Original Post: August 2015

Insights into preparing the form and formats of your life and work this coming semester.

Welcome back! No more Cancun, or shoveling your parent’s driveway. It’s game time. Do you want to pursue a new piece of software, engage your professors and peers more, or hone a particular methodology that is emerging in your work? Regardless of what you do, be bold this semester, and set some personal goals for yourself before you even look at that studio brief! Step outside your comfort zone and try something new!


Obsess Over File Management

You’re about to create a lot of data: site photos, scans of sketches, digital models, board layouts and a final presentation. This data, the raw material that supports your development and learning, is the tangible product that you’re paying for, and therefore it’s worth spending some time considering how to organize and save it for future use. Set up a semester folder, unique folders for each course, and use the cloud to keep your work accessible. Be rigorous about clear naming conventions and tidy folders, but don’t delete (archive!) your work until the end of the semester. Don’t throw away that pin-up print out! Instead, add notes and layers, or develop a palimpsest document that follows you all semester.

Build your Habitat

Your work-space is your sanctuary; your comfortable cave of brilliance among the surrounding madness of studio. As evidenced in our opening photo, it will take on a quality of its own. Though security maybe an issue in some environments, you will be far more productive and efficient if you curate your tools, trinkets, and pieces of flair. Always give yourself a comfortable space to sketch, soldier, read, and pump some CAD. Find a way to make it known when you’re locked in or open for witty banter, caffeine runs, or design dialog. Love this space.

Know Your Institution

Know the policies and procedures for printing, scanning, checking out equipment, or scheduling digital fabrication sessions at your school? If not, now’s a good time to learn. Does the CNC router get fully booked every week before finals? Does the library have a book limit? Where does one procure sheet metal in town? The last thing you want is to unpack logistics or go on a goose chase during crunch time.


Identify Your Design Partners

Design school is a special experience, in part for the relationships you form with peers in the trenches (look at team SC!). Social and discursive, formal and informal – they must all be consciously cultivated. Gather individuals whose work ethic and design sensibilities you respect – give them feedback and ask for their thoughts about your work. Find the student that ALSO wants a ‘grande red eye’ from Starbucks just before close, or who speaks softly but carries a big stick. Partnerships, allies, and healthy critics – to say nothing of morale boosters – are essential to success in design school.

Attend All the Lectures

Yes, it’s been a long day. Yes, you have a ton of work. It doesn’t matter. Lectures sponsored by your schools are carefully vetted speakers who have made a mark in the design disciplines. As evidenced by Rahul’s GIANTS interview, attending lectures can be profound and formative experiences; these may be lessons which follow you for the rest of your life, whereas that extra hour spent on massing studies…? With that said, sometimes the speaker is a too big for their britches, or boring, or MIND BLOWING! That’s half the fun. You all get to decide together and discuss it afterwards. Be part of the conversation, be brave and ask a question, and take advantage of the opportunity to learn from of those who have had success in their practice. Maybe it will even spark inspiration on your own projects. Only one way to find out.


This coming semester you will create a lot of content, but what format that data takes is generally up to you. No matter your output you can actively curate your own identity from the beginning by considering what the visual presence of your work will be throughout the coming semester. The resources in the toolbelt below will be great places for you to start building your graphic identity, especially when revisited over the course of the semester.


On Fonts

Text styles go a long way towards setting the tone of any project, even primarily image-based work. Generally any designer can get by on as little as 2 fonts: one bold font for titles (often all caps), and a second font that’s easy on the eyes for body text. Note Section Cut’s use of Ostrich and Georgia. We then use italics and bold to provide additional emphasis as needed. There are countless free fonts available across the web if you’re unsatisfied with the standards found on most computers, but in most cases avoid overtly stylized fonts, particularly fonts that attempt to replicate hand drafting.

On Color

Color is a tricky subject in design – a critical element that can be used poorly. In the ALGORITHMIC DESIGN post we discussed the idea of the uncanny valley, and how to avoid it using a mostly grey-toned palette with only a small handful of colors, or even one color for emphasis. As you begin to create content, consider a small palette of colors, such as what may be found on Adobe Kuler. If you work with a narrowly defined color palette that is unique to that semester’s work, curation of your work across semesters will benefit from consistent identities of particular projects.

On Content

While creating graphic layouts of your work, consider what content is conveying meaning to a reader, and what content is merely a graphic. Avoid any ‘chart junk’ – as Tufte would say. As you begin, you may instinctively fill voids with ‘placeholder’ content, be it superfluous lines, boxes of color, or images. Resist the temptation to fill gaps in content with filler graphic material, which only serves to undercut your ideas later on.


Eventually you will incorporate the products of this coming semester’s work into a portfolio (expect a series of HOW-TOs on this subject in April/May). Portfolios require quality content. As we’ve hinted above, creating a consistent graphic identity across projects and semesters goes a long way towards easing the documentation process. Documenting your work is not hard, but takes time, patience, and a certain level of rigor. We have all had those moments of regret when we forgot to photograph that one model before it ended up in the trash, or the hand drawing that took three sleepless nights to create, only to have coffee spilled on it after the review, or accidentally deleting the only working copy of a rhino model. What better time to prepare for such moments than now!

Documenting Physical Objects and Images

At this point in our completely digitized world, it is presumed that every product of your education will ultimately be documented and stored in ones and zeros on a hard drive. Therefore, it is imperative to collect and document digital versions of all analog materials as close to the moment of creation as possible, and worry about if/how to include the content later. A good practice to get into is to take photographs of all physical objects as soon as you create them. This will not only secure the content for later, but you may find the pictures useful more immediately, when you must present and explain your ideas to others.

Photographing Work

Objects such as scale models should be photographed against a neutral background, ideally under sunlight or at least two high-wattage halogen lights.
Although smart phone cameras have become increasingly powerful, if you have access to a dedicated digital camera, use that instead, preferably with a tripod. This will allow you to take higher quality images, as well as more-accurately adjust settings – For example a slower shutter speed and wider aperture setting will allow for a greater depth of field. For more on this topic, check out The Illustrated Guide to Digital and Classic Photography.

Take an excessive amount of photographs. You never know what you’ll need later. Data storage is always getting cheaper and you can always trash what you don’t need.


Digitizing physical objects into editable digital models is another method of documentation, particularly when working with ephemeral materials. There are a growing number of methods for digitization, including pens that touch the object, or visual-based systems such as Kinect. Digital fabrication labs at many universities have access to various digitizing tools and can assist in this process.

On Drawings

While it may be easiest to take photographs of all physical stuff, it’s still worth spending the time to use a scanner for drawings. Photographing creates a certain amount of distortion to the image, and you may have issues with clarity or uneven lighting, which requires significant image editing time to clean up. Scanning on the other hand replicates a drawing one-to-one. In particular, scan your sketch book! As you work through a design process, digitize your hand sketches. These become a powerful record of your process.

STEP 5. Make stuff, talk about it

In order to get the most out of your semester, its important to share some ‘real talk’ with your instructors. A good way to begin is to share a portfolio of previous work that you are proud of, or even a project that shows where you feel you need to grow as a designer. This could lead to discussing your expectations (based on knowledge of the instructor, the course brief, and your own interests). This will show that you are a committed, eager, and reflective student, greasing the skids for the weeks ahead.

Get Messy, Early

Now that you’ve got them right where you want them – EXPLODE! Make something out of your comfort zone that is compelling, conceptual, and new to you and helps convey your ideas. You should certainly attend to the requirements of the class, but give an early push and make something rare and curious. Why not? It will surely knock off the dust and spark some discussion.

Record Your Crits!

Objectivity about your own work is a learned skill that takes time. While being critiqued, everyone gets defensive or distracted by emotion at some point or another. Often this makes it difficult to truly receive feedback clearly, and of course one should develop a practice of good listening – but also recording of conversations when you’re receiving feedback, whether from your critic or anyone else whose opinion you respect. You may write down their comments and next steps or collaboratively sketch which gives you something to stare at later. These days all smart phones and computers are capable of audio recording – record your conversations for future listening. These are not only useful to reflect on at various points in the semester, but make great auto-tuned techno jams later in life when you miss school and your personal GIANTS.

Now Go Get It!

As we wrap up, remember to set some goals for yourself this coming semester: pursue a new piece of software, learn to code, talk to your professor more, make more stuff! Regardless of what you do, be awesome! Step outside your comfort zone and try something new! OK enough pep talk. Write us a comment, tell us what your goals are for this semester, and- who knows? We just might put out a HOW TO to help you get there!

This article was first published on SC 1.0 on 7 January, 2014

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