Something They Won’t Teach You in Art School

By Josh Walz

Before I was pushing béziers in our doggy-loving design firm I was an art student, like so many of us designers. Now that the days of ramen and coffee are over and I’ve caught up on what was certainly a life-altering loss of sleep, I’ve had a chance to look back and reflect.

Honestly, I think I’ve learned more in the seven months I’ve spent at ZoCo Design than I think I could have learned in an eternity at art school. Looking back, I realized the one thing school really can’t prepare you for is how to make a career as a designer in the professional world. As it turns out, while it can be scary, it’s not too difficult and it all boils down to three things.


1. Your Portfolio

The biggest thing you’ll learn in art school as a designer is how to fine tune your skills and your creativity. This is where the passion comes from. This is what your life has been about for the past few years. This is what you probably went to art school for. As you’ve been told a thousand times over, you always need to practice, learn new things, and find inspiration. The best way to bring value to your future employers and clients is to be the best designer that you can be—but here’s some tips on how to be even better.

Learn new tools and question everything you’ve been taught.

Because art and design are such organic practices, there is no right or wrong answer to anything. If you learn how to do something one way, try and find a better way to do it. If you can’t find an answer to something, make one! Constantly challenging yourself to find new and better ways to do things not only flexes your creative muscles, but it usually makes you a valuable contribution to any team.

Always be on the hunt for inspiration

Whether it’s from a peer, a professional, a different field entirely, from searching your channels (websites like as Behance, Dribbble, or Designsperation) or from your friends and colleagues. Learn how these people solve problems and see how you can incorporate that into what you do (just please don’t steal).

Try everything.

Because as an art student, you’ve been given the blessing of having work that you can’t get fired for doing wrong. So try and experiment with new mediums because, who knows, you may find something that you love, or a new way to tell the same story. That experimentation is what makes us creatives after all.

These are just some of the ways that you can improve your strategy and make your work shine even brighter. But including that strategy in your portfolio is also a great way to show your problem solving abilities. Don’t just tell someone how you solved the problem in a new way—show them. Show sketches, process photos, keep a blog on your process, and give your reviewer an insight into how your brain works. At the end of the day, that final portfolio piece is just a shiny 1% of all the hard work that you’ve put into it. So why not show that other 99%?

Of course your portfolio is a very key part of what will help you thrive as a “young, up-and-coming designer,” but you can’t get professional work based on your portfolio alone. So what else do you need?



2. Your Network

The second (and arguably the most important) part of what will make you more successful is your network. This is a topic that I believe is often glazed over in most academic classes, and yet I think it’s what will set you apart from everyone else. Say what you want about the strength of your portfolio—you might be the best hand letterer or UX designer that your class has ever seen—but without a solid group of friends, contacts, and colleagues around you, how will you get that rock solid recommendation? The best thing you can do for yourself as a student, is to get out and meet new people in your field. So where should you start?

Find some professionals that you look up to, and ask them to coffee or lunch.

Pick their brain, ask them about their story, what it’s like doing the work that they do, and if they have any tips for you. It’s way easier than it sounds, and most of the time they’ll try to help you out. Every professional artist or designer remembers what it was like as a student, and it turns out that most of the time they’re willing to help!

Join a professional club or group.

You’ll meet so many amazing people that you can count on. Ask if they need help with anything, and take initiative. You’ll be amazed by how much you’ll learn and how many friends you’ll make by doing this. And Columbus has some amazing organizations that you can be a part of as a student, such as CSCA, AAF, Making Midwest, Creative Babes, and IxDA.

But what if you want to live somewhere other than Columbus you might ask? Well do a little bit of research, start by finding some national clubs like AIGA or AAF, see if they have chapters where you want to be, and build relationships with them. Having these professional networks outside of school will help you get your foot in the door before you even leave campus, giving you a leg up on everyone else.

Networking is a great way to take that first step into becoming a “professional.” What better way is there to learn about your trade than by learning from those who are currently in it? But there’s one last thing you just can’t take a class on.



3. Luck

This is something that they’ll never teach you in any school, but it turns out that there is a fair amount of luck that goes into finding work, getting a job, or achieving anything as an adult. It’s definitely something that’s hard to come to terms with, but let me explain.

Getting a job isn’t a math equation

Unfortunately, there is no magical math equation that will get you where you want to be after school. It’s not as easy as “school + portfolio + network = job” . Anyone who tells you that it’s that easy is probably lying. You need luck (some need a lot of it, and some only need a little), but it turns out that luck is whatever you want to make it. For example, if you just sit around and wait for a job or client to land in your lap, you probably won’t get that lucky. But if you work hard on your portfolio, and go out and take initiative to meet new people, and you get involved, you’ll probably get a little more lucky.

Your amount of professional “luck” is going to be dictated by how much work you put into the first two steps. It’s that luck that makes people achieve amazing things in life. The best way to sum this up is through this nice mantra I heard at work:

“The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

And in my opinion, no truer words have ever been spoken.

So if you’re an art student who’s getting ready to graduate next spring, or a recent grad like me, who’s still learning how to do this “adult” thing, know that the only way to make it is by working harder than you’ve ever worked, keeping your friends and colleagues close, and by always trying to get lucky.

Josh Walz