What I *Actually* Learned from Art School
I'm probably going to have a minor gag reflex saying this, but I'll say it anyway:
As of December this year, it will officially have been 2 years since graduating from Columbus College of Art & Design.
Yea yea... so what, big deal?
Time is such a weird construct for me. I measure a lot of things by my age, as strange as that sounds.
"I did this by the time I was XX, " or "I accomplished this much for only being a XX-year old." It's probably not the best way to think about things, I'll admit. But, I will admit that I've accomplished a damn lot in that span of time. A chunk of which was graduating from art school in 3.5 years, with my heart, brain, and body still in tact... somehow. Lol.
It's still bizarre to me how quickly that time went by in retrospect, when at the time it felt like a never-ending spiral of project deadlines, trying to get your name out there, not to mention the pressure of internships & jobs. I remember those days very vividly.
Many people assume art school is all about the hard skills – learning the craft and technicalities of what will be your service to others or a company. Yea, true. But what many don't think about, though, are the soft skills (being a nice human, patience, presentation, etc.) that actually support all of the talent and skill you have, wrapped up in a pretty bow.
There's a lot of things I learned, and things I chose to un-learn. Ironically enough, the biggest things I learned in school are actually things that can't really be taught. (Mind just went static, didn't it?)
I've found over time that there's 3 categories of lessons to take away from my time at art school. All of them blend into each other & influence one another. But when taking a step back and seeing what really rounded you out as an artist/designer, it starts to make a little more sense.
*Note: This is just my personal experience, graduating from the advertising & graphic design side of things. What I studied and took part in might not be the same for others! ;)*
1. Technical Skills
Of course we have to learn a little about what the hell we're doing! I believe this is what most people think art school is strictly about: learning & perfecting the craft. While it is a main component, I consider them to be part of the "trials" we go through in school to consistently get better, prove our artistic validity, and even surprise ourselves (and others.)
I'll never forget when it was the first week of class – I was an illustration major for my first semester before switching to advertising & graphic design (ad/graph), and was so incredibly nervous about not knowing much within the Adobe Creative Suite. (And was terrified that I was suddenly going to forget how to draw.) I almost felt like an imposter among people who knew what was about to go down. Come to find out pretty much everyone was in that same boat – kind of clueless, a little scared – but eager to learn, pencil ready in hand.
You can learn absolutely anything if you really want to. There's always going to be those few (hopefully its just a few) who don't care much for advancing themselves and pushing their own limits, but hey, that makes more room for you to get better. Luckily, the professors I had were pretty adamant about us getting our technical shit down and getting more efficient with our work. And, with time and consistency, it really did become muscle memory.
Some hard-skill-things we focused on in school:
First & foremost: drawing techniques (for principles of composition, lighting, form, proportions, perspective, etc.)
Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign (vector graphics, bitmap graphics, page & type layout.)
Prepping projects for print and, well, getting them printed (be sure to make friends with the Print Lab workers – they're your saving grace in a deadline.)
Cutting & matting our printed projects in a precise manner. (I'm pretty sure we never wanted to see an X-Acto knife again.)
Conceptualizing for projects & campaigns (sometimes real-life client ones.)
How to research & develop for projects
While I may not still be cutting my projects up and putting them all in pretty frames, I can confidently say that I'm still doing all of these things (in some aspect) every day being a graphic designer. The lesson here is that even though some of the projects and tasks seem trivial and dumb at the time, they're only increasing your muscle memory for later.
I will say that one of the things CCAD always involved in our culture and learning was transitioning from student > professional.
Once you walk out the door with that diploma in hand, there's no more cushion for half-assed work slapped together to get a grade. No more excuses. No more grace periods. There is so much more to think about that we don't always realize, being in a learning & churning bubble for so long. But being responsible, accountable, approachable, efficient, and on time are some of the most sought-after qualities in any professional – and its best to start as soon as possible.
Getting these qualities under your belt while in school can only benefit you, your work ethic, and your chances of having eyes on you for opportunities. Never underestimate who is watching – because they're all your colleagues after you graduate! You know those mythical creatures we've called "connections" in your network? Well. They're very real.
A great example is that I was recently offered a freelance job from an adjunct professor I had my freshman year! He had contacted me to do a huge motion graphics/animation project because he remembered a single animation project I did in school that happened to impress him to this day. I was (and still am) beyond baffled and flattered. I honestly forgot about that project until he brought it up!
One of my other awesome professors would always say something like this in class:
"Look around the room – you could end up being coworkers, you recommend this person for that job, or you'll be working for one of your classmates here. Or even better, you'll end up being their boss. Your reputation starts now – you only have 1 first impression."
Learning to take criticism, give presentations, talking about yourself/your work, and collaboration are also great "little things" that should stick with you forever, especially when working as a freelancer, director, designer, all of the above.
3. Being a Human
None of the foundational skills above would even matter without the human aspect that drives everything you do. This part you learn more so outside of the classroom (or virtual classroom for you recent folks.) It's also a conglomerate of things that just simply can't be taught. They come with time, experiences, failures, awkward moments, countless doubts, and lots of trial and error.
Art school has shown me to be a great place to begin & nurture qualities like discipline, patience, being assertive when necessary, knowing your limits, when to take a break from things, learning how you work best & what kind of people you work best with, etc.
Do you ever hear professors or employers say things like,
"They can be talented as hell, but if they're not easy and cool to work with, I'd rather not spend my 8+ hours a day with them. I'd rather hire someone who doesn't know as much or has less experience, but is personable and great to work with."
It's true. I've even interviewed some people that I could've potentially worked with – and personality & being more than a work horse is vitally important. This just comes with a little self-awareness, patience, eagerness to learn, and being okay with not getting things right initially. When you have these things under your belt because you're just naturally a great person, the talent and great portfolio is just a nice added bonus.
School in general is a time to learn more about yourself as an independent person, what you like and why, stumbling upon something you didn't even know you were passionate about, or using it as a stepping stone for something else down the road. Whatever the purpose school is to you, do it with all that you've got if you want it bad enough. Do it with integrity, kindness, humility, and always be open to learn something new. There's just too much out there to ignore, and we definitely shouldn't.
But more importantly, if there's anything I can emphasize here is that (art) school is the place to make mistakes. It's purely a foundation. You're there to create – and figure out why you want to in the first place.
If you ever have any questions about art school, life after, or anything of the sort please feel free to reach me at email@example.com!