I’ve been a professional designer now for a decade. Not almost, not over, but exactly one decade. That makes me happy. It also makes me feel like I know some stuff about design, even if it’s just five things. In my experience, it only takes five statements for me to know I’m talking to a strong designer.
I’ve taught graphic design at a collegiate level for the better portion of my career. As a result, I’ve been exposed to thousands of student projects and portfolios. A lot of good work comes out of design schools. Students bring fresh perspectives and new attitudes about things us old professionals may have just rolled over and accepted. It’s a privilege to be in a classroom experiencing that daily.
But professional designers don’t just look for a student who produces great work. We’re listening for a student who knows what to say about their great work. That’s what sets them apart.
Specifically, there are five statements I’ve heard from students over the years that marked a change in their conversation; a good change. Students, take note.
1. “I’m so excited to show this project!”
Passion is one of the best ways to get others excited about your work. If you’re enthusiastic about it, others will take notice. Reveal a love for what you created. Don’t shy back. Let it be natural. When designers are genuinely excited about their work, it outshines their words or the volume of their voice. Excitement shows in the face and in the story about the project that follows. Passion is contagious.
2. “I designed it this way because…”
Design rationale demonstrates intentional decisions. Every design element in a project is there for the purpose of supporting the overall message. This means the project isn’t about the designer’s personal preference but about the benefactor’s greater need. It’s what sets a student’s concept for a festival apart from a pretty music poster. Professionals want to hear more about why it was done than what was done. Articulating intentional decisions also leaves less room for someone to disagree based on personal preference.
At first glance, it’s a fine line: “I chose Myriad Pro for my title and body copy” versus “Myriad Pro carried the weight necessary to allow the body copy to interact with the product photos and still be legible.” The first statement tells the professional what they can already see. The second offers a platform for why what they see makes sense in that project.
3. “We worked hard to come to this solution.”
The key phrase here is not “worked hard,” it’s the word “we.” When professionals hear a student say you worked with someone else, a parade begins somewhere on Main Street. At least, I imagine it that way. Professionals aren’t naïve to group projects. It’s a challenge for anyone to make busy schedules coincide. “We” over “I” means you experienced other designers’ input and recognized the work is better for it. Teamwork is a part of life, and it’s an asset when you’re great at it.
4. “When I showed it to _______…”
Showing fresh work to anyone—no matter how long you’ve been designing—is scary. But you learn to seek feedback when your passion to create trumps your fear of ridicule. It’s often less about the project itself and more about the plans of the student. When experience is lacking, a student who shows work to others displays a desire to keep growing. Receiving feedback is hard, too. But the conversation begins with showing it to someone.
5. “Here’s what I did with it after the project was over.”
Ownership of your work turns a victim to a victor. Students design within the parameters of instructor-led projects all the time. Rightfully so: It’s a healthy model for working with client guidelines outside the classroom. But I recognize that not all assigned projects make students jump for joy. A student designer who completes the project requirements within the classroom environment is probably a good student. A student designer who later modifies the project to showcase a stronger solution is taking initiative.
Of course, it’s good to recognize this list isn’t just for students. Professionals need to remember this stuff as well. Let’s not grow weary of talking about our work as if it’s new every day. It is. We create and explore. We experiment and sometimes fail miserably. But what outshines our work, when we show it to a client, a boss, or fellow designers, is our attitude about our work. Do we love it? Do we want to shout about it from the rooftops? Do we care so much about it that we’re willing to do what it takes to make it something we’re proud to talk about, to anyone? Passion. Intentionality. Teamwork. Feedback. Initiative. Insert these practices into your work and see what new conversations result.