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  • Erin Barnes

How to Relieve the Pain(ting)

"You're an art student?"


"That sounds easy!"


"I wish I could go to school and draw all day."


I've heard it all in a hundred different ways. As a fourth-year student of MacEwan University's Design Studies program, I'm painted with a wide brush like students of other disciplines. We're all hippies or smoke pot and have it the easiest at university, since all we do is draw and give ridiculously abstract explanations for our artistic genius.


...I wish.


While it's true that the arts programs operate in a distinctively different way than most others, we're still held to the same standard of excellence as expected of any student. There's no time to waste, and no bit of creativity or insight spared.


Before I first began the Design Studies program in 2016, the only prediction I had for my post-secondary schooling was that it'd be exactly like I'd seen in popular TV dramas and I'd encounter the numerous blunders as told by students on social media. It wasn't until I attended the Open House that I finally realized what being a design student really meant—ultimate flexibility of the mind and the willingness to solve any and all problems.


Unlike the commerce, nursing, or accounting programs, most of the arts programs are heavily based in theory and application. This means that there's never 'homework' in the conventional sense, but instead, a gradual stream of projects that build upon one another. Every class has its own set of projects that are uniquely tied to the principles that one learns in the class. This ranges from the psychology of web design to the implications of line curvature (yes, as silly as it sounds).


Another distinct feature of the arts programs is that our classes tend to be between two and four hours long, which provides an ample amount of time for us to critique others, complete research, and begin the creation of our unique design solution. If classes were any shorter, then there wouldn't be any time to judge our work with a careful eye before moving onto the next step. That being said, almost all classes are similar in their conduct.


At the ripe hour of 8AM, all students' progress of the current project (or projects) is mounted and displayed along the side of the room for critique. A sizable fraction of our marks comes from our participation and willingness to assist other students by providing suggestions for their work. It may sound simple, but this can take upwards of three hours.


There's plenty of "what if you tried that" or "maybe adjust this" and "I'd like to see more experimentation." As such, you'll learn to develop a thick skin and be open to critiques. If you take things personally, then you'll definitely have a rude awakening ahead of you—unless you learn to change, that is.


The participation marks are awarded not just by attending class, but taking an active role in helping your fellow designers or artists. Unfortunately this isn't a U of A lecture course where you only really need to show up for the midterms and finals. The process of progression and critique is integral to all forms of art and research.


The instructors of Allard Hall are as multi-layered and challenging as the projects they assign. They all offer guidance from a safe distance away, ensuring that our independence and confidence grow. This also trains students for providing insightful, eye-catching pitches to clients, and applies a healthy level of competitiveness between students.


I also quickly learned that instructors aren't the monsters they're portrayed as and can't be summed up with the horror stories of students from years long past. No matter what, you have got to keep an open mind. I could name a dozen instances where I'd excitedly signed up for a class only to find out that the professor was allegedly an unfair marker, dry as hell, and assigned fifty pages of textbook readings a week. Yet instead of preemptively preparing myself for the mental anguish I thought I'd endure, I found that the instructors were much more personable and relatable than I ever could've expected.


Due to the classroom sizes being smaller in the arts department, approximately 20-30 people per class, it gives instructors the ability to personally discuss your project and assist with whatever questions you may have. Rather than sitting in an auditorium among hundreds of faces similar to my own, I sit in a class where I'm known by name and can express my ideation process with ease. Instructors take the role of employer and we are their employees.


In the end, the most integral things for the art programs are independence, openness, participation, speaking ability, and your creative capacity.


With that in mind, you're sure to not have as many surprises in your first semester.

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