What do design school grades mean?

Over my teaching career I have seen identifiable patterns that match grades to the personality of the design student. This article is intended for the recent or current student and those who are hiring. These are generalizations so take care applying to individuals. Note: The grading system in this article ends in A+ so subtract half a letter grade for grading systems that end at A.

The Straight A/A+ Superstar has excellent design aesthetic backed up with strong concepting ability and good software skills. They are able to execute solid work with memorable flair. Works very hard and listens without appearing to take critique personally. There are good communicators with outgoing personality and charisma. The two negatives are that they might have an ego – especially if they don’t listen and they tend to be perfectionists that can drive themselves into mid-career health issues if they do not adjust to the deadline realities of the commercial world. These are the design superstars that will need room in grow in their careers.

The Performer has grades that range from B+ to A but predominantly has A-. This person produces polished work that lacks flair. Very keen to learn and can be trained to improve flair by focusing on creativity, contrast and a visual quirk. They are reliable and hard workers with good finishing skills. They are also perfectionists but have not yet developed their “designer eye” to the point where they can recognize great design and produce it themselves. These people can develop into superstars if they learn what makes great design great. These performers make good workers that have potential for improvement if their employer invests in them.

The Worker Bee students get grades in the B/B+ range. Typically they are solid reliable people who take direction well but are not the design superstars. They will put a lot of effort and can be counted on to pull long hours. They are also able to make compromises to get their work in by deadline. Aesthetically their work is good but not award winning. Typically some creative spark is missing - the flair is not there. Often the work is shallow style without a strong connection to concept or message despite the polish of the finishing. They are best suited for junior design roles, production roles and even project management or other design administration jobs. Without significant growth opportunity the worker bee will have a slow career trajectory but are probably happy with that.

The Creative has grades typically around C+/B- with a dash of A grades and the occasional D. This is the sign of somebody with more of an artist personality than a designer personality. They generally spend a lot of time thinking deeply about concept but the finishing and final aesthetic are rough. Typically they are the illustrators, painters and photographers who had a hard time adjusting to the discipline of layout, typography and design theory. They are easily distracted and have a cavalier attitude to deadlines. If they concentrate on finishing skills, deadlines and design aesthetics they have the potential to become future superstars but ambition is not in their nature. The creative is often highly intelligent, philosophical and engaging. They work well when teamed with a performer or worker bee because their concepting ability and risk-taking flair complement the finishing skills of their partner. Consider hiring as part of a large team or using as a freelancer on special projects.

The Dud: has grades in the D/C+ range and should look for a non-design career.

(If you liked this article then you might also like: The Designer Personality)


  1. i am the creative type. it is easy for me to focus on stuff but i find it hard to make myself disciplined. i am strict about the arts i produce though, i hate flaws and i am very detailed. but i tend to give up and tense up easily if i meet an obstacle. i start blaming myself and getting so stressed i get no work done. is it still possible for me to pursue design ? i am not a very productive person but i have concentration and passion for art. i just don't have the discipline and hard work to stick through it. btw love this blog and thank you for the explanations to make me understand this field better :)

    1. The short answer is that you could do well in design for this overriding reason: You are reflecting upon yourself and your projects. This attitude will serve you well in design. The other problems you have are usually solvable and may even work themselves out as your have enforced deadlines at design school.
      I have worked with people with similar situation in the past and, with your permission, I would like to address your comment in a full blog post. Is that okay with you?

    2. Yes i am fine with that :) Thank you for replying. It's just that i am almost done with high school and i'm planning to go on to an art college. But my parents doesn't really agree because well, art fields are harder to obtain good income. I just wanted to make sure i can handle and continue what i chose in the first place.

    3. Your parents are correct about the income. On average, creative careers earn much less. (see: http://ow.ly/erhcE for the American 2012 situation). I asked my past students who live in Japan and they also agree; it is very difficult to make a good income, even for very very good artists/designers.
      Income is not the only reason to select a career. I moved from a good career in IT to design because I am happier in this field. There are people who have done the opposite where they move from Design into another career that is better paid. These people figure they can treat their creative outputs as a hobby and work at freelance until they have the clientbase / reputation to charge more.
      In the new creative economy you must create and release at lot of work and learn along the way.

    4. Yes i agree that career is not just about income. I have more passion for my dreams and design than anything else, it's what i have decided for my future career even when i was young. However my parents have made it quite clear they do not want to sustain me after i graduated. They wanted me to earn my own income and to buy my own car. This is stressing me out because well, designer often needs a few good years to earn some reputation, expand the social circle and gain higher income. Some are even worse as their work are not appreciated. I don't mind having small jobs with small income as a start, I am just afraid that i might find it hard to get a job.