Demo or Die

I came across an article in Metropolis not long ago that I wanted to point out. Bruce Sterling pens “California Dreaming” (Link; alternate Link), a piece mostly discussing his experience being among design students at Art Center. I like it because when I tell people that studying design was tougher than studying aerospace, I can point to it for backup. From the article:

Before joining Art Center I had no idea how normal people got transformed into designers. I imagined that as a teacher I might be grading their exams, running boot-camp drills, hell weeks, pop quizzes–but no, at Art Center the way is the rigor of practice. Demo or die. Practice is the crucial difference between people who can talk (like myself) and people who can design (like my best students).

Those students work harder than oxen. By show time at the end of the term, they’re physically collapsing from their own ambitions. They grieve. They tremble with burnout. They slumber on the library carpets. They change a lot.

What he paints is a familiar picture {and every time I read that second paragraph a flood of memories return}. It’s one thing to go into an exam where answers will be graded on a simple “Right” or “Wrong” basis, and quite another to take on a project that has no definitive answers; to go through this effort thinking you must do something innovative, because your grade (or your job security) depends not on an answer sheet but on an impression.

MIT Media Lab professor John Maeda writes about something similar in his post on procrastination and creativity (Link). There’s a sense of that when working on a design project. At least for me there is. If I’m really into something, I’ll examine it to no end. Turn it over and over in my head (and on a sketch pad) while searching out some form of “eureka” inspiration from any source. Putting off work that forces me down a path to finality. Procrastinating in order to do something more creative; more amazing. More representative of me and my abilities.

Those in school who wanted to design the most, spent all day at school; six and often seven days a week. The school I attended deliberately closed at midnight so students would get some sleep; security guards were always dragging people out after closing hours and students would often hide or figure out ways to get back inside their studio (like drilling out the rivets that held the exterior accessible windows closed). That was how it was at a competitive design school.

That kind of dedication is hard to explain. Not that all students behave this way. A fair number of my classmates didn’t work that hard. They’re also not employed as designers.