Design Students: Build Your Confidence Before Your Portfolio

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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.

Patrick Branigan is a graphic designer currently producing personal projects as well as working for the privately held creative agency Overit Media, based in Albany, New York, USA. When not fixed on a project, Patrick is studying electronic dance music and related culture, as well as authoring articles and short essays directed towards young aspiring designers.

  • matt cunningham

    well done my dude….good stuff, keep it up

  • very inspiring!!

  • nice article!! thanks :)
    i am subscribing!

  • thanks!!! for such good portfolio which helps us

  • fj shield

    man i wish i read this two years ago! thanks for sharing!

  • great job Pat… you have good reason to be confident. Keep up the awesome work.

  • Good job, i like it! And it’s helpfull for writers too, who needs as designer a lot of confidence in our ideas, and something i truly believe is that self-confidence make your work better from the writing/designing face to the final result.

  • Your premise hits the nail exactly on the head – most students fail because they lack confidence, I 100% agree. I’m not sure though that there is a specific ‘way’ to self confidence. You say yourself at the end of your piece that ‘if you are able to…’ and not all students are able to. Some people are naturally reticent, generally more depressed, shy, nervous. These things are built in and to a certain extent hard-wired by the time you go to college and although if might be possible to overcome them there isn;t a module on many a degree specifically for overcoming your inner fears of how people might see you as a fraud, or as not worthy or not be up to the task. It’s a problem that all universities and colleges should tackle though and your piece does point out some interesting advice.

  • This post make me open my eyes that don’t worry about the scores or grades in university. Because success start from self-confident.

  • Great words to live by! Been in the field for over 20 years and this sums things up so nicely and to the point.

  • Thanks for the reminder to work on my portfolio, it’s been a long time. I need to refresh it and bring it up to date.

  • Hi, Mr. Branigan. This is great! :D
    I’m a self-taught designer, and interested in webdesign especially. I couldn’t agree anymore, but I can’t sacrifice my grades because it is slightly different subject. All I have to do is make a balance between my real education and my self-taught design education.
    After all, thanks for the post. Very inspiring :)

  • Thanks, you really have turned the light bulb on for me. I really needed to hear this!

  • Defo

    When I was at uni studying graphic design I started with wide eyed enthusiasm and optimism. I found the more I studied the subject and talked about it, the more fearful I became in relation to what others thought of my work. By year 3 I was a depressed hermit, avoiding mid-project tutorials and seminars for fear of criticism and lack of belief in my work (often I had not done as much as would be expected due to hours of procrastination), I even hid from my course-mates. I felt crushed under the pressure and considered taking my life several times because of what I had become. Somehow I got a 2:1 in the end as some of my work turned out good enough. It took years for me to re:gain confidence and I avoided photoshop as it made me feel sick. Gradually I came back to it and have been quite a successful web designer fir the last 4 years. Hmmm

  • sarah

    Im just turned 29 and already feel like the biggest loser on earth. Last year around this time, I graduated with an MA in design and art direction. Looking back, it just is so obvious that I was not assessing my options and not really thinking about what I was doing. Most importantly, I was heavily under pressure to gain a very high degree. I’m even still being advised to pursue a PHD!!!!

    I don’t want to whine and blame everything on everyone else around me but the more I think about it, it makes more sense. During the first two years at college, we were treated like little idiots at nursery and not taken seriously. Almost all of my peers seem to have either little interest in design or pre occupied with monetary matters i.e how to work harder in order to pay their rent! I can safely say that none of them are working in design now. They have all wandered off into other areas………………
    During my last year at uni, I had to change my department and walked into another group which was much larger than the last and I didn’t know anyone! No one saw me…..I just withdrew myself everyday and found every excuse not to attend uni. No one would supervise at this point as students were encouraged to work on their own but when presentation time arrived, I felt even 10 times worse as I had nothing concrete to show.

    My attempts to gain even internships have failed again and again. I finally did manage to get an internship in a good graphic design firm but then as I was just an intern, I wasn’t given any proper work to do. Only towards my final days, when I finished a small project successfully, was I appreciated but then I had to leave as the two weeks had come to an end.

    Its been a year since I have gained my MA and moved away from the UK and living in the middleeast. I managed to find work in another firm which did more damage than good. The work wasn’t challenging at all and the clients we were working for simply refuse to pay for design work. Here, everyone who can work with photoshop ( which illegal copies of this software can be found abundantly) thinks they are a successful designer! Horrible and low standard design in happily accepted in return for a lower price rather than good design at a higher price.
    I have been offered work elsewhere but situation is the same as the last place. Now if you can tell me how I can boost my design confidence, I would be eternally grateful !!!

  • Dan

    Interesting article. I can relate a lot to the self-confidence issues. 18 months after my last design job, I still can’t bring myself to go back. (There are other reasons, such as – job instability. Over saturation of design graduates. Employers expecting a junior designer to be a master of all areas with a years+ experience – all for a wage less than I’m currently earning driving a van!)

    I found work after uni as an in-house designer for a shop, I hated working there and was constantly criticised and undermined in the vein of “My 5 year old can use PhotoShop” and “My next door neighbour painted her kitchen it looks great, I’ll get her to assess your work.” I think that as I had just left uni, I lacked the self belief in my design and knowledge and the constant criticism got to me.

    I mean this is just my personal experience, but I do believe that graphic design isn’t necessarily a subject that warrants a degree, I think if young designers were taught by design firms on an apprenticeship basis, the young designer would come out at the end with a practical, working knowledge of design and realistic expectations of the design industry – as I believe used to be the case.

  • Sarah

    I know you wrote this a long time ago, and I wish I had read it when I first started studying, it would have saved me a lot of time, stress, and tears .. design confidence is exactly what I lack and it something that has a lot of impact on my self confidence and self esteem, reading your article made me more aware of that problem and I have a better idea how to tackle this problem now .. thank you, I can honestly say I love you =P

  • Dharshini

    Hi, that’s a great article! I happen to be in this situation, I have no self-confidence at all. When I’m given a brief, I feel that I’m never going to be able to produce a great work out of it. Hopefully the tips you’ve provided will help. Thank you