I've been freelancing since 2012 and in that time also managed to (finally) graduate with my Bachelor of Science in Graphic Design. Since I graduated in 2016, I have been meaning to sit down and write down some of the things I learned (the hard way) about succeeding as a student majoring in graphic design. Everyone's college experience is different, especially if you attended college online vs. on campus, but there is a lot of overlap as far as the practices you can apply to really get a handle on the workload and make the most out of your time there.
Header Image by Emma Matthews
1. PLAN OUT YOUR SCHEDULE DAY-TO-DAY
Keeping a schedule and learning how to balance your clients and your day-to-day workload is something that you should absolutely begin practicing while you're in school. Just like you are expected to remember assignments and deadlines in high school, so you are in college - but now you have the added bonus of piling all your "real life" adult problems on top of it. The sooner you learn to plan ahead, the easier school will be. It's something that you truly have to train yourself to do (especially if it does not come naturally to you).
I used to be completely garbage at planning out assignments and appointments. Here's some ways to get on track:
Print our your class schedule and use highlighters or brightly colored markers to mark off classes and class assignments as they are completed, or keep a daily planner and write down both your class schedule and your day-to-day responsibilities together so you can better see how to split your time up (writing things down can help your memory!).
Put up a desk or wall calendar in your study space (even print out your own!) or use a calendar app.
Or just set alarms on your phone!
You can also pace out assignments. Set a minimum of time every day to work on homework and long-term projects (for example: 8:00 - 10:00 AM before class or 6:00 - 8:00 PM after work), so by the end of the week you can meet your due dates without cramming. Being a designer (especially when freelancing) means having to juggle a lot of balls at the same time. Developing your own work flow and what works best for you early on will save you your sanity in the long run - I promise!
2. DON'T BE AFRAID TO ASK QUESTIONS (ASK ALL THE QUESTIONS!)
In regards to assignments, techniques, materials, project specs, etc. This is your opportunity to ask away while you're surrounded by professionals who will know the answers, and if they don't know they can help you find out for yourself. There is a lot that isn't going to be covered strictly by assignments so it's important to inquire as you go. The faculty are there to help you so don't be afraid to push for information.
If needed, you can also work around unhelpful class situations. We've all had that teacher (or teachers) that were reluctant to respond to inquiries or did not really get deep enough into a topic to lead you forward. Weed out the teachers or administrators who are not going to be helpful in the way that you need, and work around them with those that do, like; your guidance counselor, student adviser, career counselor, or any other faculty that has offered to assist you. *If you're shy like me - use e-mail as a lifeline. Administration contact information should be available on your school's website.
This also includes fellow classmates! I bet that there are a lot of students in your class at varying levels of experience and it doesn't hurt to ask around when you are confused about something. You could even go a step further and put together a study group or join a Facebook group with other students from your school to post questions about assignments.
Image on rawpixel.com
3. START DEVELOPING YOUR WORK PROCESS
I think every designer has a little variation to their process and what works best for them. This is a really good time to start outlining the steps to completing an assignment start to finish - just like you would with a client! Even though every task is a little different, the same steps can usually be applied. I've previously outlined my general routine with developing a design (that works beyond logo design). There's also a great post by Jacob Cass about The Logo Design Process From Start to Finish that covers each step with visuals.
*You can also start improving the way you present your work to your classmates. This Fast Company article by Meg Miller called 5 Top Designers On How To Create The Ultimate PowerPoint Presentation gives some good tips that work whether you're using PowerPoint or designing a presentation in another program for PDF, like Illustrator or InDesign.
4. TREAT EACH ASSIGNMENT LIKE A PAID GIG
From Day #1 you should keep in mind that all assignments, no matter how big or small, may be used as potential portfolio pieces. Students who don't start preparing in advance really get bit on the butt later. From keeping your files organized to the process and presentation (as I mentioned) this will all help advance you through your last months in school.
If you treat each assignment like you're answering to a paying client you will create more meaningful, professional work.
Takeaway Cup Image | Stationary Materials Mockup | Poster Mockup | Organic Tea Packaging Mockup | Business Card Mockup | Car Vector Mockup | Paper Board Mockup | Printed Material Mockups | Closeup Business Card Mockup
5. PRESENTATION IS EVERYTHING
To get a leg up on your homework presentation, you can learn how to create mock-up for your designs (which, once again, can be used later on in your portfolio). It's also easier to communicate your ideas and reasoning for your choices with strong visuals. Above I've selected some of my favorite mockups from rawpixel. You can also use resources like GraphicBurger, Graphic Design Freebies, and PSD Graphics.
Can't find a mockup you need? Veila posted a helpful tutorial on How to Create Your Own Photoshop Mockup from an existing photo.
6. REFERENCES ARE YOUR FRIEND
Regarding illustrative work a pervasive, and quite frankly, toxic bit of advice I've seen floating around online is that using references is a form of cheating. As a creative professional and college graduate I am here to tell you that is 100% false. In fact, I remember how much using references was enforced in school, and there is good reason why! In the long run, trying to produce art from nothing but memory is going to be a huge time waster that will result in unnecessary frustration and poor quality work.
This is not to say all work should be realistic or of a certain style - anything but! The point is to work smarter, not harder, and this is one of the ways to do that. This can be applied to both complicated illustrations or something as simple as a set of icons. (Searching for references can also help you divine inspiration for your project if you are in a creative rut). There is a difference between using references and copying work. You can effectively use multiple references to create a design, from proportions to shape to color.
7. USE YOUR COUPONS!
There's no shame in taking advantage of an opportunity, and that's what college is. It's a limited time, short term, very expensive opportunity that you try to get as much as you can out of it in the time you can. When I say "use your coupons", I mean don't let that time expire without using it fully to your benefit.
Some examples of this are using the online student library and other online resources included for free for reference material and read up on subjects not covered in class. Or like I mentioned, take opportunities to question or interview community professionals that are involved with the school. Use literal student discounts too! Some schools offer package deals on software, hardware, or digital tools. For projects that require traditional materials or if you just need new sketchbooks and pencils, both Michaels and DickBlick offer coupons on art supplies. Don't forget your local art shop might also be a closer drive and more helpful in asking specific questions by more knowledgeable staff.
Image on rawpixel.com
8. SOCIALIZE INSIDE AND OUTSIDE OF CLASS
The long hours and heavy homework load in college can be a creativity eater. Between isolation and physical exhaustion, burn out is a real thing and can limit the quality of your work and how much you actually learn at the end of the day. Finding time to socialize can benefit you in three major ways:
Helps you renew creatively.
Improves your general social skills you will need later on with clients.
The first step towards networking within your industry.
*One of my biggest regrets about my time in school is that I did NOT socialize with my peers enough. If you don't have one already start an address book specifically for work and/or peer contacts. Keep the information for your teachers, your guidance counselor, your classmates you've connected with, or just people you've met through school. You never know when you may need to reconnect!
9. TAKE CRITIQUES PROFESSIONALLY, NOT PERSONALLY
Look at other students work. No matter how better or worse you think you are than those around you, you can ALWAYS improve. There is always something you can learn. If you walk into class thinking you already know everything, you might as well just give up now because you can't move forward with that mindset.
Art is subjective anyway, and I can guarantee your clients will have opinions and they share those opinions quite bluntly. You need to learn how to take those criticisms and apply them to your work in a way that is functional to the design. You are the architect of their desires, and your job is to take what they think they want and turn it into what they want AND need.
Writing critiques of other students while also giving your own presentations are a great way to exercise how to articulate WHY you made the decisions you made. Getting your teacher and your classmates to understand the why can help you defend your choices while also helping them help you to make better ones. You will need to do this with clients every time you show proofs or make edits, especially when proposing changes outside their original requests.
10. EXPLORE ALL POSSIBLE ROUTES OF EMPLOYMENT
Explore job titles and possible employment paths you may not have considered. Look at the job titles and job history of your teachers. Ask your guidance counselor about job resources as early on as possible. Read job boards provided through the school (if provided). Look at companies that are hiring in and out of your area and see the positions and requirements. You may ended up working as a designer in a way you didn't expect!
You also can't always depend on your post-graduation assistance being a sure thing. I was assigned a contact after I graduated who refused every inquiry I made with questions about possible job applications and help finding places to apply to or ways to work for myself. I ended up dedicating myself to working independently full-time, but the lack of back up did make it a long transition process.
Image by Karly Santiago
★ BONUS: HAVE EMPATHY FOR OTHER STUDENTS
The motto I always applied to my interactions with other students was SHOW COOPERATION ABOVE COMPETITION.
What I mean by that is; You are all in the same boat, you are all there to learn. Help each other! Remember why you wanted to pursue design in the first place and where your passion lies.
Some of the most successful designers and artists I've seen are ones who are an open source for industry information and don't try to treat their success like some secret code. We all have to find our own path to success, there is no "right" way to do it, no secret formula, and no true trick to making it.
If you have any tips of your own, feel free to share in the comments below.