How teaching prepared me for design

Teachers are storytellers. Above all else, your job at the front of a classroom is to take a complicated, often inconsistent and bewildering array of facts and ideas and turn it into a story that feels coherent and intuitive to your students. Failing intuitive, it should at least feel approachable.

Teachers make the complex simple. Designers do the same thing.

Both professions focus on distilling ideas to their essence, and then gradually exposing an organizational structure that guides others through the story.

Since entering the design field last fall, I’ve found the following skills to be particularly helpful.

Mitigating boredom:

As a teacher, you get really good at spotting boredom. From the front of the room, you can tell who’s paying attention, who’s enthralled, who’s trying to follow along and is struggling, and you know that the guy in the third row has been checked out all morning. With practice, you learn to hold all of those students in your mind’s eye at once, and you write your lectures to reach them.

Students don’t bother to hide their lack of interest – it’s one of their most frustrating and endearing traits. Every time I entered a classroom, I got immediate feedback from my students about what worked and what didn’t, and for which students at what time. I quickly learned to structure my classes in a way that reduced boredom and increased learning.

In addition to its importance for classroom presentations and public speaking, I’m finding that the ability to predict and avert boredom is critical to making design that feels exciting and new. If you know what they’re expecting, you can use that knowledge to create surprise and delight.

Design for usability:

Nothing will teach you to be clear, organized, and consistent in all of the details quite like handing out a syllabus to 100 panicky students on the first day of class. If the questions in class aren’t enough of a penalty to pay for something that isn’t straightforward or easy to find, then the thousands of emails in your inbox will be (or the negotiating of loopholes later in the semester). In teaching, as in anything else, if you want your audience to do something with the things you create, you have to make them clear and easy to use. And always proofread one more time.

Perspective-taking:

Teachers have to be fully comfortable being the weird alien at the front of the classroom who could never really “get” what it is to be a student. It doesn’t matter that you interact with students every day – you have to know and accept that your expertise has moved you worlds away from the place where they are standing right now.

And yet, a good teacher knows that the only way to learn is to start right where you are. Difficult as it is to remember that there was a time when the structure of an atom (or your own favorite fundamental truth) was not immediately obvious, a teacher must constantly and consciously choose to put herself in someone else’s shoes and experience the information from their point of view.

In design, you might be able to get away with working for weeks before your project sees the light of day, and perhaps even longer before it reaches the desired audience. In teaching, the new design goes live every day. I got immediate, focused feedback every time I had a conversation with a student who still didn’t get why it was important to balance a chemical reaction. By listening to that feedback, I learned how to clear misconceptions and stumbling blocks out of the way so that my message could be heard. This skill helps to create clear, accessible design ideas faster.

Empathy:

This one is hard. And critically important. In order to truly encourage and inspire students to learn, you have to know where they’re coming from, and speak to their hopes as well as their fears. It’s not enough to tell students that they should want to have a good grade; you have to remember back to your own student days and tell them how to do it. And you have to be willing to understand their values and ideals, especially when they are different from yours.

My biggest challenge in this area was plagiarism. Every semester, students would plagiarize. At first, I tried perspective-taking, and introduced “recognizing plagiarism” materials to my class, hoping that a clearer definition would help with the large numbers of students who “just didn’t know.” It didn’t work. Despite having been very clearly informed, students continued to plagiarize. They’d run short on time, or have a fit of imposter syndrome and decide that they could never write anything worthwhile, and out came the copy and paste.

Again and again, I found myself in the Dean’s office sitting across from a student who just didn’t see why they were in trouble. I could give them up as a lost cause, or I could take that moment as an opportunity to teach. But before we could have a meaningful conversation, I needed to let myself fully experience the pressures and other considerations that these students were dealing with. I needed to understand how hard it was to not be “allowed” to get a bad grade, or to “have” to go out on a Saturday night, or any of the thousand things that feel like matters of life and death to an 18-year-old college student. Then I could talk about why copying others’ work is not acceptable, as someone who fully realized the situation and understood the struggle. And I could bring those insights back to the next class, and find a solution that better suits the actual needs and concerns of my audience, while also meeting my own objectives.

Empathy is the only thing that connects you to your audience, and it’s the place where real change happens. As a designer, the ability to empathize – with your team, your client, and your audience – is a requisite skill. The more you understand about where someone is coming from, the better prepared you will be to create a design that gets them there.

Lead with results:

There is no tougher crowd than a room full of a hundred first-year premeds, whose mom’s friend is a nurse and told them that they don’t need to know chemistry for the daily practice of medicine. These students are in the class for the grade alone, and it’s your job to teach them that there are other worthwhile things to be gained from the next 15 weeks.

Here again, the goal of a teacher and the goal of a designer are the same: create something that is interesting enough to get their attention, and then persuade them to learn. Exploit the power of a good story line. Lead with results first, and then give the detailed breakdown of why. (Red blood cells burst if you put them in distilled water!! And then we start talking about osmosis, not before.)

Bullet points, executive summaries, bottom lines: I’ve used them all to get my students’ attention and to help them connect one idea with another. The long and wandering lead up doesn’t work: half the class will be asleep before you get to the main point. Attention is fleeting: grab it and use it before it’s gone. Turns out that this is critical in designing posters, too.

Persuasion:

Every teacher is an apologist for his or her discipline. It’s your job to convince students that your knowledge and disciplinary perspectives are worthwhile. You learn how to marshal evidence to make a point, and how to draw even reluctant students into a productive discussion. It all comes back to creating that story line, and then using facts and examples chosen based on empathy and perspective-taking to back it up.

The bottom line:

I have been surprised at how many of the skills that I developed by teaching have come in handy as I transition to a new career in design. Things I never really thought about as skills have helped me to do better work.

There’s still a lot to learn, and a lifetime of new skills to gain (typesetting, anyone?), but the fundamental things that make design work are very similar to what makes good teaching sing. My new toolkit is filled with typefaces, color theory, and page layouts, but I’m also realizing that I bring a lot of fundamental design skills with me from the classroom, too.