Image by Oleg Moroz

What are design students being told?

Christopher Doyle


On average, we receive anywhere from 10 to 30 emails from design students each week. The emails usually fall into one of three categories: internship requests, job requests, or folio review requests. Occasionally we get a request for all three in one email.

One thing I consistently find challenging when reading these emails (yes, I read every single one) is many students’ fixation with telling us about what style of work they make, what they specialise in, and what kind of work they intend to make when they start working (presumably in our studio).

I’m genuinely curious. Is this how students are being told to approach studios? Are design course teachers suggesting this will help students stand out from the crowd? I understand the power and importance of standing out but from a potential employer’s perspective, I’m not convinced this is the way to do it.

For context, I run a small design studio specialising in brand identity, creative direction, and campaigns. We work with a diverse range of clients, from tech companies to theatre groups to streaming platforms and a whole mix of things in between. And here’s what I ask myself every time I read one of these emails: How will this person’s personal interests and preferred style of work translate within the broader context of what we do? I also have concerns that this person will have their own agenda for the work and a preference for creating work that speaks to their styles and tastes, and ticks their creative boxes.

Here’s the thing about working in branding. You won’t find many studios that want a house style. We don’t want a style or aesthetic that tells people we are behind the work. We don’t want our work to be recognised as our work. Branding is about distinction. Creating a point of difference. It’s about responding to the needs of the client and the brief. Creating work that will ensure standout and help them tell their story or sell their product. That’s not to say briefs shouldn’t be interrogated and clients shouldn’t be pushed. But we see briefs as an opportunity to help someone else communicate uniquely, not as a platform for self-expression.

Of course, we have personal tastes and enjoy some styles of design work more than others. Every designer does. But satisfying those personal tastes is always secondary to doing what’s appropriate for the client, the project, and the audience. If we get to use a typeface we love, a colour palette we enjoy, or an illustration style we like then great. But those are bonuses. It’s not where we start.

Working in a studio that makes design work for a broad range of clients means being able to park your personal preferences, or at least deprioritise them. It means jumping from one industry to another, often overnight, and adapting to a completely different client, project, and audience. For our studio, the most valued designers are the ones who can make that pivot with enthusiasm and apply a standard, not a style.

We don’t always get it right. I am sure some aspects of our work feel very ‘us’ to some people, but I hope it’s more often a way of thinking and a level of craft that people recognise, rather than a visual style or aesthetic.

Studying design is, of course, an opportunity to stretch your conceptual legs. Not to be held back by commercial reality and the constraints of real-world briefs. And when we hear from students or young designers, we want to hear about what you personally enjoy and are passionate about in design. But we also want to hear about the types of clients or sectors you are interested in. We want to hear more about how you will adapt to those clients and sectors. And less about how they will need to adapt to you.

For us, the most attractive skillset is a broad one. We love to see student work that is creative and commercial. Because that reflects what we do day to day. That doesn’t mean the work can’t be personal or abstract. Student projects that are personal and abstract are often the most interesting. However, student projects that are personal and abstract, but also apply practical, commercial skills are even better.