Things I Learned After Graduating Design School

Written by . Filed under Designed in Taiwan. Tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the Permalink. Post a Comment. Leave a Trackback URL.

“Well, they didn’t teach us this in design school”

These exchanges seem to happen with some regularity in the Dell design team.  So it got us thinking, what didn’t they – or couldn’t they – teach us in design school?  What do we wish we knew then, that we think we know now?

Somewhat inspired by the list penned by Architect Michael McDonough, this is what the team came up with.  What else would you add?

1. It’s not about design.

Working away in the school studio, you’ll have more time and ability to focus on a single task than at any time in your professional design career.  Savour this luxury.  Instead, you’ll be facing a constant barrage of vague briefs, irrational clients, opaque politics, moving goalposts and suppliers that suddenly can’t deliver.  It will be the ability to hop, skip and jump between these obstacles that will keep you sane, and help you thrive.

You’ll discover that the world does not revolve around your final sketch.  Compared to the amount invested in your beautiful little scribble, actually getting it to market will take technical, marketing and logistical resources many orders of magnitude greater.  You’ll discover you have to develop the ability to speak the tongues of business, of engineers and of countless other functions if you want to keep the little germ of your idea alive.  And you will, but before that …

Borrowed from Flickr user 2plus2isfive

Glasgow School of Art in Scotland where I studied Product Design Engineering … photo borrowed from Flickr user 2plus2is5

2. Your ideas will die, often horribly.

The pain of seeing something beautiful rejected by a client is beaten only by seeing it mutate into a hideous zombie, out of your control, and yet entirely your responsibility.  You’ll physically revolt as you complete the umpteenth round of revisions, at the behest of someone wearing far worse shoes than you.  You’ll mutter under your breath, willing it to die, and loaf around like a teenager, high on hormones that have lain dormant since puberty.  If it makes it to market (as these zombie projects inevitably do), the shock of seeing it in the flesh will make you wonder whether you are really cut out for design.  Take consolation in the fact that complete annihilation of an idea means potential resurrection.

The hit-rate of products making it all the way will be considerably lower than your expectations.  Working in a consultancy, you might see 5% of your projects making it past the finish line.  If you are lucky or working somewhere with comically low levels of risk, you might be seeing 50% of your work prevail.  Just be ready for constant and repeated failure; but it’s from failure that victory takes flight.

Thomas Fishburn - Marketoonist

Marketoonist Tom Fishburne nails it in his pithy cartoons.

3.  You are not as good as you want to be.

Not in a bad way, it just means you have not yet fulfilled your potential.

As Ira Glass points out in these magnificent videos, the reason you got into design (or any creative profession) is because you have taste.  You’ll float through school, get that first job and have this faint, nagging sensation that what you are working on is not all that good.  This will continue for years, until that impeccable taste you have been nurturing is finally matched by your blossoming abilities.  I began to feel confident after four or five years, and this perhaps matches Malcom Gladwell’s theories that it takes about 10,000 hours of work to really get good at something – but it’s no race, and some days it feels like I have regressed back to the start.

So be aware that you suck a little bit, use it as fuel to improve, but don’t let it get you down.  In fact…

4. Be patient.

Getting your first full-time design job can be a total pain. I graduated, went traveling for a couple of months, came back and started looking for employment.  Amid phases of freelancing, job searches, twiddling my thumbs and interviewing, I ate up about ten months until I started on my first day at grown-up work.  But once you are in, you are in, and you will be surprised how quickly you develop networks and relationships to take you to the next level.

Waiting to get something you are proud of in your folio may also take an age.  See #2.  Some of the work you are doing will be helping to set a direction, which will then turn into real projects with lead-times about the same length as your entire professional career; cell phones and other electronic equipment typically take 9 months to a year to flow from ID model to the shopfront.  Factor in aforementioned failures, and you could easily be waiting several years before you get your first product on sale.

So, slow down.  Be realistic.  And be thankful you don’t work in the pharmaceutical industry where development times can be measured in decades.  Unless you are working in the pharmaceutical industry, that is.

Keep Designing

Never stop pushing.  Write, take photos, sketch, make models; pick your poison and hone your skills.  At the same time, don’t be afraid to chase people, hunt for e-mail addresses and generally ignore signs to give up.  Nothing worth fighting for ever came easily.

5. You will hate it.

Perhaps because you do something that you love, when things go wrong (and they will) you will hate it.  Not just ‘I hate Tuesdays’, or ‘my boss is annoying’.  No, this is unfocused rage, ignited by feelings of injustice at a project being canceled, or disconsolation when your software skills mean the 3D model breaks down at midnight before the presentation.  You’ll probably become more philosophical with age, and pass the baton of frustration onto some other unsuspecting junior, but don’t completely lose the ability to hate things.  It means you care, and this energy will be what spurs you on to greater heights of quality and delivery.

But sorry, if you want a nice, stable job without any troughs, get a job in a bank.  Just don’t expect as many peaks either.

6. Making things that look easy is difficult.

It’s easy to look at the single-piece rubber base of a Macbook, the striking interface simplicity of a Flip, or the bold silhouette of Dr. Dre’s headphones and think ‘I could do that’.  Masked behind this apparent simplicity are technical challenges, organisational ‘feature creep’ inertia and battles over risk and cost.  90% of good quality is design is in the execution, but sadly this will be out of your control unless you start doing more legwork.  From the moment your idea hits paper, it will try its damnedest to become as ugly as possible by the time it first greets customers;  you’ll discover that some obscure country requires its regulatory logo to be as large as a postage stamp, that in order to meet recycling criteria it will need to be assembled with large screws, and that the white plastic you wanted to use has been bought-up by Nintendo for the Christmas Wii rush.  Facing these these problems, all you can do is draw on your creativity, manage the damage, and learn for the next time.

Injection Moulding Machine

Like it or not, the ultimate quality of your product will be decided by factors potentially out of your control, often in another part of the world.  Get good at speaking in the language of Engineers, suppliers and the people paid to execute your product.  Even better, relish the opportunities to dive into technical problems.

7. Things change.

When I started university, Minidisc was the ‘in’ music format.  When I graduated, we spent the last few weeks together frantically filling Zip drives (ask your Dad about them) with MP3s and staring at the rows of CDs we had all splurged our student loans on.  The point is, things change quickly, and the world will be a different place when you graduate.  Luckily for you, you are a designer and you will adapt, all while scaring yourself silly.

This also means that the things your lecturers are teaching you in first year become irrelevant by the time you leave.  So, focus on learning how to learn, and don’t get too wrapped-up in software and the latest widgets – you can learn that from a book or on the job.


Zip disks once held unimaginable amounts of data, and using one at art school seemed awfully professional.  Less so now. Photo from Flickr, by Runs with Scissors.

8. Your friends will earn more than you.

But you’re not in this for the money, right?  Whatever, it will still irk you that while you are beavering away at trying to score a non-paying internship, your friends will be recruited by management consultancies, lured by the bright lights and Audi A4s of accounting, and generally earning a hell of a lot more than you.  While this is not likely to change, what I hope you discover after a few years (see #4), is that you are developing a true career for something you love (see #5).  And that is worth more than money.

9. The bum job is never the bum job.

It’s all too tempting to huff and puff at the jobs you deem dull and boring.  You want to design the TVs, when all I get to design is the stupid power supply.  Poor you!

But here’s the thing; do the so-called bum jobs and you will gain respect amongst your peers, carve new relationships for the role of design, and discover that it’s often these parts that turn up in multiple other areas of the company.  Suddenly, the power supply that you originally made for a TV also pops up in other products, and you have planted the seed.  So, get in the habit of jumping in with both feet, and people are very likely to take notice.

I have control!

A friend of mine working at a big European electronics company once took on the challenge of redesigning all their remote controls.  What started out in music equipment and televisions, eventually ended up with him building relationships in Medical Devices, and throughout the organisation. Enthusiasm is infectious.  Photo by Crouching Badger.

10. There is no one career path.

Looking at the designers that comprise the Dell design team, you see a surprising span of disciplines and cultures.  While there are those where the design job followed a path set by the design school, there are just as many with backgrounds in architecture, engineering and medical products; there is no one route.  What we share, regardless of background, is a set of attitudes, aptitudes and experiences that enable us to deliver world-class products and experiences.  As a designer emerging from school, it’s your job to build these blocks and learn how to combine them.

Good luck!

Jonathan Biddle is Lead Industrial Designer at Dell, based in Taipei, Taiwan.

One Comment

  1. Posted 2011/01/11 at 04:05 | Permalink

    Good list, I think it applies to architects too. I’m a
    structural engineer, so much of it is still the same, except we
    have to put down people’s ideas sometimes, when they’ve neglected
    to check that their buildings stand up. It’s good you work in
    multidisciplinary teams it’s a much better way to work.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>