How Teaching Can Make You Better at Your Job
My experience as an adjunct instructor at my alma mater – and how it contributed to improving my skills as a designer.
This past year, I taught a graphic design course on the fundamentals of typography at my alma mater, American University. Finding a balance between teaching a university level class and working at an agency full time created its own set of unique challenges. More on that later. I was busier than I had ever been before – but teaching undoubtedly made me a better designer. Below I’ve shared some of the ways my experience teaching impacted my design skills.
It’s an inspiring outlet outside of your day to day job.
Firstly, teaching students at the university level energized me in a way that working with clients doesn’t always do. In most cases, I found that students have a genuine desire to learn and get better at design. They’re looking for the instructor to give them specific direction, and to build an individualized rapport whenever possible. It was hard not to be inspired in this type of environment, where the emphasis isn’t necessarily results, but rather, learning and growth. I found it meaningful and fulfilling to be able to pass on experience and knowledge that I’ve come across in my own career.
It’s important to have ways of fostering inspiration that comes from sources that aren’t directly tied to your full time job. Coming to work the next day with this newfound energy in hand makes the problems you’re trying to solve at work a little more exciting and clear. I’ve found that when you’re inspired, design problems don’t seem quite as tangled as they did before. Having this mindset renews your own desire to learn, even outside of design.
There’s actually a lot of skill overlap.
On a more granular level, the skills you need as an instructor aren’t all that different from the skills you need as a designer, especially at an agency. Teaching requires crystal clear communication skills. Whether it’s giving a lecture, explaining a project, or giving assignment feedback, communicating ideas clearly is the most important thing about being an instructor. For students to learn and get better, they need to know exactly what you’re expecting of them, so naturally, expectations are really important.
These same principles apply to design work. If you can’t communicate the purpose of your idea clearly and succinctly, the visual design doesn’t matter – as pretty as it may be. This is particularly true when it comes to presenting work to clients; articulating the problem and how you're solving it is more important than anything else.
Flexibility and preparedness are just as important. The semester runs on an incredibly packed, dense schedule. Being flexible and adjusting the plan for the class on the fly – and knowing the material well enough to do so – is critical. The parallel between teaching and agency life is natural here as well; requirements on client projects change quite frequently. Design teams have to adjust their work as they go. The key takeaway here is that nothing ever goes according to plan – the ability to adjust the agenda on the fly stems from a level of thorough preparation and knowing the material like the back of your hand.
Lastly, teaching a design course requires an ability to ideate rapidly. Students ask for feedback and ideas related to their work in real-time, which isn’t quite as common in the agency world. At work, you have time to think critically before critiquing the work with your internal team, or explaining how to solve a problem with clients. Individual critique with 18-20 different students forces the instructor to ideate quickly and effectively – while giving helpful feedback on the spot. In an agency, being able to ideate rapidly can better inform nearly every phase of a project, as the ability to come up with a variety of distinct ideas is a necessity.
But it’s not all fun and games.
Like I mentioned earlier, teaching part time and working at an agency full time wasn’t all perfect. It also presented its own set of unique challenges – the main one being lack of time. There are only so many hours in a day. Between the demands of working 40+ hours a week at an agency and teaching students at night, you find yourself spread pretty thin. The responsibility of balancing both jobs – and living up to expectations for both – was challenging, but worth doing.
Additionally, while the abilities you need as a designer and instructor do have some overlap, the roles are ultimately different. Teaching is not the same as working in an agency, nor should it be treated as such. It’s all about people and interpersonal relationships. Design, like many other things, can be very personal – both for students just starting out, and a brand that’s trusting an agency with their visual identity. With students, the emphasis should always be solely centered around empathy, learning, and growth – not achieving business objectives or solving user problems. It’s important to recognize that the goals of the two vocations are not necessarily the same.
Overall, the experience of teaching design at my alma mater was not only rewarding and fulfilling, but a time of growth. For those interested in giving teaching a shot, I highly recommend that you try it out.