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11 Nuggets Of Advice For Design Students, Direct From The Pros

I Used To Be A Design Student showcases school work from famous names alongside their current portfolio, with a hearty helping of insights covering everything from lessons learned to favorite foods.

It had been a good dozen years since Frank Philippin and Billy Kiosoglou graduated from Camberwell College of the Arts. When asked if they’d speak at their alma mater, the pair behind London- and Darmstadt-based graphic design studio Brighten the Corners took the opportunity to reflect, mining their past for school projects to show alongside excerpts from their current portfolio. The resulting juxtaposition was intriguing, and the process itself enlightening. "It was reassuring to see that our personality and general attitude was already present in our student work—although it has to be said that skills involving editing and execution were still a bit strange at times," Kiosoglou tells Co.Design. "It was also good to see that ‘being in business’ hadn’t changed the way we approach design. Or in other words, that we hadn’t sold out."

They began reaching out to compatriots in the field, asking these fellow former pupils to turn their attentions back to before they made a living doing what they love; I Used To Be A Design Student: 50 Graphic Designers Then and Now is the fascinating result.

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"The topic struck a chord within the community and everyone was happy to share their opinions and work," they say of the assignment, which, for some of the more mature grads, involved excavating more than a series of hard drives. "We got a few funny emails of people going to parents’ houses, rummaging around in attics or some basement or storage space without any luck."

As a final flourish, all participants were asked to give a piece of advice to a student as well as a single warning, as well as list valuable qualities for students and professionals. "This was a nice touch, that we are very happy about," they say. "The answers are great insights into graphic design practice and act as a sort of mini manifesto." Here are some of the pithy nuggets of advice the pair of authors unleashed:

  1. Stefan Sagmeister (New York, U.S.): "Work your ass off + Don’t be an asshole"

  2. Urs Lehni (Lehni-Trüb/Rollo Press/Corner College, Zurich, Switzerland): "Design is a lot of work’ (Cornel Windlin) + Don’t be late (again)"

  3. Paul Barnes (London, U.K.): "Look at the books in the library + Don’t expect to get your way at all times"

  4. Maki Suzuki (Abake, London, U.K.): "Try everything + Don’t read, watch, look at design compilation books or blogs"

  5. Matthias Görlich (Studio Matthias Görlich, Darmstadt, Germany): "Find it out for yourself + There are easier ways to earn money, honestly"

  6. Margaret Calvert (London, U.K.): "Enjoy + Don’t waste time" Liza Enebeis (Studio Dumbar, Rotterdam, Netherlands): "Whatever you do, explore the extremes, and don’t lose your sense of humour + If there is something else you want to do apart from design then do something else"

  7. Jan Wilker (karlssonwilker, New York, U.S.): "You suck—use this status wisely, then it’s only temporary + It’s a long-distance run, not a sprint"

  8. Isabelle Swiderski (Seven25, Vancouer, Canada): "Sketch, sketch, sketch + Don’t fall in love with your ideas"

  9. Fons Hickmann (Fons Hickmann m23, Berlin, Germany): "Be curious + Be afraid but go for it nonetheless"

  10. Daniel Eatock (London, UK): "Explore, invent + Scalpels are very sharp"

  11. Brian Webb (Webb & Webb, London, U.K.): "Don’t ever apologize for a job + If you’re not enjoying it, don’t do it"

Standout student work for the duo includes James Goggin's In Transit, "an alternative cartographic representation of the world made out of 50 postcards and a postcard rack," and Julie Gayard's typographic description of her journey to college. "Most students arrive with a strong idea of what they want their work to look like, and it can be a challenge to teach them how to think in terms of concepts and how working this way can lead to interesting and unexpected results. The alphabet in this case has been drawn while on the London subway, the movements of the train guiding her pen across the paper. It is a great example of how a word (i.e. train) can be described in a non-illustrative way."

In addition to the visual feast offered by contributor then-and-nows, Philippin and Kiosoglou posed a series of pointed questions to each participant. Everything from standard mode of transport to preferred types of exercise is examined and sure, Sascha Lobe’s admission that he used to prefer Italian but now enjoys Japanese cuisine might not speak to any larger trends, but details like these help paint these pros as people, too.

One of the most interesting discussions that emerged surrounds the somewhat nebulous query, "Is it possible to teach design?" This might seem like a strange one to ask this particular group—all of whom studied the subject, many of whom currently teach it themselves—but Philippin believes it’s a valuable topic to consider. His own take? "I believe that teaching design should involve creating a safe environment, with conditions in which students are able to develop and explore." Often, this means imparting a certain sense of culpability, responsibility, and pride. "It’s important to communicate that the outcome of their studies is entirely up to them; that they should be in the driving seat when they study and that self-motivation is crucial."

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Along with visual inspiration and practical words of professional advice, the book stands as "sort of a mini manifesto" for graphic designers.

Order the book here. And if you’re currently a student, sign up at Laurence King and receive a whopping 35% off.

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  • Mason

    This reminds me of this story:

    “The ceramics teacher divided the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, would be graded on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. On the last day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, etc. Those being graded on “quality”, needed to produce only one pot — a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well along came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were produced by the group being graded for quantity. While the “quantity” group was churning out large piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay."

    Btw, if anyone is interested, I write a lot about this stuff here : )

  • Johnny

    Here's another advice for student designers: promote your services/skills in all possible ways. And when I say "all" possible ways, I mean on the internet since I don't recommend printing stuff that will end up in the garbage. 
    List your services/website in websites like, or Those will help you get some exposure.
    I hope I have helped.

  • Charles Dillon

    Nice, thank you for sharing. Few things I wish was taught to us while I was a student are, the business side such as legal, getting your money from clients, 990 forms, and pretty much learn how to charge. We learned to explore and create but never how to get our money.

    My advice would be to bill yourself, that way you realize the value of your time.

  • Lsob03

     I agree. Learning how to use the tools to create is one part of the field, but the other part, is learning how to charge, and get paid for it. I can't tell you how many projects that I put together fresh out of school, and was either (A) underpaid, (B) not paid, or (C) missed the chance, because of my not-knowing-how-to-price-the-project.

    Those accidental pro-bono projects are my favorite. Due to not keeping your head up high, you may have found yourself talking down your self worth, and being paid meager peanuts or "doing it for free" because "of your newness to the business". Eh...the value of learning one's voice is priceless...

  • Immanuel Nwachukwu

    My favourite is Isabelle Swiderski's "Sketch, sketch, sketch + Don’t fall in love with your ideas".
    And then Maki Suzuki's points are just so conflicting on various levels.