The design student’s dilemma

[Hey students! is a multi-part series. Read the rest.]

It’s that time of year when students are looking for summer plans. Many agencies and design firms in town are accepting applications for internships, and students are applying (and the smartest students are applying at Oxide). For design students, it’s a great opportunity to put your skills to use in a professional environment, produce work for real clients, and gain valuable experience working within deadlines and budgets.

I don’t think it’s some big secret that design jobs are hard to come by. Internships are a great way to get your foot in the door, but a foot in the door doesn’t guarantee a future job. But, hey, students, don’t let despair wash over you. You have options!

Let me provide a little context that might help you figure out your options. I like using economic analogies. They help me make good decisions because economic analogies often lead to the best, most well-reasoned outcome.

The design student’s dilemma

Let’s call this the design student’s dilemma. There is too much supply and not enough demand. You are the supply, and design job security is the demand. For every entry-level design job, you are competing with possibly hundreds of applicants who have similar qualifications as you.

You may say to yourself, “I’m aware of that, but my portfolio is so good that it’ll put me at the top of the list.” This may be the most devastating part of the design student’s dilemma. Your work might be great, but it is diminished by the market forces outside of your control. You are, in essence, a commodity in a very competitive job market.

In this scenario, you might be tempted to sell your skills to the highest bidder, which may not be in your best interest. After all, you are not really a commodity; you are a complex individual with hopes and dreams, creative ambitions, and a set of skills. It may just take a little spirited resourcefulness to find where you can satiate your creative ambitions while adding value.

The design student’s solution

Let’s call this the design student’s solution. I think we can define the design student’s solution as a means of adding value where there is a deficit. This basically takes away the supply and demand imbalance without sacrificing your creative ambitions.

Where you decide to add value is completely up to you. This is where your spirited resourcefulness comes into play. It could be anything. A couple of examples come to mind:

You could take the time to learn how to code. One of my developer predecessors at Oxide wrote a great piece in this series addressing the designer-who-codes. You should check it out. It has many great nuggets of advice. My two pennies worth of advice on this: design and development share a lot of the same characteristics. Especially developing for the web. You will also find a lot of interesting and lucrative opportunities out there. Tech companies are sprouting up everywhere — even in little ol’ Omaha — and they are always looking for talented developers with an eye for design. And almost every design firm and ad agency has developers on staff.

My second example may seem a little out of the realm of possibility to most design students, but it really just takes some creative thinking and hard work. It may not be something you’ve ever thought about, but you should consider becoming an entrepreneur. This is sort of the perfect example of finding a place to add value where there is a deficit. I would think the most successful entrepreneurs would tell you that their success comes from developing an idea that solves a problem for people, adding value where there is a deficit.

Think about Uber. The founders of Uber saw that traditional taxi companies weren’t fully meeting the needs of their customers and found a way to do it better and cheaper. People can hail a ride from just about anywhere at just about any time with minimal waiting. Uber rides tend to be cheaper than traditional taxis and there’s no need to carry cash. For drivers, it’s an additional source of income with a low barrier of entry. You really just need a clean car and driving record to be a driver. And drivers choose when they want to work. This may not be an ideal solution for full-time drivers since it lacks protections of the traditional employee/employer relationship, but for a side gig it’s not too bad.

You can see how Uber solves problems. Your job as a designer is to solve problems. The goal of good design should always be to solve problems above all else. See how design and entrepreneurship are a good fit? You already have an entrepreneurial mind, but you just may not know it.

If you’re wondering how to get started bringing your entrepreneurial, problem-solving idea to life, there are countless resources and methods to help guide you. Over the past decade or so, there has been a sort of revolution in the way entrepreneurs and companies, large and small, bring ideas to life. It’s called the lean methodology. This methodology gives some structure to your idea, so you can spend more time focusing on the creative aspects of your idea while mitigating the risk of failure. I suggest you read The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries. It’s a great place to start and it opens up a whole new world of how to find success developing creative ideas. It’s kind of like applying the scientific method to your creative ambitions to help you find the best way to get started.

Just remember, if you are open to new things, there is an entire world of possibilities just sitting there waiting for you to take advantage of. If you have a hard time finding success in one thing, don’t fret. You have more options than you can probably even imagine.

13 Oct 2019

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Your online portfolio

Here at Oxide, we review student portfolios on a fairly regular basis, and I have some thoughts to share. First of all, when you are not showing your work in person, you need to have your portfolio online. (This isn’t just because I’m a developer.) An online portfolio shows so much better than flipping through a bunch of pages on a PDF. And I would highly recommend against sending a potential employer or internship several individual files of your projects.…

Code is friend, not foe

Should design students learn how to code? Yes? No? How much? Why? As a designer-who-develops/developer-who-designs, I wanted to share some thoughts on the topic. My hope is that by explaining a little, it will help you – as someone interested in web or UX design – make informed decisions about the kinds of opportunities that would be best for you to pursue.

Sketching is good

True story. Since I started at Oxide last June, I have filled 14 official Oxide sketchbooks (and I’m well on the way to finishing the three I have on my desk right now), a large 200-page sketchbook, a small hand-bound sketchpad, three Field Notes memo books, and countless index cards. In addition, I have a three-inch stack of computer printouts, hand-rendered sketches, and other miscellaneous design ephemera. (And those are just the notebooks I used at work”¦ I also have…

Never stop learning

I recently had a discussion with one of my professors from Iowa State University. She was asking what skills I felt ISU needed to better teach to prepare students for the real world. Which got me to thinking about the things that I have needed to learn in the past ten months at Oxide. I spent most of my four years learning about typography, proportions, and print design. And while I still utilize those skills, I’ve had to learn how…

Put yourself out there

For most of us, landing a job in design didn’t just happen. In our field, there is an abundance of applicants and a minimal number of openings. This means that you’re going to have to do everything you can to even get noticed. If you’re getting ready to take the plunge into the frigid waters of the design job market, following these guidelines will help you to get noticed.

Know when to care

This is a sequel to the first post in this series: Care about your work – which continues to be the most important lesson we have for you. But caring is more complicated than that. When you start caring, you lose the ability to evaluate your work independently of your personal investment in it.

Awards don’t matter

At Oxide, we have a love/hate relationship with design awards. We have a good number of accolades laying around at this point, but I’m not sure what they’ve ever really gotten us, save for a quickly fleeting ego boost. In the local (and probably national) design schools, it seems like there’s a great deal of importance placed on the winning of awards. Students are encouraged (and sometimes required) to enter competitions held by local organizations and national publications. But a…

You’ve got competition

While judging the 2010 Nebraska Student ADDY Awards, I was inspired to address the student readers of our blog. While Joe has been the regular author of our Hey Students! series, he has graciously allowed me to contribute to his already great student reference. There’s no easy way to say this. If you didn’t already know, there simply aren’t a ton of desirable jobs just waiting to be filled by design students. Knowingly or not, you have signed up for…

Start with the problem

Classes are back in session, so after you’ve ranked all of your new professors on the Sparano Scale™, it’s time to get down to some designing. Today’s bit of advice may be the most important in the Hey students! series so far. It’s so fundamental to your growth as a designer – and so critical to the effectiveness of design in general – it should really be addressed to Hey all designers everywhere!

Let go of the leave-behinds

When you’re in the classroom, you imagine that life as a professional is just like life as a student. Or, at least, you prefer to imagine it that way. Even though, buried deep inside your thoughtful designer brain, you know you’re kidding yourself. Some of your classroom experiences translate into the real world and others don’t. Every moment that you spend designing is worthwhile, but each finished piece isn’t necessarily going to help you outside the classroom. One particular project,…

Yeah, really, you

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with several design students. I won’t embarrass any of them (intentionally), but here’s the general consensus: most need to spend more time designing, several show a lot of promise, but very few are ready for the next step.

Design is not a job

We listen to a lot of internet radio at Oxide, which means we hear a lot of internet radio ads. One of these ads features a list of college degrees that, I assume, people listening to internet radio during the day may be interested in. They’re they kinds of degrees that are often listed together in these kinds of isn’t it about time you did something with your life kinds of ads: nursing, criminal justice, business, technology, management, and graphic…

Care about your work

It’s portfolio review season, so if you’re showing your portfolio around this year, there’s a chance you’ll see one of us. Personally, I’m returning from a portfolio-review-hiatus. You’re probably thinking: “Mr. Sparano, Professional Designer at Oxide Design Co., why in the world would you need to take a break from student portfolio reviews? It’s totally fun!”