Like any forum, the C77 boards are full of smack talk and advice, but some corners are more sage than others. For our seventh and final Discussion Board Digest, here is our updated and evergreen collection of the choicest advice and insight that older designers wish they'd had when they were students, aggregated and adopted from the OG discussion thread "If I Knew Then What I Know Now."
Ready? There are a lot of 'em, so pay attention:
Food and sleep. Skimp on either and it'll dock your ability to think and work effectively. Yes, you will be broke sometimes. Yes, there will always be tight deadlines and red-eye projects. But if it comes down to getting a couple more hours of sleep vs putting the maximum finish on a model before a critique, opt for the sleep: you'll be more coherent, more convincing and able to get more out of the feedback. And basic nutrition is required for basic neural functioning. The guy who lives on ramen is probably not doing so well synaptically, and your ability to think critically and remember stuff is the point of being in school. Balancing your diet right now is worth having to balance your bank account later.
Get in the Studio!
Spend as much time as you can bear in the studio. As several people have mentioned, it's impossible to do great work at your desk in the dorm, and having a dedicated space to get your thoughts out and work through ideas is important. Camaraderie and company are helpful too, and you can learn a ton from peers. Though it's less sexy than a bolt of inspiration from on high, good work truly only comes with effort and hours, or as Frank Tibbolt put it: "Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action." So get in there.
...But Get Out of the Studio Too
A breath of fresh air can make all the difference when you're stumped on creative pursuits, and inspiration strikes in unexpected places. Leave the studio if you're feeling stuck, take a walk or get a coffee, do something else with your eyes and mind and body and you'll find it easier when you get back. When you're not on assignment try to visit new places, different departments, and take in work outside of your focus. Movies, plays, lectures and art are all idea-stimulating and easy to find on campus.
Spend a lot of time improving your sketching. A lot. Really. Like, you can't spend too much time doing it, so stop reading and start sketching. Of all the technical skills a designer is expected to have, this is regarded as the single most important one. Practice a lot, not to impress anyone with your art chops, but so you can stay out of your own way and uncover ideas while problem solving. Sketching is faster than any other form of model-building or rendering. It's a portable, cheap, and (if you're good) immediate communication of ideas. It's the tool at the very core of being a designer. Careers have been launched over great napkin sketches—don't blow it off.
Jump the Digital Gun...
It's never too early to start dabbling in relevant software, even if you aren't required to. Basic familiarity with even free or limited student versions of common programs can give you a leg up on projects and jobs down the pike, and versatility is generally attractive in a job candidate. Many schools offer free tutoring or demos in an array of programs, which is a low-key (and essentially free) way to build your skills.
...But Renderings Won't Save You
Concept comes first. A flashy model might feel great to produce, but without substance who gives? No one worth impressing or working for. A clean presentation is important, but prioritize doing solid research, creative work and convincing narrative. Old hands recommend practicing fast modeling - in the 10-30 minute range - to help your work be smarter than harder. And don't neglect your public speaking and written skills - selling your idea is a multi-part test.
Your Portfolio Is Your GPA
In effect, no one gives a damn about your grades after you graduate. Your future bosses care that you're intelligent enough to graduate, and they care about your portfolio. All of your classes should be taken with skill- and experience-acquisition in mind, or for the express purpose of building your worldly knowledge base and fledgling brain. Make sure you pass, do your research, work hard on making portfolio-worthy work, don't sweat the rest.
Take Advantage of What's at School
Use the crap out of your school shop, equipment and materials. You never know when you'll have access to that much up-to-date technology or be in a well-equipped shop again, because you sure as hell won't be able to afford your own for a while. Get familiar with as many tools and processes as you can, especially if they seem hard or unusual. The more hands-on time you can rack up the better, you'll have a more literal understanding of construction methods and swell (honest) skills to list on a resume. And milk cheap/free materials and access for all they're worth. Same goes for the library, labs, tutoring services, and office hours. A school is an institution filled with resources: use them and you will do better work and get farther.
Don't Take Your Classes Lying Down
Your curriculum won't magically and automatically shapeshift to match your needs and interests, so be proactive. Sit in on other classes to guide future term choices. Actually talk to your advisor, maybe even more than once. Visit with your instructors regularly. Ask "stupid" questions that no one else is willing to ask. Pay attention to your learning style and find ways to work with it instead of against it.
Do the Semester Abroad
Really. You'll remember more from that than most classes you'll ever take. Specifically, some people recommend traveling to a major production country, like China, which you could use to get valuable and unique firsthand insight into the full process.
Take Advantage of Deals
Student discounts are no joke. If you really have to buy something, ask if there's a discount. If you can, put off big equipment and software purchases until your Senior year, so you'll be launching into your harsh post-school reality with fresh gear and industry-appropriate tools at way more manageable prices. That said, don't be afraid to drop real money for real, quality tools that will help you do better work and build that portfolio. Like educational debt, if you work hard they'll pay for themselves.
Do Your (Personal) Homework
Distinctive design can be said to have a "voice," but where does that come from? Loads of research, observation and reflection. Read about designers through history, in multiple fields, from different countries. Read about art and manufacturing. Let yourself develop opinions and favorites, and try to articulate your reasoning. Find time in your schedule, or bend assignments so you can dig deeper. If that sounds like extra work, remember that knowing your stuff will make you a more critical thinker and spare you from wasting untold hours trying to reinvent wheels.
Pay Attention to the Industry
Similarly, start to keep tabs on the industry early. Learn which magazines and blogs to follow, which agencies are doing what, and treat them as part of your curriculum. It'll keep you trend-wary, name-savvy and aware of what is and isn't being done.
Intern Early and Often
Even if it's just a few hours here and there, even if it's not paid, even if you're just sweeping the floor. Logging more experience in more types of work environments looks good to future employers and gives you real world info about work environments. A corporate office and a small design group feel different, and it's good to see them firsthand.
Get a Job
This is a common refrain, though it's not as easy to nod along to these days. Holding any kind of job will earn you insights into how the world works, how people work, how to aid others, and how to be a responsible human. And cash. All useful stuff.
Process Is King
Get a good camera. Document everything. The whole process is full of unexplored tangents and decisions worth recording. You'll be amazed at how quickly you lose track of good ideas you didn't write down and forget important steps in your process. Showing your work is a mark of authenticity and effort, and good examples of the whole arc do belong in your portfolio. You'll also quickly be bummed you didn't take more/better pictures of your models after ceremoniously disposed of them.
Humility, Interest and Honesty
It pays to get off your high horse and walk because you'll see a lot more. A big ego early on will come back to haunt you for years. If you treat everyone around you like you can learn something from them, you really will... and make better, lasting relationships in the process. The saying "never eat lunch alone" is a good guide. Talk to strangers and people out of your normal loop, ask questions, and really listen. From the quiet kid in class to the receptionist to guest lecturers and critics, practice reaching out and being interested. Networking starts now, and being on a first name basis with a wide variety of people is invaluable. Don't "fake it until you make it"—be honest about your questions and skill level and open to learning from peers and superiors. You'll get better faster than by faking it, and you'll gain more respect on the way there.
Millennials get a pretty bum rap as being entitled and narcissistic (completely unlike the two generations before them), but there are clear signs that younger people are more likely to invest more time and energy into meaningful interpersonal relationships and community work. Keep a sense of aiding others in mind, whether it's your coworkers, clients, other departments... Proactively lending a hand lets you build stronger connections, which makes for better work, and makes you a more multifaceted resource. Being helpful isn't brown-nosing or overreaching; it's fundamentally valuable to working with others. Leadership is built slowly, as a mix of humility and resolve. Start early.
Failure Is Good
It's absolutely going to happen, and it's best to learn to be ok with it. Listen to your failures instead of staying defensive, sad or angry, and you'll get more memorable lessons than from a success. The repercussions of a bad school project are limited, so pay attention to your critiques, swallow your pride, and soak it in for later.
Don't Drink Nice Beer
You'll go broke. Find the cheap regional lager (hint: it usually comes in cans) and go with that. You'll save money and often avoid hangovers.
Keep Enjoying Yourself!
Do whatever you need to keep the fun in your work. Follow inspiring blogs, make time for side projects, go out and use the type of gear you want to design, watch how other people use things, do collaborative work with friends. Feed your love of the work and the work will keep feeding you. Above all: enjoy being in school! There are tons of new things to discover and try out and play with. You learn best when you're having fun.