The Designer’s Guide To

Posted: | | Filed under: Design Survival | No Comments »

A guide to help new designers make the most of a formal design education. Advice provided by international industry professionals, edited and curated by Richard Baird.

University isn’t for everyone

A university education isn’t suited to everyone and can be an expensive path to follow. Apprenticeships, college education, part-time learning and freelancing can all provide equally valuable routes into a full-time design career and should be given fair consideration.

Provided by @richbaird

Don’t be afraid to ask questions

If something confuses you, don’t be scared to question your teacher. You’ll either get the explanation you’re looking for, or discover that s/he is actually wrong — we all make mistakes.

Provided by @davidairey

Take the long view

Universities are expected to have students achieve certain targets but consider what kind of designer you want to be and tailor your project choices to that goal. Your final grades are important but potential employers are looking for independent creative thinkers and not university clones that have ticked the necessary boxes to achieve top marks.

Suggested by @Danatdoodle

Be open to criticism

Further education can be a big reality check especially if you’ve come from a small school or college where you have sat at the top of the class. Criticism will become an everyday experience. It’s important to understand that these are given with the best intentions and will help you to improve and grow both a designer and as an individual.

When receiving particularly harsh criticism avoid responding instantly and emotionally, take your time to think about the opinion. If you feel offended or upset it’s sometimes more appropriate to just say thank you and that you’ll take it onboard. Go for a walk and cool off, consider the comment without the negativity that initially accompanied it.

Being able to give appropriate and well-considered criticism is just as important as being able to accept and act on it.

Provided by @RichBaird

Seek out advice and opinions

Learn to work with your peers – education is great practice for real world scenarios where team working is standard practice (whether it’s in a design team, a marketing team, a development team, or just working with different vendors). Being able to explain your decisions and be open to input is essential to fitting into the modern-day working environment.

Realize that you are still developing both your ability to judge good design and your skill to implement such observations; with that realization, really listen to to other peoples opinions. Peer reviews, teacher critique and client input are crucial to your design processes, this feedback can help you target a specific audience, develop a level of insight and lead to more successful results on future projects).


Develop strong relationships with your classmates and your teachers. Try to network with professionals you admire – many of them are on Twitter and are very approachable. The more connections you have, the easier it will be to get an internship and/or job later.

Provided by @daniKelley

There will always be better designers

You may have been the hotshot in your small town school or art college but you could find yourself at the bottom of the pile at university. It’s important to remember that there will always be better designer’s, make the most of being around them by learning from their processes and avoid becoming too competitive.

Provided by @richbaird

Avoid being insular

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that working by yourself will gain you more recognition. However, to be a great designer, collaboration is key. Engage with other students and teachers, bounce ideas off as many people as possible and share your ideas with the wider design community. This will often lead you down new creative avenues and should improve your design work and processes. Collaboration is a vital tool, the designers smart enough to utilize it will grow faster than those are waiting for individual glory. Remember, it’s a two-way street, return the favor whenever possible and help your fellow students.

Provided by @CollinArnld

Choosing the right school

This has and will always be a tricky decision. Where you go to school can typically influence where you will land your first internship, the type of job you will be suitable for or the fields you can go on to specialise in. The biggest mistake aspiring designers make is choosing a school based on the exit portfolio of past graduates, I have found these to be a poor measure of course quality and are typically only from the most successful students. It’s important to check these out but you’ll get a better feel for the course or school by actually attending open days, tours, program demonstrations and speaking with professors and instructors. Take the time to consider specific questions that relate to the path you want to follow.

You may also want to check out the additional benefits a school or university has to offer, these could be live projects and direct client interaction or work experience. Many students get hired right out of their work placements so finding a school that offers this could give you a huge head start in your design career.

Provided by @heyrui

Cross pollination

I studied furniture and product design but now work in brand and packaging. In retrospect I could have done with some print based education but a lot of what I learnt in 3D design has been transferable and may have given me an advantage when signing on new clients.

Provided by @richbaird


Share your ideas and be inspired by other departments, courses and disciplines. You’ll learn more from your fellow students than from your teachers. Everyone you meet will tell you to make the most of your time at university or college because you’ll regret it later if you don’t… and guess what? It’s true!

Provided by @atelier1a

Commercial experience

If you get the opportunity to work on a commercial project which will also meet your course goals jump at it! Nothing better than making money and passing univesity at the same time!

Provided by @Danatdoodle

Foundation courses

Choosing the right course for you can be a difficult decision. Most universities now ask a potential student to complete a Foundation Degree before applying for a BS Hons unless the applicant’s portfolio is of an extremely high standard. There are various different courses to go on. I personally did a 2 year Foundation Degree in Graphic Design, then went back to do a top-up year to get my BA Hons Degree.

There is also a 1 year Foundation Course where you try all art mediums which can help you decide what suits you best. It includes mediums such as textiles, ceramics, fashion design, graphic design, fine art etc.

If you are dead set on a specific course, go to lots of open days at the colleges a universities that you are interested in. This will give you a more clear insight as to the atmosphere and classes held.

Provided by @ellishollie

Writing and analysis

Consider writing about design as a way of furthering your understanding of it. Try to quantify your interactions and experiences of the visual world through written pieces, why is a particular technique or style successful in communicating certain values or feelings? These exercises should help to tune you into the perceptions of consumers and how you can successfully utilise these across you own work.

Suggested by @byderekj

Keep all of your course text books

Keep all of your course text books. Refer to them often until you know the material and then keep referring to them until you can confidently implement what you know. From this foundation you can creatively bend the rules.

Broader reading

Be committed to learning as much as you possibly can about design theory, technique and best practices, inside and outside the classroom. Read design books, magazine and periodicals – if you can’t afford them, ask if anyone has anything they’d recommend and that they’d let you borrow. Look out for new and interesting design blogs and spend sometime engaging in discussion and critique.

Design tools and techniques

Master design software – the better you are with these the less of a barrier there will be between idea and execution. Carry a sketchbook and pencil around with you to quickly sketch out ideas, learn to be comfortable with conceptualizing a design without a computer or wasting time vectorising inappropriate ideas.

Provided by @daniKelley

Live projects and placements

A lot of courses offer ‘live’ projects for local companies or 12 month placements prior to the final year of study. These can be a fantastic opportunities to expose yourself to real world constraints and an active design environment. Education is a fantastic period of creative exploration but it’s important to remember that you will need to land a job (or gain clients) with serious commercial considerations and people with differing opinions.

Provided by @richbaird

Choosing a university

Having trouble selecting a university? Then picture where you’d like to work after you graduate. If you have a specific design firm in mind, then contact them to ask if they prefer to hire graduates from certain universities/courses or if they have recommendations.

If you don’t have the time or money to invest then spend some time researching design schools and their programs. Figure out which books the class uses, and get them from the library. You can read through the textbook in a few weeks compared to the few months it takes a college class. While not a substitute for the knowledge you gain from professor and peer critique, you’d be amazed by what you can learn just from getting the textbooks.

Provided by @tadfry

Never stop learning

Never be satisfied with where you are – try to learn new things and refine your processes at every opportunity.

Provided by @daniKelley

Don’t waste your money, an alternative view on education

A design education will get you nowhere. The program they set up for each semester will be at least 9-12 months out of date once they start teaching it to you. If you have the talent, an education will only slow you down.

Straight after I turned 18 I taught myself how to use the required software to make graphics on my own and got on with it. That was 1997 and there was no YouTube or on-line how-to-videos but I still pulled it off and I’m not too bright, so you’re going to have a far easier time than I did.

All you need to educate yourself is available on-line for free. Just go for it. As long as you have the dedication, motivation and will to learn you’re going to be fine. I Run my own business now and I’m debt free. Most of the designers I know that spent time and money on education say they didn’t need it. Education is a waste of time and left them in debt.

Provided by @growcase

You get out what you put in

Make sure that you are fully committed to getting the most out of your educational experience. Be aware that at the end of the design program your portfolio will be the result of the time and effort you put in and will be evident to future employers.

Individuality counts

I placed emphasis on completing all my projects to the best of my abilities with my own unique and individual spin. At the end of the year a large proportion of students will leave school with similar portfolio content so its important to stand out. This is especially true when the D&AD runs a global project or Audi launches a young designers competition.

Provided by @heyrui

Applying for web design and development courses

If you’re considering applying to a Web Design and Development course at a university there are a number of useful steps you can take before you apply to ensure the course you choose will be right for you.

Visit a number of university websites, search for all courses in the field you are interested in studying and read the course outlines thoroughly to ensure you understand the requirements or prerequisites for acceptance into a course.

Attend open days to research the environment you will be learning in, the people you will be learning from and the technology you will be using. Open days are also a good opportunity to take the time to introduce yourself to lecturers and ask them about their teaching style and any personal experience in their field of study.

Some useful questions to ask:

  • Are you currently active in the field of web design and development?
  • Do you have industry contacts?
  • What web design and development conferences/workshops have you recently attended?
  • Will accessibility and usability principles be covered in this course?
  • What careers paths will be open to me once I graduate?
  • What have some of your recent graduates gone on to do?

Researching the university, lecturers, course syllabus and opportunities once you graduate will ensure you apply for a course that will fulfil your learning requirements and be a good personal fit for you.

Provided by @kattjayne

Going to university to study design isn’t for everyone

I attended a foundation course before deciding that university wasn’t for me. This choice was made based on the fact that I wanted to avoid a huge debt and knew many designer friends who had degrees but no jobs.

I do however feel there is a place for formal design education. The theory and many tricks of the trade could have helped me avoid the pitfalls and costly mistakes while working as a junior designer. This is especially true when taught by a tutor who is a practicing professional.

I’m a self-taught graphic designer/front-end web developer and having no formal design education hasn’t closed doors for me nor has it stopped me achieving my goals.

Some talent, hard work and motivation along with the vast amount of free online resources have helped shape who I am today as a designer. Given my lack of design qualifications I’ve been fortunate to land jobs for various agencies based solely on my portfolio.

Today I work full-time as a graphic designer/web developer and successfully freelance too. Having done work for clients such as the NHS, a major UK political party and others has been possible through dedication, self-learning and a love for my profession. Work hard, love what you do and you’ll get where you want to be with or without a formal education.

Provided by @heinrichdsf

The bigger picture and future opportunities

University will only teach you a small amount of what you’re going to need to know to be a valued designer within a tough commercial environment, the rest is up to you to learn on your own. It will however provide you with a broader understanding of the diverse world of design and the opportunity to study a variety of specialist subjects and open paths that you may not have otherwise never been exposed to.

Networking is a big advantage that a graduate designer has over someone without the University experience. I would have never been where I am today if it were not for the people I met in college and the opportunities that emerged from these friendships.

Provided by @juliangav

Help while you learn

If possible, take on live class projects that will benefit the local community and non-profits. Having a live client completely changes the way you approach a project and should allow you to gain valuable insight into managing expectations, frequent changes and differing opinions that often accompany such work. You’ll also be displaying a level of commitment that should enhance the student teacher relationship and deliver more support with regards to client communication, an incredibly important and often overlooked aspect of design within education.

Provided by @Return_Design



If you are a designer and have any advice you would like to add to this article, please submit your contribution as a comment below and remember to include your Twitter ID so I can credit your tip.


Tweet This Article


Previous ArticleNext Article