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Making ideas work

Designs on the future


DNA’s most recent recruit – Junior Service and Experience Designer Rachel Knight – was asked to reflect on her recent journey out of the frying pan (university study and an internship) and in to the fire (service design in an agency). Rachel shares her experience on what helped her determine her career focus, and her views on what students and the design industry can do to smooth the ride and improve the clarity of purpose for budding designers. Rachel also comments on why designers and their clients should expose students to the value of design and growing disciplines such as service and experience design.

Last year as the end of my university days were looming – like a cliff I was blindly running towards with no idea if I’d fly or fall when I reached the edge – I didn’t know what opportunities, support, or communities existed, or how to become a part of them. As Lillian Grace (CEO of Wiki New Zealand) recently said, “communities are double-edged swords; they're great when you belong to one but can be intimidating from the outside”.

Nine months, two internships and a new job at DNA later, I've started to feel like a part of the working design community. It's been strange for me to now be on the inside and hear both public and private sector colleagues ask where to find good designers with specific skills that they need to either fill a gap in their team, or help them deliver user-centred business solutions.

Bridging the gap between university and the design industry is not a new challenge, and there are currently lots of successful student and industry-driven initiatives to tackle it. One example is the student-organised ‘Banter and Brews’ networking nights, which give students the opportunity to talk to recent design graduates about what they do now. With the proliferation of disciplines, approaches and applications in the design industry, this is invaluable for young designers. Sure, they are looking for jobs, but more importantly, they're trying to understand what area they'd like to specialise in and what sort of designer they aspire to be.

I can remember the exact day that a guest speaker came in to one of our classes and talked about the ethnographic work his team did, and how they delved deeply into empathy by shadowing their users. This sparked an interest in me that I hadn't experienced before with design – it was the moment that I knew what I wanted to do with my life. Although a design degree taught me an awful lot of things, it took exposure to the outside world to learn that one valuable lesson.

There are also advantages for those of you in the industry seeking to grow your design team, and organisations seeking design solutions, to have connections with tertiary design institutes. Helping shape the skills and knowledge of future graduates means you can influence the skill pool to build your team and better prepare students for the emerging challenges you’ll be asking them to solve. Naturally, getting involved with students also brings attention to your business/organisation, meaning talented graduates will have you at the forefront of their mind when they're thinking about their future.

There are many ways to support the development of future designers, ranging from casual commitments to more formal, high involvement investments. Here are some to consider.

Coffee chat

Brave students may approach you to ask about your work. This gives them the insights needed to decide if it’s something they’d be interested in pursuing. For the designer, it’s an opportunity to pass on the knowledge you wish your younger self had known. If you become too popular – why not bring some of your colleagues along for a giant lunch-date?

Pop-in university presentation

This is typically a short talk about what your team does, or your personal background and experiences. Sharing the value gained from your investment in design gives students creative confidence and is an opportunity to talk about your company, its values, and what you're looking for in potential grads. One thing to keep in mind is that students can feel too intimidated to approach you afterwards, so if you’re open to chatting, include a way for them to get in contact.

Open Studio

The Designers Institute holds casual ‘Open Studio’ nights where industry and studying designers can come and see your space and work. It’s a great way catch up with old friends and make some new ones too. The drinks and food are often catered; it’s just up to you to create the good vibes to encourage good yarns. Resn (a creative digital company) had a motion-sensing ping-pong table which emitted self-recorded sound effects. No pressure!

University business briefs

Massey University has a six-week paper, which matches companies with design briefs to multi-disciplinary third-year design teams. The students apply their skills bringing a new perspective to a business problem, in exchange for the experience of a live brief and some face-time with the client. Another option is Massey’s Open Lab design studio where design professionals and student designers collaborate to solve organisational and business problems.

If you do lend some time to students, they may pay back the favour – but more importantly, encourage them to pay it forward when they’ve graduated and jumped the employment gap. By staying connected with the next generation of designers, we support their development into the people we hope to employ and strengthen the design community as a whole.

If you’re interested in any of the above ideas (or have your own to share), please contact me at or @RachelKnight92 on Twitter.


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