Andrew Shea

Sep 5th, 2012

Fall means back to school, buckling down and studying up.  We asked some of our favorite creative people about what they’ve learned as students, and what they could teach us now.


U: How did what you studied in school affect where you ended up today and what you’re doing now?

AS: I took a round about way to becoming a designer and writer. I did a lot of writing as a philosophy and writing major in undergrad. I assumed that all of the philosophy papers would make me more disciplined and that the writing degree would make me a better storyteller. I did a little writing after I graduated, but didn't keep up with it. Instead, I started experimenting with photography, video, and putting on shows of other people's work. Making the show posters led me to want to study graphic design since it combines/utilizes other media. I try to incorporate my own photography into the designs as much as possible to add texture and depth to the imagery in ways that help people to connect with the design.  When I was at MICA earning my masters in graphic design, I realized that writing about design was right up my alley. I get lost in the research that goes into design writing and love the stories that can be told. I even like editing. I divide my time between design and writing. While one is visual and the other one's not, the process of creating each is really very similar.

U: What do you wish you’d learned in school that you found out later?  Was it something that could even be taught?

AS: A practical understanding of how to follow my creative interests. From my experience, schools gloss over this. I eventually realized that this is up to me, which is when I started to think more like an entrepreneur in order to create my own opportunities.


U: What’s in your toolbox?  What are the items you need in your workspace to get things done?

AS: I work in front a Macbook Pro most of the day. I use a Nikon D40x to create source material and to document work. I always mock up my print designs from printouts and need an exacto knife, a cutting board, and a matte scotch tape do that. 

U: What’s in your pocket? Do you have anything that’s always with you so you can sketch/take photos/make notes anytime?

AS: I usually have a small sketchbook on me. It keeps me sane during long rides on the Metro. I fill it with lists, sketches, brainstorms, and the occasion epiphany.


U: Who was your most memorable teacher… of all time, not just in a classroom.  What did they teach you?

AS: So many people rush to the top of that list, like my parents, my grad school advisor, Ellen Lupton, my writing instructor in undergrad, Lee Gutkind.  One of the most memorable lessons that I've learned comes in the form of a quote from Ira Glass. I heard it about five years ago. It's on a low-fi video interview that I watched on YouTube. I think all students should hear it and just keep working harder on what they're passionate about.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

U: If you taught a class that you could base on some expertise or obsession you have, what would it be? 

AS: Well, considering that I can't relax until my space feels right, I'd teach a class about how to arrange living spaces. I started obsessing about this when I was a kid. I always hated the house that I grew up in. I was dark and cluttery and it smelled musty, too. I couldn't do anything about the smell, but my parents let me move their furniture around. First in my room and then, during one boring summer between middle school and high school, I rearranged all of the furniture in my parents’ house. I think this was my first design job.


Andrew Shea is a New York based designer and writer. He holds degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and MICA. Andrew is the author of Designing for Social Change: Strategies for Community-Based Graphic Design, from Princeton Architectural Press. Andrew teaches at Parsons, The New School for Design.