Web Design

If I Was Halfway Through Design School

So a couple years years I graduated and I was a fresh-faced kid, who had done a couple websites in school for clients but hadn’t taken as many bumps or had as many…

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Halfway through design school
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So a couple years years I graduated and I was a fresh-faced kid, who had done a couple websites in school for clients but hadn’t taken as many bumps or had as many triumphant experiences either. I’ve had people scream at me because they wanted more work done on a project that was far over budget, and I’ve been sitting next to a designer I hired and have her say “How cool is this, that we get to do this for a living.” Sometimes I have to remember that, this is crazy interesting work and because I work at a marketing agency, I get alot of freedom. I mean this was my Monday yesterday for lunch.

Halfway through design school

Here are 8 Key things I would be aware of if I was half-way through design school. – I was meditating on this and preparing this because I’m speaking at the school I attended for design, to a fresh crop of students, but I hope it is useful to a broader audience as well.


1. I would pay way more attention to typography courses.

Ascenders and descenders and terminals, it all was gobbledy-gook for me when I was in school, I thought the real magic was in layout and illustration, html and php. But If I was back in design school I would soak up my typography classes with more enthusiasm, because in this industry, typography sets people’s work apart in a huge way. Learn how to use it, learn the best pairings, get familiar with the classics but start making a stable of your favorite typefaces that you can wield in a classy and distinctive way.

2. I would take a couple friends and attend as many networking events as possible in the niche I want to be hired in.

Work at being charismatic and nice, even if it’s hard for you, I know it can be hard for me. Recognize your soft skills should be cultivated at the same time as hard skills, they’re huge. If you don’t have a couple friends in design school yet, start a little study group – we had a  group called ‘a clique above,’ that studied and user tested a website for a real client to get better in that area. Don’t expect the curriculum to have it all, it’s not possible; the field is changing too quickly.

3. Start cultivating experience with selling your work, take critique and feedback seriously, it’s a sorely needed skill in this industry.

It won’t always be your peer giving you feedback, it might be the client. So don’t expect that it will always be the best advice in the world, but you need to learn how to take it graciously. And yes, you might have to work in a way that isn’t your ideal scenario, so learn to be hearty and resilient. Look at every situation and say “What is this situation trying to teach me?”

4. Start writing about what you’re learning (perhaps on a blog?)

Everything I learn, I try to write about. Have you heard that you’re twice as likely to remember something if you teach it? Teaching and sharing through writing an article solidifies what you’re learning and serves as another way to stoke community with the people around you. I love the feedback I get from my blog posts, when I get it, when people leave comments or talk to me about the articles on Twitter. I read other people’s blogs and keep a list of thought-leaders as well on Twitter so that I can continually be refreshing my point of view.

5. Pay attention to ways to promote websites not just make them. If you’re doing work for smaller companies particularly their web marketing efforts rely on Search Engine Marketing and Search Engine Optimization. Start becoming familiar with ways to get more traffic to websites, this will set you apart if you start now.

Websites don’t matter if no-one visits them. I’ve created websites for people and the traffic is low on them, just because that’s the nature of the beast. I pay attention to Analytics on people’s websites because I want them to succeed and I layout clear goals, (like 2 legitimate leads through contact form submissions a month for a small business), but this goal means nothing if there is no traffic to the site. That’s why I pay attention to Search Engine Optimization, social media/social media ads, and Search Engine Marketing through PPC ads. Every website build should have an accompanying promotion strategy, even if it’s just making sure to print it on your other promotion materials, and being friendly and sociable on social media.

I’d prefer that each of my clients was aware of this, and I could help them get the traffic up through social media, and some paid advertising so that the investment in the website didn’t go to waste. If you’re working on Target or Best Buy’s website you’re not going to need to know any of this, but if you are doing it for the mom and pop shop down the road, or even mid-sized companies this stuff is huge. By understanding that half of web marketing is getting people to the site, and not just making the site the first time you can better prepare yourself to be effective after design school.

6. Pay attention to growing fields like UX ,  SAAS (or software as a service,) or Web Apps and how your portfolio might showcase work on those.

From dashboards, to intuitive interfaces for web application this fields is growing as the demand for analytics, big data and the ability to show numbers visually grows. The fact that I’m willing to pay money for services like Optimizely, Pitchbox, various social media tools, and analytics programs means that many others are too, this field will grow. If you can position your portfolio to showcase some of this type of work, you’ll be well ahead of the crowd.

UX has been around as a buzzword for a little bit longer now, but the idea is essentially this; find ways to make things easier to use and navigate. Try your hand at organizing information for a bigger website like a hospital or publisher, the ability to outline how a visitor to a site will navigate, to sketch  or wireframe out the basic components of the site, and ideally test on real people is User Experience. This was called something else for many years, but User Experience has been around for a long time, and this and ‘Information Architecture’ aren’t the sexiest things in the world, but they are clearly in high demand – just try throwing the terms ‘User Experience’ in your LinkedIn profile and see how the volume of boring corporate jobs start cropping up in your inbox. (Caveat: I’m not saying User Experience jobs are boring – I’m just saying alot of recruiters throw it around without always being 100% sure of what you’d be doing at the job.)

7. I would not expect for an outside force to give me an opportunity (you CAN freelance legitimately, and you should.) Do real work to get better with real design challenges.

Alot of people get out of school, and think that a job needs to give them all of the stimulation that they need to be creatively fulfilled. I personally wouldn’t bet on it. I work hard at finding opportunities do work (both paid and unpaid passion projects) outside of work so that I will always be growing. I created a crash course to hand-lettering to share with people my passion for hand-lettering and help them get started, and have been doing hand-lettering for almost a year, posting a picture of my work everyday on Instagram, to keep me accountable.

Work in progress shot #minnetype 285/365 #handlettering

A photo posted by Tim Brown (@timishness) on


I also create websites for clients outside of my day job, even though it pays me adequately. Partially this is a financial thing, but I’m also able to work for a more diverse array of clients, and I love learning from their industry experience as I work closely with them to showcase their uniqueness.

8. I would start early finding the type of agency I want to work for, and infiltrate it by connecting with people on LinkedIn, making friends that work there, and generally thinking of it like I’m on a 007 mission.

Last but not least, it’s all about getting a job for many people, so here’s my two cents on making that happen. I really feel like if you put yourself out there and go to meet-ups you can connect and work on some projects while you’re in school and those connections can serve you well after school.

I met a UX consultant who was working for Health Partners when I attended Lean UX in Minneapolis, sat down with him for coffee and invited my friend Casey, and we ended up able to do some visual design while we were still in school. (Notice I shared the love, and had an abundance mentality; share your experiences with your classmates!)  I also took an internship while I was still in school, the connection made by a professor at school. Both of these connections were acquaintances with the general manager at the agency I work at now.

It’s a small world, and in the agency world in the city you live in it’s even smaller. How many thousands of people work at an agency in the city of Minneapolis, but it’s really such a small segment. For this reason, get a couple good experiences working with people in the industry if you can while you’re still in school and make a really nice impression. Those people could be resume gold for you when it’s time to get a job at an agency.

Stuff I  I’d read and look at:

1. It’s a Code World Podcast

2. “Design is a Job” – Mike Monteiro

3. “Articulating Design Decisions.” –  Tom Greever

4. Awwwards.com

5. Sean Wes Podcast

6. “Ask Gary Vee” – Podcast or YouTube

7. The Skool Network for Designers – Youtube

8. What Hip-Hop Can Teach Designers About Community – Ryan Hamrick on Artful Diversion

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