh. It's no secret that busy people often get a lot accomplished, and this is the same for students. Take an extra-curricular, non-design class (especially if grades aren't important/necessary for you), or, at the very least, consider auditing one course per semester. (Auditing a class means attending and doing the reading, but not taking up the teacher's time with homework, or taking up the class's time by asking questions. Get the word on the street, sit in during the first couple weeks of the semester, charm the pants off the teacher, and bask in the rays of someone telling you something you didn't already know. Most students aren't familiar with auditing, but it's offered in most schools.)
Read the paper.This is the single best way to be and stay connected with the outside world. A killer-talented designer with nothing so say isn't much use to anyone (though the marketplace would expose the idealism of that argument!), and there's nothing more dangerous than an ignorant mass producer. If you live in a city that has a good newspaper, subscribe. If you don't, find a good one at your library, or read countless ones on the web for free. What's a good newspaper? The New York Times. There. That's a good one.
Get off campus.School is great, and, after all, that's what you're doing there in the first place. But school design programs are kind of like the "official" program—the real stuff is happening by people who finished school (or often ignored it altogether), and your best investment is to connect with the communities of creative people who are doing design for a living and a life. Training in school is only part of the equation. Being submerged in the culture of design practice is where the real action is.
Don't work alone.I know you know that design is a collaborative effort, so there's no reason why you shouldn't practice getting along with others while you're still in school. But that's not the real benefit of doing design homework with others: It's more fun. If you don't already know this, then you haven't done design work with others.
Take almost any job. There is absolutely no replacement for the real thing, and practical experience in any design related field is more than you already have. So don't spend six months after you graduate looking for the perfect job. And, certainly, don't wait until you graduate to look for your first design job. You should be doing everything in your power to get some practical training onto your résumé and into your brain and hands before you graduate. That means helping out somewhere once a week, or bagging that summer internship. Do anything design-related. You'll be respected more by future employers, and have some chops by the time you get out.