Follow Patrick Branigan on Twitter @pbranigan | |

In September of 2007, I chose to engage in a four year art program at the University at Buffalo’s Department of Visual Studies. My hope was that my interest in graphic design would lead me on a path far from the arid and repetitive routine of large text books and long lectures that had plagued my freshman year of college. In May of 2010 I graduated from this program with a B.F.A. in Communication Design, a solid network of professional contacts, and a portfolio constructed well enough to immediately land me my first job in the design industry. After repeatedly being told how hard it was going to be to obtain a job as a designer in such a competitive field, I couldn’t help but conclude that it was clearly luck which got me to that first day of working as a professional.

I’ve now been working for six months and I can already safely say I am better off because of my education than I would have been without it. But not for the reasons you may think. I was not taught how to master Photoshop or Illustrator. I was not taught how to compose a piece of work a specific way in order for it to be most effective. I was not taught how to communicate with a client or even meet anyone’s needs other than those of my own. In fact, I hadn’t even designed a website before this past summer. I reassessed my previous assumption and found that I actually started off on the right foot because of one thing: Self-confidence. It’s this single, consistent factor that has led me to a great beginning in my professional career, and I have my professors to thank for igniting it.

Throughout my three years of study, I found the lack of self-confidence in design students to be shocking so I made it a point to always find the positive in everything I worked on. But just like everything else related to art and design, I believe self-confidence is best self-taught. With that said, I decided to begin to assess how I went about gaining self-confidence.

Write Everything Down

Benjamin Van Dyke was the very first professor who made a profound impact on my mindset as a designer. One of the many things he stressed was writing. He forced us to begin writing everything down. All our thoughts, concepts, observations, rants, and sketches were to be recorded and archived in whatever written form we desired. I found writing to be an organized method of legitimizing the insanity that constantly floated throughout my head. I’m not saying I’m insane, but I would generally have hundreds of ideas which I wanted to put into visual form that I just couldn’t keep track of.

Writing was the answer. It allows you to make sense of what you’re subconsciously absorbing during your day. Even more important, it allows you to revisit your thoughts and apply them when needed, specifically when trying to make sense of something that you previously didn’t understand. I feel writing will only help you grow as a designer. It’s the first step in training yourself to make predictions, statements, conclusions, and connections pertaining to your thoughts, the ideas that are unique to you. Once you have a greater understanding of your ideas, you’ll begin to enforce them, and naturally become confident in them.

Take More Than You Can Give

In my experience, design students tend to steer clear of criticism when they can. I feel as young designers we do this not because we lack the ability to create great work but because we lack self-confidence. As you build your ideas and gain more knowledge, do not hesitate to apply your intelligence by giving respectful criticism to your peers. Try your hardest to give constructive criticism. This will not only help your peers with their creative processes but it will make them recognize the fact that you have something to say and you’re not afraid to say it. It will undoubtedly lead to their appreciation for you, so long as your criticism is indeed constructive, and result in a natural boost in your self-confidence. However, always be willing to take more criticism than you give. Listen to what others have to say, no matter how appropriate you may think their comments are.

We as designers seek reactions to the messages we create. Taking criticism will help you refine your creative process so that you can better achieve the results desired in future projects. It will also allow you to build ‘thick skin’ which can come in handy as you will always receive negativity from someone regarding your work. As you become more comfortable with criticism, you will become more comfortable experimenting with design and explaining your results. This is a necessary step in building your self-confidence, and a huge attribute to have when searching for a job or dealing with clients.

Have a Reason…For Everything

While in college, I found that too many design students anchored themselves on the idea that if they created something that looked awesome, it would automatically be deemed successful. I learned not to simply create things that look good. I found that in order for my work to be successful I needed to have a reason behind every decision I made. Once you create something with reason AND it’s beautiful, then you’re chances of success are greatest.

You must keep in mind that people tend to interact with things that are aesthetically pleasing. However, more often than not, pieces of work that are aesthetically pleasing are only so because the piece of work has already served its purpose in such a naturalized way that we didn’t even notice it working its magic. (This notion is extremely important in UX design.) Having reasons for your decisions will inevitably lead to you creating better work and a better portfolio. A better portfolio equals higher self-confidence.


There are two things design students fail to realize, and they’ll probably be hard for some of you to stomach. One is that you actually have more free time now than you will in a few years. Secondly, letter grades and grade point averages really don’t mean anything in the design industry.

It’s important to sacrifice certain aspects of college life when necessary in order to attain short term goals relating to your creative process. Take the necessary time needed to meet the requirements for your assigned projects. But make sure you take the extra time you have to find ways to push those projects in directions no one else will. Step outside the area of what is expected and sacrifice a weekend or two to finding a way to make a project unexpected, surprising, or simply ridiculous. Once you’ve done this, you will feel better about your work, knowing you pushed yourself to a boundary you previously were unfamiliar with.

Next, don’t worry about the grade you receive on a project. If you’re passionate about design, and you put your heart into proving something through your work, it will be noticed as a success by some regardless of the grade received. Letter grades are simply scare tactics made to limit you to the standards set by that particular institution’s education system. They’re in effect to make sure you abide by rules. Breaking the rules makes way for innovation. Creating something unique requires the actualization of something never done before. I’m certainly not recommending you completely disregard your grade point average, but what I believe is that it’s easy for everyone to fulfill a project’s requirements by incorporating what is deemed necessary by a letter grade and nothing more. I encourage you to go beyond what is necessary and what is expected of you. Do this and I can assure you it will end with a satisfying letter grade and, more importantly, a heightened sense of self-confidence.

Always Have Goals

If you don’t have a vision of where you want to be in five years, get one. Every designer has a dream of being the best at what he or she does. But to achieve that dream you have to first set goals.

Start now while you’re young. Tell yourself that you’re going to create a beautiful portfolio by the end of the semester. When the end of the semester rolls around, tell yourself that you’re going to have a job by the end of the summer doing what you love to do. When you have that job, tell yourself that you’re going to master typography, etc. All of this may sound strange, as if you’re faking yourself into believing everything is going to be alright. The advantage to making you actually believe in yourself is that you loosen up mentally. Just like an athlete, it’s important for a designer to stay loose. This means banishing worry from your mind so that you can focus on what your imagination is telling you. Believing in yourself will allow you to manage the stress that comes with being a designer. Believing in yourself is important, it’s essentially the most prominent factor in acquiring self-confidence.

Self-Confidence Can Lead To Success

If you’re able to build self-confidence as a design student, you’ll be one step closer to being able to comfortably master whatever it is you desire in life. Confidence leads to better artwork and in turn will lead you to a better portfolio. One thing they do teach you in school is that a better portfolio will certainly give you an increased chance at making a mark in the creative community. And that’s something no designer will argue.