Stories for designers: Things I wish I knew at Uni

Recently I’ve been thinking back to all the ideas and knowledge sharing I experienced when I was working at UNiDAYS. I loved that part of the job. Sharp minds available to give you feedback on problems both personal and creative. That's one of the best things about working within a team. 

I regularly have calls with a close friend and we give advice back and forth in answer to each others' queries, I love that kinda stuff. To that end I’ve decided to write a series of articles that focus on collating my learning and best practices I’ve discovered whilst working in creative industries. One such article will be aimed at students, another focused on taking charge of your own development and a few other topics I’m still narrowing down on. This first article is focusing on tips and advice for creatives at university. 

I often say I don’t like to give advice, but I can share a point of view. Sometimes when you’re helping someone work through a problem you have a moment and think (Oh yeah, this is actually good advice). This is my way of categorising the stuff that actually works. This is by no means an exhaustive list and I'm trying to avoid too many really obvious points. 

The typical student set up? The real magic isn't in the tech.

The typical student set up? The real magic isn't in the tech.

On interviewing and portfolio:

Rehearse out loud. My favourite thing to do when preparing for interviews is to practice presenting my portfolio aloud. This builds your confidence to say what you need to say. In the process you will remember extra details, hard hitting points and know which jokes you could try and fit in (if that’s your thing) and what to avoid saying if it kills your momentum. Basically make all the mistakes before the interview.

Keep a shorthand list of summaries about topics and projects and run through your presentation without looking at the work. Being able to talk about your work and experience without referring to notes is going to be impressive, and it’s going to allow you to relate much more naturally to your interviewers because you're relaxed and not racing to remember everything.

Show them what you're about. I feel that the work you show should be a mixture of things. Certainly show projects that are appropriate for the role you’re after, and if they’re not obviously linked have an explanation ready why you wanted to showcase it. I’ve always showcased passion projects alongside university and commercial projects (at least until you're ready to drop the uni work). To me this showcases a genuine interest and eagerness to develop and gives you a chance to showcase other skills that might be of interest to an employer. From personal experience showcasing passion projects or projects created to learn a new skill have always been well received in interviews.

If you can link how you show your work and how you present it back into some personal ethos or value then I'd recommend doing so. Don’t make choices about your portfolio based on what others are doing, only do it if it makes sense for you. Lately I tend to lead with my website and take a device with me to interviews. I’m big on daily practice and the knowledge that constant, incremental gains will lead to great work. My values and methods of working directly reflect how my website looks and how I talk about my work, and that brings everything together nicely.

Ultimately you want your work, presentation and talk to be tidy and relevant. If you’re a student your voice as a creative is still developing so don’t worry (do not worry!) if you haven’t figured out what really galvanises you as a designer or if you don’t have an ethos. Don’t forget that in an interview your presence is as important as your work and what you say.

Be yourself. I almost want to shoot myself for this one. Be yourself. No really...honest. You can’t give a good representation of who you are if your mind is racing to keep up a charade or sustain an inaccurate version of yourself. When you’re being honest and not worrying about being a little vulnerable it becomes really easy to speak well and speak passionately. You know the steps and you know the script. I’ve found in myself and others that we perform best when we're just being our natural selves. There’s something charming and strong about someone who presents themselves as ‘very real’. Being yourself is the best way to be really present throughout an interview. You don't want to seem distracted and vacant because you're thinking more about keeping up appearances rather than enjoying the interview experience. Be your best self but cut the bullshit.

 

Things that will help you out in your first job

You need to be able to problem solve your tech and software. Less so on the tech side, but if you’re the kind of designer who can find and install plugins to get things done quicker, and troubleshoot when Adobe inevitably acts up you’re going to be more valuable if you can find and share solutions. You don’t want to be someone who always asks for help when the solution could be a short google search away (sometimes you will need help but if you won't try and search for a solution yourself that's not fair on your team).

Problem solving doesn’t just stop with design, so find time to practice this skill as it will benefit you massively. Take time to learn a new software or start a challenge to complete a tutorial each week and you'll find opportunities to problem solve and practice this skill. Remember that anyone who knows the answers at some point had to find it out for themselves. 

On the topic of first jobs. It’s really useful to make sure you take solid notes about what you’re learning about processes. This stays true even if it’s your second, third or fourth job. It will mean there will be fewer occasions where you need to ask someone to recap something and that will be noticed and appreciated.

Ask questions. This definitely isn’t counter-intuitive to the previous point. Asking questions is really valuable, especially as a student or young designer (or a designer of any experience). You should never enter a situation trying to bluff your way through or disguise lack of knowledge. If it doesn’t catch you out, you’ll still be worse off for losing out on new knowledge. Young designers should be interested, curious and ask questions. Especially questions you feel are stupid. Ask those stupid questions. More often than not they’re useful, other people wanted to ask them as well and you grow more confident each time you ask questions. Just ask questions for goodness sake.

The only negatives with asking questions are that you should be mindful of people’s time. Especially if this person is in a mentor type role. Save questions and ask them a couple at a time and try to not ask same questions over and over. Anyone in a mentor type role will appreciate and notice that. If you do want to clarify something, I would simply say “I want to do ‘X’ and I think ‘Y’ is the correct approach, have I remembered that correctly?”. From my experience this honest approach will net better results than simply saying “how do I do this again?” If people can see that you tried to remember or find a solution, they will have no issue with helping you out. 

Work work work work work work...

Work work work work work work...

General advice.

Make some fucking mistakes. I guess the lesson here is that failure isn’t this terrible thing. It’s part of becoming a better designer. Don’t shy away from taking risks. Especially as a young designer you should become familiar with the uncertainty of trying new things. I’ve rarely seen people unfairly penalised when honest mistakes were made. So be responsible and respectful but do break out of that box. It do take nerve.

The longer I work I notice it’s far harder to learn and perfect things by looking at success. Either big or small you can improve your processes and work by paying attention to what goes wrong for yourself and for others.

Don’t judge your insides by someone else’s outsides. The whole world is probably guilty of this. Sometime you see someone’s work and think "how have they done that I could never do that". Social media can often make you feel inadequate. Remember that you have no idea the effort and journey that went into producing a piece of design or illustration. It’s not just the effort for that specific design but the years of experience that went before. Keep your mind focused on where you can improve and your next step, because design on social media is so often about the finished item not the process and it’s all curated. 

Give everything you learn away for free. This is something I stand behind entirely. Don’t hoard a design resource. Don’t hide where you get your typefaces or your tutorials. Share everything. You’re only competing with yourself because that’s all you can control so give everything away freely. Share your shortcuts. Share your inspiration websites. Share your sketchbook. Share your organisation tips. 

Not everyone does this. The longer I work the more I encounter 'hoarders'. But giving things away gives back in so many ways whereas keeping everything to yourself does not. People like those who share and help other people out, and they reflect that in kindness, help, advice and more. If you're a team player and share your ideas, creativity and energy to everyone you will gain a huge degree of respect and opportunity. 

 

Conclusion

I hope some of these ideas got you excited. Some of them are obvious. Some of them maybe a little left field. From my experience, this collection of ideas will help you be a better employee, a better designer and a better interviewer. Of course you got to put the work in, and you can't always understand the value of advice by reading it; sometimes you need to live it for it to sink in. 

In other news. So far my June challenge of only spending on fuel and food is going fine. I'm planning to design my dad a card and bake him some sweet treats instead of buying him something.

I'm also doing well at getting more structure into life despite the fact it is now overwhelmed with decorating. I've brought my sleep schedule forwards and I'm getting longer days too. I spaced on scheduling my week but the laws of momentum have found me to be pretty productive, and I've gotten better at chunking my work together. 

I hope you're having a great week. 
Happy creating,
Dan