Professionalism is a state of mind - How to smooth the transition between education and employment

By Aaron Kelwick on 31st Mar

A common misconception amongst undergraduates studying creative courses is that your final year degree show is the watershed moment; it's frequently considered to be the most effective way to meet other designers and secure a position in the industry. In reality, there needn’t be line in the sand between education and employment. Your degree show is one of many great tools that you can use to smooth your transition into industry.

I graduated university in the summer of 2015, after three years of studying Graphic Design at The Nottingham Trent University. My experience was notably improved by a series of guest lectures, who offered invaluable insights into the industry. Speakers shared a wealth of advice and inspiration, ranging from acclaimed past projects to guidance for coursework and graduation.

In hindsight, there is one piece of advice I wish someone had gifted me when I started university; Professionalism is purely a state of mind. As a student, you are as much a professional designer as those working in the industry. Your attitude is just as important as your ability, and becoming part of the design community is equally as significant as the work you are creating in isolation.

Inspired by this realisation some way into my studies, I adopted a new approach to working that spanned my time in education and continued post-graduation. Within two weeks of finishing university I was offered an internship at Makermet. I was officially employed as a junior designer four months later. All of this was due to a refined approach to working, based on the following four insights…

"Becoming a recognised participant in your local design scene is often just as important as developing your design ability."

Get your face known

Design is a collaborative industry. Studios rarely operate in isolation from the greater community, and most of the people you admire probably know one another. Becoming a recognised participant in your local design scene is often just as important as developing your design ability.

Understandably, students often elevate the work that absorbs them at university to a higher status than attending creative events and exhibitions. Immersion in the creative community, however, offers a much greater insight into how the design industry operates outside of education. There are a huge number of creative meet-ups that take place each month, covering a variety of topics and disciplines. Nottingham is just one of many cities that has witnessed a huge growth in its creative output over recent years.

Try regarding interaction with the design community as part of your university work. I created an opportunity to meet and interview designers on a personal level, by way of research for a final year project. “Radius”, a creative networking environment, become a way for me to discover the stories that underpin the local creative industry. In the space of a month I had made dozens of contacts who all had stories to share. It was through my “Radius” project that I met Alex and the team at Makermet, thus opening a door that otherwise would have been closed.

"Designing with a solid foundation of reason, communicating a clear message, makes presenting your work to industry infinitely easier."

Design for communication, not decoration

There is a false belief that work produced during education is fundamentally different to work produced during employment. Whilst this may be true with regards to the diversity of briefs, and the speed of turn around, the creation of work is almost identical. Irrespective of the outcome, every project goes through a great deal of research, and everything is built on a solid foundation of reason.

Later stages of university, just like in employment, consist of constant validation of the purpose of your work. Having projects built upon solid research in your portfolio makes explaining each stage much easier, and limits the chances of tunnel vision or mental block. Designing with a solid foundation of reason, communicating a clear message, makes presenting your work to industry infinitely easier.

My final year portfolio featured a mobile app that eased the learning of a foreign language, a redesigned Big Issue magazine intended to improve the sales and lives of the vendors, and a full rebranding of the Design Museum to promote a more community centred approach. Whilst all three projects, alongside “Radius”, were commended for their aesthetic appeal, the research that inspired their existence was the catalyst for many more important commendations from prospective employers.

"The ideas you have that fail to materialise will be met with very limited consequences; the ideas that work will set you apart from the crowd."

Create your own opportunities

Despite advice to the contrary, many art and design students still consider their final grade to be of utmost importance. I personally spent my first two years of university believing that the grade I was working towards was more important than anything else. Whilst this is the case in many industries, the importance of grades in creative courses pales in comparison to the value of experiences that are available.

University is a fantastic time to experiment as a designer. Pressures of time and budget are minimal in comparison to working in industry. Take this opportunity to embrace your mistakes and learn from your failure. The ideas you have that fail to materialise will be met with very limited consequences; the ideas that work will set you apart from the crowd. You will rarely receive the time or freedom of possibility after graduation, so take your chances whilst they’re available. Challenge the area in which you wish to specialise and question what you want to become.

For years I was convinced I wanted to work purely in branding. Over the course of my final year, however, I joined the university magazine and gained an understanding of grid systems, layouts and the realisation of work in print. In my role as Head of Design at Trent TV, I produced a wealth of title sequences, animations and a National Student Television Award (NaSTA) winning ident. Throughout each opportunity I realised I had an interest in multiple disciplines, and the experience gained through trying something different has proven invaluable since graduation.

"Set yourself new goals and take the opportunity to work in areas you hadn’t considered."

Never stop learning

The harsh fact of life is that, no matter what stage of your career you reach, there will always be someone better than you. Equally you will always be better than someone else. As a student your grade is indicative of your current skill, which will continually fluctuate until you graduate. After graduation you will find yourself collaborating within a hierarchy of people much more experienced and skilled than yourself. Embrace that fact. Be humble in your attitude and use it to challenge your thinking and improve your ability. Set yourself new goals and take the opportunity to work in areas you hadn’t considered.

As the newest member of the Makermet team, I’m surrounded by a wealth of “real world” experience. I can work in parallel with designers, developers, copywriters and photographers on projects with both print and digital realisations. I can spend every day immersed in a world of valuable insight, with the chance to directly experience user interaction and the difference that great design can make.

The uncertainty of life post-graduation is a reality that terrifies most students. Understanding early that professionalism is a state of mind allows for a much smoother transition into the industry, and becoming a recognised participant in your local design scene will prove to be just as advantageous as developing your design ability. Make the most of your time and university. Embrace your mistakes and learn from your failure. Your degree show is one of the greatest experiences that university will offer, however it needn’t be a line in the sand. Enjoy the fruits of your hard work, and use your degree show as just another tool to open doors into employment.

About the author

Aaron Profile Image

Aaron Kelwick

Designer

Aaron works with the team and directly with clients on all aspects of Makermet's print and digital design output.

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