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Cognition

From the Classroom to the Office

As a new Happy Cogger (today is my four-month workiversary), I am slowly but surely adjusting to my new role and schedule. Before joining Happy Cog, I spent two years as a Graphic Design MFA student at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Two years of trying new things, advancing my skills, and writing and researching. Despite now working outside of an academic context, that doesn’t mean my education has ended. It’s just shifted focus. The following are ways my education has evolved during this transition from graduate school to professional practice.

From my work to our work

After years of working independently, it feels great to be a part of a dedicated team again. In graduate school, I spent a lot of time in my own head, likely overanalyzing every last detail of my work. Now, I am building websites collaboratively and working on complex projects that I’d never be able to do solo. The many perspectives brought to the table improve the work, and it’s more fun, too.

I live in Baltimore and the Happy Cog office is based in Philadelphia. When I first started, I spent a lot of time commuting on the Amtrak Northeast Regional train. Every morning, I crossed my fingers, hoping that I’d be able to access the wifi in the café car (Pro tip: This is the place to sit if you’re planning to work). The 81-minute ride provided the time to catch up on email, to befriend the commuter regulars (it pays to know them; they have the inside scoop on why the train is delayed), and to observe my surroundings. One day I noticed the Amtrak brochures placed by each seat which state, “We’re all in this together…literally.” My first thought did not go to the Homeland Security mantra of “If you see something, say something,” but instead to my new colleagues at Happy Cog. Cheesy, but true.

From being my own client to working for clients

Having complete control over the direction of every piece of design can result in amazing work. But in client services, you have to juggle the opinions of various stakeholders, business needs, aesthetic concerns, technical requirements, and most importantly, the needs of your users. Many requirements for our projects are out of our control. The push and pull of the process makes client work more difficult than student work (IMHO).

For every project I made in graduate school, I was essentially my own client. I had little constraints and could define the scope, messaging, and format for most of the projects. Additionally, each of my classmates had their own unique focus within graphic design — from interactive installations, to web design, to publication design, to branding, to typeface design, to systems design, to motion graphics, to game design, to social design, and so on. I received feedback from my peers, professors, and guest critics. This allowed me to push my work forward and myself outside of my comfort zone. There is something wonderful about this freedom and exposure to various definitions of graphic design.

On the other hand, it helps to have constraints! My work improves when I have limitations and guidelines. Giving myself parameters was something I exercised in school, so that I didn’t become overwhelmed by the endless possibilities. Client work, by its very nature, provides each project’s constraints.

From wearing many hats to…still wearing many hats

One reason I wanted to work at Happy Cog is the broad responsibility designers have. Wearing many hats can be a challenge, but it’s much better than pigeonholing to one skill.

My thesis project in graduate school allowed me to dive deep into the creation of a typographic system that could be applied in a print, web, and exhibition context. But before I started designing, I spent months reading, interviewing, writing, and gathering data. I was the content creator as well as the shaper and producer.

Now I am taking these lessons learned in school and advancing them even further at Happy Cog. We are given responsibility beyond of the role of just designer. We also help define project strategy, interview stakeholders, communicate directly with clients, document our process, craft a responsive user experience, and collaborate with the developers to ensure a smooth build of the work.

The learning never ends

Every agency has its own unique processes and each project requires a different approach. At Happy Cog, every project I’ve worked on so far has offered me the opportunity to pick up something new. I’ve learned mundane yet essential skills such as memorizing Photoshop shortcuts and successfully uploading to our client-facing project documentation platform. I’ve also been able to tackle more complex tasks like leading a client presentation remotely and participating in a live-Photoshop brainstorming session via screen share.

By getting hired at Happy Cog, I was immediately trusted to jump into these scenarios without fear of mistakes. As I transition back into the world of professional practice, I am reminded of the old adage, one of the best ways to learn is simply on the job. In my short tenure here, I have already learned a lot. I look forward to continuing my education in the projects to come.

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