Next Steps: from classroom to competency

Several weeks after one of my design classes, I got together with one of the students. Over beers, he expressed frustration with the gap between his desire to be a skilled designer and his current abilities.

In class, he was eager, attentive, and dedicated. His design skills and thinking impressed me. Yet, here he was, unsure about his next steps and how to bridge that gap. I was also disappointed in myself and my own apparent gap in teaching. My hope is that students leave class with a proficiency in design. But, more importantly, the creative confidence to continue developing their craft. Obviously, this wasn’t happening. So, how can students confidently move from the classroom to a capable, competent creative?

The gap.

The Great Chasm

The Great Chasm

The great chasm between where we are now to where we want to be is intimidating. It’s either too overwhelming or too far away. So, how to address this gap? How can students move from guided, hands-on, in-class learning to the mastery and confidence in their own abilities and expertise? Developing this creative confidence is critical to being a successful designer. This takes a lot of effort to fight through the self doubt. It also takes time. A lot of time. Here’s a few things that has helped me working through gnarly projects and problems. These can also help in the fight to creative confidence.

Start small.

John Cage preparing a piano, in 1947.

John Cage preparing a piano, in 1947.

We easily get overwhelmed with all the requirements, tasks, and demands on us. We don’t know where to start. And when we start we quickly get lost in the process. The great composer, John Cage, once said, “Start anywhere.” So, if you got to start something, start there — anywhere.

In my work, I often start out lost, but I know that if I just continue exploring my idea, a solution will appear. So, I may do some initial typographic or color studies. I may investigate various imagery approaches. I sketch. I write, take notes and jot down ideas. The key is to make things. Make things and then reflect upon them.

Give yourself small, focused creative challenges. Don’t go off re-designing a complete site or creating a new product line. No need to make the too real. Think of these as simple design studies. Find something that interests you that you can build upon. Try taking the class exercises and assignments exploring them further without the constraints of class. This will lead to a series of studies that you can now reflect and examine to find further inspiration or perhaps to provoke another design study.

Journaling is another way to constant capture and reflect upon what you are experiencing. Random notes, goofy sketches, and quirky ideas fill my journals. Most of these will never see the light of day. but the process of capturing and then reflecting on them keep me on my “creative toes” and creatively limber.

Time is on your side.


The great design sage, Mick Jagger, once sang, “Tiiiime is on my side, yes it is.” Well, it’s actually on your side. Despite our tendency to procrastinate, time is an important part of the design process. So, how can we use it?

There are several ways to harness the power of time. To achieve my small, creative successes, I dedicate periods of time to do the work. It may be to complete a task by a certain time or by end of the day or week. Whatever, but keep it within a concise, set period to avoid having it stretch on. This is sometimes called timeboxing. Timeboxing breaks down the larger creative process into smaller periods and actions. Blocking this time out as a calendar event can help remind you and keep that time dedicated.

I find that this helps me plan my day and week. It also gives me a period of time where I can focus without distractions on the creative process. And, it helps get me in the right frame of mind. The key is to make things over time.

Make it a habit.

Malcolm Gladwell’ s    Outliers   and Bernard Roth’ s    The Achievement Habit

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Bernard Roth’s The Achievement Habit

Achieving design proficiency is like building washboard abs. You don’t get it unless you work at it constantly and consistently. Both Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers and Bernard Roth in The Achievement Habit wrote extensively on habit. I don’t think we need to read these books to understand the power of habits. We all know that the more we work at something the better we become.

This is why starting small and dedicating time is so important. Brilliant design and creative skills are a result of many small actions over time. Like compound interest, the constant “reinvestment” in developing your design skills and proficiency leads to success. The key is to make things — constantly and consistently — over time. Unlike other investments, past performance is a guarantee of future results. Results that bring both great design and creative confidence.

What’s Your Design Story? Tell it through a Memorable Design Portfolio

As a design instructor, the one thing that I hear from my students time and time again is how frustrated they are with their portfolios. Recently, one of my former students was walking me through his work. It was obvious that he was suffering from the same problems as other students: He had talent, but it was buried. His portfolio was a mishmash of isolated work and random design studies. It lacked focus and clarity. Worse, it was missing his story.

One way to avoid this is to think of your portfolio as your personal design story. It’s an opportunity to not only unify your design work, but also introduce and engage us into your approach, thinking, and inspiration. A solid design portfolio should show tangible design and execution skills. It should also give us a glimpse into what’s unique and interesting about you. We hire people, not portfolios. A good design portfolio showcases both with style and with personality.

The classic structure of a story starts with an opening scene. It sets the context and positions the characters, or in this case, your design, within the mind of the viewer. One way to do this to make a clear, concise, and bold statement about you and your design capabilities or background.

Your story should then move through a series of challenges, building tension toward a climax. We don’t need to see all the drama associated with your design process. We just need to see a series of work that reinforces the opening statement. Then, end with a bang for the final chapter by summarizing and reinforcing your design expertise. 

That’s the basic structure. Now, here are a few ways you can use it to build out your portfolio and tell your own design story.

From Projects to Programs

Graphic identity by Sofia Girelli for Converge conference

I often see portfolios with a single design. It may be a logo, poster or a website. Most design projects involve creating or working within a design system. So, take these singular designs and expand upon them. Take the logo and build upon them to create a larger design system. Apply the design to a variety of channels and media so we can see and understand how the design works. Create a design manual or website showing how the design works. Show the design in context to make it as real as possible instead of just another project in your portfolio. Classic examples of can be found at Standards Manual – a publishing house founded by a pair of designers to make these important design artifacts available.

Also, take your sketches and background information and create a case study. These show how you refined and realized the final design. These initial ideas and rough sketches are great insight into your design thinking and creative development.


Michael Bierut, concept sketches for Hillary Clinton campaign logo, January 2015

Before and After


A before and after showing the evolution from the existing design elements by Kendall Ross.

There’s a lot of great design out there. There’s also a lot of crap. Many design projects involve repositioning or re-presenting an existing design. So, a simple creative challenge is to find something you feel could be improved upon to address a new need. It could be a magazine, advertisement, website, package design, whatever. You can then even expand upon the re-design to turn it from being a project into a series or a program. It also allows you to talk about your unique point of view in addressing the challenge.

Learn from Others

Magazine article on Paul Rand using the design style of Paul Rand by Outi Pulkkinen

One of my favorite design assignments in school was a variation on the book report. This assignment involved researching a well-known designer, writing an analysis of the designer’s approach, and then designing a magazine spread based upon that designer’s style. This gave me a great appreciation of design history. It also forced me to understand and then deconstruct the designer’s approaches. This project is a great way to explore type, color, composition, and imagery. Then applying that knowledge to create a magazine spread, poster, web site, or book on design history.

Whether your portfolio is ready for prime time or in dire need of some design love, take a look at it from the perspective of the viewer. Ask yourself, does it reflect my design skill and expertise? Is it structured in a way to position you and your work? Is the work meaningful and substantial enough to engage us? And finally, does it tell a great design story? Most of all, is this story memorable, engaging, and about you.