Dear design student: if I were hiring and saw that you can’t -- or at best, won’t -- draw, I wouldn’t make the offer.

– June 27, 2014

On Drawing & Design, Part VIII (& the last installment)

All of the arguments that I have been attempting to make over these past 8 weeks come down to this one very simple but harsh fact: If you want to get a good design job, you’re going to have to show a willingness to draw.

I have looked at hundreds of student portfolios, interviewed countless applicants for design positions, hired designers, and consulted with companies to help them decide who to hire. From what I've seen at the entry level, most everyone's portfolio kind of looks the same. Two things, however, can differentiate a portfolio from the crowd: 1) poor craftsmanship or a crappy presentation casts your work in a negative light; and 2) hand skills, drawing in particular, elevates your work from the sea of ubiquitous design-school projects.

Design professors must often assume the role of art director with their students. But unlike its commercial counterpart, academic-styled art direction shouldn’t attempt to modify a students own creative voice. Rather, it should help a student tighten up and perfect how they express what it is that they want to communicate. Unfortunately, that isn’t always possible with some students nor is it avoidable with some instructors.

Some students change their work just because their professor told them to in hopes of getting a better grade. They are willing to supress their own voice in the quest for a higher GPA. Sometimes the fault lies with the professor, but often times the student is to blame for just blindly chasing extra points. But regardless of who’s at fault, the end result is a portfolio piece that is a bit inflated and not really representative of the student’s ability. As someone who, like I said, has looked at hundreds of student portfolios, I expect to see work that has received some level of “assistance” along the way. I'm just never sure really how much of what I'm seeing is the student, and how much is the instructor.

But your hand skills? Ah, there’s no hiding there. Your drawing is all you, baby. You either got them chops, or you don’t.

Now before you go crying “unfair!” and vow to never read another thing I write, keep in mind that I know through my own teaching experience that observational drawing technique can be learned. Design students willing to put forth the effort can develop more than adequate drawing skills. It’s happened in every drawing class that I’ve taught. And when it does, it tells me far more than just that the designer can draw, it tells me that the designer is able to do something far more important: he or she can see.

A designer who is willing to draw is a designer able to see a problem as it really is, not just as they might imagine it to be. They show an ability to study, research, and evaluate first, and THEN create. For my money, that gets to the very core of a skilled designer’s problem solving ability. Because they can see the real challenge before them, they are less likely to be hindered by false assumptions and their own mis-perceptions. They are then free to craft a solution that has a much better chance of working.

Or let me say it another way: the designer who eschews shortcuts to avoid drawing is probably not going to look to shortcuts for solving design challenges either.

In the end, the portfolio that would earn my job offer or recommendation is the portfolio that includes evidence of hand skills. It doesn't matter whether you drawing ability came to you “naturally” or if you worked like hell to develop it. If anything, those of you who had to work at drawing actually have an advantage. You have demonstrated that you have the desire and work ethic to overcome obstacles. You’re willing to fight to get results, which is exactly the kind of designer that I would want to work with.