What I Wish I Knew Then: Advice for Design Students

Inspired by an opportunity to speak to soon-to-be-graduating graphic design students, this is my advice to them and a look at my experiences coming into the "real world" with a BFA in Graphic Design. By no means am I saying that we all share the same experiences or that I did everything perfectly while in college or starting my career. To the contrary, I'll admit I've always been a bit feisty. But it is my strong convictions and insatiable desire for professional and personal improvement that have blessed me with the opportunity to share my journey and offer advice to those following the same dreams that led me to today.

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Disclaimer. If you aren't in love with this 300%, there are hundreds of thousands of easier things to do. Go do them if you’re not all in. Graphic design is an increasingly saturated field. Everyone and their mom is a graphic designer these days. That’s not to say you can’t find a job – but it's probably not going to be as easy as you'd think.

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Choose Your Specialty. There are hundreds of types of design jobs. Product design, packaging design, web design, animation design, UX design, editorial design and informational design, just to name a few. Find what makes you happy and go for it. Not only will it save you time searching for jobs, it will narrow your competition and show that you know your strengths. It's also note-worthy to say that just because you're good at or enjoy one area of design, doesn't mean you won't end up doing (and enjoying) something completely different.

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Serving Time. When I graduated, I had an amazing internship. I was sure I’d land a full-time position after the three months. And... I didn't. But I wasn't worried. I had one of the most sought-after agencies in Omaha on my resume and a great recommendation from a co-worker I had worked closely with on numerous occasions while there. Job-shmob. It wasn't going to be that agency… but I was going to land a job. But as I embarked on my job search, I heard two words too often. Like nails on a chalk board, I was told time and time again that they loved everything about me, but were looking for someone with ‘more experience’. 

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Perseverance. This went on for months. I often lamented at the idea of working in retail or the food industry the rest of my life (not that there's anything wrong with that) and wondered if college was the worst decision I'd ever made. This is where your support team comes in. Whether it’s your friends, family or spouse, when you lose hope, you’re going to need some serious believers to convince you to keep moving forward. I began working for myself - which is not what it’s hyped up to be (unless your name is Tina Roth). My parents and grandparents often sent me job postings, urging me to ‘just move back for a while’ and ‘get on my feet’ but my mantra during this time was a firm, “I’d rather struggle than settle”. 

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The Basics. When it comes to interviewing, you've heard it a hundred times – but seriously. Show up prepared and well groomed, have questions ready, know something about the business. Read up on lunch interviews (because they’re horrifying and do happen), best answers and power poses. It’s not just about you being a good fit for them. They have to be a good fit for you – or you’ll be miserable. Know your non-negotiables. For me it was an environment in which I could continually grow and learn; where my professional opinion would be not only heard, but valued; where work/life balance is more than talked about – it’s encouraged.  

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Be Yourself. Some of the best advice I received during my internship was be yourself. Andy Pratt perfectly explains the importance of being yourself in his article Soft Skill Advice From Design Leaders. “At the end of the day, it doesn't always matter if your pixels are perfect, your Bézier curves are smooth, or your code is clean. What matters most are the relationships you foster. Your day to day interactions are far more important to your success and happiness than any interactions you create on a screen.” Talk about your hobbies, your addiction to Pinterest, your weekly karaoke nights, or your inability to keep succulents alive. These small details make you more human - more relatable - and are often the basis for fulfilling work friendships. 

Stop Comparing. You know those times when you look at a particularly brilliant design and feel like a kindergartner finger painting? When you think you’ll never be the next Mike Monteiro or Tina Roth? Fall in love with the process, and the results will come. If you spend your time comparing yourself and your work to other people and their work, you’re essentially spending time breaking yourself and your confidence down. Fall in love with learning. Fall in love with growing and seeing yourself progress. If practice makes perfect, fall in love with the practice and YOUR perfect will come.

Prioritize Self-Confidence. You’re in the market of convincing others to trust you. The client's company is their baby and you have to convince them that once you’re in charge you’re not going to give their baby a horrid hair cut or let it fall down the stairs or eat un-identifiables off the floor. Be the expert and be able to communicate how the design is a solution. Confidence does not improve with time. You must actively improve your self-confidence. 

Advice. Job shadow. Apply for internships. Design for yourself. Remember why you chose design. Always be prepared. Stop comparing. Be yourself. It’s about finding your place and creating your dream job. Don’t follow your dreams – chase them down and beat them into submission. It’s not going to be easy, but I promise it will be worth it.