Three Mental Models for Young Designers Transitioning from School to Workforce

Design graduates are like the prototypes made by the design school. One can graduate with a shiny degree and a colorful portfolio, but prototypes remain as prototypes unless it successfully gets funded and implemented in the real world. That is the hard truth. Unfortunately, I learned in my first year after graduating from design school that our education systems are well designed to perfecting our crafts but had merely prepared us to succeed professionally. 

Design to me is my vehicle to see the world. Through working with clients and contributing to their work, I get to see many worlds of others which I don’t necessarily cross-pass if it wasn’t a designer. Since my graduation in 2019, I have worked on a variety of projects both as an in-house designer and a freelancer. I was not a superstar at school but since I started my professional life, I had attracted a wide range of clients including research institutes, universities, and NGOs, which brought me a great sense of joy and success. I would summarise what I learned in my career so far in three mental models, which I hope would demystify the professional playground and help you transition from the design school to the professional world with fewer ‘tuition’ fees of trials and errors


Model I: my clients are not my tutors

In the first week of my internship immediately after I left college, the self-criticizing voice in my head became louder than ever. On the day where I had to present for the first time to the team, I spent the whole day working on my slides to make sure everything is logically explained, and the details and aesthetics are perfectly on point. At the end of my presentation, I held my breath until I heard the first voice dropped across the room. Thank God – everyone was happy. They asked me questions while expressing their curiosity, and they said thank you at the end of the meeting. 

But really? How? 

It turns out that on that day, I had prepared myself to hear the usual critical feedback for improvement on my work, as I had always received in college. Our tutors’ job in the design school indeed is to guide us to critically question our work and push us to become more skilled practitioners. We have internalized the criticism, which made us feel like there is always room for improvement in our work. However, the roles of our clients and employers are completely different from tutors in the school. The clients invested their trust and resources in us to help them solve problems. If you have doubts about yourself, then others simply cannot rely on you.

Here is a gentle reminder, your clients are not your tutors. You don’t need to prove yourself (your ability and worth) to your client, but to deliver solutions and happiness to them. You are valued for what you are bringing to the table. Yes, there is always room for improvement and learning, but that is your own business, which would determine how successful you will be in the long-run. The earlier you make the perspective shift and put on that hat of responsibility, the earlier you are going to taste success in your career. 

Model II: I hold my boundaries 

We all know that design school can be a long, exhausting journey with numerous nuit blanche to furnish your project until the very last minute but still feels like it could be better. However, this method of work does not apply to all the work you are getting paid to do for others. Not only because your clients are not your tutors and they will not criticize you the way yourself does internally, setting healthy boundaries between you, your work, especially your client work, can help you live a more meaningful, fulfilling life. We will break down these boundaries in terms of money and time. 


On money: write down in your notebook, how much you would need to earn to live in your city, and how much you earn that would make you feel proud and happy. These are not just two income salaries, but the upper and lower limits of your professional boundaries. If a client you are talking to has been very kind to you and given you lots of compliments on your work, until you talk about pricing, they tell you that you are overpriced, or they keep playing nice and excuse themselves that this is a low-budget project. Check-in with your emotions before you make that final decision — it is also okay to ask for some time to think about it before getting back to them. It is a tricky but the most common scenario for young designers because 1) we are easily flattered by compliments, 2) we are less experienced facing fear. Fear tells us to take the job regardless of how much it pays because you have got bills to pay next month and what if you don’t get another client? Nevertheless, a decision made from fear is never going to turn out a good one because your resentment will build up and you will not want to put in your best work. Thus, make sure it is not fear driving your motive. It can be sympathy, compassion, or however you felt connected to this particular client, and ask yourself, is it worth crossing my boundaries?

On time: you ≠ your work. If only I could convert all of you to not be perfectionists… As designers and creatives, we are used to giving 150% to our projects in schools. When it comes to client work, even if it is a project that you put a lot of heart into, it is always healthy to put a distance from your work once in a while. Your clients’ projects are not your personal projects, simply because your work life does not make up your whole life, and setting boundaries in your emotional and physical energy can save you from heartbreaks and burnouts. Be extra mindful about difficult individuals and their demanding requests – you don’t want to always make yourself available all the time for them and don’t need to feel sorry about it. The more you value your own time, the more your time will worth and the more respect you will receive from your clients.


Model III: social network brings clients 

Design is a universal tool; its way of thinking and professional practice can be applied to any field and entity. Professional networking for designers is as important as your dating life and friend circles. Not only a wide professional network broadens our knowledge and helps us stay connected with various industries, as a designer, especially if you are a free electron, your social network can also directly determine your clients. You need to intentionally curate a symbiotic network that is going to help sustain your career growth. 


It is not a pure coincidence that 80% of my clients come from my acquaintances. Most often of the time, employment and project opportunities pop up in my way without me seeking them. Even if I weren’t the best designer out there, I could be the designer of whom they have the most knowledge, or and the first designer that pops up in their head, which helps land the opportunity with me. The first tip I use is to curate my persona in the professional world, which means I show my personality and my unique stories coming from a background of science and art. This helps people better remember me and my vibes. My second tip is to ask questions to people. Asking questions can never go wrong, as people receive your questions as a genuine interest in their work and shows that you are an open-minded, curious person. I would warn you not to show any sign of desperation, even if you do want the job or make that connection. It is like dating: if there are mutual needs and chemistry, it will come to you. 


Although things have been a little more difficult with covid, the general principles are the same with LinkedIn, the person is not a static profile but has got a continuous educational and professional life. If you have a professional crush on someone, a company and would hope to plant to seed for future professional collaboration, don’t be afraid to make that move to connect and send a message. After all, despite all the professional games, remember to stay true to yourself.