10 Tips for Design Students: Part One

As a recent graduate, I thought I’d put together some tips from my experiences as a student, for those of you who are starting or continuing a creative course this year. It’s really easy to get bogged down near the start of the year, but here are some tips to motivate and help you to aim for those high grades.


1. Get organised!

It might sound obvious, but you’d be amazed at how easy it is to fall into the trap of being disorganised without even knowing it. There’s nothing worse than hurtling towards deadline day without the foggiest idea of what’s due in and where you’re supposed to be submitting. There can be all sorts of other implications of being disorganised too, such as penalties for late submissions, or a reputation for poor workflow, so ideally you want to avoid it. Don’t leave things until the last minute – get stuff done. Use some sort of diary, whether that’s something physical and real-life (for want of a better phrase) like a Moleskine (the designer’s default companion), or something virtual like Any.Do, Clear or Notes on your iPhone, because this is sure to keep you on the straight and narrow as far as organising your workflow goes.

2. Ask!

If you’re unsure about something, ask. If you want advice on your design work, ask. Your first port of call should be your tutors or lecturers at your institution, but also chat with your coursemates. Do the latter with caution, though; if there’s uncertainty over a deadline or requirements for a brief, the worst thing you can do is enter a debate on Facebook with your friends, because you’ll end up confusing each other and everyone will end up crying in a corner. If a question gets posted online, and you know the answer for sure, then share it. Prove the information is from a reliable source – basically, a tutor. If it’s all based on a hunch, then keep your thoughts to yourself and confirm things for definite with your tutor. The key here is don’t sit and wonder in silence – be curious and always seek the correct information – just make sure it’s from a trusted source. It’s common sense but also very easy to forget.

3. Go to Lectures

Again, it may sound obvious, but the amount of people who don’t bother pitching up to their lectures is often pretty shocking. You’re paying a lot of money to be on your course, and lectures and seminars are, aside from the friends you make, one of the most important aspects of your university life – use them! Not only will you learn a lot about your field of work and its history (which is, despite what a lot of people say, very relevant), but you’ll also gain valuable insight and tips from your tutors and their experiences. If you don’t turn up, they won’t be as keen to help you – so pull your weight and show your enthusiasm, otherwise your reference at the end of your degree might not look so rosy.

4. Don’t Tweet Anger – Blog Creativity!

There’s nothing worse than seeing someone moan (or, SHUDDER, hashtag a line of expletives) in a tweet about their course and how miserable it’s making them. Don’t do it. Employers are bound to have a look at your online chatter, however nosey that may seem, so don’t use your profiles to badmouth your course or lecturers. It doesn’t take one of those child geniuses from Channel 4 to work out that it simply doesn’t look good on the university, and it looks even worse on you, making you that bit less employable as a result. Instead, try and get past what’s bothering you and raise your concerns with the lecturers directly.

On the other side of the online world, keep on top of your blog and share what’s going on in your creative life. Employers won’t be interested in seeing another meme featuring Grumpy Cat, so rather, keep your blog relevant and on topic, and update it regularly. Anyone that clicks on a blog where the last post is 6 months old will instantly go elsewhere and never return. Get into a habit of blogging – it can be tough when you’ve got deadlines on the go, but view it more as an online diary of your creativity. But also, do remember that it’s not an item by item review of what you’ve just bought in Primark. Save that for a personal blog.

5. Name Your Layers!

Now, I have to confess, this is something I’ve only started doing in the last 12 months. When you’re working in Photoshop, as digital designers do, name your layers. Going back into a Photoshop document and finding ‘Layer 1’, ‘Layer 36’ and ‘Shape 7’ is enough to bring on cardiac arrest, so name your layers and group them into folders as you go along. I must’ve spent about 7 years scrolling happily through my layers palette to find layer upon shape upon text layer, and I honestly don’t know how I managed. Start by naming your layers, and after you’ve finished working on an area, group it all into a folder – it will make life much easier, far less stressful and speed up your workflow considerably. This is also useful if you’re working on a collaborative project where someone else needs access to the document.

6. Don’t Become a Slave

I came across an interesting article at Creative Review today, and it made me realise how ridiculous unpaid internships can be. Do not fall into the trap of becoming an unpaid slave for a high-flying agency. At the very least, make sure you’re receiving some payment for expenses, because if you’re paying to travel somewhere without being paid for the work you’re doing, then you’re effectively operating at a loss, and this will mount up. This is less of a problem if the internship is actually a placement as part of your university course (often in second year), but usually there will be some form of reimbursement scheme. During my time in London, I clocked up almost £300 in train/tube journeys over a period of 5 weeks – excluding my train journeys back up north. If you’re doing something like this off your own back and it’s costing you, then think carefully about where you’re working and who you’re working for. If the agency isn’t willing to offer any form of payment, even expenses, then keep investigating, because too many of them are out to take advantage of desperate students. Our culture has become a little too complacent on this in recent years. Would you really ask your dentist or teaching assistant to work for free?

7. Know Your Software

People get told so many different things in the design education world. Most of us go into university having fiddled with one of Adobe’s Creative Suite applications (or Creative Cloud, if we’re talking 2013!), and fully expecting to continue rolling along using the same software. Yes, Adobe is the way to go, with less and less people using Quark nowadays, but know which programme to use. Most tend to favour InDesign when working on print, whereas Photoshop is now the go-to if you’re specialising in Digital, because it’s likely that you won’t need to scale things up, whilst things can be moved around easily and exported in different formats – ideal if you have to make changes later down the line. The layers make up the individual elements and each of these can be exported separately to make up the assets for the website you’re designing. I tend to use Illustrator when designing logos and icons, because things can then change scale without losing quality. Working hard on a logo and then having the client make a mess by expanding it beyond pixelated belief can be a tad awkward.

8. Read Around the Subject

This doesn’t just mean buying/borrowing books. Subscribe to all the design blogs (Creative Review, Creative Bloq to name a few) for industry insight, news, tips, reviews and other articles. You’ll impress your lecturers and will be better off on the knowledge front as well. You can also find a lot of inspiration just by scrolling through a few articles. Books are a great source of knowledge and tutorials too, but being in such a fast-moving digital age, they tend to date slightly quicker than articles you’ll find online. That said, do take note of your uni’s reading list and drop into bookshops for a browse in the design section – you may find a hardback full of inspiration, no matter what the publication date.

9. Attend Design Events

Similar to people ‘forgetting’ about their lectures, there’s also a deathly silence when you mention anything relating to an event that’s coming up. Of course, as with many things in life, it is often the case that an event will fall on an inconvenient/impossible day, or you’re not able to make it to a specific location. There are plenty of design events happening in London, for example, but me being in the North West of England, it has never been massively practical or economical to make numerous trips down there for a few hours of insight and inspiration. Last year I attended Designival, based in Liverpool. This was helpful because it gave me a chance to have a poke around a few of the city’s best design studios, whilst also picking up valuable insight from big name designers at the keynote speeches that ran throughout the day. It’s also a chance for networking. The same goes for guest lectures. If your tutors have gone to the trouble of setting up a talk from a guest lecturer, often a well thought-of designer or past graduate, the least you can do is make the effort to go. You might have deadlines approaching, but going back to my first point, organise yourself and you’ll have the opportunity to network and get your work in on time. So even if it means getting up early on a Friday morning, I’d encourage you to attend as many design events and guest lectures as possible – you never know what you might come away with.

10. Refine Yourself

In your first year, it’s often difficult to know which area of design you’ll want to specialise in. I always thought I’d end up on the craft side of things, with a big interest in designing for print and vintage typography as I began my course in 2010. The digital world was still a bit of an unknown world to me and most of my contemporaries, and it wasn’t until half way through my second year and a 5 week stint at a big digital London agency that my focus switched almost completely to digital, with this continuing into my third year and my final projects being both digital and experiential. It is still important to maintain interests in all fields though, and know what’s going on in a particular area. Designing for digital is all very well, but you may be less employable to certain design establishments if you’re unable to prepare something for print. Don’t stress if you get to your third year and are still unsure of what to specialise in – your tutors will be more than happy to guide you, pull out your weaknesses and assess your strengths.


I’ve got stacks more tips where they came from (my brain), so stay tuned for Part Two in the coming months – nothing worse than information overload!