Meet Shawn Sprockett, Visual Design Instructor at General Assembly San Francisco

Shawn Sprockett

Designing for Impact

Shawn Sprockett is a design manager at Postmates, design advisor to Axiom Zen, and an instructional lead for General Assembly’s Visual Design course in San Francisco. His work has spanned a wide breadth of industries over the last 10 years, having collaborated with brands including Victoria's Secret and Airbnb and trained under legendary designers like Milton Glaser and Stefan Sagmeister. Shawn has also been a part of big business transformations like Conde Nast's shift to mobile publications and IBM's implementation of design thinking at scale. Shawn has an MFA in design and entrepreneurship from the School of Visual Arts. His recent projects are at the intersection of artificial intelligence, behavioral psychology, and generative design. Read Shawn's articles, “A Beginner’s Guide to Composition in Visual Design,” and "A Beginner’s Guide to Typography."

What do you love about design?

Design is everything. The way you think is designed by your environment and your biology. The things you value in life are designed by your experiences and your feelings. Companies design images that project what they want to be to the world. Products are designed with the capacity to frustrate or bring tremendous joy to people’s lives. There are endless possibilities with design. It continuously inspires me with how much I can discover and learn through it.

How would you define visual design in two sentences?

Visual design is the most misunderstood aspect of design. It’s deceptively accessible, but as students will learn, it is tough to master and influences far more than just look and feel.

What’s an example that embodies the best of what visual design can and should accomplish in real life?

Students should have a strong sense of how to tackle future design problems after my course. The process we go through together over eight weeks is a framework; one that can be applied to any future challenge. Tired of the way the subway map is so confusing? Use the design process. Think your favorite retail shop could have a better website? Use the design process. After this course, students can begin building a portfolio of anything they want to improve.

Why should someone learn essential visual design skills at GA?

Every day I have to turn down a designer who is strong at user experience design but lacks a thorough understanding of visual design. It’s a chronic problem in the Bay Area where there are fewer graphic design programs than in the Northeast. Visual design helps turn the great insights from UX research into elegant solutions. It helps complete the package of being of a total product designer. At GA, you are taught by someone like me who started off self-taught and seeking a career change and then eventually found formal training through grad school. I’ve seen both sides of the coin and can give realistic advice about the trade-offs of graduate school and career transitions.

Please describe exceptional strengths in GA’s curriculum, teaching style, and community.

While a university’s continuing education program may give you access to career academics, GA is built on people who have current-day experience. In the time I’ve been teaching this course, we’ve had to change tools, swap out lessons, and build new curricula to match the ever-changing landscape of design. I have lessons on things like motion design in interfaces that few, if any, other program offers. It’s the advantage you get from learning from someone who is designing every day.

What does a superstar design student look like?

You deserve some credit just for making it to the first class. Learning a new skill is intimidating, and pushing yourself to commit to a night class is already a commendable feat. But what really impresses me is seeing students who take class seriously, ask insightful questions, and push themselves to exceed the project’s goals.

What personal qualities will set someone up for success in visual design?

Curiosity is the most important quality for a designer. You need to wake up each day and wonder how you might change the world around you for the better. You have to be fearless in learning new programs or methodologies, and you have to be relentless in finding a way to get things done.

What was your path to becoming a teacher and leader in design?

Curiosity was the most important factor in my own career path. I was majoring in international relations in undergrad and was working with nonprofits dealing with human rights issues, but I saw a need for better design in the branding and products they used. No one else was doing it, so I did. That’s basically the formula that has fueled my career. At my first proper design job in edtech, no one else was using design to make learning better, so I did. I didn’t have GA or any mentors, so I went online and found Photoshop communities and learned from forums. The same thing happened over and over again at different companies. Each time I was hired, I found a space people weren’t using that effectively and I taught myself how to make it better.

Why did the opportunity to teach here appeal to you?

I’ve been teaching the Visual Design (VIS) course at GA since it was first introduced. My mentors in graduate school encouraged me to teach, even early in my career, as a way to grow. I didn’t fully understand the advice at the time, but I see now how teaching has helped. I’m better at presenting and public speaking. I have a deeper empathy for new designers and thusly many of the designers I now manage. I can explain design concepts in simple terms to people in other disciplines like engineering and product management to help get their support. And I’m under pressure to keep my own design skills sharp as I teach others how to create designs.

How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

I’ve often compared learning design to going to a gym for the first time. You feel very vulnerable, everyone seems better than you, you’re not sure how any of the devices work, and it requires lots of practice. In this metaphor, my role as an instructor is like a personal trainer. I’m there to be the expert, to help you learn how to use new skills, and give homework on how to improve on your own. I also offer lots of encouragement and support. Learning new things is often frustrating, so being around to share stories of times I messed up or things didn’t go my way are often reassuring.

What has been your favorite memory as a GA instructor?

The last class is always my favorite. It’s where I finally see in the students’ face a sense of accomplishment and pride in what they’ve created. The designs have come so far and, by the last class, they’re miles from where they started. Students shift from trusting that the design process works to believing that it works.

How do you help struggling students break through to meet or go beyond their minimum GA course requirements?

I offer to meet 1:1 with students during each class. I often grab coffee with them and we chat about next career steps or grad school, but sometimes we go deeper on the project they’ve been working on. If someone is particularly stuck on something like typography, I give them different exercises like working with woodblock type to create compositions letter by letter or playing online games that help give them an eye for kerning or font pairing.

How do you push high-achieving students to go beyond the minimum GA course requirements?

Each week’s homework assignment comes with the standard assignment and stretch goals. Students that may already have a background in user experience design often have overlap with some of the basics of visual design, so to challenge them I give them lengthier, deeper reading to cover, and I encourage them to present more comprehensive final projects. While a typical student might only present the mobile landing page for their client, a high-achieving student would present the page in tablet and desktop sizes as well.

Between taking the course and finding a job, what is the best way to get practical, real-world experience in visual design?

Freelance or just make things on your own. You need to be prolific. Create non-stop for anything that interests you. When I applied to grad school, my portfolio was primarily passion projects: infographics about Florida politics and issues that made my blood boil. No one was paying me or prompting me to make them. I made them because I felt the need to express myself through design. Too many students wait for a prompt. You have a prompt. There’s a bunch of broken stuff in the world. Go fix it. People will hire you if your portfolio is full of passionate ideas and beautiful executions.

What are some free resources and tools a student can use to stay up to speed in the visual design field?

I learned through Photoshop tutorial sites that would post competitions. It was a great way to practice my skills, see how others interpreted the prompts, and get feedback on my work. AIGA is another organization that regularly offers portfolio critiques and hosts events that will keep you aware of current debates in the industry. GA has a network of alumni that you can reach out to and buy coffee for to pick their brain on things that are keeping you up at night.