Software Engineering

Why Choose a Design Degree?

Whenever I am asked this question, other professional designers display ire at my answer.

"Because I wanted something challenging (they will nod and agree), and design is subjective (they will try to contain their vomit)."

The word subjective sets designers off in a world where we like to believe data-driven design is paramount. Without fail, this question always falls on the coattails of people asking about my technical expertise. It is unfathomable to some that I can keep a foothold in both design and technical realms. "Would not a Computer Science degree have made more sense?" Naaaaah.

I grew up drawing, playing competitive sports (hockey & figure skating), killing it academically, and having an obsession with computers. In high school clique terms, I was the jock-nerd-art-goth geek. I would help you with your Java homework, create decorations for the next themed school dance, then kick your ass on the ice.

While my peers didn't know what to do with me, my teachers treated me like they had struck gold. It was always, "Jodie, keep your options open. You can do anything!" I took all the Advanced Placement (AP) academic courses. Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Math. I also took Art, Architectural Drafting, Photography, Geography Technology (Geotech), and Computer Science. I did really well.

Then came that meeting with my career counsellor. They asked me what I wanted to do. I had the grades. I could pick whatever I wanted. Out of everything I had done in high school, I liked Geotech (practical application of programming and data science) and Art. I picked Art. My counsellor was visibly crestfallen.

I didn't know how one made a career in Art. Did you, like, paint? I didn't like painting. I liked solving problems. Why was I picking Art again? Unfortunately I didn't have a lot of time to think. I was graduating with the "double cohort" year. Ontario had dropped grade 13 (Ontario Academic Credit/OAC). As a result, there were twice as many new high school graduates.

My parents reasoned that if I didn't go to post-secondary right away, then I likely never would. I enrolled at the community college in their Art Fundamentals program. This was a mistake. I had wanted to take a year off, but instead got pressured into going to a school I didn't want. Oh, and it used up the entirety of my savings.

The course was okay. I got A+ on every assignment and literal punches from my peers for performing so well. This could have gone to my head, but I was deep into research now and I knew there was better. My reasoning: something is inherently wrong if I am the de facto best.

I applied to other colleges and universities. Or, I thought I did. In Ontario, all applications were done through a central online portal.

I didn't hear anything back. Hmm...

Upon further investigation and escalation I found out that they had messed up my applications because they could not process ones that had a Rural Route address. Cool integration fail. I was penalized for living in backwater Ontario. I could have gotten some deadline extensions (a couple post-secondary admissions people were super awesome), but I opted at that time to finally take that year off I wanted. Shit had hit the fan in my personal life, and my family needed me.

I spent a lot of that year driving to and from hospitals. My nana was dying of cancer. She died that spring, and I spent the summer and my birthday helping to clear out her home. She had been the only one to encourage my art and personal projects. It felt surreal. The house sale meant there would be a little more money in the family. Bittersweet.

I sent out applications again. This time they made it to their destinations. I applied to OCAD, Sheridan, and snail-mailed a hefty portfolio out to ACAD (Alberta University of Art). I got into all of them and ultimately chose the one that was furthest away from me: ACAD. They had the program that I was most interested in. Visual Communications Design. I moved out to Alberta by myself with a couple of suitcases.

In hindsight, I should have applied directly to VisCom. Unfortunately I didn't quite understand how their program was set up and didn't know that was even an option. When it came to getting my transfer credit applied, I got a grand total of: three general credits. My first year at ACAD ended up being nearly a 1:1 repeat of my Art Fundamentals diploma. (My community college year was actually stronger in many ways because they were better funded.) I wasn't allowed to drop or challenge the ones that were repeats because they were prerequisites for VisCom. It was mildly infuriating. I used one credit the first year, and got admissions to convert my other two to a second year credit. Not a complete waste, but it sure felt like it.

The best thing about repeating first year was being able to meet the people who had their sights on VisCom. You'd go in, see someone's work, and most times be able to immediately tell what they were aiming for.

You: VisCom?
Them: Yup.

Second year required another portfolio application. I applied and got in. Where was technical Jodie during all this? Doing the side-hustle and selling her various web services to help pay for gorram black foam core. While I can strive for and appreciate "good craft," it can be so wasteful. I cannibalized many old projects just so that I could present new ones without breaking the bank. The preoccupation with physical presentation consumed far too many tedious hours.

One of my greatest triumphs near the end of obtaining my degree was getting a bank loan and acquiring an $800 large-format full colour printer. It was worth every cent for the amount of sleep it saved me.

I tried to challenge a couple more courses. The first one was about things like Adobe Photoshop and InDesign. I'd already completed a course in QuarkXPress and had been using Adobe products for ages. Denied. I didn't learn anything new, but did get to help out Windows people learn shortcuts that instructors only knew how to do on MacOS. (There were at least 5 other people should have been able to challenge this.)

The next course I tried to challenge was the web design one. By that time I had a reputation so when the instructor saw me in class, they asked "What are you doing here?" and I replied with "I need you to sign this." Paper got signed, credit applied for prior learning, and I got some money back. Though I still hung out around the classroom to help folks out. I mostly traded my expertise for food.

My time at ACAD was pretty great. I wasn't "the best" and that meant that I actually was learning new things. I also started to analyze teacher-instructor relationship dynamics, what was deemed "good craft" (visually data-driven) and "good work" (not necessarily data-driven), and the project outlines themselves. Oh... yep, subjective element totally there. I could emulate someone's work and get a good grade. The constructive critiques were where the school really shined and I feel that I can owe a lot of my design communication strength to this.

During my forth and final year, I doubled down on the web development aspect of my career. Several of my final portfolio pieces were from personal projects of mine. I also did joint projects with Computer Science folks at the University of Calgary. I'd found my niche.

For a few remaining pieces, I painted boogers. Specifically nose boogers. Instructors would come up behind me, see me choosing the perfect shades of green and yellow, sigh and walk away without a word. 🤢😉

Rough art of the Canadian Bluenose ship inside of a nose. Only I thought this was hilarious. I don't need your validation.
The beckoning nose canals of your youth.

If design didn't have a subjective element, everyone would love New Twitter. 🙃

You can research and collect data forever, but until your product is being seen and used, you're missing out. I'm a huge fan of iterative design for this reason. Data-driven is just one part of the equation. Factor that all in, bundle in sentiment, the messiness of human nature, both brand and personal relationships, past actions, perceived future trajectory...

Design is partially subjective and part of my job is figuring out how to factor in your personal feelings and perceptions. It's a challenge, people are interesting, the world is in a constant flux, we can't completely box in subjectivity, and that's why I love being here. I know my nana would be proud of me. 💙

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