Top tips for design students

Nowadays, a good degree is no guarantee of a job – especially in the competitive creative industries. However, there are some things design students can do whilst at uni or art college that will help you stand out from the crowd and turn that degree into your dream job. 

Whether you're in your final year or earlier on in your course, read on for eight top tips for getting it together while you’re still at university so you’re more likely to be successful when you graduate. 

Need some top web design resources? Our guide to the best website builder is a must, as is this rundown of brilliant web hosting services,

01. Get involved

Whether online or in real life, it’s a good idea to take an active part in the world of design. Join organisations, attend events, follow industry leaders and keep your eye on what’s happening in design.

Award projects are a great way to get noticed. Take on competition briefs and give them your best. They often provide an opportunity for you to experience real design briefs first-hand, come into contact with people in the industry and test your skills. It’s your chance to show the design world what you can do. D&AD New Blood is a big one: the briefs are released each autumn. 

02. Perfect your portfolio

Whether it’s a physical design portfolio or a digital one, think about your portfolio as a whole. Edit it carefully and consider the order in which the projects should go (plus back it up in secure cloud storage). Generally you want to open and close with your best two projects as these tend to be the ones that are remembered. The top agencies get applications from numerous graduates all the time, so if it’s not simple to view your work they probably won’t bother.

03. Keep sketches

Sketches help demonstrate your thought process, and show off your creativity and problem-solving abilities. If possible, keep your original sketches and put them together in an orderly fashion. At a face-to-face interview, it is always good to present tangible pieces as well as a digital portfolio.

04. Work out who you are

Deciding what you want to do (beyond earning money) is easier said than done. Where do you want to be? Do you want to work in a city, live in the countryside or do you want to travel? Do you want to work for a large agency, a small agency or for yourself? What type of work do you love to do and who would you love to work with? Whose work do you admire and why? Where would you like to be in six months? In two years? In five years?

Be aware that the industry is continually changing and that new agencies and ways of working are providing fresh opportunities all the time. Having a clear idea of what you want to do and where you want to be is the first step to getting there.

05. Do your research

Researching companies and potential clients will help you find which ones suit you and whether you’d be a good fit for them. Having identified your target market, you can hone your message especially for them. Tailor your portfolio to suit the job you want, and flag up anything relevant that might give you the edge. 

The more research you do the better. The fact that you’ve gone the extra mile will also be appreciated. If you're earlier on in your course, an easy way to start is by following different agencies on social media. This way, you'll see any new work and get a feel for their personality.

06. Impress on placements 

The more experience you get and the more contacts you make, the easier it will be to find the job that’s right for you. When on a placement, make yourself indispensable. Show enthusiasm and be memorable – in a good way.

Even if you don’t drink hot drinks, by offering to make people a cuppa you get chance to chat to other employees and find out about the projects they are doing. The design industry is small. Be aware that if you do well at one place word will get around… and vice versa! 

A side note to this: when applying for placements or jobs, follow any instructions carefully. Good roles will attract a lot of interest, so if you make things difficult for the recipient, chances are they won't bother making the extra effort with your application.

07. Know your work

Learning to clearly explain your ideas, sell your work and yourself is as important as the design. It is about showing your understanding of the issues and explaining how your design(s) solved the problem set out in the brief. You need to show how you can be of value to the company or client. 

Ask questions: it demonstrates interest. Sometimes even the simplest question can unlock a wealth of information.

08. Learn to take criticism

Learning to take criticism is a vital part of being a designer. You’re always going to get negative reactions, but don’t take it personally. Setbacks should make you want to work harder.

It also helps to be able to bounce back if you do get a 'no' for a job or internship. An agency or client may not want or need you now, but they may in the future. 

This article was originally published in net, the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers. Buy issue 305 or subscribe.  

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

Sue has been involved in interviewing graphic design graduates for internships and junior positions for over 25 years.