The Elusive A+ : Where It's Hiding & How to Find it!
There’s just one week left to go before semester one starts here in New Zealand and I don’t know about you, but like always, I’m thinking and maybe stressing out a little bit about how I’m going to do this year. There’s just no way of knowing how each paper is going to go or what might happen, and even though I’ve had pretty good grades so far, how do I know this year won’t be completely different? It’s a pretty daunting thought, but there are some things that we can try to achieve in order to get us heading in the right direction. Now, I unfortunately don’t have the magic solution to get a perfect grade every time, but I do have some handy tips to help you aim high and head towards that A+!
First things first is the brief. At the start of every paper you will be given a brief, and your tutor will more than likely read it out to you while you sit bored for 10 minutes; however, this piece of paper is really important. The brief outlines what the purpose of the project is, what is expected from you to hand in for the project, and any key dates along the way. It will also have the information of who your tutors are and any other important things you might need to know. Even though it might seem tedious listening to your tutor read out all this information to you, it is pretty valuable to pay attention because they will often add other bits of information or explain what’s there in a more understandable way. It also gives you a chance to ask questions about anything that might not be clear. And make sure you do ask if you’re confused or lost about anything - there’s probably a bunch of other people wondering the same thing and it’s pretty hard to confidently attack the project if you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be doing or when.
It can be pretty handy to highlight keywords and dates in the brief too, so that when you go back to it throughout the project to make sure you’re still on the right track (which you should do!) you can quickly see what you’re aiming for. I often put these due dates for assignments into my calendar with a reminder for a week before so I am fully aware of when things are meant to be handed in, and I can see how many weeks, days or even hours I have to work towards that date (yeah I’m that nerdy).
So now you’ve read the brief and you’ve got a good idea of what you’re supposed to be aiming towards; the next step is to decide what you’re actually going to create and what it’s going to be about. You probably have a few ideas floating around in your head about what that could be, but it can take a while to actually decide on a direction. What’s useful for me is getting all of those random ideas out of my head onto paper so that I can visualise them and have a clearer picture of my options. A brainstorm will let you go off on tangents too which can help you to really expand your ideas.
For example, last year I had to create a poster, banners, a brochure and one other item of my choice for a hypothetical design conference that I could make up myself. I created an initial brainstorm of broad potential topics that I was interested in and thought that I could direct my conference towards. From there I did some research around them all, narrowed them down to a select few and then did another brainstorm around these topics. This helped me to think about what smaller topics could be encompassed in the larger topic, other directions I could take the topic, and what the branding might be based around. After a lot more brainstorming I finally decided on a topic and I was ready to go!
Remember that there are no stupid ideas at this point so just write it all down, get it all out and you can edit the ideas down afterwards. Don’t censor yourself or hold your ideas back because you might miss out on something really unique and interesting!
In the beginning of the design process, research is especially important. Researching your topic as thoroughly as possible is key to getting a good enough understanding of what you’re talking about before you start designing around it. It’s going to be pretty hard to inform other people about a topic through your design if you have no idea about it yourself. The research that you do in the beginning of the project will help to create a solid foundation for your topic and also influence your ideas as you come to learn more about what it is you’re working with. You might also have to come up with your own copy and content for a project, in which case you will need to find information relating to your topic that you can use to create this.
The easiest way to do this is to just google search your topic. I will often create a list of keywords around my topic which helps with what to search at this stage. Of course, even though we don’t like to admit it, the library can be really helpful too. You don’t even need to get the books out; just go there, look at some that relate to your topic and photocopy or scan relevant pages that provide interesting information for you.
The important thing about this research part is that you document it. You can do all of the research in the world and have the best understanding of your topic, but if the tutors can’t see that you’ve done any work towards getting to know your topic, they will have no idea. Screenshot web pages, write notes from documentaries, photocopy book pages and make sure that you interact with these. Don’t just stick them in and leave them there - make your own notes, highlight parts, sketch related ideas - you need to show that you’ve done the research and formed some opinions and ideas of your own around the topic. This isn’t just for the tutors either, it will help you if you get stuck later on, can’t remember why you had a particular idea, or if you need a refresh on a certain aspect of your topic.
One of my favourite parts of the design process is finding inspiration for my work. I quite often look at other design work in the rare amounts of spare time that I have anyway, because I’m a little bit nerdy and I just love seeing what other people are doing, but it can be really helpful too!
You’re expected to look at inspiration for your work as part of your bookwork so you have to do it anyway, but it is actually really useful! It can be quite difficult to find somewhere to start with design but having inspiration to fuel your ideas can help this process. Now, this isn’t about copying someone else’s work completely or stealing parts of their designs for yourself, this is about getting inspired and creating your own unique work from these ideas. I keep loads of Pinterest boards for my uni work so that I can gather pieces of work that inspire me; whether that be poster designs, typography, websites or anything else I find, I like to keep them together so I always have a place to go if I’m stuck. When you know your topic, what you want to convey about it, and what piece of work you have to create, you can use the inspiration to start designing and put it all together. The pieces of work you find might inspire your colour combinations, compositions, typographic layout or any other elements. You have to remember that these do have to correctly convey your topic however, so don’t just choose to create a background pattern from emojis just because it might look cool somewhere else you saw; it has to make sense as a design decision in relation to your work and your chosen topic.
There are tonnes of sites to find inspiration on, but here are some of my favourites to get you started:
Enjoy this process, and again, make sure you document it and annotate it with your own thoughts so that you can keep track of why you wanted to use comic sans for example, and how it relates to your idea. And remember, don’t just take the ideas and copy them; manipulate them, really think about their application, use them to strongly convey your ideas, and make them your own.
We’re nearly there, I promise! Now you’re finally ready to start designing, and this is where the real fun starts! As you start to put all of your ideas, research and inspiration together, you’ll be able to create sketches, drafts and full designs of your work in no time, and things will change and adapt along the way. Your designs will evolve as you get inspired, make mistakes, get feedback and evaluate your work along the way, and it’s vital that you document this process. Right from your initial sketches, all the way through to your finished designs, you should be taking screenshots, taking photos, sticking in material samples and writing down your thought process. Again, this will help you to remember why you changed things, explain to your tutors why you made certain decisions, and is great to look back on at the end to reflect on how your designs have changed along the way to get to the final product. As a designer, you should be able to explain each and every design decision because they all should be intentional in conveying your topic. Nothing should ever be done ‘just because’. Documenting the process and commenting on these decisions will help you to do this and will back you up when you might need to defend your decisions, or when the tutors mark your work. You won’t be there when that happens, so all of your thought patterns and decisions need to be in your workbook to speak for you.
Finally, you’ve gone through a whole lot of changes and revisions, you’ve developed your work to a great place, and you’re ready for the final product! Hopefully this isn’t too last minute because it’s the final touches that will really pump up your work and ideally your grade too! If your work needs to be printed, you’ll need to have created your final piece at least 3 days in advance of the due date - more if it’s a busy time at the printers. You don’t want to create something beautiful and then not be able to hand it in because you were too late getting it printed. Plan your time, email the printers to find out what their wait time is like at the time, and how much it will cost you to print whatever it is you’re printing. You might need to save some money or plan your budget to allow you to get your finishing done properly. This might not just be printing; you might need to create an animation to present your final app design, or set up an interactive version of your website designs. Whatever it might be, the way that you present your work is how it will be marked, so take your time to get it right. Remember to photograph your work nicely before you hand it in too, and keep all of your files so that you can add the work to your portfolio and brag about all the cool stuff you made to your friends and family!
While writing this I became aware that this might all seem like a lot of work and heaps to take in, so congratulations on making it to the end! But it’s not really that bad, I promise. Just remember that the tutors want and need to see the work that you’ve done, and if you’re doing a lot of work then you should want them to see all the effort you’ve gone to in order to create something beautiful that you’re proud of. Enjoy the process; it’s not just something that you have to do but it’s also really useful and something you should have fun doing. I can also tell you that I use all of these aspects of the process at my job, so you’ll get used to it and, unlike algebra, it will help you later on in your career.
Good luck! Remember that if you have any questions about anything I’ve mentioned, or if something comes up when you head back to uni that you’re not sure about, let me know and I’ll try my hardest to answer as best as I can! I hope your first week of university goes well, and I’m excited to take on this year together!
Much love, Hollie! :D