Transitioning between university and the design industry

By Victor Smith

Transitioning from university to the design industry – How university doesn’t totally prepare you for the real world.

Moving from university to the design industry can be an exciting but challenging experience. Here is my experience of transitioning from the comfortable space of uni to the big, bad world.

I had a good university experience, I studied at Coventry University, and I look back on it with fond memories. During my final year, they set up many post uni workshops and schemes to help students transition. These included meetings with careers advisers, lectures from past students and internship schemes. One thing I found particularly useful was a final year module dedicated to self-development, this involved helping us set up and improve upon our portfolios. This really helped me when it came to job hunting later down the line. However, while universities obviously provide valuable education, there are several ways in which universities don’t fully prepare students for the real world.

For me, the number one difference between university life and the real world is the speed of everyday studio life and how tight the deadlines are. During uni, our lecturers would often warn us about this, but it didn’t change the fact that the modules were typically at least 4 months each. Having around 4 months to create a 20-page zine doesn’t prepare students for when you have less than 5 days to do the same thing. Being used to these elongated deadlines for the last 4 years of my life meant I wasn’t ready for this new fast pace.

Next is the limited exposure to real-world challenges: University programs are often designed to be predictable and structured, the real world however, is full of unexpected challenges and ambiguity that cannot be fully replicated in a classroom setting. I found this to be a particularly big change for me.

Another thing is the correct way to name files (turns out that “final-final-final-file” isn’t the best way to name things). It seems such a small thing, but it’s crazy how it important it is for design studios. I’m lucky I got the opportunity to have an internship with a professional design studio before starting my first full-time job here, because it was there where I was taught how they name their files on Dropbox. That prepared me a little for here, as I wouldn’t have had a clue how important it was. It makes a designer’s life easier and saves valuable time.

University provides very little exposure to the world of applications other than Adobe Suite. Creative applications such as Figma and Microsoft suite as well as studio management applications such as Dropbox, Float, Basecamp and Slack were all new to me.

A further point is learning how to talk to clients. University briefs are almost all hypothetical projects. They don’t really teach students how to communicate with clients about work. Coming out of uni, I lacked the required skills to clearly explain my working to a client who might not necessarily understand graphic design terms.

An additional thing I’ve noticed since leaving uni is that the presentation of work is almost just as important as the work itself. This is something that I particularly realised during my internship after uni. The studio really seemed to care about this side of things and spent hours on the specific phrases they would use in their presentations, changing things to dictate how the client would react to something. This is something I never really thought about before now.

Overall, while universities provide valuable education and skills training, students must also know that there are many other things that higher education doesn’t teach you.