Life as a Product Design Student: Burnouts and Breakthroughs
Disclaimer: Please note that this article is from our old blog site. This article was originally published on November 3rd, 2020 and the original author of this article is Mira Dhingra.
Breaking into product design is hard. It’s quickly become an extremely popular and competitive field to enter — and in turn, many students find themselves struggling to get their foot in the door.
As a second year Industrial Design student at Georgia Tech, I worked tirelessly to put together a portfolio and apply to summer internships. After barely receiving any responses, I started to wonder if I was doing something wrong. I worried that I didn’t have school projects that accurately reflected my design skills and that my visual craft lacked compared to my peers. As I scrolled through LinkedIn and saw other students announcing prestigious internship offers, I even began to question my abilities as a designer, and my self-esteem took a hit.
However, as I joined several design communities and started to chat with other students who were also trying to break into product design, I quickly discovered that I was not alone. I noticed that the majority of students I spoke to were, unfortunately, just like me — stressed, unsure about their design abilities, and on the verge of burnout. As students, this shouldn’t be the case. So, how do we change it?
It’s not easy, but it’s possible — and worth all of the hard work. Six months ago, I made the goal to focus on learning as much as I could from others and work on projects that I was curious and passionate about. While I still struggle at times, I’ve been able to shift my mindset and become not only a stronger designer, but also a more balanced and fulfilled person.
I’ve compiled some common thoughts that students (and myself) have had when beginning their design journey, followed by some valuable lessons and mindset shifts I’ve adopted along the way. No matter how difficult it may seem now, you will succeed — and that it’s important to prioritize your well-being along the way.
1.“My design skills aren’t there and none of my projects are turning out the way I want them to be.”
Know that it doesn’t happen overnight.
It may sound cliche, but it’s true. I didn’t really get it (and consequently beat myself up with unreasonable expectations for myself) until I came across a passage by Ira Glass, a public radio host, on “The Gap” that explains why as a new designer you’ll inevitably be disappointed about your work — but that’s part of being on your way to getting better.
“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. (…) It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. (…) It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
This changed the way I thought about myself as a designer and helped me put a stop to most negative self-talk. Instead of criticizing my skills, I realized that it was actually a good thing that I was self aware and had high standards for visual craft.
Tip: Like Ira says, just keep practicing and be kind to yourself. Know that every assignment or project you complete, whether you’re completely happy with the outcome or not, is gradually improving your ability to think and create as a designer. Keep learning, ask for feedback, and move forward.
2. “I can’t get experience without a job, and I can’t get a job without experience.”
Get creative. Any way you’re growing as a designer counts!
This chicken-and-egg situation can be disheartening, but I learned that there are so many other ways you can gain experience besides a formal paid product design internship. That opportunity will come, even if sometimes it feels like it’s taking forever. In the meantime, some great ways to gain experience include:
Participating in design challenges or design jams that sound fun to you. Designing for industries or topics you’re already interested in makes practicing design a lot more exciting. Many design jams like the Adobe Creative Jams require you to work in teams, so it’s always fun to work with other people (and make new friends along the way)!
Work on a personal passion project. I’ve always found that my best work is when it’s a project that I’m genuinely passionate about. It makes me want to dive even deeper as well as keeps me motivated to keep going.
Join school organizations (like Bits of Good!) that offer mentorship and guide you through a real project. This is a great way to gain cross-functional team experience while also being able to work with other students.
Tip: Stay open to opportunities. Even if they aren’t directly product design related, they could help you grow your multidisciplinary skill set. For example, tutoring can help you articulate your reasoning and learning to code can improve your hand-off and implementation skills. While design opportunities are great, they’re not the only way to improve as a designer.
3. “I’m overwhelmed by the amount of activities I’m doing. I always feel like I need more experience and now I’ve taken on way more than I can handle”
Quality > Quantity…and your well-being is most important of all.
In the past, I spread myself too thin because I felt the need to take on every opportunity I came across to bulk up my resume and become a “better designer” — and that’s not true at all. In fact, I think taking on too much can hinder your growth, as well as harm your well-being. Last year, I quickly got overwhelmed with coursework, on-campus organizations, and a part-time internship and ultimately wasn’t being able to put my best effort into each and every activity. You don’t need to say “yes” to everything — in fact, you shouldn’t.
Tip: Try your best to pick 1–2 activities to focus your time and energy on. Ask yourself: “Is this something I’m actually interested in pursuing?”, “Does the work excite me?”, “Do I have the bandwidth to add this to my plate?” Not everyone has the privilege to find opportunities that are genuinely exciting, so if the answer to any of these questions is no, think if there are valuable skills you can gain and if you have the time to put your best effort into it.
4. “I’m getting totally consumed by the recruitment process. I feel like there’s so many better product designers than me.”
Stay grounded and focus on your personal progress.
Job searching can be stressful, especially when you’re evaluated based on a portfolio of your design skills. I found myself going on Cofolios and Bestfolios everyday, analyzing other student portfolios to identify how to improve mine. While this was helpful to learn best practices, I also got caught in the cycle of constantly comparing my portfolios with others’. It’s good to appreciate examples of others’ work, but try to measure your work based on your own incremental learning and progress.
Tip: Ways to stay grounded can be setting personal goals for yourself, focusing on how far you’ve come from your first design projects, and trying to stay off sites that may cause you to end up comparing your work to other students’.
5. “I’m on the verge of burnout. I spend so much time on design and I’m feeling lost.”
It’s okay to slow down and take a break.
After working like crazy, and taking on more than a full plate, it’s no surprise that I was feeling burnt out by the end of sophomore year. Even amidst the start of the pandemic, I would spend hours on my computer everyday — pixel pushing on my portfolio, filling out applications, and juggling too many extracurriculars. Though the “go-getter” in me wanted to keep plowing ahead, I finally decided it was time for a much needed break. I put a pause on applying, re-evaluated my activities, and made a list of things I wanted to do for fun. I realized that for so long, a lot of my “goals” were either education or career-related, and I really wasn’t doing things for pure enjoyment — it then made sense why I wasn’t feeling fulfilled.
Tip: If you find yourself getting overwhelmed, anxious, frazzled, or lost, please pause and take a break. There will always be time for your portfolio to continue to improve. Companies will still be hiring. Especially during this pandemic, you have so many other things on your plate and it’s really important to make sure you’re taking care of yourself. Have a socially distant picnic with a friend and catch up, go on a hike by yourself, learn a new language for fun.
While a career in design is wonderful, it’s not the only thing out there in life. Some days are filled with meetings, studying, and preparing for interviews — but you deserve to have days that are for rest, fun, and self-fulfillment too. Take the time to connect with others, do projects that make you excited, and look inward to understand your unique strengths.
Kickstarting your design career is tough, but so are you. As cliche as it may sound, opportunities will come when you’re ready — so until then, stay grounded and keep working on projects that excite you and make time to do things that make you happy. Breaking into design comes with a lot of hurdles, but being able to adapt and maintain a growth mindset will help you land (or come up with your own) opportunities that will get you to where you want to be.
*Special thanks to every designer and mentor who agreed to get on a phone or video call with me and offered me invaluable advice. I owe a lot of my growth to the kind and motivating people who didn’t need to help a stranger like me, but did so anyways because they truly wanted to. You are the best!
Mira Dhingra is a third year student at Georgia Tech pursuing a degree in Industrial Design with a concentration in Interaction Design. She is passionate about health and wellness and building inclusive communities, which have both driven her interest in empathetic user-centered design. Feel free to reach out to her via LinkedIn or just say hey on Instagram! 😊