Advice to Design Students: Choose Yourself

The 2016 AIGA Student Design Conference is coming up, and I couldn’t be more excited. Of all of the events that AIGA Saint Louis puts on every year, it’s one of my favorites.

The Student Design Conference is a giant event that features a day of portfolio reviews from 40 local designers, as well as talks from national speakers from various design disciplines. For the past six years, I’ve been a reviewer. But the real reason I go is for the speakers.


Most reviewers show up later in the day, ready to kindly judge student portfolios and hunt for fresh talent for their agencies. I sneak in a few hours early with the students so I can sit in on the speakers.

I’m pretty much consumed by trying to absorb all I can about design and the thinking behind it. I’m always digging in books, blogs and lectures on YouTube. At the Student Conference, even before I’m lucky enough to see, review and discuss the work of young designers in our area, my mind gets to wander in the perspective of the speakers.

They’ve taken the time to transform their ideas into slides and stories right in front of me. Their old ideas become my new ideas. I can call upon them whenever I need them. And all I have to do it sit there to absorb them.

If you’re a reviewer and you’ve never arrived early for the speakers, you should. It has always been worth it.



If you’re a student, you might find the conference nerve-racking. I know I would. The hours of work on projects, the worrying about the format of your portfolio, questioning what you should include and what you shouldn’t include, that project in the back of your book that you can’t stand to look at anymore, making sure you get to a chance to talk to Katy Fischer, and hoping you don’t blow it, all with the hope that someone is going to pick you for an internship or job that will start you down a path to an amazing design career. It’s a lot to take in, and it’s a little unfair.

I think that if any of the reviewing professionals had to show their student work today, or even things they made a year or two ago, they would be squirming in their chairs. I would be.

So here’s my advice. Learn what you can at the conference, listen to what people say, enjoy the awesome speakers, and then choose yourself.

I once reviewed the work of a design student who had recently graduated. The work was okay. She had some solid pieces, and we discussed them in detail. Six months later she sent me an email asking for an informal interview at Atomicdust. I agreed, and she came in and showed me the same work I’d seen at the Student Conference.

“It’s been six months,” I asked her. “Where’s all your new stuff?”

“Well, I haven’t gotten a job yet,” she said. “So I don’t have any new design work.”

She’d been waiting on someone to hire her so she could start designing again. She wanted someone to “pick her” so she could get started.

The title “designer” isn’t something someone magically gives you. If you’re a designer, you design because you have to. You enjoy it. You don’t wait for someone to offer you a job before you show the world how talented you are. Show the world, and that will lead to jobs. Lots of them.

I’m just one of about 40 practicing designers in the St. Louis area who will be offering critiques and advice at the Student Conference this year. We’ll all have advice about design and jobs, encouraging words to share, and plenty of real-world perspective.

Listen to our old ideas. They might become your new ones. You can take them or leave them. You can call upon them whenever you want. Just don’t wait for someone’s approval before you become an amazing designer. You don’t need anyone’s permission.

I’ll see you in the auditorium.



More than 14 years after founding Atomicdust, Mike Spakowski is actively involved in day-to-day design strategy, art direction and studio management.

As Creative Director, he strives for design excellence and sets the tone for the work created by Atomicdust. The studio’s work has been recognized by Fast Company, Communication Arts, One Show, and Print Magazine as well as local and regional ADDY awards.

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By AIGA Saint Louis
Published January 22, 2016
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