I wish I knew then (as a design student), what I know now

by Adam Taylor, Senior Designer at Chalkbox

Hello, design students. Right now, as the world watches its collective economy slow to a crawl, you may be wondering what lies in your future. We are wondering the same. Someday, hopefully soon, things will correct and you’ll be bringing new ideas, energy, and enthusiasm to the design workforce. But for now, while you’re still a student, here are a handful of ideas that we wish had been shared with us when we were in school. Or perhaps we just weren’t listening. We hope you’ll do better than us.

1. Be a lifetime learner.

This is solid advice for anyone who seeks continued growth and development as a human, and is critical when it comes to the field of design. Technologies change. Methodologies change. The entire knowledgebase of design expands and grows continually. Designers spend years streamlining techniques, emerging designers create work that not long ago was impossible, software companies continually provide solutions to problems we didn’t even know we had. Things move fast and obsolescence is a real risk. Committing to your own curiosity and continued education is a worthwhile investment.

2. Have a solid process, but be flexible.

Design is an intellectual activity. Even as technology and other technical aspects of design change, design thinking and a solid process can help you create wonderful work regardless of your tools or technique. We commit to research and sketching for every project. Research is preparing a foundation for thinking. Sketching is thinking with our hands. Together, these practices allow us to rapidly document a mass of informed, rough ideas without overcommitting to any single one. They allow us to acknowledge and push past the predictable and cliché solutions in order to find the unique. Jumping directly into design software is less immediate, less fluid, and more limiting to the quick expression of ideas.

Allow your own creative process to flex and change as you grow and develop as a designer, but be careful not to subvert it. As experience accumulates, it is tempting to skip ahead, to assume your first solution is perfect. Don’t fall into this trap! Your accumulated experience will eventually reveal that skipping steps ultimately results in half-hearted ideas and wasted time.

3. Know your value.

You are developing professional skills. A trade. Something of value. Know and respect that value. Working for “exposure,” working on spec, and unpaid internships are different ways designers can be exploited. Don’t fall for it. “Exposure” as payment is likely non-existent or ineffective, and it sure doesn’t pay the rent. Spec work—working for free in the hopes that your idea will be chosen and paid for—is BS. Ever meet a plumber who’d fix your sink hoping you’d pay him for it? And unpaid internships are most often offered by people who won’t value your skills, and won’t appreciate your worth.

4. Fill your cup with something good.

In the age of Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, it is easy to scroll endlessly and absorbing nothing. We know it feels good to occasionally turn off your brain, but make sure to moderate. Creativity is born of curiosity. Really observe what is happening in the world of design and art and really observe what happens outside of that world. Visit museums (of all kinds), listen to music, to TED talks, read magazines and novels, build with Lego. BE CURIOUS. And when you do plug into some screen time, strive to make it as meaningful as you can. You’ll be a better designer and a better person for doing it. 

5. Don’t think of yourself myopically.

A career in design is wonderful, but you’re a human first. For many people, it is easy to let our careers become our identity. For designers and artists, I believe it is even easier to fall into. I think this is because we participate in an affective labor: we bring passion and love into what we do. Our abilities as an artist may have been our one source of pride while growing up, and some of us remain in that mode. The danger in this is that you may value yourself only by your creative output, your job, or your title. A designer isn’t all you are. Allow yourself to grow in different directions.

Leave a Comment