Learn things, make stuff: a curriculum for aspiring designers

How to learn about design outside of the classroom.

Today, design means everything.

Design thinking, UX design, graphic design, organizational design – a solid foundational knowledge in any field of design can be applicable to every career. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to focus your traditional education on design in order to make it as a designer. In fact, many successful designers advocate for the importance of a diverse education, and spend their years at university learning about other disciplines – say, political science, or philosophy, or history, or marketing.

But if you don’t learn the principles of design in a classroom – then where do you learn about it?

We’re living in a revolutionary time for online education today. A few weeks ago, I attended a panel discussion at General Assembly on ‘the future of education’. Although the panelists didn’t agree on everything, they were all excited across the board about the potential for innovation and nontraditional education today.

Where are all the students? Studying online, probably. (Photo: Nejron)

I’ve learned an incredible amount from the time I spent studying at my university, and my degree (a double major marketing and psychology) has been incredibly valuable. However, it’s possible that I’ve learned just as much, and maybe more, through online learning post-graduation.

The history of my completed (and incomplete) courses reflect the evolution of my interests and career path: I’ve enrolled in MOOCs (massive online open courses) about a wide range of topics, including journalism, coding, the psychology of happiness, and sustainable development. When I thought I wanted to be a designer, I completed 100 design tutorials in 100 days – and then decided it wasn’t the career path for me. The opportunities available for learning online, most of which are available for a much lower cost than a traditional university degree, have allowed me to explore interests and upskill in a way that simply wasn’t available even a decade or two ago.

If you’re interested in learning about design, here’s a recommended curriculum – written by me, a non-designer.

Step 1: Learn things (an online course enrollment spree)

At some universities, the first week or two of each semester is referred to as the “shopping period.” During this time, students are encouraged to sign up for too many classes, go to the first few, and then decide what they’re going to commit to for the full semester. When I was a university student, I probably abused this policy – and as a result, I ended up exploring interests that I never would have otherwise (including astronomy, modern dance, and so many religion classes that I almost added on a minor to my degree).

In my post-college days, I still use this “shopping period” approach as my philosophy for online courses, too. I might be a little addicted to signing up to online courses, and it means that my ‘course completion rate’ is incredibly low, but that’s okay, because the intention isn’t to complete every course I sign up for, and I’m quick to hit the un-enroll button once a course loses my attention (sorry, Journalism for Engaged Citizens).

If you’re interested in design courses specifically, I recommend starting at the bundle section of Tuts+, which are collections of online courses. The Graphic Design Essentials bundle is particularly stellar – if you completed just this one, you’d likely end up with enough knowledge to navigate the basics of design. Having a working understanding of essential programs, like PhotoShop or InDesign, is a must for any design-related career.

For broader knowledge, Coursera and edX are great sites for online courses; they’re organized, gamified, and offer classes from leading institutions around the world (you can even use virtual reality to really take your Harvard courses to the next level). edX recently released a new initiative called MicroMasters programs, which is essentially a collection of courses focused on one topic; they’ve partnered with a long list of companies, like GE, IBM, and Adobe, to ensure that the MicroMasters is industry-recognized. It’s a big step in the right direction for fixing the credibility and recognition issue for online education vs. traditional degrees. There’s a new program on User Experience (UX) Research and Design, offered by the University of Michigan.

Sign up for the email newsletters of your favorite online learning providers to stay in-the-loop about new course offerings, or check out LifeHacker U’s guide to the best online education offerings each semester.

Step 2: Make stuff (practice, practice, practice)

THE GAP by Ira Glass from Daniel Sax on Vimeo.

I have watched this video, based on a clip from an interview with radio producer Ira Glass, maybe a few hundred times. I play it when I’m feeling unmotivated, I send it to my creative friends, and I listen to it on repeat when I’m in need of some inspiration. Regardless of your feelings about This American Life, Ira Glass has revolutionized the radio industry, and perhaps the entire medium of audio storytelling, so he knows what he’s talking about.

The general idea: make stuff. Make a lot of stuff. Set a goal to create a body of work: to finish one story a week, or to create 30 new designs in Illustrator in one month. Aiming for a specific goal for a finite amount of time makes this feel less intimidating and more achievable. You could even create a website or blog around your project, or follow frameworks like The Art Olympics, a twelve-month, twelve-project creative challenge, or #The100DayProject, which encourages 100 days of making and creativity. Tell your friends about it – you’ll be more accountable for following through (and they’ll probably be impressed).

Step 3: Find your tribe

I’m not here to say that networking is the key to success, or the best route to finding job opportunities, or anything like that. In creative industries, events are most valuable for one thing: inspiration. (Okay, and for making professional connections, too).

I’m a devotee of Creative Mornings, a monthly breakfast lecture series for creative people. (The best one I went to: a talk in Washington, D.C., from Bob Boilen about ‘finding the hidden’, as told from NPR Tiny Desk Concert HQ). It’s a global organization, with chapters around the world, so if you’re new to a city, it’s a great way to fast-track into the creative community.

A Creative Mornings event, 2014. (Photo: Kate Warren/Creative Mornings)
Attending events is an easy way to surround yourself with like-minded creative people. (Photo: Kate Warren/Creative Mornings, 2014)

As writer Seth Godin says: find the tribe you need! Search for events near you to attend – it might be a leading design conference, or something as simple as a local Meetup. Either way, find the communities that bring together people who are passionate about the same things you are.

Good luck with designing your education, and if you’ve created a self-designed curriculum to further your career as a designer, tell us about it.

Brittany Jezouit

About the Author Brittany Jezouit

Brittany is a Contributor to the Envato blog. She helped launch the publication and was its founding Editor. You can follow her on Twitter @brittanyjezouit.