10 Ways to Succeed as a Design Student

As a digital design and multimedia instructor at Ryerson University in Toronto, I teach a large number of first year students exploring the design and digital media field for the first time. It can be both an incredibly inspiring, as well as an incredibly daunting experience! To get the very most out of the experience there are several important things that every student should know as they embark on their digital media education. The following are a series of concepts that I advise all of my students on before they leave my classroom. The goal of this advice is to help students make the most of their education, as well as to generate the ideal mindset for them to become exceptional media creators and designers.

1. Practice outside of class hours

Additional practice will absolutely make all the difference in your ability to retain and build on lessons learned in class. It takes a lot of time to become proficient at software, and it is next to impossible to become an expert in only a few short weeks. Classes move quickly, and it will take more than a couple hours a week to become truly comfortable and proficient with software. The more hours you can invest outside of class, the more exponentially useful your in-class lessons and time will become. This really applies to all subjects, but the best thing you can give yourself is the time to get comfortable and play.

2. Take risks and experiment

The classroom is a playground for experimentation. I’m always amazed at the number of my students who make creative decisions for their assignments because they feel ‘safe’. Your time in school is your time to take chances, try things you don’t know how to do, and to make mistakes. The best learning experiences come from trying something you’ve never done before, and figuring out how to do it. Tap all resources you can. Try things. Ask your instructors or lab assistants for help. The real learning comes from the challenges you face and the solutions your discover. You’ll remember those victories, too.

3. Ideas are king, but don’t get stalled

Don’t let the search for the perfect idea take the majority of the timeline for your project. Ideas are absolutely the foundation for a sensational and effective media piece, but that idea doesn’t stand a chance if all the production time is gone. Come up with your idea early and stick to it. If you’re having a hard time deciding, speak with your instructor or a peer about your concept. When in doubt, choose something you know about and feels natural for you. When you’re starting out, try not to choose a subject that will require a lot of research time, that way you can spend your time solving the best way to execute the message through design and technology.

4. Keep your message in mind

Speaking of the message – make sure this is your central focus. As media creators, it is your responsibility to tell stories and communicate messages effectively. At the end of the day, you want the person encountering your work to receive a message through your creative and thoughtful approach to the subject matter. Your design choices will have a major impact on the audience’s ability to understand, and ultimately respond to a message. What colour, imagery, typography, interactivity makes most sense? Your message can be elevated and enhanced, or it can become lost and convoluted by your design and interactive choices. Never lose sight of the end goal. What do you want your audience to do/learn/understand? Does your piece appropriately and effectively communicate that?

5. Get to know your peers

Your peers are some of the most valuable contacts you will ever have. Not only will you be working with or along side them during your university experience and beyond, they are also a wealth of knowledge and expertise across a range of different subject matter. As you begin to work together, share ideas and collaborate, knowing the strengths of your peers is incredibly advantageous. If you know someone is a fantastic illustrator, writer, musician, developer, compositor, photographer, etc., you can leverage those skills as partnerships now and in the future. Get to know the people around you, ask them for their advice, share ideas, work together and benefit from each other’s skills and experience!

6. Ask lots of questions

There is no such thing as a silly question, and chances are, someone else in the room has the same one – or doesn’t know they do! The classroom is the time to ask questions, get clarifications, and ask for demonstrations. Ask scenario-based questions too, sometimes the best examples are specific demonstrations. Everyone can benefit from new explanations of concepts and subject matter, and it never hurts to hear things again. School is all about exploration and curiosity – so be curious and participate.

7. Look at great design

The best way to become an excellent designer is to get to know what excellent design looks like. Make it your mission to look at the work of talented, recognized designers every day. There are many fantastic design blogs such as baubauhaus.com, abduzeedo.com, fromupnorth.comdesignspiration.netlookslikegooddesign.com,
ventilate.camotionographer.comthefwa.com, or awwwards.com to name some! The more you become familiar with what great design looks like, the higher your own standards will become. Discover what it is you like about the design you love, and leverage that learning in your own work.

8. Create an inspiration archive

When you find work that inspires you, keep it. Create a place on your computer, or a set of bookmarks of images, websites, logos, or other things that you’ve identified as great work. Use this as a resource for your future projects and work. Consider things like excellent typography, illustration, interactive design, messaging, colour, layout, branding, etc. This is an important part of being a designer – knowing what is out there, staying current, and building a repertoire of relavent resources for yourself. Doing this regularly will help you expand your creativity and improve your perception of good design.

9. Find a mentor or internship

Another great way to improve your skills and understanding of the industry is to watch a professional in action. Choose a mentor and ask to spend with them while they do what they do best. An internship is a great way to get exposure to working professionals as well as get some hands on experience. Watch, ask questions and learn as much as you possibly can from those who possess the expertise.

10. Review and improve

You’re already better than the last thing you’ve done. The simple reason for this is that you’ve been through the process already and gained experience. Think back to the last design, multimedia or writing project you’ve done. If you had to go back right now and do it again, without another lesson or practice session, you’d do an even better job. Why? Because you’ve gained valuable experience, learned new technical and creative skills over the duration of the project. If you went back now and did it again, you could likely do it faster, cleaner and would probably even add a few creative improvements here and there. The more you do, the better you get – so keep creating things!