One Owl Studio
Graphic design and illustration, made in Cumbria



Advice for Design Students (and everyone else)


It's that time of year where students across the country are setting out bright-eyed and bushy-tailed into the exciting world of university. But what about this year’s graduates?

So you’ve completed your degree, you’ve thrown your mortarboard into the air (if you're old school like that) and you’re setting out on your career path into the creative industry. But the post-grad blues are well and truly kicking in when you see all the new first-years embarking on their new uni adventures. I found the first September after graduating really tough. I didn’t know where I wanted to be, I had questions about everything, and everyone around me seemed to be ‘making it’.

Earlier this year I was invited to speak at the Future's Festival, a three day event at the University of Cumbria, offering students the opportunity to hear from industry professionals, get involved in networking and meet potential employers. They wanted me to talk to the third year graphic design and illustration students about my experience in the creative industry, and what I've learned along the way. My talk included some lessons/tips that I thought would be good to share here. I think they're helpful reminders for students and professionals alike.


This sounds like an obvious one, and probably an unrealistic one too. You will get work in your creative career that bores the socks off you, but this makes the fun projects all the more enjoyable. If you aren’t doing work in your day job that you love, then set yourself some creative activities outside of it. Whether that’s illustration, typography, or something different to design like photography or knitting, it’s all good. You can start your own collaborative projects or exhibitions- I find having other people involved helps spur me on to make something a reality. Make sure it’s something you enjoy though rather than making a heap of work for yourself that could burn you out. Switch-off time to just do nothing and let your creative juices recharge is important too. 

Do what you love and the chances are you’ll attract clients who want similar work to what they see you doing. Clients and agencies also want to see what interests you and what you’re passionate about. In my entire creative career I have never once been asked what grade I got at university, or for graphs of my skill levels (see Instruct Studio’s handy guide for writing your CV). Agencies care about your portfolio and knowing what makes you tick as a creative.


Whether it’s asking for a pay rise or asking for a better brief- don’t ever be afraid to stand strong and demand better. It may seem scary, but if you don’t speak out things will just carry on and nothing will change. One of the biggest contentions in the creative world is free or ‘spec’ work, and new graduates are keen prey for those looking for a free gig. Be wary, very wary, of competitions where only the ‘winning’ entry is paid, and also of people offering work for no pay “but lot’s of exposure”. Always remember, people can die from exposure! This video perfectly explains the implications of working for free. You wouldn’t treat any other profession this way, but for some mystical and downright infuriating reason creatives are.

However, not all free work is evil. Sometimes I’ll come across a project that I feel is worth my time, like working with a charity or a cause where I know the budget is tight or non-existent. Or someone who can’t pay in cash but will reimburse you with their own skills. My pilates instructor needed a new logo, I designed her one with the deal that she would give me some sessions to help sort out my back from designing at my computer all day. Ultimately It’s up to you to decide.


If you want to go freelance or start your own business you have to be organised, plain and simple. It’s worth bearing in mind that you won’t just be a designer in the world of self-employment. In an ideal agency, you’d have a whole team at your side- an account manager to acquire a brief, a salesperson to bring the work in, an accountant to handle the finances, a director to decide which direction the company should move in. As a freelancer you are all of these roles, and also chief brew maker (arguably the most important role). You hold all the power, and with great power comes a lot of stress, but also the freedom to choose where you want to go and who you want to work with. It’s all possible but you need to have a lot of drive and organisation, so if you’re forgetful with replying to emails or aren’t great at organising your income, you’re probably better off getting some agency experience first to build up your skills and confidence. 


As creatives we have a high tendency to suffer from anxiety and imposter syndrome. We’re our own worst critics a lot of the time- I know I am! After graduating I felt completely inadequate that I didn’t have a job straight out of university. Social media was a complete soul destroyer for me because I was constantly measuring myself up against how other people were doing, and it looked like everyone was doing so much better than me. It’s worth remembering that social media is a front, reality is often a very different story. The friend’s who bragged about getting internships at big name agencies actually spent most of their time making tea and coffee rather than doing creative work, the friend setting up their own business spent sleepless nights worrying about money, the friend positing incredible work was trying to figure out when they would ever be able to afford to move out of their parents’ house. In life things rarely go to plan, and opportunities can pop up when you least expect them. One thing that’s for sure is comparing yourself to other people is completely counter productive and gains nothing. It’s worth bearing in mind that everybody’s trying to figure it out. In the infamous, shouty words of Shia LaBeouf- “JUST DO IT!”.


I was searching through my inbox recently and came across emails I’d sent back when I was first approaching agencies for internships and work. Some agencies were really interested in my work. They told me they didn’t have any vacancies at that time, but asked me to keep in touch. And then I did... NOTHING!

Re-reading these emails I wanted to get in a time machine, set it to 2012 and give my past self a good shake. I know back then exactly what my mindset was- my train of thought would have been “they’re just being polite, they really don’t like my work. I’m bothering them”. If you get a positive reaction from an enquiry, do keep in touch with your contacts. Let them know about a new piece in your portfolio or a recent project you’re proud of. Some agencies however, will never respond, some will say your work isn’t suitable to what they do. Sadly, rejection is part of life, but Lisa Maltby writes a fantastic article of 10 Tips for Handling Rejection that I really recommend.


No matter what you choose to do career-wise, make sure you have a support network of friends, family and other creatives who have your back. They will be there to pick you up when you have a lapse in confidence or need advice or a morale boost. I can’t stress how important it is to surround yourself with other creative people, whether that’s online with social media or finding people in real life through creative networking or social events. When I first moved to Manchester after graduating, I didn’t really know anyone. I found and met other creatives through Twitter and meet-ups who became great friends. Years later, I returned back home to Cumbria and wanted to meet and connect other local creatives in the same way. I set up Drawn to the Lakes as a place to meet other local do-ers and makers, and create a space for other people to meet and collaborate online.

Most importantly though, do remember to return the favour and help build others up and give them support in kind. Positivity breeds positivity. No creative is an island, but if they were it would have perfectly kerned palm trees and pixel perfect sand. 


So remember:


Do what you love


Know your worth


Be organised


Believe in yourself


Bang your own drum


Find your tribe

Design, InterviewSarah Cowan