Five Lessons for Students from a Two-Time Design School Survivor

I’m a designer. Bona fide. I’ve spent eight years in school for Graphic Design, and I somehow made it out, alive and gainfully employed. I’m currently a Product Designer at Facebook, where I’ve been for almost three years. I’ve been an active interviewer on our design team, and I’ve mentored a number of interns. I’ve also tutored design students at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, my alma mater. Because of this, I have a lot of conversations with students embarking on design careers. One of the most common questions I get asked: “What advice would you give to a person in my shoes?”

Where to even start? In hindsight, there’s a lot of things I would have tweaked or even done entirely differently.

School can be soul-crushingly hard. Now I often mention how lucky or how fortunate I am that I survived and landed the few design roles I’ve held to get where I am now. The truth is it’s been a lot of hard work and crucial decisions. Some were the right ones, and some were missed opportunities. In retrospect, here are five of many lessons I learned along the way.

1. Play in the unconventional.

Many student projects allow you to choose both the subject matter and the form factor; you will rarely be given this freedom of possibility post-school. So go ahead and build that Kygo promo into a digital maze. Tell your most embarrassing story on the surfaces of a paint can. Film yourself posing in typographic forms. Be creative, be bold, be crazy. See what works, and get comfortable failing. Getting inventive with your approaches will teach you to stretch the boundaries of your solutions, and it will remind you that it’s okay to try atypical things. Sometimes they’re the most successful.

I was attending school full time and working full time, and I found both time and money to be suffocating constraints. Because of these, I often chose the quickest way from point A to point B rather than pushing boundaries. While I’m quite an efficient problem solver, my most memorable moments in school—the ones where I crushed it and the ones where I was crushed—were those where I went a little rogue.

2. Find what makes you you.

Vary the sort of work that you do. There’s countless opportunities to discover the unique sorts of design processes or executions that you personally connect with. Sketch. Play with type. Play with motion and animation. Learn a new design tool. Take a letterpress class. Make an app. Attend workshops. Intern. Take on a freelance project.

I wasn’t at the top of my class in grad school. I fell somewhere in the middle. There were design students — some of my best friends—that comfortably filled those top spots. It took me until nearly the end of my four years in school to realize that it wasn’t a linear order. As it turns out, I was actually really good at strategy and problem solving and user experience. I found this out by designing an app for my thesis project, which was something I had never tried before. Actually, many of my fellow students hadn’t pushed beyond the realm of print design, or at least successfully. I learned that it’s not about a ranking, it’s about finding your proficiency, and leaning into that. This can heavily direct both where you end up working and what kind of work you end up doing.

3. Learn how to give feedback.

You will get plenty of feedback in school. The objective often seems to rip apart each other’s work. Critique can be an exercise in humility. Learning how to give feedback will make you a better receiver. This may mean simply speaking up and having a perspective. It may mean asking questions to understand the premise. It might be respectfully assuming that the person has already considered the suggestion you might make.

At Facebook, we’ve made strides to evolve the critique. Personally, I’ve been impressed with how intent my teammates are about being collaborators. We work together to solve defined problems. My job as a feedback giver is to make sure I understand the problem being solved and the area needing feedback, to focus on that area and to help keep other people stay focused on that area, and to make sure the person getting feedback walks away with clear next steps.

4. Don’t compare yourself.

It’s really tricky in a school environment to not get caught up in grades and who got what award or job. The challenge is to remember that everyone has their proficiency—their “thing”—and build on that. Lean on the students who do something well that you don’t. Don’t copy them (really, don’t), but use their principles and methods to improve in that area. And keep working on your thing, your brand.

In the middle of my schooling, a coveted studio reached out to me about an internship. I interviewed and was pretty sure I nailed it. A few days later, I was chatting with another student on Messenger, and he alerted me that our mutual friend—and talented designer—had gotten the internship. I was devastated. I was going through a rough patch, penniless and disheartened, and I needed a win. A week later, I got a call from the studio, asking me to come in for a second interview. I got the internship. We both got the internship. I still think that my friend at the time was by far a better designer and better creative, but I was a solid designer and excellent facilitator and communicator.

5. Be the package.

You’re guaranteed to walk out of a design program with a neatly crafted collection of student projects. More often than not you’ll polish off school with a course focused on designing the artifact that houses these projects. An artifact, however, won’t get you a job. The content of the artifact might get you in the door; your experience, your references, your attitude will keep you in the game. Be the kind of person that people want to work with. Be humble. Be confident. Be thorough. Be thoughtful. Be direct. Be honest. Be kind. This isn’t just about nailing these things in an interview, it’s about practicing these things in your daily life so that you are that package.

One of my former instructors — and later colleague — and I had a heart to heart once. I was getting really down on myself for not being able to keep up with school work and my pay-the-bills job. He understood my situation, and reminded me that I would be leaps and bounds ahead of other students when I started to look for my first design position because I already had work experience and maturity. I was nearly thirty, and it was true. I’d dealt with enough customer demands in my former career and nit-picky roommates in my personal life to be able to understand needs and intent. I’d been through enough classes that I was quite capable of managing deadlines. Handling pressurized situations, paying attention to details, and even being pleasant to be around were competencies that I’d already been practicing for years. And this wasn’t even considering the quality of my design work.

School isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s meant to culture habits, to instill curiosity. It’s an opportunity to challenge your thinking and to practice.

And then, here’s the kicker: the learning never ends. You’ll find that over the course of your career, you’ll still be experimenting; you’ll still be refining your expertise. You’ll still exist in a pack of designers. You’ll still be at a job, working and collaborating with people. You’ll still have people you’re accountable to, and you’ll still be developing relationships. So have at it.