03/27/2012 10:35 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why University Students Aren't Amazing Anyone, and What They Can Do About It

"You don't become a designer because you took a class in design, you become a designer because you're a slut for design." I said this to a group of 300 design students at Michigan State University and posted it on my Facebook page. (On Facebook, it generated a lively discussion, but not about design, but whether or not the word "slut" was offensive to women. But no other word drives home my point as well. "Passionate," perhaps? My passionate faux pas... )

For years I was frustrated with the mediocre skills of the majority of design students who applied for internships during my 10-year stint at Newsweek in their information graphics department.


Photo credit: Natalie Kolb

I carried that frustration with me to academia when I began teaching at Michigan State five years ago, hoping to do some Gude. But it's been hard. Many students think that getting an "A" = getting a job. Their cover letters contain clichés like, "Ever since I was a little boy/girl, I've had a passion for design... " which they may even believe. But do they really? Not the way I define passion, and not the way employers do.

Have you ever met anyone who learned French just practicing it in the classroom?

Q. "Do you speak French?"
A. "I should! I took it for a zillion years in high school! But no, not really."

To the French language student I would say, go live in France for a long time. Immerse yourself. But, how can a design student, in effect, move to France? How can they immerse themselves in the Land of Design and become fluent and expressive without getting a job doing it?

My turn for a cliché: Just do it. Live a design-crazed life. In my experience, authentic passion is too powerful to ignore. You simply must act on it. Passion isn't a small crush. Passion = OBSESSION.

I've lived a "drawing" life. My basement is literally wallpapered with my drawings.


I started sketching obsessively at 14 after a girl admired one of my doodles, and I wanted more of that! Soon I was drawing without any girls around and I immersed myself into a delirium of self-education. I skipped college and went right to work as a factory worker, carpenter and farmer, drawing all the time, but my need to work as an artist finally took over and I moved to New York City, which went quite well for me. Obsession grew my skills, yes, but it also gave me blind courage and a willingness to risk failure against all odds and to work like a madman to grow my skills. Employers seemed to recognize and value this.

This experience has made me realize that what happens outside the classroom is as critical to success as what happens inside of it. Teachers open minds to ideas, knowledge and techniques but students, on their very own without being made to, have to take in these academic tidbits, accept or discard them and then passionately integrate what remains into their ever-growing, unique style. And that's just the start down a long and wonderful journey toward amazingness propelled by love for what your craft is.

I realize that many college students are handwringing over what they want to be/do when they grow up. This uncertainty can even continue after graduation and into adulthood. This is natural, but a lack of commitment stunts excellence, just as readily as uncertainty, complacency and laziness do. A faux-passionate interest in design that's been compartmentalized for the classroom boudoir won't win the brass ring. Being truly passionate doesn't guarantee success, but it's still the best path to snagging the prize.

I do have students who work hard, learn and grow, and they are my hope. Others can't seem avoid their self-imposed need to succumb to childish distractions, and this hurts them. The other day, in one of my larger classes, I went to the back of the room to shut off the lights for an important video and in the dark I could see that fully two-thirds of the students were on Facebook, actively ignoring the movie. (This isn't unique to MSU, either. Try Harvard.)

Unfortunately, this Matrix-like belief by students that knowledge and skills can be thoroughly learned by just plugging one's brain in for a quick lesson is keeping the Great Mediocrity in America alive and well.