6 Things they don't teach you in Design School. Once upon a time, not that long ago I might add. I rolled up my sleeves and marched off to Design School. Full of anticipation and excitement to start a life in the design industry, I adorned my desk with the latest MacBook (thanks, student loan). Along with brand new crispy clean sketch books, fancy pencils and fine-liners. ‘Three years!’, I thought to myself; ‘Three years and I’ll be a qualified graphic designer and I’ll get a fancy job at a trendy agency’. Oh, how simple life would be. Of course, it does happen, I’m sure it’s happened to many of you. Fast forward through those three years and I still felt very much the novice I began as.
Although I learnt a few things during my time at university - such as how to paint a wall white for an exhibition or how to formally present brand concepts.Sadly I didn’t leave feeling equipped to get a design job. Let alone feel confident enough of my artwork to go out and attempt to find one. I knew a lot about design history and design movements but very little about commercial art, how to sell it and how to find work. I wrote more essays and spent more time on my dissertation than I did creating anything I was proud of or would be happy to present to a prospective employer. Sadly, I left university with a poor excuse for a portfolio and only learnt along the way that a killer portfolio is more valuable than a degree.
“At college most of the projects are pretty self-indulgent,” says Jo Gulliver. “You don’t really experience what it’s like working for a client. It would have been good to get some live client work while I was at college – just small projects but working for someone would give you an insight into how the industry works.”
Through my own perseverance I managed to worm my way into two creative roles fairly quickly after university but I’m very aware that this had little to do with my portfolio and more to do with my people skills, dumb luck and ideas I hadn’t had a chance to put into practice yet.
Education should be about learning everything you can about your chosen subject but it should also be about learning life skills like conversation, managing money, learning from failure and generally how to be a well-rounded adult. Some will argue that these are skills we’re capable of learning on our own time but surely teaching confidence and conversation skills goes hand in hand with university, otherwise how are you going to walk into an interview after graduating and be able to convey all the things you’ve learnt?
Here are 6 Things Design School Doesn’t Teach You. Although I’m coming from a graphic design and illustration background, hopefully some of these points will resonate with readers with various degrees. After all, we all had to leave university and go it alone at some point.
1. How to find your individual style
Design school for me involved lots of very specific briefs about ‘developing a brand identity for a coffee company’ and ‘design business stationary set for Joe Bloggs accountants’. These all taught us some things about corporate design and how to layout letterheads and business cards. It was teaching us to follow rules and a set process for creating. It was all very safe and me and my fellow students often ended up with very similar results and an A+. What they didn’t teach us was to challenge the brief and find our own style and way of doing things. A different way of approaching the project. What I’m trying to say is that Design School didn’t teach any of us to stand out. We all graduated design school with pretty much identical portfolios. Go figure.
Jonathan Woodward, A finalist in BBC Wildlife’s Artist of the Year 2011/2012 said: “One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to find a niche rather than trying to be all things to all people. It was only when I really focused on combining my two main passions for nature and illustration, specialising in being a wildlife illustrator, that things started to move forwards.”
2. Not every pitch/presentation will be formal and in front of an intimidating monster
Design school loved to freak us all out by having us present our work to our fellow students and lecturers. In principle this is a great idea because it teaches you presentation skills and that’s definitely something you need in this industry. However, we certainly didn’t need to dress up in suits and speak very formally with a well prepared PowerPoint for 20 minutes. Design school seemed to want us to think that everyone we would ever present to was going to be wearing a really expensive three piece suit and behave like a monster.
Many of my fellow students worked themselves up into such a frenzy when these days arrived and I’m convinced that it would have put some of us off getting a job in the industry. It certainly affected my first couple of years in the real world, until I learnt that people are just people. That 99% of the time you were just showing some ideas in a casual setting to perfectly reasonable clients. Presentation to a client for me is a conversation. Interaction between a few people, swapping ideas and listening to feedback.
“I wasn’t taught how to present work or talk to clients. One tip is to listen – to listen more in order to fully understand others’ views. The ability to respond to feedback is essential. It also helps to understand when an idea is liked so it’s not over-sold, and more importantly to know when it’s dead in the water and should not be pushed. Confidence and clarity comes with practise, so while you’re studying take every opportunity to present your work to friends, family – even the cat and the dog if they’ll listen.” says the Senior Designer at Design Bridge.
3. How to use Design Software
I’m not joking when I say that I left university with no idea how to use even basic Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. Despite a weekly two hour slot in which we’d all squeeze into the mac suite, I was clueless. That’s not surprising however when you learn that our ‘teacher’ had no clue either and was reading tutorials (very badly) from an Illustrator for Dummies book. Granted I should have put more time and effort into learning the software myself if it was that bad, but Design School also didn’t mention that every job we would apply for post-university would require us to be Adobe Creative Suite Literate.
How did I manage to complete any of the briefs, you ask? Mostly by hand drawing everything and presenting hand sketched concepts. They never asked me how I planned to email these concepts to a client or re-produce them in large volume. Thankfully these days I’m less clueless but everything I learnt, I learnt on the job. Learn by doing, get as much experience as you can, even if it’s for free.
“When it comes to actual craft – knowing your em-dashes from your en-dashes and your widows from your orphans – I learned most of that through experience. And that seemed to involve sitting at a monitor late at night with a hovering creative director asking ‘Is that how it’s going to look?’” Even Co-Founder of Asbury & Asbury had to learn on the job.
4. You don’t need to move to London to be a designer
All I would hear on a weekly basis was ‘You need to be in London to forge a good career in the Design industry’. Lecturers were obsessed with London. We took trips to London many times during the three years and always to random exhibitions. We never visited a legitimate design agency in London, despite the obsession. It was always drilled into us that London was where we needed to be if we were going to achieve anything. For some students, that was welcome news and they couldn’t wait to dash off to the big smoke. However, after two weeks of work experience in the city I was rather depressed. I started to re-think my entire career. It wasn’t the work experience, it was being in London in general but the thought of having to live and work there was sending me crazy.
Nowadays, designers can work from anywhere, for anyone. There’s no need to go and live in a sardine tin and be miserable. There are highly respected design industries in cities all over the globe. In fact, more and more creative young Brits are quitting London for the more affordable and laid back Berlin.
“Agora is one of many “co-working hubs” that have sprung up in the city, created for the ever-growing startup community. Agora is one of many expat bubbles, catering to the ever-growing number of digital nomads.” - Johanna Kamradt, The Observer
How about freelancing? That’s the route I took and now I can work from anywhere, and I do. Currently I’m working from my cosy office at home in the suburbs of the City of Cardiff. As long as you get out there and network, build relationships and deliver great work, your clients won’t care where you live. Ever heard of Skype?
5. Your degree alone won’t get you a job
Despite what your parents and lecturers would like you to think, getting a degree will not automatically get you a job. Many would argue that a diploma is low on the list of requirements when studios are looking for that super talented designer. Many successful designers have degrees in completely different disciplines, or didn’t graduate at all. Michael Kors left college after only attending for less than a year.
“I got to school and I had been sketching since I was really small, and I had such firm ideas about what I liked, so I was fighting with the teachers.” - Michael Kors
Before you go and drop out of college, there are benefits to learning design theory and processes and some job adverts will still specify the need for a degree level education. But it is wise to remember that talent, a killer portfolio and confidence will more than likely triumph over a degree.
“The most important things that Landor looks for in a candidate are talent and attitude,” says Peter Knapp, executive creative director, Europe and Middle East, Landor Associates.
“If you can’t find work, make work. Get a part-time job to pay for your rent, etc, and make shit and get it out there, under peoples noses. There’s a sense that the industry owes graduates a living. It doesn’t. There’s never been a better time to be in this industry; [of course] there’s a global recession, jobs have never been more scarce, but that’s also the best time to find and make your own mark.” - Plan-B Studio, plan-bstudio.com
6. Basic marketing, selling yourself and networking
This is one of the most important skills you can learn. Even if you don’t think you’re in marketing, you’re in marketing. If you want to land that job, you need to market yourself. You want to convince the client that yours is the best idea? Market it. You write a blog and you want people to read it? You need to market it. These days there are many more ways to market yourself and your work. If you’re looking for work or are keen to start freelancing, it’s important to get your work seen, in any way you can. Start a personal project if you haven’t landed that job yet or have any freelance work coming in. Showcase your portfolio on social media and on sites like Behance, Dribble and DeviantArt. Start a blog and talk about your processes, what you like creating or your experiences.
People skills are a must. If you’re painfully shy and hate public speaking, challenge yourself. Dive into some group networking, talk to people. The more you do it, the easier it’ll get and that next interview won’t seem so daunting. Once you’re in that design agency or you’ve got some freelance clients, make sure you do a good job and build great relationships with your colleagues and clients.
“Work hard and build good relationships with as many people as you can, it’s essential to develop both your reputation and book of contacts.” advises Ben Topliss. Topliss is senior designer at sports and fashion-wear retailer JD PLC. He has quickly risen through the ranks since graduating seven years ago.
You’re always hearing that it’s not about what you know,
it’s about who you know.
Higher education is valuable, no doubt, but it doesn’t teach you everything and it isn’t for everyone. It is up to modern students to be aware that your diploma won’t equal success. Good old fashioned hard work and determination will. Be savvy, learn new skills, stay up to date with current trends and processes. Develop your communication and people skills. Get online and seek out the information you need and never behave as if life owes you a debt. It doesn’t. We are responsible for making our own success. Some companies, like Google and Ernst & Young, are notorious for not checking certifications. In an interview with the New York Times, Google’s chairman Laszlo Bock said: “When you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world. Those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people.”