Bad Idea: Don’t Attend Art School
Bad Idea: Art School vs. No Art School
In this two-part article, designers and siblings Matt and Nate Lu discuss with Spire and each other their sincere feelings on pursuing a career in design, sibling rivalry, and whether the benefits of art school are baloney or priceless and meant for the masses or just the few.
Bad Idea: Don't Attend Art School
Matt Lu has been a practicing creative for over 5 years in the industry. Prior to his current tenure as senior visual designer, he clocked 8 years as a classroom educator (studio and otherwise), teaching a range of ages from 3 to 82. His journey as a teacher took him from Baltimore to Beijing, and wrapped up in the Seattle Public Schools. Since then he has worked a gamut of freelance, agency, and in-house positions. He has a B.A. in American Studies and B.A. in Studio Arts from Brandeis University, and a Masters in Teaching from Seattle University.
SPR: Why did you choose Brandeis University in the first place?
ML: Oh man. So many uneducated decisions led to me landing at Brandeis University. Not that it’s a bad school, mind you. In fact, I think when I was accepted it was in the top 25 liberal arts universities in the country (when I left I think it had dropped to the mid-30s, and I like to think I had a part in that). But beyond it being a university that early-on involved Albert Einstein, Leonard Bernstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt, I had very little to go on.
So let’s get into the wrong reasons why I picked a school:
1) Just because a sibling goes there, it doesn’t make you a legacy. In fact, unless its a school with a student body of just a few hundred students, having your older sister attend the school prior to your arrival has zero impact on your own education. Sure, some students and staff may already know you and it might get you into a few more parties, but beyond that all it reflects is that you chose your educational path based on someone else’s. Ironic, since I chose this school over art school because my older brother had already done that. Which leads me to…
2) Don’t base your educational path on anyone’s but your own. I am the youngest of three pretty talented siblings, albeit talented in many different ways. Growing up with just three years of age separating the three of us (you do the math), it kept the level of self-imposed competition—spoken or otherwise—pretty high. We all had the same first grade teacher, we all had the same middle school language arts teachers, the same math teachers throughout middle and high school, the same yearbook instructor, the same school newspaper lead. If the older sister got the highest grade on her marine biology project, three years later I’d have to outdo her. If the older brother became the first illustrator in the high school to be allowed to work both the newspaper and the yearbook as a sophomore, I’d have to do it, too, and attempt it as a freshman.
And while none of this is negative in itself, having somewhat identical pathways through the first 12 years of our educations drove a wedge of competition between myself and my siblings. I am very intentional when I say it like that: myself and my siblings. As the youngest, I inherently had some kind of inferiority complex that took the good part of 25 years to overcome and, in unnecessarily seeing life that way, chose paths and courses dictated through these external motivators that I brought upon myself.
Sadly, these same self-inflicted drivers pushed me to avoid art classes up through high school l because “my brother did that, and if he does it so well I’ll just have to do something else, and do it better.” So I picked law, and that meant going to an undergraduate school with a high acceptance rate into law schools, and at the time, that meant either Ivy League, Stanford, or Brandeis. Why law?
3) Don’t pick your school based on someone saying “Hey, Matt, you seem really good at (fill in the blank), you should (fill in the blank).” I think the last time anyone asked me what I wanted to do or be in life, I was probably twelve (pretty sure I wanted to be a ninja). After that, it was more along the lines of “you should be a scientist or an engineer since you’re good at math,” or “you should be a lawyer because you write well and it pays well.” But when it mattered most, when it really made sense to ask me what I wanted to do (not just be), most people were happy to let my grades inform their suggestions.
SPR: In hindsight, would you have chosen another school or maybe not even attended a college to pursue your creative growth?
I wish I had at least looked into school’s with decent art programs, if not dedicated art schools themselves. After graduating with two really expensive pieces of paper and no direction, I had no concept of what I wanted to do with my life, let alone pursue the arts in any fashion. I fell into teaching on accident while living in Baltimore, and like many kids fresh out of school, I glommed onto the first thing that felt successful and went with it.
SPR: So for the time and finances you invested then, was it worth it?
It’s hard to tell what the cost offset would be between a private liberal arts university and an arts school, so financially I would say it’s a moot point. But as far as time investment, I can comfortably say that four years following somewhat arbitrary rabbit holes of education with little to no guidance would be a waste of anyone’s time.
That being said, the level of education I did receive over those four years was excellent, and the soft skills I acquired have assisted me considerably in my second career as a designer. The research and writing built into preparing for law have leant themselves well in areas like content creation and client presentation, while the analytical/critical thinking processes that are inherent to the liberal arts are essential to everyday art direction. It’s not to say that these skills cannot be acquired in an arts school or any school (or in the field, for that matter), but that my choice of study, despite being unrelated to where I have ended up, has given me a conceptual edge that has enabled me to execute and perform in the creative world at a level higher than I had anticipated at this time in my career.
SPR: Did it help with your career launch?
Ha! Of course not, not even indirectly. In fact, it didn’t even help with first career as an educator, other than the random person who would look at my resume and say “You went to Brandeis University? Why are you here?”, as if the University’s stature actually affected my teaching placement.
SPR: How did attending a liberal arts school help with networking and continuing to open doors for your career?
Like I said before, very little of my current role can be traced back to my decisions as an undergraduate. And while my post-graduate work was obviously more granular in its direction, I still walked away from it and changed my career path, and by the grace of God and the talents he gave me, clawed and scraped to become what I am now. So yeah, no networking, no doors opened, not even a window with a shady lock.
I don’t even think Brandeis has a graphic design program to this day, and why would they? I still have a few connections in the fine arts world, but those are limited to starving artists and a couple of curators.
SPR: Do you feel like Brandeis University helped you meet your goals?
To be honest, to this day I’m not sure what my goals are. While I am ambitious in my pursuit of great projects, ambition in the hierarchy of the design world has never been of much importance to me, aside from having a job that allows me to make enough money to provide for my family (what’s in a title anyhow?). I am astounded and privileged to have been able to get as far as I have without having a formal background in design, so not to beat the proverbial dead horse, but attending Brandeis University did nothing to bring me to where I am now. In fact, outside of being a couple lines on a resume, and not even the most important ones, my undergraduate schooling is unrelated to my current career; I think I could have gone to any school to get where I am now.
SPR: Was school instrumental in preparing you for the required knowledge base/vernacular/skill sets/rigor of the design field?
Everything I know about the design field, and I mean EVERYTHING, I learned in the field. When I decided to leave the classroom and take a shot at being a full-time creative, I had a very limited understanding of what it mean to be a designer. I had no idea what skills were required, what agency life was like, what designers were supposed to dress like for interviews, not even what the range of programs were out there and being used. Prior to my first position as a junior designer, the last time I had used Photoshop was in the late 90s, way before the idea of a Creative Suite was born.
Fortunately, I was given an opening that many don’t receive in my position, and I am incredibly indebted to John Pletsch (Electric Pen, Seattle) for taking me on as a junior designer the same year left teaching. It can be a little intimidating to change careers as a 30 year-old, especially walking into a field where I had so little knowledge. To top it off, I actually thought I knew a little about design since I had freelanced for a bit, doing logos and layouts here and there for people who didn’t know any better, so going into my interview I actually thought I had shot at a position that was really meant for kids fresh out of a design program. I shouldn’t have gotten the job, and in fact it was offered to another candidate, but my fine arts background and my teaching experience led John to take a gamble on me to see if I could hack it in the design field. It was at this first real agency job that I cut my teeth, picked up my Wacom in earnest, worked the insane hours and last-minute deadlines, and learned to love what I probably should have been doing a long time ago.
Electric Pen is primarily a presentation firm, so PowerPoint was also something I that I had to pick up along the way, and as far as I know, they don’t teach the level of presentation mastery that I have in any classes, and certainly not at Brandeis (who knew specializing in PowerPoint was even a thing?). I suppose if they did teach PowerPoint specialization, I wouldn’t get the projects that I do, so…let’s keep on not teaching that, okay? But aside from presentation, we often took on projects that were outside of our skill set, both to stretch the range of our clientele and the range of our designers. Whether this is a good practice or not, it forced me to expand my knowledge base considerably, and by the time I left Electric Pen the breadth of my portfolio reflected this.
SPR: Do you feel like the creative environment you experienced at Brandeis was instrumental for your career?
Believe it or not, we actually had a decent creative environment at Brandeis, but it was our own doing. The juniors and seniors in the sculpture studio bonded through a great instructor, and we pushed the limits of our work through constant challenge and encouragement. I truly miss those days of absolute creative freedom. More than anything, it is those moments of collaboration that I think back on when faced with a big creative ask, when I need to pull writers, designers, and photographers together to complete a project. That kind of collaboration isn’t always organic, and whether it’s art school or liberal arts, it’s often up to the students to connect and drive, not the school.
SPR: What was Brandeis impact on your personal work/life balance and relationships?
Well, knowing what I know of art school life from both my brother and my former students, I can tell you that my path through undergraduate life was comparatively easy. Sure, we had our fair share of homework and projects like any other East Coast private liberal arts university, but I remember once hearing that my brother had gotten as much sleep in a week as I did in one night. His all-nighter projects were admittedly way cooler than ours, but I like my sleep.
The great thing about the liberal arts is that you have a lot of choice, both in educational paths and extracurriculars, and in the latter I really went for it. I DJ’d both in a club and at the school’s radio station, worked in the game room/pool hall on campus, participated in the Chinese lion dance troupe, put on parties, fashion shows, played club soccer, and worked with a multitude of campus clubs. I don’t know if that’s all something that’s doable at an art school like ArtCenter, but I know it’s there for the taking at a school like Brandeis.
SPR: So, art school – good idea or bad idea?
I have a lot of regrets about not going to art school, and a lot of personal takeaways on how I let my own perceptions drive my decisions to take on anything but the arts. But I am where I am for a reason, and I thank God everyday that I am able to do what I do, regardless of how I got here. Without patting myself on the back, I think I stand out as an anomaly in the creative world in that I got a job at a firm based solely on risk vs. potential reward, and I don’t think that happens very often.
While I know firsthand that a lot is learned on the job, I also know that getting that first job where such learning might take place is not the easiest thing to do; the market is seemingly saturated and job specialization has increased. I think something like an internship while attending art school can lead to many more doors being opened, and those opportunities did not exist at Brandeis University, and I don’t think they ever will.