Overcoming Adversities Through a Design Class

By Jennifer Lau


It’s been ten years and counting since registering for my very first graphic design, Type 1 class at El Camino Junior College located in California. As registration for the spring 2008 semester opened, I look through the online catalog along with my classmates in Photoshop class to see what courses we wanted to take together. Majority of us had not taken Type 1 yet. As we were discussing if that instructor was good or not, one of my classmates, who has had that instructor before, mentioned “that teacher is tough on her students, demanded work to be precisely mounted on black backboards with no rubber cement visibly seen, and to do a lot of thumbnails for a project before working on a rough.”


When I heard, I remember grabbing the bull by its horns and said, “I want to see what this teacher is like. I’m registering for this class,” as well as my other classmates in the class. What I hadn’t realize was her class alone would carve out my design and life path out forever.


Life-Changing Journey Begins

It’s the start of a sunny spring 2008 semester. I walk into Art 5B located in the basement floor sitting in the back of the room with the iMac in front, waiting for my classmates from my former Photoshop class to come. Chairs began to fill fast with students she had once before and the newer students to get a taste of what the class and the instructor was like. I see an instructor walk in from my right with her black blazer suit and dress pants on. This was Andrea. She didn’t look as bad as I thought from what people described her to me as or so it seemed. The projects she assigned and what she asked from the twenty-eight of us was going to be a living hell for some, including myself.


For the next sixteen weeks of the semester, I felt like I enrolled myself in an advanced bootcamp class for beginners. The first project of the semester, we weren’t taught “design” or the design rule where “skewing type is bad and horrible”. Instead, we were taught to measure and mount with rubber cement, not use spray mount. During our mock presentation, she would walk up to each project mounted on the 15x20in black board with an 18-in ruler and measure to see if the measurements were on and off point.


After the presentation, she privately and quietly called me out on my first project because the left of the three squares were crooked and misaligned on the black board.“Jennifer, I know you can do better than this,” she said in a firm and disappointing voice. She continued, “I heard you can kick-ass in illustration because one of your classmates told me about you. Do it again.” It was a breath of fresh air when she told me to “do it again” by remounting my work again and knowing I get to try again. Thankfully, I managed to do alright on my first project because the work itself didn’t look like “crap“.


Striving for Excellence

Aside from Andrea pushing us to work our best, we also had to respect the design process and phases:

Phase 1. Discovery and Research

Phase 2. Concept and Thumbnails

Phase 3. Roughs

Phase 4. Final Composition


Skipping the first two phases and going straight to “roughs” meant the entire project was going to be “crap” and an automatic “F” in her grade book. Like most starting in the design field, I did not see a reason as to why doing thirty-two or fifty thumbnail sketches mattered after the concept and research phase.


It turns out it did matter.


Drawing ideas while researching the topics given to the students and studying different designers’ style, grid and process opened a new way of thinking. Coming up with an idea during the first phase felt rewarding, like a gem being uncovered from the depths of the earth. Time did not matter as long as the concepts and thumbnail sketches were driven by the first phase of design. Through refining and polishing the concept to its final stages, my projects felt cohesive, stronger, and original. Everything began to fall into place when I began to trust and respect the design process. Soon after my own design discovery, I asked myself, “Has Andrea expected us to challenge ourselves all this time? Is this what she has been asking of us throughout the semester?”


Striving to Better Ourselves

Students rarely survive in Andrea’s “bootcamp” as she asked a lot out of her students no mattered if it was our body of work or presentation of work. Even her infamous catch phrases like “do it again” and “this is crap” were too much to handle for some. As for Spring 2008, I was thankful I was in a class whom stayed along for the ride without having one person to drop-out. Because of how the class stuck together as a unit, it made the experience worthwhile as if I struck a gold mine for the entire sixteen weeks. Through the end of my final snowboarding design project for class, again I discovered a reason why my dearly and beloved instructor was the way she was and why she consistently said her catchphrases.


In order to strive for excellence and better myself, I had to climb over the wall I created in my mind and body. In other words, letting go of the idea of playing it safe and embracing her other catchphrase, “dare to suck”. This taught me to toughen my skin when critiques felt like hard punches to the stomach, to stay consistent with my process while practicing and perfecting my design craft, and to challenge myself every step of the way from gathering research to perfecting and polishing a project piece without having to skip a phase.


In the end, I learned a word that a beginning design student, like myself at the time, had trouble learning while going through the design process: patience. The amount of time put into my work while doing research and drawing countless thumbnail sketches and concepts pays off once I am patient with myself. Because of patience, Andrea was preparing her other students and I to be successful version of myself when facing our next biggest obstacle in our careers and life: dealing with the real world of design.



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