My best advice for design students

I had an interesting discussion last week with a friend about our experiences of studying design at college and university, and whether our time there had been used to best effect. This is a topic I’ve given thought to several times since graduating, so I think it would be worth sharing some of my views on how I believe you can make the most of your time studying design in further education.

The advice I want to share not only comes from what I did throughout my studies, it’s also based on hindsight and the things I wish I had done differently during my years of study. Hopefully what’s to follow will be useful to some of you looking to study design in the future, or to those of you currently on a course, wanting to get the most from it and in doing so give yourself the best chance of success after you leave.

It may seem obvious, but to get the most from your course you will need to work hard, not only on the projects you find interesting, as you will naturally put more effort into these, but also on the ones you don’t. When starting a project I lacked interest in, one way I found to get inspired was to make the project work for me. There are severals way to do this, for example, if you’ve been wanting to use a new research technique, or perhaps there’s a piece of software you have been waiting to test out, then on projects like these if you can work one of these in, the interest will come due to the benefit you know you’ll get.

Tutors are there to help you learn, so use them as much as possible. They can be very busy and with large classes it’s easy for students to not get as much of their time as maybe they should. It’s down to you to get as much advice from them as you feel you need. The more interest you show during lectures and the more you ask, the more likely they will be to respond to this and give you more of their time. It can become quite repetitive for tutors dealing with many students working on similar projects, so by showing extra enthusiasm, you will stand out and when they have time spare, you’ll be the person they come to first.

In addition, make sure to discuss with your tutors if there’s a certain direction on which you want to focus, or a certain grade you’re aiming to attain. Once you have made them aware of this, they will be able to monitor your progress and make sure you are staying on target and give you advice if you are not.

It cannot be emphasised enough how important it is to feed off your fellow students, for example, brainstorming within groups can be a great way to generate, develop or reject ideas, and to learn how others think can be really beneficial. Keeping an eye on what other students are up to, and discussing projects together, opens your mind to new ways of working and will really help grow your own creative processes.

One of the most important lessons I learned during my years of study was to take criticism constructively and use it to improve. As a designer it’s crucial to receive opinions different from your own, and not to reject them out of hand because you became guarded due to your feelings being hurt. No matter how many years of being a designer, criticism can still be hard to take, but I soon get over it and focus on what’s been said. Not all criticism may turn out to be valid, but it should at least be listened to and evaluated.

This is all part of the learning process, to know what’s valid and what’s not. If a design is criticised, make sure you understand exactly what they consider the problems to be, only then are you are in a position to agree with them or defend the choices you have made that led to the final outcome, some of which they may not have known.

This leads on to another area of study, one that we all wish we had more time to do in our working lives, and that’s research. Never underestimate how important it is to research projects and build upon what the research has shown you. If you do this and make decisions based on your research, it’s far more likely that your projects will head in directions that are justified, and therefore harder to criticise.

We all have fun and crazy ideas for projects, and college is a great place to experiment with these, but design is about problem solving, so we need to understand the problem before we can hope to find a solution, and research is how this is done.

And finally the single biggest piece of advice I can give, get as much work experience as you possibly can. No amount of studying can compare with what you’ll learn from actually working in a real design agency, for real clients, on real projects – so if you can, use any weeks of holiday gaining real world experience. Though be careful about where you get this experience, ideally you want to try to intern at the type of company you would want to work at after your studies.

However, demand from students for experience in popular agencies is high, most likely you will need to make yourself stand out from the crowd to get noticed, or else look at smaller agencies that still do the type of work you would like to be involved in.

The most important aspect is seeing how real projects are dealt with, especially in terms of dealing with real clients – this can be a far cry from how you would tackle a project for an imaginary client in class. It’s also a real eye opener as far as how time is managed and how quickly certain projects have to be turned around.

I’m not overlooking how much fun the whole experience of going away to university can be. However, it’s so important not to waste the chance to learn as much as you can whilst there, it’s a great opportunity for those fortunate enough to go, and tends to be a once in a lifetime experience.

I personally loved my years of studying, it was a great time in my life, however, with hindsight I wish I had done things a bit differently and had been more focused. If you’re on a course now, make the most of it, or you might regret it later.

About the author

Paul Galbraith is a logo and brand identity designer, working with startups, small businesses and entrepreneurs in the UK, USA and beyond.