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Career advice for design students from their peers

Two student designers share advice from a summer touring factories and studios as part of the Be Original Americas fellowship

Working at the Emeco factory in Hanover, Pennsylvania
Courtesy Be Original Americas

For many college students, especially freshman stepping onto campus for the first time, formal design education has just begun. Schedules filled with lectures, studio classes, and competitions will begin to turn aspiring creatives into designers, makers, and small business owners. But like most industries, design is best learned through hands on experience.

That’s the impetus behind the Be Original Americas Student Design Fellowship, an outgrowth of an industry-led collaboration and non-profit dedicated to promoting the “economic, ethical, and environmental value of authentic design” in North America and beyond. This new educational opportunity gives a pair of college students the chance to learn about the realities of design as a business through a seven-week tour of studios and factories.

Earlier this summer, Tom Groom, an industrial and graphic design major at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Irene Lee, a design and environmental analysis major at Cornell University, hopscotched across the U.S. and Europe for seven weeks, visiting factories, headquarters, and showrooms and meeting designers, marketers, and executives from companies such as Fritz Hansen, Herman Miller, Vitra, Emeco, and Rich Brilliant Willing. The pair kept a diary of their tour, chronicling what they learned about marketing, manufacturing, and the economic realities of the creative industry. Curbed asked them to distill their crash course into advice for fellow students seeking guidance about life beyond the classroom.

Irene Lee
Federica Carlet
Tom Groom
Federica Carlet

Irene’s Advice

Talk shop

“Sit down with a professional or professor, sip on a cup of coffee, and talk to them about the industry. They’ve undoubtedly had a curvy path full of trials and errors and most likely have been in your shoes at one point in time. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, tell them about your interests, and listen to their advice as they are happy to talk with you. Having active conversations with designers such as Suzanne Tick and Dror Benshetrit gave me new insight on their thoughts on and approach to design that is relevant and applicable to the time. Conversations are one of the most important tools to broaden the breadth and depth of your knowledge of design and what you can learn from them can’t be found in the books.”

Recognize a process

“Good design is the product of a process, from concept generation, research, to prototyping and development. When you reach a completed design, you may think the process has come to a halt, but in actuality, the process extends further. Sourcing, quality control, distribution, and marketing all become topics to think about. Once introduced to the market, it’s important that you gauge the growth, maturity, and possible decline of the product. Our visit to Vitra enlightened me of this complex process, of which I found its strategies in sustaining a product’s place in the market especially interesting.

Are there gaps in the design that you can fill? How can you reintroduce the product in a novel way to the market? Was your target market too niche or broad? There are endless questions to ask yourself, which makes the process of design an exciting and never-ending learning experience.”

Design for manufacturing

“Yes, design for manufacturing largely involves optimization of manufacturing functions to decrease time-to-market and improve factors such as quality, cost, and reliability. However, design for manufacturing also should consider individuals working with the organization. A manufacturing process that will reduce ergonomic risks and ensure the safety and wellbeing of craftspeople, operators, and installers is of utmost importance. They are the ones who craft, build, and assemble, making the design into a reality.”


“Storytelling is integral in communicating the message and purpose of your brand and design. With a story, consumers will more easily develop a meaningful connection with your original design. Maybe you researched behaviors to create a new typology, studied the physics of an inventive form, or created a new material for your design? The story behind the work is valuable and deserves to be shared with the public. There are so many platforms to showcase the story, whether it be a video, a workshop, an exhibit, the options are endless. Be as inventive as you would like, because you are telling your own story.”

Touring the Vitra Schaudepot, the company’s massive new addition and furniture museum.
Courtesy Be Original Americas

Create a Personal Archive

“The digital world has made it so easy for designers to adjust a form, change a color, or delete a component, all with a few mouse clicks. Within the timeline that changes are being made, the progress, unfortunately, is not being recorded in a place that can be looked back upon in the future. Herman Miller, a brand that prizes its cultural heritage, has prevented any gaps in its history with its own archive used to inform and inspire the company and its endeavors. Create a personal archive that will act as a resource. Whether it be a box full of models, a stack of napkin sketches, or folders of your digital drafts, each item is a result of the passion that guided your design process. The final design will be even more meaningful when it has its own story recorded within an archive.”

Tom Groom’s Advice

Always be making

“Like every profession, one has to work hard to succeed in design, but it is also true that most people catch a break in their career, too—and when that comes along, you can only take full advantage if you have enough projects to show. Spending time with Odile Hainaut and Claire Pijoulat from WantedDesign allowed me to recognize the competitive nature of the industry, but also that the work that I produce represents me alone and that I can use my catalog of ideas and projects to make myself stand out. Your personality shows through the work that you create: use your unique voice and personality to produce projects which represent you, that make you proud, and demonstrate what you care about. Using this impetus to create more will improve core skills like designing with confidence, streamlining the process of production and iteration, understanding who you’re constructing ideas for and most importantly—will increase the amount of work you have, which demonstrates your ability to yourself and others.”

Have “real” big ideas

“One of the hardest things to do is to learn to balance dreaming big and weighing the practical concerns of a project—it’s a matter of perspective which can be difficult to keep when you become emotionally attached to an idea. To help you do this, you can think about what it is that you are designing, and ask whether it could actually be realized, or whether you could ever honestly make it? Answering this can be challenging when you’re designing something solely on paper or onscreen, so try to make prototypes early and often that move you closer and closer to the final objective. Sometimes a simple non-electronic object, a small environmental change, or initiating an activity can substitute for a complex electronic device designed to solve a problem—and how as a student, a lo-fi solution may be more within your grasp. Focusing on designing things that are within your capacity to produce, allows you to take them closer to production and move them out into the real world to interact with people.”

Using pride to your advantage

“Since I completed the fellowship, I have tried to utilize my pride by measuring my work against professionals, and continuing to work on it until I feel comfortable placing it next to them. I encountered this while working on a Emeco 1006 Navy chair: feeling both honored to be working on a piece which would be sent to a customer, and afraid of ruining an iconic piece of furniture, I realized I should feel this way about my own pieces. Although working to this standard will take a lot more effort to get a project to this point, in the end the work will be better for it and I will believe in the piece that much more. Pride can be one of your greatest tools—it can help you to understand when you honestly believe you have completed projects and help drive you to take them further than you thought you could.”

Be deliberate in your passion

“At the end of the day, design comes down to business—whether it is the cost of development, sourcing of materials, location of manufacturing, method of sales, or promotion—money is always a factor. One of the most important things to learn about design is understanding how to look at your work rationally as well as emotionally. Alex, Charles, and Theo at Rich Brilliant Willing really opened my eyes to this idea, and how for example, at the start of a project one should try and ballpark costs and rewards: how much time and effort is involved, and is the potential product competitive in the market through cost, and/or unique selling points, to make the project worth your investment? This thinking allowed them to move away from the furniture that they made, but realized was uncompetitive, and focus on the lighting with which they have become so successful. Learning to treat yourself as a business allows you to recognize what you get out of your invested time and effort, and it can help you understand how important a project actually is to you—whether it drives income as a product you sell, or whether it is a portfolio piece which helps you self-promote.”

Experiment, test and play—have fun

“As a young designer or small studio, one way to get yourself recognized is to work with new or emerging technologies or experiences—this levels the playing field between you and other companies somewhat, and can give you the chance to define new typologies. Brooklyn’s Flavor Paper typify this point, a company built on the far-out concept of scratch-and-sniff and more recently conductive wallpaper—they have never been afraid of chasing ideas which make them stand out. Our time with them helped me cement the idea that if you are working as a designer, hopefully you love it—what you do should be exciting and fun, what ever that means to you.”