Six Things I Wish I Knew as an Undergraduate Design Student

Second in an occasional series of blog posts about design teaching with design practice.

It smelled of glue, Sharpies, and freshly jig-sewn wood. My eyes were wide, my mind was in overdrive, and my stomach was filled with butterflies as I stepped into the studios at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. After four years of undergrad, two years of a graduate design program, and many years of teaching design, I sometimes wish I could go back and give that fresh faced 18 year old a few pointers. Since we’ve yet to discover a time-machine, I’m sharing my insight to those interested in getting the most out of their undergraduate design experience.


1. Communicate with your teachers

Not doing this is probably my biggest regret. I respected my professors and teaching assistants. I was in awe of their knowledge, skill, and rhetoric. So much so that, I was too nervous to really communicate with them. If I had difficulty understanding the subject, had personal issues, or needed more time on an assignment to really do my best, I rarely talked to my professors about these issues. Teachers are human too and understand that sometimes life gets in the way of doing your academic best. I’m definitely not saying to always use the “I’m sick” or “I haven’t slept in two days” excuse to get out of finishing your assignment, but respectfully have an adult conversation about the current state of affairs and then show-up strong for the rest of the semester.


2. Value your peers. Share your knowledge. Collaborate.

During orientation, many design schools will gather the freshman class into an auditorium and give them the “what to expect this year” lecture. What most design students remember is the moment that the lecturer asks you to “look at the person sitting on your right. Now look at the person sitting on your left. One or both of these students will not make it to graduation in this program.” Shocking as that might be, don’t turn the next four years into a competition. Your peers have experiences, skills, and ideas that you don’t have. Go out for coffee, set up study groups, and host peer critiques outside of the classroom. If you know shortcuts in Photoshop share them with others, you might get some lessons on photography.


3. “Bach loves Rock”

That was the first line that my Great Composers of the Bach Era professor said. Some of the more unique classes were not part of the prescribed Architecture curriculum. Philosophy, Economics, and Golf 101 (yes golf) got me out of the studio to stretch my mind and my legs. To me design is about drawing connections and inspiration from multiple layers of life. One of my most successfully written papers compared Villa d’Este Gardens to the structure of the Vivaldi concertos “Four Seasons.” Explore what your school has to offer through electives and Non-credit (NC) opportunities.


4. 3:1

That’s the common ratio of study hours to credit hour. For those of you who are adding it up that’s nine hours of studying per week for each 3-credit class you take. Time management skills are a HUGE part of college. Most of your work, especially for process-oriented curriculum such as design, is done away from the classroom. The development of a project is not a quick and easy formula and is a key part of your growth as a designer—it might take you five hours or overnight before you can push your idea into a creative concept. Not knowing this upon entering college, I eagerly signed up for 21 credit hours. I constantly felt like I was trying to catch up on work, sleep and friends. The next semester I paid more attention to organizing my day, week, and semester so that I left space in my schedule for each.


5. You’re an adult now. Act like one.

I’m definitely showing my age on this one, but there’s nothing more frustrating for a professor then hearing excuses, not showing up (for class or a project) and blame deflection. (Some exceptions can be made, see #1) I am amazed when I get a student that is dumbfounded by their low grade when more than half of the assignments were not turned in on time or they missed classes. I respond to these moments through a professional scenario and ask the student how they would handle this if it were a client or manager. Would they show up at the meeting and say they just “didn’t get it done?” Respect your teacher, your peers, and your own work by taking responsibility for the effort (or lack there of).


6.Community builds character.

It might be a downtown urban campus, a quiet rural college, or your hometown university, but it is also part of a larger non-academic community. As a member/resident of this community it is your responsibility to be a part of it. Build bridges physically and metaphorically through volunteer programs like Habitat for Humanity, Big Brother and Sisters, and the local food pantry. Don’t forget about the professional communities (AIA, AIGA, ASID, IDSA, SEGD) that introduce you to design professionals, while cultivating your networking skills.





Photo credits: YOLONDA C. JONES





Posted on July 12, 2017 in Culture, Design, Education, Fun, Journal, Photography, Places, Series

Share the Story

About the Author

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top