What the Industry Wants: Preparing Design Students for Employment Success

It’s spring, which means that around the country, graduates are throwing their mortarboards in the air and pounding the pavement for work. Those of us who are hiring or recruiting (like myself) will see a deluge of fresh resumes flooding our inboxes and we’ll cross our fingers that maybe, just maybe, we’ll find a promising young candidate to join the team and start contributing right way.

Recently, I attended the Ferris State University Graphic Design Senior Portfolio Review. On the invites and on their website, the tag line to the show was, “Are we industry ready? You decide.” Based on previous experience with university graphic design programs and their graduates, I was not optimistic.

Behind the Times

I’ve observed the effects of the evolving requirements of the design industry on undergraduate education ever since my own time in school. I enrolled in the art program at Grand Valley State University in 2004, my freshman year, hoping to major in graphic design and eventually land a career designing websites. I was one of the first digital natives: in high school I taught myself HTML and CSS and when others asked to pay for my services, I started freelancing. During those years I created some truly horrible websites, but I continued to iterate and grow my skills, and I saw the power and potential of the internet for communication and connection. I was excited and fascinated. I wanted to be a UX designer, before I (and most of the world) even knew what user experience was.

I dropped out of the graphic design program after only one semester because I felt that the program wasn’t going to equip me to work in this new medium I loved. All of the coursework and teaching centered around print design, with little to no opportunity to engage in digital work or UX. While the principles of good visual design are universal, it was a cost-vs-benefit analysis: the intense program would require my full focus, to the exclusion of everything else, and if I spent all of my time designing print artifacts, I would not have a chance to build the skills I really needed to become an industry-ready UX designer. So I quit the design program and found other ways to develop the skills and gain the experience I needed.

Since then, I’ve built a career in the software industry and now find myself on the other side of that equation, looking to recruit and hire new talent. To my dismay, here we are 10 years later, and not much has changed: as we continue to build our design team at AO, my colleagues and I lament the shortage of truly talented and prepared design graduates. The majority of newly-graduated applicants that we see have a basic grasp of visual design principles, and not much else. Most of the undergraduate portfolios I see still include only one very basic website. Interactive design, information architecture, and human centered design practices such as personas, user research, and user-driven workflows are completely overlooked.

And it’s not just AO that’s experiencing this phenomena. At the 2012 Balanced Team Chicago Conference, almost 20 of us from across the industry sat down for an un-conference discussion session centered around the observation that we’re seeing design graduates who lack the knowledge needed to successfully take up a career in the software industry, and looking for ways to change this circumstance. During the session, Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman and Jared Spool introduced their idea of the “Center Centre” (formerly the Unicorn Institute), a post-secondary UX program for design graduates. Their effort, and others like it, is proof that undergraduate design education has room to grow.

An Encouraging Experience

So I approached the Ferris portfolio review with skepticism and trepidation. I was blown away by what I found. The show featured 13 graduating seniors, each with a well-rounded portfolio of work that featured apps and digital experiences alongside the usual branding, packaging, and poster projects. Not only that, but many of the students spoke intelligently about user research that they carried out, included user persona artifacts in their work, and had documented workflows that corresponded to the user journeys that they discovered.

It seems Ferris is paying attention to the industry, and I’m pretty optimistic about their graduates’ employment potential. Some may argue that four years is not enough time to give students a robust education in visual design and broader principles of human centered design and design thinking, but after seeing the Ferris portfolio review, I don’t buy that argument any more.

What Educators and Students Can Do

I’m aware that curriculum change can’t happen overnight, but design programs that want to be successful need to do better at equipping graduates to work in an increasingly digital world. The career opportunities in software design and related fields are beginning to equal — potentially even outnumber — the opportunities at traditional design agencies that do advertising and branding.

Here are some concrete things that educators and students can do to improve chances of success.

  1. Cultivate relationships with practitioners. Full-time faculty should do their best to connect with the best practicing design professionals in their geographic area. We can provide you and your students with a wealth of information about current industry climate, evolving practices, new tools, and so forth. Guest lectures, studio tours, job shadows, and summer internships are other ways in which we can contribute to your program’s and your students’ continued growth and success. At Atomic Object, we even had a professor from a local university come and work for us during his sabbatical semester in 2011 so that he could experience our work firsthand and bring that experience back to his classroom.
  2. Incorporate a human-centered design focus into your curriculum. Kim Goodwin’s Designing for the Digital Age is one of the best and most comprehensive resources I’ve read on this topic. The book describes all stages and practices of HCD, from idea, inquiry and validation, to detailed visual design. Incorporate these practices into your coursework. Students who get a chance to learn and use these practices in the classroom — and can talk about them intelligently during their senior show and job interviews — will be head and shoulders above other applicants in the industry.
  3. Create opportunities for students to work on real (or realistic) client projects in a controlled setting. Working with a client introduces constraints and challenges that don’t exist in straightforward coursework, and it adds a sense of purpose and urgency to the work, beyond the idea of getting a good grade. Students who have worked with clients during their undergraduate career, whether in class or through internships and volunteer projects such as Design for Good, come out of school with stronger portfolios and a better sense of where they want to land in the design industry.
  4. Teach students to code. Students who have experience — however basic — with HTML and CSS come out of school better equipped to produce appropriate designs for the screen, and are also better able to position themselves as candidates. Every design student should be able to put together a basic portfolio website. While tools such as Squarespace are a good way to present one’s work, having the ability to customize your template or even roll your own website are a great way for graduates to stand apart in a sea of applicants.
  5. Get involved with user groups and trade associations. AIGA, IXDA, and other groups are a great place for students to make connections, identify mentors, and get to know the industry.

A Note for Students

If your program doesn’t offer these opportunities, don’t despair. However, be aware that in order to succeed, you will need to look out for yourself and find other ways to gain these experiences and learn these skills. Read the book I mentioned above, and also get Alan Cooper’s About Face 3. Self-paced courses like those offered on Skillshare and Treehouse can be a great way to fill in gaps in your program’s offerings. For accountability, why not do them together with other like-minded classmates? And when you’re ready, it may be worthwhile to do some freelance work or pound the pavement and find an internship at a company like ours.

Producing industry-ready design graduates isn’t an easy thing, but then again, neither is being a designer. However, now more than ever before, in this era of design, our industry has the potential to be a driving force for good in the economy and the world today. It’s our duty to be ready, to strive for constant improvement, to make sure that the next generation of designers is equipped to do the same.