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)