I was lucky enough to attend the design program at the University of Cincinnati where we had a co-operative education curriculum — meaning I had to complete 6 x 3 month internships before graduating. These can be all over the country, or the world and you start young. For me it was such a great way to try on different cities and try out different companies. You learn what you might be good at, what you really don’t like, and get a taste for the day-to-day of a design studio. The most important thing: you meet people. People already working in the field you’re trying to crack into and who will directly or indirectly help you get your first foothold.
So yeah, I’m a huge proponent of internships and we take 2-3 per semester here at Gretel. They come from all over the world, in strategy, design and project management. We pay our interns, of course, and we try to give everyone real exposure to client work. We’re also at a scale where they can all generally see what’s happening across the whole office instead of being walled off into their specific task or project, which is nice I think.
For me, far and away the mark of a good designer is composition. You can see it within seconds. It either strikes you, or it doesn’t. Composition transcends medium, it’s obvious in digital, spatial, motion and print, and people who do it well in one discipline can often do it well in others.
Beyond that I look at typography, language and range. How type is handled and what it’s communicating. Language can be baked into the work, but how someone writes is usually a good indicator of how they think. So their email, even the project write-ups on their site or in their book can be very telling. Can this person boil down the complexity of this project into a few succinct lines?
Range is partly about craft, technical skill, but also about the individual. Is there a point of view underneath it all? Are they reaching, challenging themselves or just hitting the same notes over and over?
You’re only as good as the worst thing you show. I think that goes for your portfolio and for your day-to-day work. You have to edit... it’s so important early on not to fall in love with the things you make just because you made them. Or because it was hard. Or because you think the client will love it even if you don't. Actively seek input and opinions — and try not to take the feedback personally. Especially for your portfolio, where one or two ‘almosts’ can throw the ‘greats’ into question.
I taught a Portfolio course to undergraduates in their final year at the School of Visual Arts here in New York. I loved it.
Teaching anyone anything really forces you to think about your own process or method. Which seems obvious, but I think is especially critical for any creative discipline, where solutions can sometimes feel intuitive, serendipitous or even accidental. When you have to untangle and demystify your own process, you start to think hard about what really does work and what can be better.
It was important for me to figure out how to give the students checkpoints without prescribing the route. That was always hard. More than anything it forces you to really manage your time, the constant need to give quick, tactical feedback to 15 students working on 4-5 projects each can be tough, but it’s basically what creative direction is.
There’s no substitute for hard work. Especially when you’re starting out, you’ll have to put in the time. Learn from everyone you can, and keep pushing yourself to create the kind of work you love... that got you interested in design in the first place. You can only get there by doing a lot of it, good and bad.
Ira Glass from This American Life has a great little talk about this that I used to show to my students. There will be late nights, there will be failed attempts, near misses, and if-only’s, but every project really does have the potential to be huge. And you really have to go in each time with that same mindset. If it doesn’t hit, there is always something to learn from. It’s like the old adage ‘there are no small parts, only small actors.’