Pour boxer, il faut avoir faim: my thoughts on design for design students

Written for an exhibition put on by Middlesex University as part of London Design Festival.

I graduated from a McSc in Industrial Design 2004 and here’s what I wish they’d told me.

You won’t design this way ever again.
If you work for someone else, you will spend 100% of your time designing 10% of a product. In famous design studios, you will only get involved in a fraction of the whole process, either the artistic direction, or the CAD drawings, or the user interface or tiny snippets of each. You’ll spend half your days in meetings and wonder “wow, I used to be so productive before”.

But working for yourself doesn’t make it easier.
If you work for yourself you’ll spend 10% of your time designing 100% of the product and 90% of your time selling it, begging for money or filling in paperwork. You’re probably never going to pay off your student loans this way, but you might be happier. I am.

Keep Learning.
In the digital age, to be a product designer is something you have to justify to yourself and others. It’s not a popular field of practice anymore as we live in more and more digital worlds and we’re moving towards a society of access & rental models rather than ownership. I learnt how to code in my MA because I hung out with programmers and I can safely say it saved me. It gave me an edge and an understanding of a field I would always have to interact with. I work in the fuzzy world between products & the internet (called the internet of things) and I can safely say what I learnt between 2000-2004 is obsolete, but that’s ok because I continued to learn and develop my skills.

Fame is never fortune.
The greatest disappointment of your early years in design is to realise that when you make the pages of a magazine, blog, newspaper, or show your work in a museum your life doesn’t change. You are fodder for some poor journalist/curator who has a 4 o’clock deadline. That’s it. Never pays the bills, never increases sales. Never.

Just do.
The Internet has created a society where we’re constantly fixating on what other people are doing. Back in the days, you might meet your peers once a week or a month, not every second of the day, which left plenty of time for the doing bit of design. It can be easy to stay stuck in a mode where you’re just spending your time in research and not actually designing. Pinterest, Tumblr, Facebook, the distractions are enormous, but nothing trumps just doing, designing, working.

Meet non-designers.
Spending time with people who aren’t designers is really important. There’s nothing worse for your career of developing a closed sense of what you’re interested in and what you’re not. You don’t know what you might be interested in…that’s the point of life in design. Inspiration can come from anywhere, so you literally have to go to random events, meet scientists, talk to politicians, because you might find you have something to contribute in their field too.

We have enough chairs, but not enough wheelchairs.
Design should be about empathising with a foreign problem and trying to solve it, not doing the same thing over and over again. I go around the Milan Furniture Fair and I despair at the number of pointless additions to the built environment young designers are producing when our grandmothers are being sold ugly products that are hard to use. Dare to work on un-popular topics because you’ll find you become an expert and you’ll make a great career out of it. It takes courage and if design isn’t about courage, then we should all have become accountants.

By designswarm

Blogging since 2005.


  1. Love the piece. Lots of great comments that are hard to refute. I do have a quibble, however. I find product design is an increasingly popular field once again. Largely in part because of the rise of connected devices.

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