10 Tips For Design Students

Having mentored thousands of design and illustration students since I began teaching and coaching, I’ve determined that their successes as students, and ultimately as creative professionals, depends as much on them as it does on me. It’s a partnership.

When a student enrolls in my course they bring their expectations and aspirations with them. My role as teacher is to impart the knowledge and skills they need to be able to thrive in a competitive creative profession.

Although I am a (part-time) teacher, I am not an academic. Because I own a successful design consultancy and have navigated through cultural, technological, and policy changes for over 3 decades, I know what’s required of creatives today.

My purpose here is to offer you some proven tips not only so you can get the most from your student experience (whether you’re in a design program or learning on your own) but also to enter the profession prepared to compete. So here we go:

The teacher is there for you. It may appear that you’re being asked to jump at your instructor’s beck and call, or that they’re being unreasonable in their expectations and requirements. Rather than complain and accuse, consider it as training for how to compete in the profession.  Your teacher isn’t there to break you, but to build you. It might be tedious and uncomfortable in the moment, but in the end you’ll recognize the benefits of their instruction.

Every teacher was once a student. It’s hard to put anything over on them. It’s better to be honest than to deceive.

Listen to your fellow students, whether you’re in a classroom or online discussion forum. The questions they ask, the responses they give, and what they say about their work and yours during can be invaluable to you.

Document your work and process. Process is how to get to the final design that everyone sees. Showing your process helps establish your work as being yours and original and not “acquired”, template-based, or plagiarized. Turn your smartphone into a design tool. Document with stills and video.

Keep a design journal. This can be a sketchbook, cahier, bullet journal, commonplace book, or note-taking app. Record your ideas, doodles, sketches and comments in it. Document your projects in it. Record notes and compare ideas. Do your concept work in it. It’s a great substitute for the paper napkin, and everything you’re thinking and seeing is all contained in one easy-to-carry place. Over time you’ll develop a library archive of all your ideas. It’ll help you to understand what catches your eye and why. It’ll help you to see where you’re weak in your process and where you’re strong. It’s a record of your creative history and heritage.

Draw. Draw. Draw some more. Don’t be ashamed or timid because you’re not good at it — yet. Drawing is how you become skilled at drawing. No one starts out knowing how.

The computer is a tool. Use a pencil instead and you’re still a designer. Using a computer or tablet does not make you a designer. Learn the manual skills and then translate to the digital space. Start on paper. Refine and finalize in software.

Don’t work for the grade. The reason you’ve chosen to study design/illustration/art/photography is because you want to succeed as a creative pro.  If your first question for your teacher is “What does it take to get an A in this class?” you’re missing the point entirely. That would be like asking a client, “How much will you pay me?” before their job is even defined. Pay attention, do the work, put in the extra effort, and the grade will follow.

Plan your time. Build in margin for the unexpected. Studio classes require an amount of time spent outside the learning environment for research, preparation and execution. Time is required. Identify your time-wasters and get rid of them. What are you willing to give up for now in exchange for the new skills and mind-expansion you’ve signed up for?

Use inspiration. Then make sure it remains inspiration. In other words, don’t copy. It’s unethical.

Be creative but solve the problem. Design is not for the purpose of self-expression. If your goal is to express yourself, go be a fine artist or a tagger. Designers create for reasons not their own, mostly.

Use the right tool for the right job. Invest in quality tools and learn how to use them. You can’t create elegant page layouts in office word processing software. A box cutter is not a substitute for an X-Acto® knife.  It’s safer that way.

©Alvalyn Lundgren. All rights reserved.

What can you add to this list? Drop a comment below. Comments are moderated and won’t appear immediately. I will reply, and may use your feedback as the basis for an upcoming video or article.

Thanks for reading!

PS: If you got this far, you might also like More Advice For Design Students.

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.