6 things I Wish I’d Known as a Design Student

Every designer’s experience of the industry is different and there are various factors that impact what one might wish to have known. Although a lot of my ‘things’ cover learnings from my time in the digital and content marketing sphere, they also apply to many other areas within the design industry.

So here they are then, the six things I wish I had known as a design student.

1. A strong portfolio is only half of it

There is plenty of self-indulgence and ego in the creative world, but assuming that your portfolio is a job-providing, award-worthy body of work would be a big mistake. Is it important to have a good portfolio? Yes, naturally, but you have to have a personality to match. Arrogance doesn’t have a home in the workplace. If you produce the best content in the world but you can’t communicate, listen, work as a team and put the effort in, then what use are you? Sounds harsh but it’s true, employers don’t want to work with difficult people.

A good work ethic with a good portfolio is more of a winning combination than an excellent portfolio with a poor attitude. So yes, by all means, work on having an impressive portfolio, but don’t forget to think about who you are and what you can bring to the table. Ultimately, an employer should hire you, not your work.

2. Thick skin and an open mind – feedback can suck

Let’s face it, feedback can suck. 

Again, it’s a constant topic of conversation in the industry. It’s not something you can ignore – its a large part of the job right?

Real world feedback is a different beast to the type of feedback you get at uni. In my experience university offered a lot of observations and comments that came from experienced servants of the design world, but not from clients, committees or internal management. But what if you are an in-house designer or work as a lone wolf within a marketing team? Often you won’t receive feedback from an experienced creative. Instead it will stem from various colleagues and clients. It’s easy to disagree with them, because well…what do they know? But this is not a productive attitude.

So what’s my point? Forming a thick skin and keeping an open mind is key to managing feedback. It’s not easy, but it is important. It will allow you to remove the ego from the work and look upon your projects objectively. 

Remember clients, in most cases, don’t have the training or understanding of design that you do. Therefore they come at projects from a different angle. It’s important to listen, learn and educate where necessary. Oh and don’t take it personally, feedback should be an open process that helps you evolve and learn, it’s not an attack on your personality.


Take pride in your work, but don’t be prideful. Defend your work, but don’t be defensive.”

Josh Collinsworth

3. Not everything you design will change the world

At university there was a lot of freedom around topics, style and application of those briefs. Which is great for learning the craft and having fun, but this isn’t necessarily reflected in the commercial space. It’s quite easy as a junior or graduate to think that every time your employer passes you a brief you’re going to produce the best creative the world has ever seen. Sorry, hate to burst the bubble, but that’s unlikely.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t apply your knowledge and skillset to every project. Whether it’s creating one icon for a set as part of a team, choosing a colour palette for a brand identity, or designing out a full infographic for a client, effort goes a long way. Just don’t be fooled into thinking every design lends itself to winning an award or getting you that promotion to art director.

A lot of briefs have strong guidelines and restrictions in place and they may not always match your opinions or style choices. As long as you apply sound theories and principles and match the goals of the brief, then it will end up being a successful project.

4. Deadlines, deadlines & more deadlines

Deadlines at uni were great, there’s no doubt about it. A month to design a poster? Fantastic (although I swear even then it didn’t feel like enough time!) Deadlines in the professional world are a little tighter! When you head into a studio or commercial space, deadlines approach quickly and shift regularly.

Gone are the days of spending a week drawing out thumbnails and testing 200 typefaces. No longer do you have months to create a poster, but instead a couple of days or even hours. More than likely you will have to juggle multiple projects at any given time. Sounds scary but you can adapt, it just takes experience and practice. But hey that’s why you start out as a junior! It’s part of the growth process and as long as you have the right mindset about brief deliverables, it won’t hinder your progress.

5. Don’t stop learning, creating or being inspired

Ok so three in one here, but they all connect. 

You could be mistaken for thinking ‘Now I have a degree I know everything about design – watch me become the next Jessica Walsh or Aaron Draplin – (who? I recommend having a quick nosey…) But this is negative thinking, you should never stop learning, reading and looking at the creative industry.

Learning

Design is constantly evolving with trends, patterns and job roles changing regularly. Read books and blogs, listen to podcasts, watch tutorials and go to speaking events to stay in touch with what’s going on in the industry.

Creating

One way to maintain and improve your skill set is to create personal projects, where you have the freedom to explore any subject and any style. Design a personal website, re-imagine logos or re-design a magazine. Keep it fun and engaging.

Inspiration

Look at Dribble, Behance, Pinterest or your favourite creatives. These are all great ways of staying inspired, but ultimately, find ways that work for you. Inspiration can come from anywhere so don’t keep those avenues narrow.

Top tip: Don’t let yourself burn out, it’s important to manage a work-life balance. Having time to breathe can be one of the best ways to stay inspired.

6. Avoid negative working environments

This should go without saying, but it’s an easy trap to fall into. Negativity breeds negativity. It creates doubt and can break confidence, leading to poor creative output.

Some employers may promise a lot up front and all can seem great on the outside, but over time some environments show cracks. If you’re not careful you can end up stuck in a role you don’t enjoy, moaning about how bad it is. You can find yourself trapped if you’re not sure if the grass is greener elsewhere, or you think you’re not good enough to be part of a positive environment. 

Newsflash! You are, but it won’t just happen by chance, you’ve got to go for it. Look for companies that promote strong, ethical cultures, that have mentors you can learn from and that strive to put their employees first. These companies can help you grow and turn a job into a career.

To sum it up

It may seem like I’m slating my university experience. I’m not, or at least not intentionally. I wouldn’t be a designer without it, but what I’ve learned since being a professional allows me to have a new perspective.

Education will help you learn the basic principles, theories and skills needed to become a designer. But it won’t make you a designer.

The real growth comes when you put what you’ve learned into practice within a commercial or freelance environment. It can take time to master and it’s a constant evolution that has its ups and downs. But if you bear the above in mind and adjust your mindset you can become a successful creative.

I learned these six things more or less the hard way. To some that may just be part of the journey, but a heads up is always nice 🙂

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