13 Tips for Design Students to Be Successful

Kristina and Randall, with Duke and Harley

Having been out of school for a little over a year, I’ve had a lot of time to think about how I took my passion for graphic design and turned it into a full-time career. There were a lot of things I did right–found a great internship, gained invaluable advice from mentors, and strengthened my design skills–along with things I could have done better.

The following is a list of 13 tips for design students, recent graduates, and even people already invested in the design industry that I and fellow WDG designer, Kristina, put together to help you find success as a designer.

While In School: 

Don’t Be a [Word Here]. It Could Haunt You for Years

It’s easy to assume that after graduation you’ll get a clean slate and won’t have past actions weighing down during your job hunt. If you were disrespectful and rude years ago to your peers or professors, and that was the last impression you gave someone, don’t expect glowing recommendations from them. Always be kind and courteous to your peers!

Acquire Skills Your Peers Don’t Have

Interactive design is where the magic happens in our field, so students need to sharpen their skills to keep up with demands of the digitally focused workplace. One of my first forays into interactive design was actually digital publishing, which is generally targeted at magazine design for mobile devices.

I was able to create prototypes of applications, magazines, and sites that future interviewers could directly experience, a feat that is rare among print-focused design students. This was very helpful when I was applying for internships, because I was demonstrating a skill my peers didn’t have, a surefire way to get your foot in the door.

Understand the Ins and Outs of Good Design

There’s so much great design in the world that it can be overwhelming to understand all its strong points. It’s very easy to recognize design that looks good or excels at its goal, but it’s hard to sit down and crank out successful results immediately. Students, and everyone interested in design, should make searching for good design a regular part of their day. Bookmark great sitescollect compendiums of great design, and horde snippets on your computer.

Of course, it’s not enough to build up a library; you must also study design and understand what makes it an effective solution. The flair of one website might not translate to another website—instead you should focus on solutions when considering how to apply others’ design to your own work.


Is there a design club or AIGA chapter on your campus? Are there design-related events going on that you don’t go to because you’re busy (or just don’t feel like it)? Well, you should start making an effort to participate. Prospective employers want to see that you care about the your degree, and that you did more than shuffle in and out of class for 4 years. While your peers are getting their name out there networking with companies that may soon hire them, you’re only going to make the months after graduation that much more difficult. Get out there, go to portfolio reviews, tour an agency, and most importantly, show passion.

Connect with a Mentor

Find a great mentor to guide you through all the pitfalls that may come up in design school. Every design student probably has something they wished they had done differently along the way, and having someone to help you avoid the same mistakes will prove invaluable. Ideally a more senior mentor would be able to critique your work, help you better your design process, advise you on which classes to take, and possibly assist in you in your job hunt.

Get the BFA, Even if You Have a Minor

If your design program offers a degree where you can do additional design classes, then you should do it. At George Mason University, I ended up doing a BFA and a minor (because I really wanted to do 18 credits-worth of classes on video games). This means I actually fulfilled a 138 credit degree in 4 years, and I don’t regret the added stress at all. The extra classes helped me bulk up my portfolio with upper-level work, and my minor was a subject that I was deeply invested in. These options are available to you, but you also have to want it.

While In an Internship: 

Is Your Internship Invested in Your Success?

When I was working at AARP’s magazine team as an intern, the art directors and senior staff were actively involved in fostering my development as a designer, whether they were helping me develop my digital publishing, refining my resume, or letting me be an active participant in the design process of the magazine. Everything I learned there sprung me ahead of the competition for future jobs. On the flip-side, I’ve spent an extended amount of time at a design job where my ability to learn significantly stagnated because no one was invested in my success or the tasks I was given.

There’s no perfect way to guarantee your internship will be great, but you can gain some insight during the interview process by asking key questions:

  • Who will I be reporting to? How often?
  • What type of work will I be doing?
  • Will any projects be exclusively mine?

Ask the hard-hitting questions early, and try to uncover whether your internship will be a mutually beneficial relationship. While interning, don’t twiddle your thumbs either. If you have nothing to do, ask if you can help with anything. If you are working on a project, make sure have others edit your work with you.

Get Ready to Be Wrong

Designing can be a very personal activity for a lot of people. Even if you think your design skills are up to par, leave your ego at home. As a student, you should always be willing to listen to other voices if they have validity behind their critiques.

One Polished Idea is Better Than 40 Mediocre Ones

Many teachers made our classes push out dozens of sketched ideas for every project. We would spend classes critiquing a bunch of ideas that might go somewhere, but weren’t top-notch yet. In the real world, clients won’t want to pay designers to spend hours testing several paths when they should be refining only a few ideas into presentable drafts. There isn’t enough time or budget for this–you need to be able to run with an idea and better it until the end.

While Looking for A Job:

Have a Web Presence

Having an online presence is absolutely necessary. There are several websites at your disposal for uploading your work such as Squarespace, Behance, Dribbble and Cmdspace, and Cargocollective. No matter what type of design you do, your work should be easy to find. Not having this presence will be a detriment to your success.

Quality Versus Quantity

Before you start pulling out every restaurant menu and logo you’ve ever made just remember: quality trumps quantity every time. When you’re presenting your work, only bring the work that you believe fully represents your design skill sets. Between the having five great pieces and 20 mediocre ones, stick with the five.

Presentation is Vital

The presentation of your work is just as important as the work itself. Your most beautiful work can be completely sullied by poor presentation: bad cutting with an x-acto knife, low quality prints, poor mounting, and so forth. Don’t be afraid to shell out the extra cash for top-notch presentation, because the job you score will earn it back very fast. I promise.

Additionally, check out this video for an awesome demonstration of a great way to mount physical items.

Learn How to Interview

“Tell me about yourself” is one of the most common interview questions out there and is not meant to trip you up. If you can’t talk about yourself or your work effectively, you won’t be able to prove your value to anyone. Have stock answers for a range of questions, know everything you want to highlight, and practice, practice, practice.

Questions are almost never as obvious as they may seem, so try to position them in a way that focuses on all the interesting details about you. Be thoughtful, effective, and make sure to come with questions. (Nothing looks better than someone who shows interest in the company.) Finish up with a smile and thank you note.

WDG is Washington, D.C.’s premier digital creative agency, specializing in building solutions powered by WordPress and Drupal open source technology. Contact us to chat about your web needs and how we can help you strengthen your digital presence.

We are also looking to hire a new web designer for our awesome design team. If you think you’ve got what it takes, get your portfolio ready and drop us a line.

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