Thinkin Thoughts

Your Design Capstone Doesn’t Matter

The idea of a design capstone project is kind of weird, when you take a step back and look at it. Sure, it results in some cool looking stuff, and it’s an opportunity to get into whatever it is that you’re into, but the fact of the matter is that you are working intensely on a project that isn’t actually for anyone but you.

I remember being asked countless times for each design project I worked on in school, “who is your audience?”. I would usually prattle off a set of people of certain ages, which I had honestly thought about. I often got into target personas and tried to figure out characteristics of the people that would supposedly be the ones that this project was for.

But the thing is, even though I spent time and effort coming up with my audience, those people weren’t real, and after critique, my project wasn’t really being shown to anyone except a handful of art directors and designers at companies I where applied for jobs.

It’s important to consider your audience, but when your design problem is theoretical, there aren’t a lot of stakes in making sure that you actually follow through and make an appropriate solution. I remember changing who I’d defined as my target audience after completing a project on multiple occasions, and I’m sure that I’m not the only design student to ever do this. I would take out words of copy that went into a book or brochure design to make the rag look better. I would rearrange the order of content because it looked better that way. I don’t think these things are incriminating, but they definitely highlight the difference between student work and work for a client.

The primary purpose of student work is to look cool. And the primary purpose of client work is to solve the problem being presented to you by said client. And I think it’s important to go through those “designing for design’s sake” projects, because you need to practice the ability to make cool stuff before you can do it consistently. But it also means that once you shift to the client work, you’ll have to reset your priorities.

I’ll use an example from my job right now. We’re creating concepts for a campaign of patient materials (brochures, etc) for cataract patients. The type of stuff that you’d be given by your doctor, or would pick up in a waiting room. Part of the design for one of our concepts uses outlined type to emphasize parts of headlines. It looks really cool, but cataract patients would likely have trouble reading these words. And because of that, it’s not accomplishing what it needs to accomplish. It isn’t just there to look nice, it has to serve a real purpose, and the design should be an accessory to that, not the main focus.

When the most important purpose of your piece is that it looks cool, it will inherently lack a level of substance that can be found in even the most boring of client work. So even though your design capstone looks sexy as hell, it’s not going to be the most important thing you ever make, and it definitely won’t be the best. Is it a way for you to improve your work and learn as much as you can? Absolutely. But it doesn’t really matter.

Leah Strickman2 Comments