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Making the Most of Your Student Years

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For any aspiring designer or developer, your student years are a time full of opportunities to develop your professional life. Why should you wait until you have a degree to become more professional in what you do? In this article, we'll explore how you can use your student time to give you a great start in a professional career. Even though this article is aimed at students specifically, any designer or developer could pick up a thing or two to improve their (budding) career.


Work Hard, Get Better

How's that for beginning with a massive cliché?

Every budding designer is familiar with the following situation: you stumble across beautiful work by other designers and you feel disappointed or ashamed because you simply don't reach that level. It's a very natural thing to be disappointed by your skills in the very early stage of your career. This shouldn't demotivate you or let you doubt your skills. Ira Glass has a wonderful quote on this topic:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it's just not that good. It's trying to be good, it has potential, but it's not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. &hellp; It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I've ever met. It's gonna take awhile. It's normal to take awhile. You've just gotta fight your way through. - Ira Glass

The motivation to become an amazing designer keeps you on track on improving your work. Glass mentions that by practicing, you become better. If you go about finishing your school assignments and sticking with that, you'll be disappointed by your level of skill once you have your degree. Forcing yourself to improve your skills outside classes is the first step in making that leap to a professional career. Explore new techniques and try to experiment with what's possible on the web. You'll improve your capabilities as time passes.

Any experienced designer can relate to this. Whenever you look at old work such as your first website, it's hideous. Looking at old work makes you realize that you're making progress in what yo do. At first, it might be difficult to notice that you're getting better. Don't focus on progress, but focus on your passion, your ambition and motivation. Work hard, get better and become respected in what you do.

Don't Let School Limit You

One of the problems I experience while following classes is that education is focused on studying in group. Which means that classes can end up being either too slow or too fast, too simple or too advanced. Besides that, schools often have issues with keeping up with the latest evolutions in the industry.

Classroom by Kyle Lambert on Dribbble

The best solution for this is that you spend your spare time on studying what you'd love to learn (such as the latest trends in web design, for example) at your own pace.

The fact you're reading this article means that you're doing a good job already. There's so much amazing material to be found online to help you learn new skills or improve old ones. Be inspired, be informed.

Teachers can be great assets; ask them for feedback on work you've done outside school, for example.

The great thing about higher education though is that it collects people with the same interests, both students and teachers. Teachers can be great assets, especially those whose classes you really enjoy and those who just do an amazing job at educating people. Why don't you ask them for feedback on work you've completed outside school? Or ask for some tips while trying something new?

Ideally, teachers will have experience from working in the industry themselves. Those who love their job know that it's impossible to teach you everything in class, but they might have that extra knowledge you're looking for, provide answers on questions, offer feedback or useful tips.

Contests, Awards and Opportunities

My personal game-changer was the participation in design contests. Even though chances might be small that you win (you're a beginner after all), it still offers you the practice to translate a brief to a concrete product.

Achievement Badges by Steve Czech on Dribbble

Contests are a great way to start building up a professional network. Always go to the award ceremony (if there is one), even if you didn't win. It sounds more scary than that it actually is. It's an easy way to get in contact with other designers and people who are in need of designers. Talking with other, experienced designers is another great way to get to know people who can be useful assets during the development of your career. Showing your face and small-talk is fine. Get people to know and recognize you in your environment!

With dedication and luck you could even win a design contest. This doesn't only result in the direct rewards and/or award of the contest itself, but also the opportunity to meet people and perhaps get other work. These are the opportunities you're looking for.

Don't just think as a designer, think as an entrepreneur!

You might not always have the fortune to win contests and that shouldn't be your only way to build up a professional network and improve your skills. In your student environment, there are numerous ways to practice your craft. Student parties can have a hideous flyer or some student clubs have an ugly website (or no website at all?) Why not offer to rework it if you know those people? Naturally, this isn't the most spectacular work you'll do and you'll likely end up doing it for free, but it's a very good investment in the start of your career.

As time passes you might get known for your work and other people might ask you to help them. In this fashion, your first paid opportunities might come and you can slowly filter out the free work.

Besides thinking as a designer, you also need to start thinking as an entrepreneur. Dare to think in a more commercial fashion once you believe you have the skills and the opportunities in front of you.

People Buy People

Your network will be your main source of income.

"Networking" seems like a horrible term for a lot of designers, but it's not as difficult as people believe. Besides, if you want to work as freelancer your network will become your main source of income. In marketing "people buy people" is a very familiar concept. It isn't just about your skills, it's also about who (or what) you're buying something from. Your designs shouldn't just be awesome, you as a person should be awesome. Stay friendly, stay humble, be yourself.

Networking can be simplified. Anyone you basically communicate with, in any form, can be a potential peer in your professional network. The chances are you don't even realize you are networking.

Never quit meeting people.

The great thing about being a student is that you meet so many people on so many occasions. This results in many acquaintances who can prove useful at some point in your career. After all, some of them are the entrepreneurs of tomorrow and will start a company. They'll also need a website at a certain point. Never quit meeting people. Continue to ask for feedback on your designs, even though the people you ask may not be familiar with our industry (this is were you receive the most interesting feedback!)

Finally, do you have a portfolio or a blog by now? Are you perhaps active on Dribbble or Behance? Show off your work online. Community design-related websites are a way to communicate with other designers but also potential clients. Besides, the community on these websites can offer you feedback from the best designers out there!

Your First Freelance Assignment

The most obvious step in launching your career is to work with real clients. We've discussed some possible routes to achieve this so far. Participating in design contests for example, networking, but also putting work online (letting people find you) are ways to get that first brief in your inbox.

A Tiny Voyage by Paddy Donnely - also used as the preview thumbnail for this article

Obtaining your first client is often the most difficult. Don't expect large jobs initially, something small such as designing a logo or developing a newsletter are a great start. Nothing exciting yet, but good things come to those who deliver great work. Besides, receiving your first paycheck by doing what you love feels great!

Always respect the client and the job, no matter how small or large. If clients don't appear, keep working on improving your skills and completing personal projects in your spare time. Update your online visibility and perhaps redesign a website you often visit as personal project for fun and experience. It's work you can put in your portfolio and it gives clients a taster of what you're capable of.

Take initiative as freelancing designer, it can be very rewarding.

Last, I've already mentioned thinking like an entrepreneur. Instead of waiting until you receive your first freelance assignment, you can also actively look for clients. Take initiative, especially if you see opportunities ahead of you. Out of personal experience, taking initiatives and making offers has gotten me much further.

Work and School: Finding a Workflow

There isn't a perfect method to decide what's more important.

As you become better and participate in more projects, there will be a moment that you find yourself stuck between work you need to finish for school and opportunities or work for clients. There isn't a perfect method which decides on what you need to focus. I personally work with setting priorities on short-term and on long-term. Some people decide to quit with school if that's a better choice. It's arguable, but it can be a good choice if one reflects on its current situation and considers the risks.

Don't say yes on every opportunity which comes your way.

Personally, I prefer to plan carefully and give enough room for error in my agenda. Am I faster than my schedule? Excellent. Am I slower? Not a big problem, I've got spare room to make mistakes or work longer on something than expected. Be realistic in your planning. Don't say yes to every opportunity which comes in your way if you're already busy (it's a mistake beginners often make). Make sure you're capable of dealing with your workload. Always consider that you might get extra work at school or the client you're working with is a difficult person.

Finally, every day, take some time to relax. You can't be productive every single hour you're awake, that's asking for a burnout.


I hope by now you're inspired to get the most potential out of your time as a student. Work hard, get better at what you do. Get to know people, participate in opportunities and become an entrepreneur besides a designer. Work towards your first freelance assignment, your second, your third, etc. The final rule: design everything. Everything you say, do or share. By the time you finish your school, you'll have an amazing starting point to start your career for real.

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