6 Key Tips for Design Students


1. Nobody cares about your degree. People only care about the results you create.

We are in a time where design studios, agencies, and non-design businesses are wary of allowing students or graduates to touch anything. They don’t trust you. And with universities following a profit-centric business model, they don’t trust your education. This isn’t your fault, but it’s a fact of life you have to accept.

Unless you’re pushing to do a Masters Degree, shift your focus from grade to design. Bring your attention to how you can be better, to how you can measure results, how you can wow clients and sell ideas. Learn about business and design strategy. Educate yourself, practise and experiment, and seek opportunities outside of university. You’ll be surprised how quickly you can excel.

2. Surround yourself with designers who challenge you.

You may be familiar with Isaac Newton’s quote “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants”. This sums up this tip quite nicely. The reason you need to surround yourself with designers, and anyone better than you at anything, is so you can learn from them. When they pick you up and allow you to stand on their shoulders, you will see the world from a whole new height and perspective.

This has been an instrumental rule in my career. I’ve e-mailed designers I admire, I’ve worked with designers and studios far more knowledgeable than me on business, design, strategy, systems, and more. I’ve avoided being in the company of those who allow me to be too comfy in pursuing my goals and visions. They made me, and I’m proud of that.

3. Call design studios now. Ask for work experience. Work your arse off and expect nothing.

If you don’t have work experience by the end of university, good luck finding a job you like. Getting work experience should be one of your highest goals while at university. Personally, I got work experience at a print studio in my first year, two 1-month internships at some top design studios in my area during my second year, and then a 3-month internship with another fantastic studio in my city just before graduating. I put this experience down to how I managed to stay afloat as a freelancer straight out of university.

Here’s some vital information: Design students and fresh graduates avoid work calls like the plague. They are far more comfortable hiding behind the computer screen, behind a website, CV, or e-mail. And who can blame them? It’s scary. But this also means that by the simple act of picking up the phone and chatting to a design studio or designer, you are already ahead. You’ve made yourself more memorable. They may even give you their personal work e-mail rather than the generic e-mail they direct others to.

Another point I want to make for when you get an internship: Don’t waste their time and expect nothing from them. I’ve heard too many bad anecdotes about students who did next to nothing but bummed about on their phones, and didn’t fully involve themselves with the studios they were at. In fact, it’s not uncommon for design studios to make up projects so to keep these interns off the live projects due to their incompetence and complete lack of drive or work-ethic. I’ve also heard plenty of students showing some real ugly egos, and have seen this happen plenty of time. Cut the ego. Work your arse off and expect nothing.

4. Ideas mean nothing if you can't create them. Skill means nothing if you cannot think.

Don’t be an “ideas-focused” designer who can’t give form to their ideas. Don’t be a technical designer who cannot think or generate concepts. If you can only ideate or only give shape to something, you are not a designer. You are a daydreamer or a pixel-pusher.

Design gives form to ideas to solve complex problems through refined means. It connects and inspires action. You need to be able to think and shape these swirling thoughts. Paint them through the ink of a pen across the empty desert plains of paper. You cannot birth them if you lack critical thinking or technical skill.

5. Contact a designer or a studio you admire now. You'll be surprised how easy they are to get in contact with.

People do not get things because they do not ask. Don’t follow these people. If you follow the work of a designer who inspires you, a studio who makes you question the boundaries of design, a thinker whose ideas implode your mind, reach out to them. This is how I’ve gotten almost all of my work and learned so much for a young designer.

A little flattery and an interesting question can be all that’s needed to start a conversation. I e-mailed Vince Frost back in 2018 with a simple question: “What top 3 things would you advise students/graduates should focus most of their time and efforts on?”. What I got was far more than I expected. He checked out my whole website, read everything on there, gave me a heartfelt message in response to my websites’ Story’ bio section, and 19 answers to my original question. I was incredibly excited and amazed by his response.

I think I speak for the design industry when I say that we are always happy to lend a hand to a newbie designer who’s ambitious, curious, and humble. So after you read this, go contact someone!

6. You have three years. Read as many books as possible. Thank me later.

A common trend among students is that they drink plenty but read little. Great if you’re trying to enjoy the “student life” (an idea designed to sell university), but not so great if you’re trying to leave with a career. Whatever your view on the quality of education at your university, you need to be reading as much material as you can get your hands on.

Design books are a great start, but make sure you’re opening up your realm of literature. Design, business, politics, fiction, self-improvement, psychology, philosophy, anything you’re interested in! Don’t fall into the little graphic designer bubble and only read about graphic design. Expand your knowledge!

Here are some personal book recommendations:

Chimpanzee Politics
This is Marketing
The Obstacle is the Way
The Alchemist
Nineteen Eighty-Four
Children of Time
For Two Thousand Years
On the Shortness of Life
A Tale for the Time Being
Designing News
Type: New Perspectives in Typography
Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This
Why Fonts Matter
A Smile in the Mind
Life lessons from Kierkegaard
Life Lessons from Nietzsche
Thinking With Type
A Little Life