Things I wish I’d known before starting my design degree

Me in the studio during my undergraduate degree

It’s that time of year again. The pavements are covered with dead leaves, nightclub flyers and patches of vomit. It must be the start of the academic year.

Brighton and Sheffield are very different places over summer; the former is busy with tourists, the latter almost seems to fall asleep. But over one weekend in late September, the two transform into a very familiar place. I put it down to my years in education (followed by years working in education) but for me September has always felt more like the start of the year than January. And while I’m making my own plans for the next year, the sight of fresh faced students taking their first voyage from home fills me with envy and nostalgia. I think about what I’d do if I was doing it all over again. So allow me to become that old man in the corner of the pub and recount the triumphs and mistakes I made as a student. These are the things I wish someone had told me* before I started my design degree.

Get involved from the start

On my own degree there was very little timetabled contact time. I feel like I maybe had about 8 hours of lectures, workshops, seminars and critiques each week. It’s easy to just turn up when you need to and then work from home, but it’s a good idea to be present even when you don’t need to be. Working from the studio is a good start, but actually getting involved is better. There will be chances to join a society, help out the finalists with their exhibitions, attend guest talks and join voluntary workshops. I didn’t make much of an effort to get in on these but they’re really good ways to get some extra experience, build up relationships with other students (and lecturers of course) and just learn more. That’s what you’re there to do after all!

Get a routine

Old habits die hard, and university is a perfect opportunity to develop some new ones; good and bad. University is no doubt just as much about socialising as it is studying – and I firmly believe both are as important as each other – but finding a good balance is hard. On top of that it’s easy to develop a messy sleeping pattern, and generally let your daily routine completely dissolve. This is where a bit of self discipline can go a long way. Getting up early at least some days even when you don’t have lectures, dedicating time to distraction free work (no phones, no browsing the web) and setting yourself measurable goals each day, week, or month can help develop good habits that you might even keep for life. You’ll see the benefits quickly and you’ll feel better for it.

Practice, practice, practice

University modules tend to run over an entire semester, and usually come with one main outcome at the end. While it’s good to have something to work on in depth, they’re not always great ways to practice new skills. On top of your university work, it’s worth having some personal projects that let you flex your muscles on a daily or weekly basis. Ira Glass puts it brilliantly in this short clip describing the creative gap:


I also recommend checking out Nick Campbell’s talk for some brilliant ideas on how to implement this way of thinking. Try spending an hour each day designing a typographic poster or a taking a photo or creating a 3D model.  And then share it. Use that pressure as encouragement. By the end of the year you’ll be amazed at your own progress. This month I’ll be taking on Inktober and I’ve been practising a few quick poses too. They’re just a couple of the many “make something every day” community challenges that go on throughout the year.

Find your niche

This one really hits home for me. Throughout my degree I switched between cel animation, interactive multimedia, illustration and probably a few other areas of design. Even now I still find myself unable to decide whether to focus on programming, illustration, animation, 3D; and that’s before I go into my music. I’ve always been incredibly indecisive about my work, and the result is that I’m a bit good at lots of things, but not particularly amazing at anything. When I finished my degree, I didn’t feel that I had the portfolio I’d need to pursue a career, because everything in it was an amateur attempt at lots of different things.

If I had another chance, I’d try and stick to a particular area at least for a length of time. There are plenty of opportunities to explore other niches and it can be good to try out lots of things, but the more time you spend on one thing, the better you get at it – and the more you’ll enjoy it too. Look at your own inspirations; they all have a particular way of working, a particular medium and style. It’s definitely worth exploring different things, but having a particular focus will make you stand out.

Learn to program

This one is for everyone, regardless of what you want to do. Even if you have no intention of becoming a programmer or working in web or digital, having some understanding of programming fundamentals is crucial. We’re in a digital age, and the majority of the design we see day to day is on a screen. These skills are becoming more and more in demand; lots of design roles now expect at least some understanding of HTML, CSS** and JavaScript. Beyond that though, it just gives you another tool to be creative with, that you can apply to virtually any other area of design, from web to fashion to typography to architecture. It can be quite scary trying to work out where to start with programming, but Processing (or even p5.js) is a great way to experiment with programming and get some inspiration about what you can really do with it.

See the bigger picture

One of my modules during my first year was Contextual Studies; essentially a historical review of all areas of design from the 1800s to now. While the lectures were brilliantly engaging, many of us couldn’t quite see why graphic designers, fashion designers, jewellery designers, furniture designers and product designers were all in the same lecture theatre, and why we were having to learn about other areas of design. What we didn’t recognise then, was that design is a way of thinking that can be applied to many different contexts. Learning about the skills that are the undercurrent of all of these areas – problem solving, communication, ideation, innovation, analysis and creativity – as well as learning about the context within which your work sits (location, culture, use, technology, abilities of users) helps you develop as a designer in your own field. My final module was to answer the question “What is a designer?” and I often wish this had been the first because when I really looked into this, I realised how all of it comes together.

Get as much experience as you can

It’s never too early to start reaching out to local studios, agencies and freelancers looking for experience. It’s hard to come by, but experience of the industry is invaluable. Internships and placements – even if only for a couple of weeks here and there – not only help you learn about the real world, but help you develop connections. Out of everyone I studied with, the ones that had worked with studios already seemed to be the ones that got the jobs when they graduated. If you can’t get placements with actual industry professionals, then reach out to local businesses, charities and social groups, or even just friends and family. You might not get the same constructive feedback but you’ll learn how to work with clients and it will give you some opportunities for practising your design skills, and maybe earn some cash too! As a last resort, you could also check out websites like Peopleperhour, Fiverr and r/designjobs for work. I will say however that while these sites can be great for a beginner, they do have a way of devaluing design work and create a sort of “race to the bottom” approach to work, so I wouldn’t see them as a long term way of finding work!

The most important tip though, is to enjoy it! be present, take every opportunity you can and use this time to learn about what you love.

*It’s very possible that someone did tell me at least some of these things, but I just didn’t listen.

**Yes, I know HTML and CSS are not technically programming languages.

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