KEEN Tips for Design Students

Dear design students,

I know that thinking about those next steps after design school can be daunting, but if you don’t think about them early, you might find yourself unprepared after you walk off the stage with your fancy degree or certificate. I’ve been there, and I’ve also been in the position to help decide who will be working with us at KEEN in our design department, and know what we are looking for in a designer.

Regardless of if you are in your first year or just graduated, here’s a list of things that will help you get the most out of school and prepare yourself for what happens next.

KEEN tips for design students

1. Ask Questions. Lots of questions.

Find out as much as you can about a project before starting. Who is the client? What are their values? What is their message? What makes them unique? Who is the target audience? What is the purpose of the piece? What are their competitors doing? How long will it be used for? What type of style and imagery would best suit the project? What are the technical requirements? Where will it be be seen? Etc. etc. I could go on, but the point is the more information you arm yourself with about a client and the project, the more successful you will be.

2. Design is about problem solving.

Not just making pretty things. Remember you are not designing for yourself, you are designing for a client. For now that client is your instructor, but eventually the goal is for it to be a paying client. The design needs to meet their unique needs, and this sometimes will require you to step out of your comfort zone to get to the right solution for them.

3. Embrace diversity.

Being able to convey the client’s message regardless of the medium or style is what we as designers are tasked with. You may gravitate to one medium such as print or web design but keep in mind that being able to apply a client’s branding to different mediums will make you a more desirable hire for both agencies and clients. Being well rounded and confident with all forms of design will help you be more successful.

4. Look for inspiration everywhere.

It’s really easy to just do an online search and come up with thousands of examples of design work. It’s so very tempting to find something that someone else made to solve a different design problem and copy it, especially when faced with looming deadlines. Instead of jumping right on the computer consider first thinking about the genre, theme & style that best suits your design challenge and researching that.

Movies, TV, fine art, industrial design, video games, inspiration is everywhere! The library can be a wonderful place to start, look at books on all subjects not just design. Then look at how others tackled similar design challenges, and evaluate what solutions may help you with your project. Having a good arsenal for finding inspiration will help you to come up with the right unique solution for your situation.  

5. Learn how to take criticism.

Be ready to explain your concept and how you arrived at your design. A big part of being a designer is not only being able to create great, unique design but to sell it. Know your client, the design challenge, your inspiration, process and rationale and speak to it confidently. Accept all feedback with positivity and respect.

Remember that someone not liking your work is not a personal attack on you. Clients or your creative/art director will not always like everything you do, but if you listen to feedback and adapt you will end up at the right solution in the end.

6. Manage your time & meet deadlines.

While you are in school you can pull all-nighters and spend as many hours as you like on a project to get it just perfect. In the “real world” time equals money. At an agency you will be given tasks with a certain amount of time allotted to them and you will be expected to be able to complete the job within that amount of time. As a freelancer, you will have to manage your own time and be mindful that the longer you spend on a project, the less money per hour you will be making. Find ways to efficiently research, plan and execute an idea in a timely manner.

7. Trust your gut.

Learn to recognize when you are spinning your wheels on a project and take a step back and reevaluate. If your idea is taking a lot of effort to make it work then perhaps it is not the right solution. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

8. Become a software expert.

Adobe Creative Cloud is your tool to get your job done. Learning to be an expert at using the software will help you to complete your tasks quickly and correctly.

9. Proof your work.

I can’t stress enough how valuable this is. Take a step back and double check everything before it is sent to your instructor or client. Check spelling, grammar, spacing, alignment, colours, page set up, sizing, specs, requirements etc. Nothing sucks more than sending something easily avoidable like a spelling error out into the world.

10. Start developing an awesome portfolio.

This one’s easier said than done, but don’t worry! I’ve got some tips for this too.

Here are 4 things to think about as you work on developing your design portfolio:

Show variety.

You may love one medium most but designers are expected to be experts in creating for many mediums now to be able to effectively communicate for their clients. For example, if the project was to develop a logo, consider investing some of your own time and creating other pieces to help tell the brand story, such as business cards, ads, brochure etc. Showing that you can apply a concept on various mediums is a skill that all potential employers are looking for.

Know your work.

Know why you created it and how it solves a challenge for the client, then speak to it with confidence. “I thought it looked cool” or “I really like the colour blue” isn’t an appropriate answer.

Show process.

Where applicable it’s nice to sometimes see your process sketches when presented in a clean and interesting manner. Sketches should be scanned and cleaned up. What this does is shows that you explored ideas, your thought process and how you came to the final product.

Not everything you do should go in your portfolio.

If you are not feeling like you have enough variety or strong pieces, try exploring making your own designs to show variety and your skill set. Not 100% happy with the project you submitted for an assignment but think it has portfolio potential? Invest the time to tweak and improve it based on feedback you receive.

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