The most fertile source of insight is hindsight.

— Morris Kline

Exactly one year back, I decided to leave my job as a UX Designer and joined National Institute of Design, Bangalore to pursue Post Grad in Information & Interface Design. A year later, I felt it would be a good time to reflect on a few things. Of course, a year can’t be summarized into a few words, so I’ll stick to a few important things that I would like to remember later on, more like a diary entry/note to self.

#1 Why go back to school?

That was the first question everyone asked, including me, when I got my result. I had already spent a year doing what an average student would do after he graduated from this course. But the answer was obvious. I wasn’t doing a great job at what I was doing, lacking both confidence in my ideas (to defend my design decisions) and a mentor for feedback (to know exactly what I was doing wrong). My knowledge was scattered, since it was mostly based out of reading articles on the internet, and a few design books which were skimmed quickly. I needed a break from work, to improve my basics and figure what I am really good at doing.

#2 Stop comparing studying in school vs working in industry

Yes, we all love playing this game, and trying hard to prove one side better. But I quickly realized that comparing the two was not helping: they are two completely different worlds. With no boss, no hard deadlines, complete freedom to do what you want to do, no obligation to work for x hours to earn y amount of money, a lot of things changed. What I learnt here in a year, I wouldn’t have learnt in the industry at all.

#3 A degree is a worthless piece of paper

Arnab, an alumnus of IDC, mentioned this (and a lot more wise things) before I joined NID, and I’ve tried my best not to forget this. A degree can at most help me easily get placed in a big company once I graduate, but nothing more. In the real world, the NID brand won’t help, only my work will. It also meant that I could not rely on only the courses/projects that were part of the curriculum, and had to read more & explore myself. Which brings me to the next point.

#4 Self-education doesn’t end at school (it just gets amplified)

After coming to NID, I’ve spent more time learning things myself, than I did before. In fact, most classes are focused on just introducing different topics, philosophies, styles and don’t really teach you anything. As part of the curriculum, you are not taught any software (you’re expected to pick them up while doing your assignments), nor given in-depth knowledge on a topic (you’re expected to read on your own and interact with faculties for further guidance). However, the faculties are more than happy to aid your self-learning. Want to improve visual design fundamentals? Let’s have a Typography workshop. (Best weekend ever!). Need help with interactive visualizations? Here is a Processing workshop (& we made different styles of Pong too!). Books, movies, people – you suddenly have access to much more than you could ask for.

#5 You may not find what you initially expect

However, my first few days at NID were slightly disappointing. Where were all the super-crazy-artsy batchmates? Awe-inspiring seniors with plethora of exciting projects? Faculties I would die to talk to? I came with high expectations, after all this was the best design school in the country, right?

It took time. One day, I realized that the girl I’ve known for so many months creates lovely illustrations, or that guy who never speaks made lovely mobile apps. Only after bugging my seniors, I found a few out-of-the-box projects, and had discussions that I can’t forget. And I got to meet some really inspiring people who come over as visiting professors (A PhD in Creativity and A.I.? Woah!)

I quickly transitioned from “Why did I even come here?” to “Why is it such a short course!”, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next year.

#6 Fail Early, Fail Often

What appears to be a popular notion in the industry, is really, really under-rated in school. Shouldn’t it be a better idea to encourage failure where there is so less at stake (Boss? Salary? Job? VC? Future of company? Nothing!) One of the best part of this year was a three-month long project that we (four of us from IID) did on families & memories. We changed our focus twice, after working for weeks each time, and ended up with an idea to make an app. The final result felt average to me, but what I did learn about creative ideas, criticism, team work was much more valuable. It didn’t feel great presenting the project (scattered research, slightly confusing pitch), but I now feel glad this happened.

#7 Obsess over side projects

One of the best thing that could happen to me this year, would be my side projects. For example, what started as just a silly habit of posting a quote a day on twitter became an obsession to keep a record of personal thoughts & events on a public platform (and to most people, it appears that I post quotes randomly, so it works perfectly!) A random discussion in our isometric drawing class led me to a project I am still brainstorming on (finished 3 concepts, 2 more to come!) When classroom projects don’t get you to explore what you want, taking up a project on your own works wonderfully. More of these next year!

#8 Learn to Critique (better)

This has been the hardest challenge for me, and I’m still terrible at it. In a discussion, I prefer to not talk much about an idea that seems clearly unimpressive (which is a foolish thing to do too), but if an idea excites me, I start thinking of what the shortcomings are. Personally, this approach helps me quickly move beyond the initial idea and start working on what is lacking, so I’m generally quite brutal when working on self-projects. To someone else, this ends up sounding harsh, as it isn’t evident that I like the idea, hence I’m debating about the shortcomings.

Critiquing is also an art, and it is important for us as designers to seek criticism of our own work, and critique work of others. In one of the Design Day at Bangalore on the theme Design Education, we discussed this aspect as well (and came up with ambitious ideas, like this one about wearing masks to give anonymous feedback). Here at NID, there is no tradition of organized critique of our work (except in our juries, which is too late to fix mistakes and re-iterate), nor a culture that encourages interaction among students to regularly share & critique while doing assignments. We’ve slowly tried to change that among IID students, and hope to step it up a bit next year. (I’m on it!)

#9 “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

The most humbling moment is to realize that you know too little of what can be learnt. While you keep realizing that everyday at school, it really hit me during Dr. Girish Dalvi’s Typography workshop. Sometimes I feel stupid for calling myself a designer while I worked, but I’ve realized that the more I learn, the more I realize I have to learn. It’s a silly recursive loop that I will be stuck in forever, which really helps in keeping me down to earth. Forever n00bness FTW! :D That is enough for now. Let’s see how the next year goes!

Update: I messed up the numbering, and realized I still had space to add one more. So here’s #10!

#10 Have fun while you’re at it

This never-ending quest to become a designer can surely get pretty tense. The solution? Have lots of fun! It may not be what everyone calls fun (I’ve hardly gone out to watch movies with my friends, and I find most parties boring), but while I’m enjoying, it still counts. That means taking more breaks to watch anime, read sci-fi (new hobby!), or prevent that flute from gathering dust. It not only helps me relax, some of the best ideas come when I’m not trying too hard to find them. :)

“We don’t know what the story is when we’re in it, and even after we tell it we’re not sure. Because the story doesn’t end.”

— James Robertson