From Design Student to Professional

Julia Thummel, Former Designer

Article Category: #Design & Content

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How to be a professional designer. No seriously. How?

It's now week 7 of my 10 week design internship at Viget (already!?), and so far during my time here I've learned a good deal about things like designing for the web, creating meaningful brand strategies, learning new design tools, how to present to clients, etc. All the good stuff a budding designer would want from a summer internship experience. I've also learned about the slightly more evasive, but equally as important art of being a professional in the field. After graduating, I was excited to dive right in to the professional world and finally put the skills I had been honing in design school to work. Since then, I've learned that becoming a professional requires more than just a well-rounded set of design skills. I've found that one of the more challenging aspects in the transition from student to professional is simply that it's not something that can be taught, like a new tool. Everyone learns to navigate this new terrain in their own way, and the best you can do is to observe and learn as you go along. Which, in turn, requires that you make a couple of mistakes along the way. 

That being said, here are four big observations I’ve made at Viget so far on the transition from design student to design professional. 

1. College probably didn't prepare you for being a professional designer.

Sure, you've had practice iterating through designs, meeting deadlines, presenting work, and negotiating with professors (the proto-client?). You know what it means to work your butt off on a project and get great results, and likewise, you also know what it means to sometimes fail. You might be prepared to succeed in the closed environment of design school, where everyone works on the same projects and meets the same deadlines with the same professors. As you may have guessed, it's a lot different in the real world. Upon entering the world as a professional, you must become independent, and get acclimated to what it means to be the person others will look to for good design solutions. The only way to know if you're doing it right is if the client is happy. Of course, you should also probably be proud of your work as well. But if the client isn't happy, there really aren't any free passes or do-overs. Re-doing design work because you missed the mark can be expensive, and because of that, sometimes you don't get a second chance. No one is telling you what to do anymore, which is as daunting as it is liberating.

2. Interdisciplinary teams require a different kind of communication.

In design school, everyone was on the same page. People knew about existing design trends, and understood that every designer has their own process. However, in the professional world, you can't really assume that the people on your team will be able to understand the way you are thinking and why you are making the design choices you make. Therefore, communication is key: understand why you are making the choices you make, so that you can then articulate them well. At the same time, it's important to be able to listen to what others are saying and get feedback from designers and non-designers alike.

Getting feedback can be more of a conversation as a professional designer. In design school, feedback from professors can often times feel like less of a suggestion and more of a direction. In the professional world, internal feedback from peers is a little more relaxed. Sounds like the sweet freedom you've always craved, but ultimately it puts more responsibility on you since this is your design, and it's up to you to make it work at the end of the day. 

3. Two words: self motivation.

This is probably the biggest transition from being a student to a professional. Having self motivation is so important because once you've graduated, no one is going to push you anymore, and you have to push yourself to succeed. You have to be the one pushing yourself to a higher standard, to do things like take on side projects just because they're good exercises in creativity. You also have to be able to set your own deadlines, and understand that failing to meet them in the professional world has very different consequences than it did in design school. You can't just throw something together at the last minute anymore or pull all-nighters left and right. While the crazy, studio-is-life culture of design school can sometimes be romanticized, in the professional world it comes off as irresponsible and reflects poorly on your work ethic. No one wants a designer that volatile and unpredictable. Not to mention it's completely unsustainable, since fall, winter, and summer breaks are no longer a thing.

4. You never stop being a student. Or at least, you shouldn't. 

Along the lines of self motivation, and seemingly contradictory to the last three observations I made, never stop being a student. And by that I mean never let yourself get too comfortable in one design style, never stop looking for inspiration, never stop trying new things, and never stop learning from peers. Working from 9am to 5pm Monday through Friday, on the same projects and with the same people, it can be easy to let yourself fall into a routine and just let yourself be too busy to learn something new. But by not prioritizing self education, you'll never grow as a designer. Keep an open mind at all times, and never assume you know more than someone else. Instead, learn what you can from them. 

So, in conclusion... be curious, self-confident, self-sufficient, and self motivated—it's on you now. And try not to take yourself too seriously. 

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