Advice From the ‘Real World’ for College Students
October 22nd | 2015
Stacia Burtis

Hi. We’re Stacia and Ellie.

We both graduated with a BFA in graphic design from the University of Minnesota and eventually landed jobs at Zeus Jones. While we took similar paths to get where we are today, our experiences were quite different. Likewise, we have different roles here:  Stacia is a designer and Ellie is a creative. Simply stated, Ellie comes up with the big ideas, and Stacia makes them beautiful.

For both of us, college was a time of incredible growth and personal exploration. After four years of meeting new people, countless late nights working on projects, and many Long Island iced teas, it was easy for us to graduate thinking we couldn’t be more prepared for the real world. College taught us essential skills and life lessons, but in many ways, we couldn’t have been less prepared for our first jobs in the real world. So we thought it might be helpful for aspiring designers and creative-types to read a little bit about what we wish we would’ve known in college:

Disclaimer: We “knew of” each other in college but were not in the same circle, and had no influence on one another’s hiring at Zeus Jones, as far as we know…

1. A presentation should be a story that supports your work.

In college, if you didn’t have a panic attack before presenting, spoke clearly, had some slides, and didn’t say “um,” you were considered a good presenter. Presenting in the real world is a totally different ballgame. If you want to overachieve on your presentation, take the time to think about how you present your work. The order of information, the set-up, the conclusion, what you want to get out of the conversation — these are all things we think about every day at work. If you get into the habit of considering these things before you present, you will be years ahead of your classmates and develop good habits for your future career.

Related note: Rather than presenting every project using a seizure-inducing presentation-maker (ahem, Prezi) try Keynote if you have access to it. Keynote is amazing, and had we known about it in college we would’ve saved a lot of students from watching half-assed presentations spin around in circles.

2. Writing well is important no matter what you do.

Unless you’re an English major, your professors typically aren’t watching your grammar usage, your sentence structure, or checking to see if you’ve explained your work in the most concise and inspiring way. Don’t forget about the power of the written word, even if a professor isn’t requiring you to think about it. Writing is a craft you must practice to perfect, just like design. Take the time to think about the words you’re using and how they flow together to tell a full story. You’ll develop a necessary real-world skill, and your work will sound better, too.

3. Process is important.

When students are building their portfolio, there’s a lot of confusion about whether or not to include “process work.” In college, it seemed like process work only meant showing underdeveloped wireframes or 15 pages of logo sketches. Now that we’re on the other side, we see that process work is only important if the process is distinctly saying something meaningful about the outcome.

For example, at Zeus Jones, we show the research and thinking that goes into every design or big idea. It helps us show clients how we landed in a certain area. The types of process we show tend to be moodboards (like this one for Boka) or other design inspiration – tangible things a client can see and better understand how our brains work. Sharing the process you went through while making design decisions should reveal why you made them, not simply show that there was a process.

4. Do what makes sense for you. Don’t follow the pack.

Final advice from Stacia:
The biggest piece of advice I would give to my college self would be to stop worrying so much about what everyone else is doing and focus on what works for you. The best part about working at Zeus is that there is always a weird way to incorporate your passions into projects. If I would’ve listened to some of my portfolio critics and stripped my book of personality, I might have never gotten this job.

I remember being incredibly intimidated when my peers started constructing their books. They were making custom stamps, repurposing vintage suitcases, and building 3-dimensional books to “stand out” from other designers. That didn’t make sense for me – so I wish I would’ve taken that energy and put it towards improving my actual work.

If you spend the time perfecting your work and practice talking about it, there is a place for you in this industry. I wish I had spent less time wondering “is process work important?” or “am I ever going to get a job with a project about a fake quesadilla restaurant in my book?” and spent more time perfecting the work I was already proud of.

Final advice from Ellie:
I wish I hadn’t tried to be everything and do everything. In school, it felt like I needed to be an interactive designer, a packaging designer, an identity designer (and on top of that), to know how to code (FYI, it’s definitely not necessary for a creative to know how to code). Until I started working at Zeus, it never occurred to me that the conceptual part of design projects — the part where I get to come up with the idea — is my favorite part. I never imagined I’d find a job where I spend all day thinking and working through problems conceptually.

Each person has his or her own passions and skills. Pay attention to yours and you will find a job that suits you.