What I tell design students

I see a fair few students who are graduating soon or who have recently finished their courses. Partly due to my involvement with AGDA and Award School.

They’re coming looking to hopefully find a job, and unfortunately I can’t offer them all jobs just yet (or even any of them at this stage). What I can do however, is give you a bit of my particular brand of staggeringly persistent optimism and a warning.

Let’s start with optimism

It’s ridiculous that somebody as silly and unfashionable as me could be self employed doing design. The chances of that happening seem absurdly small. Some days I feel like a total fraud and that the fun police will come crashing through the door and take my business away and drag me back kicking and screaming to bashing out K-Mart catalogues (where I started).

I’m no better and certainly not more talented than my classmates from my course. I stay in touch with some of the folks from school and some of them have gone far in design, some of them not so much – that’s to be expected really. More on that later. Rest assured, if I can do it, so can you.

The truth is that there’s amazing opportunities for creative people to be creative and get paid for that. The field of opportunity for a designer (or any creative) seems to grow daily. The opportunities to access other businesses and like minded people all over the world is staggering. It amazes me how quickly I can share something with somebody on the other side of the planet and how easy it is to make new contacts and friends all over the globe.

The world is also in need of truly talented individuals to re-invent and re-invigorate design. That’s how design works, it moves as fast as culture moves which in some cases can be lightning fast. There are opportunities everywhere, right here wherever you’re reading this from, down to the milk bar down the street, to the dude who posts pictures of his cat climbing into boxes. If you’ve got a will, there is an outlet for your design talent.

I’m often confused with a fully functioning human being, and hilariously enough, I run a successful small design business that I’ve built myself. And I bloody love my work! You too, can have all this!

There’s a catch though.


Winter is coming.

Illustration of a man holding a keyboard and mouse, referring to Game of Thrones

With my sincere apologies to everyone involved with the excellent series Game of Thrones and especially to George R.R Martin.

Sorry – it’s not all sunshine and kittens. I know you’ve been enjoying drinking wine from a box, and ingesting scalding hot late night pies of questionable provenance and all the best that student life offers … but if you want this, then you’re going to have to work for it.

The truth is that yes, there’s amazing opportunities out there. Let’s go back to my classmates I mentioned before, especially the talented ones … as a student I was jealous watching other students just “get it” and nail their briefs at design school. They were miles above me in terms of design skill and I felt like I was way out of my depth.

But something changed for me – I want to tell you about my secret weapon. If you really want to get a job in design, and you really want to make it your career … you’re going to have to work hard. You’ll have to work harder than your class mates, and when you start working you’ll have to work harder than your peers. Especially if you’re like me and you look at your own work and know something’s missing. I worked like a mad man to get better, and I will continue to work hard to improve. That’s the secret of any creative endeavour. Work.

You will be entering an extremely competitive marketplace, and there are more people who want to work in the creative fields than there are jobs. That means you have to step up to the plate and make things happen – nobody else will do it for you.

Truth is, the only way to get better at anything is to produce. You must be producing heaps of work and you must step up to the plate and start smashing out heaps of work. Am I suggesting you become a slave to design and grind out endless meaningless work to get better?

Nope. Here’s the rub. You have to produce heaps of work which gets better every single time. The upside to this commitment to improvement is that it will keep the creative fire inside of you burning long after others burn out and get tired of design. The reason I still love my job is that I treat every job as an opportunity to get better. I also know I’ve got a long way to go, and as soon as I look at my work and think “yep that’s as good as it possibly can be” – I’ll start looking for another profession.

So here’s my message to you, [insert your name here]. If you want to find work and stand out from the crowd, you have to be different from the crowd. That means you have to roll up your sleeves and be willing to do the work which will set you apart.

Stuff you can do right now.

Here’s some specific advice for students, just so you know, get your money’s worth from this post.

  • Re-Do at least one (if not all of them) of your school projects from scratch, in a day. You’ll surprise yourself with awesome if you put pressure on yourself to perform here. (Once you start working you’ll need to work 100x faster so why not start now?)
  • Expand on everything. Take a logo design, and present stationery. Already done logo & stationery? Do signage and point of sale. Being able to do this kind of stuff quick can result in a huge up-sell with your clients. I do this all the time (whenever a job permits) and it’s an amazingly effective way to turn a small job into a bigger one.
  • Design your folio properly. I shouldn’t have to explain this, but if you don’t have a fully designed portfolio ready to go at a minute’s notice you don’t deserve a design job.
  • Get your work online and participate. There’s heaps of online folio sites you can upload your work online with. There’s heaps of design communities that will allow you to build connections and friendships.
  • Make connections and do stuff. Most of your friends who are studying are doing awesome things (or they will one day). Get involved and do stuff with them. Become a member of AGDA (or your local equivalent if you’re not in Australia) and go along and meet people.
  • When you find what your passion in design is, hammer away at that, and build that area. If you find yourself heading into an area of design you don’t want to be in, you’ve only got yourself to blame.
  • Challenge yourself to improve everything you do, but also learn when it’s time to put the job down and move onto the next one.
  • If you’re in Hobart and want to talk about your work and get a portfolio review, get in touch and I’d happy to have a chat and give you the best head-start I can.

That’s it really. I hope you have an easy transition from your course to employment and I want you to know it’s actually worth all the effort. Even on my worst days I feel lucky as all-get-out to be able to do what I do. I’d love to see you join me.



    Thanks heaps for the advice Nathanael! Awesome advice! 🙂

  2. Bbcversus

    Thank you for the awesome article, it made my day and also made me think harder at what I must do for keep on going. I needed such enlightenment.

  3. Okibi

    Well said Nathanael, after 14 years in the industry I relate with much of what you’ve said. I’m constantly disappointed by my own abilities and in awe of those designers around me. While disconcerting, years of experience has built a highly tuned sense of style; how to pick subtleties in design/interface/ layout. Perhaps it’s the case of “I know I can do better” that drives me, pushes me to want to be more creative rather than throw in the towel and become a corporate robot pushing pens rather than pixels.

    I think everyone loves to be appreciated; designers love creative control, we like the sense of achievement in building a brand, an audience even if we’re personally quite shy. No matter how critical you are of your own designs it warms the heart to get kind feedback and know thousands of people are using your product.

    Seek inspiration. Creative people are magnetic; slightly bipolar but more importantly we need to attract like minded thinkers, designers don’t have offices or factories, we have studios. A space for experimentation, instruction and production but more importantly a team of people to share ideas, inspire and mentor each other. The real danger I found was working freelance, getting too set in your own ways and having technology evolve without pressure to keep up. This is where Nathanael’s advice to make connections is really important, look at design zines such a Smashing Magazine or become a member of a design community such as AustralianINfront. Sign up for Adobe newsletters and attend their roadshows when a new suite is released.

    While your students must feel a sense of relief after completing their formal training, I hope they’re motivated enough to continue trying to learn, every successful designer I know is mostly self taught. Design is like a wave, it’s more fun and rewarding surfing along keeping up with the latest trends rather than tiring yourself out paddling against the swell going nowhere.

    If I may add something to Nathanael’s great comments it would be “who dares wins”, don’t wait for jobs to be advertised. Be proactive not reactive, find places you want to work and sell your skills and abilities to them. A design firm would rather employ someone they know is keen to work for them, prove to them that you are self motivated and have confidence in your ability. Make is easier for them to employ you than go through the pain of formally advertising and receiving thousands of applications from deadbeats who just want to fill in their dole diary.

    • Nathanael Jeanneret

      Thanks for your excellent reply Okibi, and I totally agree with everything you’ve said. Thanks for taking the time to share!

  4. mary

    first of all, love those round corners on the recent work! ha!
    secondly, regarding advice for students, what i am realising as i try and launch my business (and reflecting on the last 40 or so years of my life!) is that in anything it is not necessarily talent and ability that is important but the ability to conquer your demons: deal with your self-esteem issues, ignore that little voice that says you are not capable or deserving or whatever, and soldier on! Yes, work hard and don’t drop the ball! Sometimes building self esteem is the hardest task!

    • Nathanael Jeanneret

      For sure Mary, and thanks for your lovely comment! It’s not just what you’ve got but what you’re willing to do to take that step out into the unknown too. It’s hard to communicate, everyone who does interesting or cool things, they’re just people doing them. They’re not super human, and the longer I work the more I understand that it’s just a question of determination more than the cards you had to begin with.

  5. I really enjoyed that, thank you. It’s great to read an article like this which doesn’t sugar coat anything but doesn’t patronise either. All good advice.

  6. Wow! Amazing advice, I’m so grateful to have found this post.

    As a design student in my final year, I’m eager to get as much information about entering the work force as possible.

    Thank you!

  7. Nathanael Jeanneret

    Thanks Alana, best of luck with your final year!