If you're a senior in high school this fall, you're probably tired of every adult asking on repeat since last August: "Where are you applying for college?" and "What do you want to do with your life?" I dreaded those questions and can confirm it's just a compulsion that sneaks up on us adults, because we have no idea how to relate to you or know what you're really interested in.... but this blog post isn't about adults, it's about you.
Specifically, I'm writing this to all artistically inclined teenagers who don't know how to answer those questions. There are lots of blog posts written by famous designers and illustrators for college students about to graduate, but I've seen few posts aiming to help inform 18 year old or younger students. This is my story for y'all. I'd also like to say that like any advice, you should take mine with a grain of salt. Everyone's situation is different, and I come from a very privileged upbringing which allowed me to go to college in the first place.
I know that the thought of picking the wrong college or major feels like the end of the world, but it's not. I know a lot of creative people who majored in things completely unrelated to their current field and many of them didn't go to a prestigious university. While I didn't major in something totally unrelated to illustration, like biology or engineering, I did slightly miss the bullseye to pick a major that perfectly encapsulated my future career.
I've always been interested in drawing and art, but I never seriously planned on pursuing an artistic career until college— and even then I was studying advertising, which was my attempt to get a degree for a "good paying" job. When I was 12, my father got a copy of Photoshop from an Adobe rep visiting Dell. This uniquely serendipitous opportunity really gave me a head start— in the 7th grade I was using Photoshop 7.0 to draw, edit photos and design. I uploaded my art to deviant art and was exposed to many great artists that way. What I didn't know that the field for design and illustration was so vast (and for the most part, not represented on deviant art). I was lucky enough to have a high school with a pretty robust computer and graphics course set, but I didn't get a true feeling for the scope of design until college, reading about the history of design and advertising. From there, I started following blogs and instagrams of famous designers and couldn't remember what it was like to not know what a screen print is.
I attended the University of Texas at Austin, studied advertising, and got my Bachelor of Science with a "concentration" in the so-called Texas Creative Sequence. The Creative Sequence is small, and focuses on the "Big Idea" and concept portion of creative advertising, and while you create a portfolio and you're using creative programs along the way, the critique provided by your lecturers is mostly around the idea, not the execution. I only had the opportunity to take one graphic design class in the journalism department, which was a great start (shoutout to my excellent prof Chase Quarterman) but not nearly enough to get me where I needed to be. I had to actively make opportunities to practice by joining the college newspaper as a designer, drawing comics, keeping a drawing blog, and finding internships specific to what I wanted to do.
Sometimes I wish I had gone to an art school and studied illustration or design. I think the biggest thing I missed out on was a variety of art and design-focused professors to critique my work on a consistent basis to challenge me as an illustrator. But then again, who knows what kind of experiences and the difference in networks would have brought me. I didn't get a formal illustration or design education, but I had met and became friends with a variety of talented, intelligent people at UT with many different perspectives and backgrounds. And while I didn't end up deciding to become an advertising art director, knowing how things worked and working in the small advertising industry here in Austin has helped my career as a freelance illustrator.
If I had the opportunity to do it over again, I likely would've gone to Texas State and studied Communication design, or illustration. I would've also more seriously considered other robust design programs in the state of Texas including ACU or North Texas. Then again, my indirect path hasn't been unkind to me. I get to do what I love!
I'll also say that it's never too late to start a creative career. Even if you finished college with a degree in Economics and are in a full-time job, you can take night classes at a local community college, start a style blog, post your music to band camp, whatever your interest sparks something in your soul— just do it. Some great designers didn't "start" until they were in their 30's or 40's. The most important part of being a designer is passion, persistence and a willingness to learn, and you can hone those abilities at any age.
Check out my new resources page— I've included a lot of stuff I've found over time to help develop my skills. And please feel free to email me if you have any questions. Most artists are very accessible these days, and love answering questions for aspiring creative people. Just remember to say thank you!
I hope that helps!