It’s August, and we all know what that means for college students. It’s back to the daily grind; the all-nighters, the instant cup noodles, and the constant need for caffeine. And so, I’d like to offer some back to school advice for surviving college as a graphic design major. Whether it’s your first year or your last, these are some tips (some from personal experience) that will help you through college and beyond!

FIND YOUR SPECIALTY

As you may have discovered in your education, there are many fields to graphic design: identity, packaging, print, web, motion, exhibition… the list of specialties goes on and on. While you’re a well-rounded designer and are good at everything, you should at least find one specialty; something you’re particularly good at, meaning you’re comfortable with the work involved, and you find that your classmates and professors respond well to it. Make it known that it’s your specialty. While it may sound like a silly title to hold, it comes in handy when someone is looking for a certain type of designer and you’re the first person that comes to mind.

BEFRIEND YOUR ADVISORS AND PROFESSORS

Keep your advisors and professors close1. Your advisor will help you through your years of college, laying out your schedule semester by semester and keeping you on the right track. Your professors have an arsenal of experiences and will always be there to help you (at least they should). Ask for extra critique outside of class. Strike up a casual conversation with them; you might learn something that will help with your design career or just help you through life. Ask if they know of any internships opening up. One of my past professors constantly sends out emails to his students—both former and current—about job openings, freelance work, and internship opportunities around the area. Your teachers and advisors will always personally know someone who is looking to hire a designer.

USE YOUR SCHOOL’S CAREER SERVICES

A trip to your school’s career center can never hurt. Career centers have a slew of resources for job-hunting and a huge database of employers. While your design teachers can help build your stellar portfolio, the advisors at the career centers can help with the writing aspects of job-hunting, from scrawling the perfect cover letter to creating the most impressive résumé. But remember, you should always find a way to present your cover letter and résumé the best way possible. Just because you have the word-smithing down does not mean you should slack on the typography or the layout. After all, you are a designer!

BECOME INVOLVED IN SCHOOL/COMMUNITY EVENTS

Join your school or community AIGA. Go sit in a lecture from a visiting designer2. Attend art shows put on by your classmates, MFA candidates, and local artists. These activities take little to no effort but you will learn so much in the process. Your knowledge will expand beyond what your professors have taught. My design methods are not only inspired by my teachers, but also by the various artists that have lectured at VCU.

DEVELOP FRIENDSHIPS WITH YOUR CLASSMATES

You’re in this together, so why not make some friends while you’re at it? You don’t have to go out and party with them every night, or spend endless nights together chugging RedBulls and practicing your Illustrator skills3, but simply having a friendship or even an acquaintance in the design department can go a long way. My two jobs out of college (including my current one at Rocket Pop) were due to referrals from former classmates. By simply going to class, you are already creating a large network of designers for yourself.

GET AN INTERNSHIP

We have and have had many interns come through Rocket Pop. Some even stay on as full-time employees. An internship is a great way to gain real-world experience, and in some cases can land you a job at the company right out of college.

LEARN HTML AND CSS

The web is mixing more and more with design work. Many job listings nowadays require graphic designers to know a little HTML and CSS. If your school offers web design classes, take full advantage of them! Already think you’re a master at HTML and CSS? Go a step further. Learn about HTML5. Learn PHP and SASS. Learn about content management systems like WordPress and Drupal. Dig behind a really cool website to find out how it was created, then try to re-create it. The web is ever evolving so you can never run out of things to learn.

TAKE A BUSINESS CLASS

Some schools offer business classes specifically geared towards designers. But if that’s not available at your school, it won’t hurt to take a general business class either. Whether you plan on freelancing or starting your own business, it’s good to have some sort of foundation.

CREATE DUAL PORTFOLIOS

Putting together a portfolio is a no-brainer. However, not only should you have a physical portfolio, you should have an online one as well. Most employers these days simply ask for a URL link to your work, or for a PDF. But don’t shirk on your printed portfolio. Nothing beats the physical interactivity of a printed piece, especially if you have a lot of book and packaging designs. Bring your physical portfolio to that interview, even when your potential employer has already seen digital copies of your work (unless they have explicitly stated not to). Even as a web designer or motion graphics designer, you should bring some sort of printed work—your sketchbook for example. Show your creative process!

EXERCISE YOUR CREATIVE FREEDOM

While you’re in college, you’ll have all the creative freedom in the world. You want to do some experimental typography? Go for it. You want to bind that book by hand? Be my guest. Life in the real world can be very corporate and limiting at times. Clients aren’t always as open-minded as your fellow classmates or your professors, and your fabulous concept for their logo may simply be weird to them. If you end up working for a large agency or for a corporate business, all design work may have to conform to standards that have been set a long time ago. It can be stifling, but don’t think that college will be your golden years of creativity. Flex your creative muscles and make something for yourself in your spare time. Or work for a small boutique agency where there is usually more space for you to exercise your creativity!4

BUILD AN ARSENAL OF RESOURCES

Always have a go-to for resources; whether it’s the folder on your desktop titled “resources”, or the never-ending list in your browser’s bookmarks, or that pile of design books slowly collecting dust5. It’ll make your life much easier.

NETWORK, NETWORK, AND NETWORK

It’s the most important thing you can do. It’s not that hard… even if you’re socially awkward like me. It doesn’t require going up to a stranger and handing him/her your business card (although that is one way to do it). Like I mentioned before, your classmates are already in your network. Your professors are in too. Go to a design convention where you and hundreds of other design nerds can exchange business cards together6. Keep in touch with your contacts. Once you leave the safety net of college, you will once again be in this together, and some help from each other is always nice.

So good luck to all you back-to-schoolers and congrats to all the grads-to-be!


1. Not a translation for, or an excuse to become a teacher’s pet. ↑ back to top
2. Attending a lecture from a famous designer is a great résumé builder as an additional educational experience. ↑ back to top
3. This is never something I did, I promise! ↑ back to top
4. An indirect plug for a certain company you all know and love. ↑ back to top
5. Don’t let those books collect dust! ↑ back to top
6. Now this I have done. ↑ back to top