This post reflects my experience in Senior English class of high school (2005-06) and the belief in the importance of  a strong English and writing education for the foundation of a design career and in discovering one’s own identity.

At first look, she was the English Teacher From Hell. Sharp, inquisitive eyes, pointed nose, taught, weathered face, and a stern, discerning glare. Stacks of papers piled high upon her worn, wooden desk.

At the time, I was a bit of a shy, terrified teenager, scared of growing up, and too ‘nice’ to form of an opinion of my own. In previous English classes, I had scrawled out essays and papers, but I had never really learned to fully understand the characters or events that filled the cursive writings of my early high school years.

In Senior English class, however, our teacher encouraged us to form solid arguments that supported our thesis statement, in every paragraph, in every sentence that we wrote. This required a lot of analysis, careful thinking, and clear understanding of the characters and plots that filled our minds during that year of Senior English class. During that time as a fragile, timid teenage girl, still forming her own identity, I had never really felt strong enough to form my own opinions in writing, or in life itself. That English Teacher From Hell was one of the first people who taught me to develop strong, solid critical thinking, which ultimately helped me to solidify my own voice and identity.

Now, as a practicing graphic artist, the skills that I learned from the English Teacher From Hell continue to shape my design process, and the way that I communicate with clients and coworkers.

The following points summarize the key takeaways that I learned from that English Teacher from Hell, and the ways in which they have influenced my career as an artist:

#1 How to support a thesis statement

Every paper that we wrote in that English class had to have a solid, thesis statement (or argument) that was fully supported by every paragraph in the paper. That English Teacher from Hell was very strict about making sure that we understood how to have a solid argument and solid voice in everything that we wrote.

How this applies to art / design:

Being able to hold and solidify a solid argument or ‘thesis’ has helped me in guiding designs, brand ideas, and visual styles to ensure that the style fits with the ‘thesis’ of the design. Making sure that every element supports the feeling, message, and goal of the design or visual communication.

#2 How to smoothly transition between ideas / phrases

Within those solidly written papers, that English Teacher from Hell made sure that we had smooth transitions between each and every paragraph. This made sure that ideas flowed smoothly, aiding the understanding of the reader.

How this applies to art / design:

The idea of striving for smooth transitions has guided me in choosing rhythm patterns in design; the contrast between pages in print, the smooth flow of content on websites, constantly preparing the reader or viewer for the next bit of information.

#3 Show, don’t tell

My English Teacher from Hell was always adamant about making sure that we wrote in a way that gave the reader a chance to think and digest the material, she made sure that we didn’t just feed the reader with content. In other words, she always said to “Show, don’t tell.” This meant using a lot of descriptor words, and solid examples to back up our arguments.

How this applies to art / design:

The idea of “Show, don’t tell” is a constant factor in the thought practice in designing. For instance, the choice of colors, textures, and typography all factor into the subtle story or feeling that is trying to be communicated in the design.

#4 The power of constructive criticism

In previous classes, I was used to turing in a paper once and landing an A. In that Senior English class, oftentimes I would need 5-10 revisions on a single paper before the teacher would deem the work A-worthy. Her criticism was always candid, and she really did not care how many hours you put into the writing, in her mind there was almost always room for improvement.

How this applies to art / design:

As a first year art student during college, my fellow students and I spent every day critiquing each others’ work during studio. At first it was painful, just like the writing, it did not matter how much sweat, time, and sacrificed-sleep went into our art projects, we could always do better, we could always learn something new. This process continued into graphic design studios in later years of college, and has continued into every job that I have ever had, and even into my personal relationships. The ability to fully look at artwork or a situation openly and honestly, is a tremendous skill that has helped me grow so much over the past several years. And I still have so much to learn!

#5 Clearly communicating ideas

Part of the reason for such solid constructive criticism, is the fact that in our writing we did not always communicate in a way that others (outside our own heads) could understand. Our teacher encouraged us to think outside our own heads, to ‘walk in someone else’s shoes,’ so that we could clearly explain our ideas in a way that anyone could understand.

How this applies to art / design:

The ability to clearly communicate ideas is a perennial in every project that I have ever taken. In order to have a solid design or idea, I need to be able to explain it in a way that the client can clearly understand in order to move forward with the project.

#6 Learning how to ask for help

Because the English Teacher from Hell was so strict, and often required us to write multiple revisions before granting a worthy grade, she indirectly taught us to ask for help. She often would stay after class or after school to have us stop by and get extra guidance on how to improve her writing. As someone who had previously been very confident in academics, this was a very humbling experience.

How this applies to art / design:

When I entered graphic design school, I had to learn a whole new set of software, and work with a new group of people. I initially had a large learning curve while transitioning from traditional to digital art, and learned to rely on my friends and classmates to help me along the way. As a practicing designer, I am constantly humbled by ever-changing technology, and the constant need to adapt and learn new skills. Asking for help is a daily necessity, and I thank that English Teacher from Hell for helping me learn how to ask.

#7 Avoiding Needless Repetition

To keep our writing clear and engaging, the English Teacher from Hell encouraged us to constantly avoid repetition in our writing by making sure that we did not use the same adjective or descriptor words twice in the same sentence. This caused us to think a little harder, expand our vocabularies, and make our writing more eloquent.

How this applies to art / design:

Although a sense of repetition can be a good thing in art and design (for elements such as rhythm as emphasis), it can also also cause a sense of boredom, or lack of thought. By learning to write with a variety of words, I learned to indirectly develop a sense of variety.

#8 How to create an outline

I remember there was one specific day in Senior English class where that English Teacher from Hell was very particularly concerned with the state of class, and our poor writing ability! And it all stemmed from the ability to create an outline. We were writing a paper for George Orwell’s, “1984,” and most of us were so concerned about the final outcome that we did not take the time to develop an initial outline to form the backbone of our paper.

That day, the English Teacher from Hell took us through step-by-step on how to create a solid outline; starting from gradual to specific; first defining the outline, this slowly structuring each paragraph to support the outline, then finally structuring each sentence to support each paragraph. The process was tedious at first, but it is a solid conceptual tool that I have used to guide every project henceforth.

How this applies to art / design:

The ability to write an outline is synonymous with drawing a sketch before completing a masterpiece painting. It is equivalent to creating a wireframe before developing a website, a storyboard before an animation. An outline teaches you to flesh out ‘big picture’ before getting too concerned with the details. It is a must for any creative project.

#9 Developing a sense of empathy

When my classmates and I strived to create solid, convincing papers during that Senior English class, we indirectly strived to understand the characters and situations that filled our lives during that last year of high school. Such characters and events included a man facing a futuristic world without privacy or freedom in Orwell’s “1984”, a set of silly, satirical characters making joke of the humanity’s ‘logic’ in Voltaire’s “Candide”, and the growth and fears of a young lady in Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”

Although some of the situations that the characters faced were wholly tragic, ridiculous, or tragically ridiculous, we still had to fully understand their personalities and situations in order to create convincing arguments about them. This indirectly lead us to develop a sense of empathy about these characters, which I feel has stretched out into a desire to understand the people and situations that surrounded us in the “real” world as well.

How this applies to art / design:

Developing this sense of empathy is imperative when designing, especially when designing for a very specific audience. One always must understand how certain colors, images, and styles are viewed by the audience. And even understanding the visual language pertinent to that specific audience (for example, soft, colorful visual elements for babies vs. dark, sharp visual elements for metal heads).

And beyond just visual design, having a sense of empathy allows you to better connect with the clients you are working with; understanding what frustrates them, what makes them happy. A sense of empathy can allow you to better predict what kinds of designs best suits the audience for whom you are working.

Even outside, of design, this ability to understand various characters and situations, can strengthen every relationship that you develop, which can ultimately strengthen your own story, whether you tell it through words, pixels, or paint.

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