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10 Things I Learned in Design School

Ayana Campbell Smith
8 min readJul 27, 2014


This is a post for all the recent and soon-to-be grads. It may seem like your typical introspective post-grad blog post and frankly it probably is just that. For me, the whirlwind of finding a job and adjusting to life after college has finally subsided and as I settle into my new role as a young professional, I find myself taking time to reflect, dust off all those lecture notes, and finally fully digest all the lessons I learned as a student over the last 5 years (both in and out of the classroom). At my young age I still don’t have it all quite figured out, however, as a student of design at the University of Central Florida (#goknights), I learned some valuable lessons along the way that offered guidance not only for my future endeavors as a contributor to the creative community but for my life in general. So I release these words, though many have been written and spoken before, in hopes that through my experiences and insights you may glean a new perspective on some advice you may have already received long ago.

Disclaimer: Though I make some definitive statements I am not a expert, nor do I claim to be. These are simply my ramblings based on my personal experiences. Enjoy!

1. When an opportunity arises, JUMP ON IT!

This one obvious, right? During my last year as a design student I was given an invaluable opportunity though at the time I didn’t realize just how important this opportunity would be as I started the next chapter of my life and doors that would open as a result. The opportunity was simple; an invitation to attend a studio tour of one of the top advertising agencies in my city. It’s funny the way things play out. The studio tour sparked in interest, which led to an inquiry, resulting in an internship, offering new connections, a mentor, learning experiences, freelance opportunities, and ultimately, my current job (which I love!). And to imagine, all of this stemmed simply from saying yes to an invitation.

2. Use Every Job Experience as a Stepping Stone Towards Your Career Goals

I want to set up this scenario for all the students out there. We’ve all been here before but the decision you make when this kind of situation arises could be more important than you know.

There’s an internship opportunity opening up with a really cool company. You’ve heard all about this place. Cool company swag. Catered lunches. Free beer on Friday afternoons! Who would turn down a place like this? Only one problem, the job really isn’t something you have an interest in at all. But the place is SO. COOL. I mean they even have a ping-pong table! So what do you do?

The argument could be made that any opportunity that arises is a good opportunity for a student and to a certain extent, this could be true. At any place you choose to work, you are bound to make both friends and connections that could lead to your next opportunity or at the very least, someone that you can give hugs and wave to at all those cool creative people parties you’ll be attending. So while I don’t necessarily disagree with this sentiment, I’d also like to offer this opinion:

If the job doesn’t align with your post-grad career aspirations, is the opportunity truly valuable to you or nothing more than a REALLY COOL/SUPER FUN waste of your time? Think about it.

3. Expanding Your Skill Set and Exploring New Techniques is COOL. Using these skills and techniques with the goal of becoming Internet-famous is NOT.

The time spent as a design student is the perfect opportunity to explore new styles, experiment with different techniques and spend way too many hours scrolling through your favorite design blogs for inspiration. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s how we learn and grow. These are all healthy practices and all things that even the most seasoned designers probably do, but it’s important to know when these things begin to get in the way of you establishing your unique design voice.

I am reminded of an excellent quote from Code School designer and illustrator, Justin Mezzell, during his talk at the Creative South conference (which was excellent) this past April:

“The longer you hold on to what others have defined as success for yourself, the longer you’ll be subject to the tedium of chasing the uncatchable”

Recognize your weaknesses and play to your strengths. Maybe you’re not meant to be the next Jessica Hische or Clark Orr and that’s okay. So instead of focusing all your efforts on trying to become the next most liked/commented/followed internet design sensation, focus on honing in on the strengths and skills that make you, you.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Explore New Technology

I may be biased since I work at A Digital Creative Agency but since taking on my new job, I’ve become somewhat of an advocate of young designers exploring new technology. I can speak from experience in saying that coming from a print background, making the switch to web was daunting at first but I’m having so much fun! Also, contrary to popular belief, the concepts you learn in those classes that you thought were pointless (for me particularly, Javascript, Flash, Processing, etc.) WILL help you in the digital realm if you know how work them. So get out there and experiment!

Get started with Framer for innovation prototyping, play with After Effects to add life to a project, read up on user experience and the practices that boost usability when designing for the web. There’s so much to learn but you’ll never know until you dive in a give it a try!

5. READ. Like Real Books and Stuff. Books Do Still Exist, You Know?

Don’t let the learning end once you leave the classroom and walk across the stage. Reading keeps you sharp, so whether it’s an actual book or an interesting article on your favorite blog READ. READ. READ.

My Current Reading List:

Never Sleep: Graduating To Graphic Design

Identify: Basic Principles of Identity Design in the Iconic Trademarks of Chermayeff & Geismar

Typographic Design: Form and Communication

Mobile First

Some of My Favorite My Online Reads:


Designer News


Justin Mezzell’s Blog

6. Establish An Online Presence

This goes without saying. It’s 2014 and if you intend to make a mark in the creative field, you need an online presence. Point blank. Period.

There are plenty of resources available to help you get started such as Squarespace and Cargo Collective. And for who are interested in and more hands-on design experience check out Cactus For Mac. I speak from experience when I say this tool is super easy to use and it’s now available for free so get it while it lasts!

7. But Avoid Death By Social Media

There are differing schools of thought on the “ethicalness” of potential employers using social media as an aid in the decision-making process for new hires. No one knows the correct answer but surveys have shown that employers ARE seeing what you do online and the things you choose to share CAN and likely WILL either help or hurt your chances of being hired.

So what can you do the combat the potentially negative effects of this practice? Stay mindful and curate what you post. In this age of oversharing, it’s important to know when to put down the phone or step away from the computer screen.

8. Your City Doesn’t Suck (Or at Least Not as Much as You Think It Does)

Like most design students, I couldn’t wait to get out of Orlando and make my way to a big city once I graduated. I had starry-eyed aspirations of jetting off to New York, Chicago, or Boston and starting my design career. While it is true that there may be more jobs and a greater appreciation for good design in bigger cities, your hometown may have more to offer than you know. For me, it wasn’t until I decided to stop hating my city and instead, embrace all the things that make it great that I discovered that Orlando is amazing city with a lot to offer. Here’s what I learned:

• Orlando is an emerging city on the cusp of great things to come and people are starting to take notice

• There are a number of initiatives in place to boost the tech boom that is taking place and ensure that Orlando begins to solidify itself as a hub for design, technology and innovation:

Creative Village Orlando

Project DTO

Orlando Interactive Experience

The Dorothy Lumley Melrose Center

• The creativity community in Orlando is well-connected and extremely open and inviting. Seriously. Everyone here knows each other.

• Some of the most popular businesses and members of the design community are based in Orlando including Rifle Paper Company and Mama’s Sauce.

• There are jobs for creative people in Orlando!

What are some things that make your city great?

9. And You Can Make your City Suck Less By Getting Involved

Still not convinced your city doesn’t suck? Well here’s my advice for making it suck less:

Step 1: Step away from the computer.

Step 2: Get out there and make it suck less!

There are a number of organizations you can get involved with that will only benefit from your participation. Connect with locals who share your interests. Partake in studio tours, lectures, and gallery openings. Attend conferences and bring back the knowledge you gain to make your city better! If you’re a local creative in Orlando, here are some links to get you started:

AIGA Orlando

Creative Mornings Orlando


10. Have Fun!

If you’re not making work that you’re excited about, you’re doing it wrong! Design should be fun and as a student, I often found that I enjoyed the projects I did in my free time a lot more than those I had to do for school assignments. Making time for passion projects can break the monotiny of school work and boost your portfolio. Besides, showing up to a job interview with a portfolio full of class projects and nothing else would be tragic and a wasted opportunity to show off the type of work that really makes you shine. Plus, it’s impressive to employers to see evidence of the initiative it takes to take on personal projects. Remember:

The work you do in your free time is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.

Ayana Campbell is an Orlando-based designer and illustrator. Along with the talented team at Purple, Rock, Scissors, she does her part daily to make the Internet a more beautiful place to live.



Ayana Campbell Smith

Creative Director at @envylabs. Orlando, FL.