Undergraduates: 11 GOLDEN Career Tips from a Product Design Veteran

Russell BeardThis is a guest post from Russell Beard, a veteran design consultant with over 25 years of industry experience. Russell has worked for a number of world leading creative product design agencies around the globe, has run his own design business, launched a product startup and is currently recalibrating after a decision to step away from the industry for a year. With 25 years’ experience in creative product design consultancy, working across all markets, categories and technologies, Russell puts usability and human centred design at the very core of everything he does.


Dear Undergraduates…

I’ve been meaning to write this article for years. It’s a summary of the so-called advice that I would give any placement student who was unfortunate enough to work for me, and many of my peers and colleagues will have heard me rant about many of these items over the years. It’s by no means exhaustive, but it broadly covers off some things that I think are not commonly promoted within the confines of the traditional University design course. That’s not a criticism per se, as I’m fully aware that Universities have enough to do with the little time they have.

I guess it’s a list of stuff that I wish I’d been told when I was in my final year all those years ago and that I know is critical and relevant now.

It is important to remember that these are all my own opinions. There will be many people who disagree with what I’ve listed and will have sound cause to. It also doesn’t preclude many of the standard practices and resources that you will find elsewhere, like ‘producing a perfect portfolio’ or ‘interviewing techniques’. It is meant as a little window into the professional world for all those wide eyed undergraduates who may not know any better and don’t have any real experience to base their judgements and decisions on.

It’s also worth noting that I’m not currently in a position to hire anyone. If you’ve read any of my previous articles on LinkedIn, you will know that I’ve taken a bit of a step back from the industry, but I’m sure that all of the below still resonate. I would welcome comments from peers and colleagues in the creative design industry and beyond, both in support of some of the points below and equally in contrast to add some balance.

It’s here to help.

I’ve written them in the order in which they popped into my brain…

  1. Words are important

I hated English at school. I was all about the drawing and the making. Maths gave me results, Physics helped me understand how the world worked and DT was my creative outlet – my invention portal. I never really valued ‘writing’ or spending any time working on words as well as pictures. Words were just titles or annotations. However, as I’ve developed (aged), so has my appreciation for the written word.

It’s important. Really important.

Take time to learn how to write a decent letter, craft an opening statement, describe your project in less than 10 words, conclude, summarise and convince. Words used in the right way can elevate your design work tenfold and reassure your audience of your intellect as well as your evident creativity. Ironically, your ability to write will define your first impressions well before your design work has the chance to.

Get inspired by advertising legends like Paul Arden (he wrote a book called ‘It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be‘ which you can buy for pittance and read in 15 minutes which will help you more than you can imagine) – people who spent time crafting words to make the right impression.

I’m not suggesting I’m any good at it, but I’ve learned to respect the written word…its nuances, suggestive qualities and ability to weave imaginations as well as lead people along a story pathway well before they see any of my design work.

  1. LinkedIn is your friend

Lots of people reject LinkedIn as a ‘Facebook for Suits’ but it is by far the easiest way to both find people that you think you might want to introduce yourself to and make sure that your work and introduction is tailored to suit. As long as you ignore much of the back slapping and dick swinging that goes on, it’s a useful place to be, particularly at a time when physical meetings are almost impossible.

Make sure you keep your profile up to date and you both react to content from others and provide some modicum of content yourself for people to react to. This will ensure that LinkedIn ‘takes notice of you’ and increases your visibility (I don’t pretend to understand the LinkedIn algorithm…it’s just common sense).

How you act is important. Be courteous and polite and connect with people who you think are interesting and of benefit to your cause (even if you don’t know what your cause is yet!). You don’t have to spend hours every day on it. Just spend some regular, tactical time making sure you stay aware and relevant to your audience, and react to circumstances when they present themselves. It ain’t rocket science.

  1. Don’t wait until you submit your major project

This is my biggest bugbear with final year students. The predilection to leaving everything else until the major project has been submitted.

I get it. It’s hard work. In some cases, it’s an insane amount of work and something the Universities need to address for fear of over-indexed burnout, but look at it from an outsider’s point of view. If I’m a prospective employer, I hear nothing from all final year students for the entirety of the academic year while they burn midnight hours and consume litres of Red Bull. Then, in July/August, I get deluged with hundreds of versions of the same thing all vying for my attention…all at a time when I may not actually be looking to recruit.

If you want to get noticed, then step away from the baying crowds and find yourself some space (i.e. while the rest of your year group burn those hours) to have some conversations and make some introductions. Most employers are aware that you may not have the collateral available to showcase your latest University work but most employers are also pretty savvy at spotting character and gumption and tenacity – all things that come across in a conversation and with a few well timed questions.

I would suggest that most decent people hiring from design courses are looking for attitude rather than skills, and attitude can be determined regardless of your major project outcome.

  1. Introduce yourself to people

Intrinsically linked to points 2 and 3, the only way people are going to find out about you is if you tell them. And this doesn’t mean spending hours crafting a portfolio website (see point 5) and hoping that its sheer existence on the internet will procure you a job. I refer to my earlier point about attitude and gumption.

Most people in the industry have been in your shoes and will understand the difficulties in making yourself seen and heard. Use whatever network tools you have to make yourself visible and introduce yourself to people. Ask for help. Ask for advice. Ask for referrals.

Most people are unlikely to be able to offer you a job or a career, but if they recognise that you are being proactive, determined and polite, they will invariably help you out by putting you in touch with someone else, or pointing you in a different direction – a direction you didn’t know about until you talked to that person.

Even if 75% of the conversations you have don’t yield anything, you are still ahead of the game. Despite the façade of success and professionalism, most people like to help. Don’t be scared. Just ask. What’s the worst that can happen. They say No? What have you lost. Nothing. It’s not about flagrant self-promotion. It’s just about widening your network and – if nothing else – practising some of those soft skills (see point 9).

  1. Don’t prioritise your portfolio

If I had a penny for every student that said “I need to get my portfolio sorted first, then I’ll…”, I’d be a very rich man.

Most of the time, this excuse is used when the student lacks confidence to approach people directly and needs the safety net of an ‘email plus portfolio’ to blanket bomb all possible avenues of opportunity. Strangely enough, most of these emails get lost or unanswered, not because the recipient deems themselves too important to reply (although sometimes this is the case) but mainly because that person probably receives hundreds of emails per day with requests more urgent and more demanding than yours.

Even if you master point 1 and write a brilliant introductory email and they actually read it, you may still find yourself lost in a sea of unanswered mail. For sure, it’s advantageous to have a portfolio ready if a potential employer shows some interest and asks you to interview, but it’s not the end of the world if you haven’t. If you’ve followed the advice in points 1, 2, 3 and 4, you will be able to make a suitable impression without it, mention that it is work in progress, but still get a head start on your peers.

Remember what I said about tenacity and gumption. Be confident in the impression that YOU make on the other person. They are not hiring you for your major project. They are hiring you for the demonstrable qualities you will bring to their business and the translation of those abilities to manifest as profit.

  1. It’s an exciting time to be design trained

I can’t recall a time when there were more design centric businesses trading globally. It used to be the case that the only businesses who ‘understood’ design and hired design graduates were agencies and consultancies. Now, every half decent product, brand or service led business has some level of design representation in their business, and the tide has well and truly turned.

It is now the case that most design talent gets snapped up by in-house teams who are led by savvy, experienced, entrepreneurial design thinkers. Businesses who are breaking the mould and upending their own industry norms.

Times are good for people who like to change stuff. Admittedly, current circumstances are a little tricky when it comes to meeting people, but this has manifested as a relaxation in the need to co-locate everyone geographically. There’s always a flip side to every coin. When it comes to introducing yourself to people, don’t pre-judge and assume you know their industry because you had a look at their website.

I’m still astonished by the work that goes on behind the scenes in businesses that appear to be ‘ordinary’ and lacking design visibility in their public facing marketing. 5 years ago, electric vehicles were just peripheral. Femtech wasn’t even a thing. Service design was in its infancy and very few CEO’s knew what ‘experience’ design was. Now, they are clamouring for it.

Ride the wave kids.

  1. Grow a thick skin

Remember what I said about people not wanting you for your major project? This isn’t about being precious about your work. For sure, you should be proud of your work and happy to present it as your best thinking and demonstration of skillset, but put yourself in the position of the employer again.

It is likely that when you start your career, you will start at the bottom of the pecking order. You will be given small or supporting tasks to do. You will get lots of it wrong and that is to be expected. No-one expects a graduate to be fully formed – in fact, a decent creative business will look to mould you into a creative fighting machine in their own image, so someone with a broad, malleable skillset, the right attitude and a personable demeanour is ideal.

But you will have to get used to your work being (pretty consistently) below par. It’s not that you are any less skilled or talented, but you just need to learn the ways of business and adaptability – things that University simply won’t have prepared you for.

If you are lucky, you will have had your eyes opened during a placement year, but even then you will not have had the same level of personal investment in you and your development as you will as a graduate or junior. Grow a thick skin, say yes to any project that comes along (no matter how dull it appears), keep your spirits up and be a human sponge. It will pay off, I absolutely guarantee it.

  1. Your degree result isn’t top of my list

I can’t remember any of the degree results for any of the people I’ve hired. They may well be appalled by that admission, but it is the last thing I look at (if I look at it at all). Apologies to all University tutors out there who are recoiling whilst reading this, but it means nothing to me.

If the person in front of me (or communicating to me via whatever means) shows determination, talent, pro-activity, creativity, personability, humour, empathy and grit (in whatever combination) and can back that up with evidence of a sound and burgeoning skillset, then I am sold. It doesn’t even matter if your major project isn’t the best.

Remember, I’m not looking for inventions. I’m looking for creative, talented problem solvers who I can throw at future problems with confidence (I’ll admit that there are myriad ‘design’ jobs out there that may require very specific skills, but I would still suggest that creative thinkers and problems solvers are the most relevant nowadays).

Now I’m sure that most of the talented people that have been hired have – by default – secured the best degree results (because of their tenacity, ability and grit), but be reassured that what might be a measure of success in one institution (namely University), may not be the same measure of success or ability in industry. I can teach you skills, but it’s rare that I can teach you attitude.

  1. Soft skills, soft skills, soft skills

Which brings me neatly onto my favourite subject. The soft skills. I cannot stress highly enough the benefits of these skills. You will be taught plenty of hard skills at University. Design Process. 3D CAD. Rendering. Adobe Creative Suite. Report Writing. Sketching. Engineering. The stuff that I see visualised as micro-infographics on countless CVs (I’m a 3 out of 5 in SolidWorks….What’s all that about?). The list goes on.

Whilst these are important, and they will enable you to prove that you can ‘design’ and provide visible evidence for your portfolio, they will do nothing to prepare you for the world of ‘being’ a designer. I’m talking about the ability to read a room, the ability to listen, the ability to hold a conversation with someone you’ve just met, the ability to lead, the ability to co-operate, the ability to inspire, the ability to engage, convince and charm.

Like hard skills, this list is equally endless, but it is these skills that will take you further than any of the hard ones. Ideally, you should develop a complement of both skill sets that suit the discipline and environment you think you’ll inhabit, and like hard skills, soft skills can be continuously learned, developed and honed over time. Whatever you do, don’t become the person who spends days, weeks and months practising to become a skill ninja (be it rendering, sketching, CAD…whatever) without also learning how to talk about it, collaborate and listen. See points 2, 3 and 4!

  1. Skills, not objects

I know I’ve mentioned this a few times now, but for anyone skimming this article and just taking in the headlines, it’s worth including as a standalone item. Unless you are incredibly fortunate and you’ve stumbled on something profoundly profitable in your final year project, it is unlikely that what you’ve designed will go any further than the first or last page in your portfolio and a box in your parent’s attic.

I would suggest that all employers are looking at your major project (and other project work) as a way to determine whether you have the SKILLS to do the job you both hope they hire you for. They will be dissecting your portfolio and your responses to questions for the evidence they need to feel comfortable that you can fit in, do enough to get started, keep learning and be a profitable and valuable future asset to their business.

It ain’t about the new, improved ‘coffee machine’ or the ‘pregnancy test kit’ or the ‘bike lock’ itself…just how you got there and how you did it. Show them robust and exciting evidence and you make their decision a great deal easier.

  1. Don’t go on holiday…

Over the years, I’ve been consistently gobsmacked when I hear students at degree shows say “I’m going to take some time off first…” when I ask them what their plans are immediately after the show. It astounds me.

I fully appreciate that you are spent. A husk of a human being after months of late nights, failures, computer crashes, competition and tutor reviews. But now is definitely not the time to be stepping away and kicking those heels up. It’s a bit like a marathon runner spending months training for an event and then when the starting pistol goes, deciding to sit down and have a nap.

A that precise moment in time, every design graduate is hunting for a job (unless they’ve done some of the stuff in the points above and have tactically secured themselves a job already!) and the professional landscape is like a well groomed zombie movie. The industry is metaphorically awash with people competing for an embarrassingly low number of available jobs (particularly this year!).

No matter how broken you feel and how much you need 3 weeks on a beach somewhere hot, unless you happen to come from a very rich family, you will need to continue the effort trajectory and get out there. Continue to compete. Get the job all that major project pain and suffering deserves. Once you’ve done that, negotiate a delayed start and then consider a holiday if you must.

I hope you read these in the spirit in which I’ve written them. I’m passionate about some of this stuff (which I hope comes across) but I also throw in a healthy dose of self-deprecation and sarcasm. Don’t take them too seriously but understand the gist behind each one.

Good luck.

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