Teaching Students About The Real World

What I learnt from returning to University and running short lectures for design students

My class and I, graduating from UCLan, 2010

Introducing My Latest Side Project

Between November and December 2015, I return to University. To the same Illustration course, in the same room, I once called my own 5 years ago. For 5 consecutive Monday’s I delivered short lectures aimed to help students prepare for life after University.

My experience as a Designer

I graduated from the BA (Hons) Illustration course in 2010, ever since I have been lucky enough to be a full time Designer. I’ve worked 3 different jobs. Starting out in Greeting Card Design, progressing to Marketing Design. Finally settling on a genre of design I enjoy the most, Product Design.

Why Return?

Safe to say I’ve seen a broad spectrum of work in the last 5 ½ years. I feel almost a million miles away from my humble Illustration beginnings. And that is the main message I wanted to communicate to the students. Where you start off, is not where you finish. I learnt a lot from University and enjoyed my time there. However, upon leaving I remember thinking:

I’ve learnt more in the first 3 months of post-grad employment than the last 3 years at University.

The more I learnt the more I thought:

If only I’d have known about this when I was a student!

As times passed, I’ve learnt more and more and the desire to return has increased. Ever since graduating, I’ve always wanted to give something back to the students. Something that would have helped me 5 years ago. By the end of last year I had 5 days holiday left to take. So I made it happen. Here is how it went down and what I learnt from that experience.

What Did I Teach?

Week-on-week I tried to present insights on a variety of relevant subjects. By the end of each week I’d learn something new, which I’ve listed as 👊 Key Lessons below.

Week 1 — Introduction

Not knowing really what to expect or who I would be presenting to, I first prepared an introduction lecture. This summarised my post-grad experience and achievements. As well as promoting the XD Academy, which has been set up by the Experience Design (XD) Department at Perform as a commitment to help develop and support young talent.

After which, I spent the rest of the day getting to know the students and I familiarised myself with my audience. Turns out my audience will be final year Illustration students. Who graduate in less than 6 months. I decided to cover three suitable topics that should help them in post graduate life. I planned to deliver these over the next four weeks in three, one hour lectures. However before I could even begin, I was already learning from this introduction experience.

👊 Key Lesson

Make your presentation relevant to your audience and don’t talk about yourself for too long. I peaked too soon. I presented my work in chronological order starting with my final university project. I quickly realised, at this stage in their degree, these students have developed tunnel vision for their own Final Major Project and nothing else. As I gradually moved further away from what was relevant to them, I also gradually started to lose my audience. I felt it necessary to gain the students respect by showing them my proudest achievements. However in hindsight, I should have made it more about my audience. Showing them my full process of work and how I survived straight out of university. Their biggest concern at the minute.

Week 2 — Digital self promotion

Believe it or not, I learnt that not a single student had an online portfolio. Even worse no one had even heard of Dribbble! This was a trip right back to basics and one I was not expecting from students at this level. Nether the less, for the second week I prepared an introduction to the free online portfolio tools at a designers disposal. After a quick overview of the services out there, I offered one person the chance to have a Bēhance portfolio set up in front of the entire class.

Week 2 — Digital Self Promotion

👊 Key Lesson

People can’t believe something to be true, until they see it with their own eyes. Physically setting up a portfolio forced my audience to pay more attention this time around. Looking back now at my Introduction lecture, the engagement was embarrassing in contrast. As this website is coming to life in front of their eyes, there was a genuine buzz in the room. Clearly a positive result. Over the next week some of the other students even set up their own Bēhance pages off their own backs. Great Success.

Week 3 — Employability for Designers

After talking to my boss at work, who’s in charge of recruitment. He suggested presenting simple lessons in interview preparation. He sees lots of students who often don’t even get the basics right in an interview. Meaning their chances of a good first impression are limited. I have little experience of job interviews, so I asked my colleagues for help. They offered me insight into their past experiences and tips they’ve remembered over the years. Rather than only presenting my own experience, I curated and edited their advice into one document.

Week 3 — Employability for Designers

👊 Key Lesson

The opinions of many people offer way more balance and insight than your sole opinion. By asking for help from my colleagues, the quality of my presentation increased dramatically from the previous weeks. Even I found my presentation interesting! Other peoples advice and understand of my questions resulted in answers that had never crossed my mind.

Week 4 – Money

I decided my final presentation was to be about money. It’s a subject the students had consistently asked about in previous weeks and it always got everyones attention. However, when it comes to money I am no expert. After graduating I often worked for free or helped people with ‘mates rates.’ I was working full time anyway, I enjoyed the work, so I felt cheeky charging people for my services.

Therefore I needed help again. Unfortunately my immediate network of colleagues had similar experiences to myself. So I reached out to the Designer News community for their help. This weeks lecture was a combination of both strategies from the previous two weeks. It consisted of advice from others and a live demo. Where I talked through the estimating, contracts and invoicing process, with the aid of Bonsai.

Week 4 — Money

👊 Key Lesson

Not everyone online is a trolling asshole. I was genuinely astounded by the responses I got from Designer News, people spent a lot of time writing long form answers, sharing links and offered great advice that would never have crossed my mind. I collected more insights from more people this week than any other and I was determined for this final presentation to be the best yet. Thank you Designer News!

Collecting Feedback

Over the 5 weeks it was obvious that the students were becoming more engaged. However it was hard to tell how much of an impact my lessons were really making. I decided to investigate by asking everyone to fill in a quick survey before I said good-bye.

Asking the students to fill out a survey returned some interesting results…

Analysing the results

By collecting and analysing the feedback from the survey, it confirmed that by changing the format of my presentations to be more interactive, increased engagement. Week on week attendances also increased. There were no neutral or negative comments from the final three presentations. Every student fed back that they either “learned something new” or “it was excellent”.

Analysing — both attendance and engagement increased week on week

Some of my favourite answers

As well as the numerical ratings, I also asked for written feedback. The majority of which was either positive or constructive. However there were a couple of answers that made my eyebrows raise. Like for example the total contradiction between these two answers:

Q: What were you engaged with the most?
A: The open dialog during and after.
A: All the talks were engaging — not just talking at us. Needed less interruptions from Danny [their regular lecturer].

And then there were some comedy genius answers as well:

Q: What would you like to learn more about?
A: Tax and ways to avoid it =)

Q: Please give examples of the bits you had no interest in
A: None that I remember, either because there were none or I zoned out.

In Conclusion

👊 Final Lesson, after putting myself in their position, tutors simply do not have enough time

The effort it took me to prepare these presentations was way more than I was expecting. I had to either give up my evenings or at least a day from my weekend each week. I didn’t mind this extra effort of course. It was only for a few weeks, and the return on investment made it well worth it.

However I came to realise that the tutors were in a similar situation to myself. They spend their weekdays at university, in the class room, talking to the students. Just like I spend my weekdays at work. Meaning we both would need to spend our evenings or weekends planning next weeks lesson! After a day of talking to the students, it’s surprisingly tiring. No wonder the lectures briefs and presentations have been the same for over 10 years. My point is, sometimes you really cannot understand how difficult someone’s job is until you really spend time in their shoes.


Students consider this: cut your lecturers some slack, take notes, keep learning and be nice to people… oh and definitely try to return post graduation. It’s most rewarding.

A big thanks to my friends, colleagues and the Designer News community who helped massively improve the quality of content for this lecture series.

Also thanks to Steve Wilkin, the course leader, who allowed me to return and Danny Allison who encourage a healthy debate every week… even if some of the students didn’t appreciate your interruptions 😂

All the resources from this lecture series can be found on my blog. If you’ve made it this far I’d love to hear from you, tweet your thoughts and questions to @rob_gill_

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