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  • Writer's picturePelin Özbalcı

What have I done after I graduated to improve myself?

Updated: Dec 7, 2022

I sometimes receive messages from industrial design students and recent graduates asking for advice on how to improve their skills after graduation. While I do not think I have the experience to answer this question correctly, I can share my progress and some thoughts behind my decisions.

It takes too little to get better -on the surface-, yet too much -beneath the surface. Let me explain what I mean by “too little”.

I’m not the best designer out there, not even remotely close, but when they ask me how to improve themselves… I can only think of one thing. All it took to become someone to reach out to is 4 projects. What I’m trying to say is, just a handful of projects later anyone can be perceived as successful. Or let’s go extreme and say just 1 successful project can help someone perceived as successful -or someone to look out for since they have a high probability of being one. This is the “too little” part, just a couple of projects that help someone build a completely different presence. If you have spare time to design something for yourself: go for it, it’s worth it.

But here comes the “too much” part. Of course, anyone can design a couple of projects in a couple of months. That’s what we did in school for (at least) 4 years. The thing is, the design that anyone can do as they got used to doing is not the goal. The goal is to place the projects somewhere that is perceived as unreachable by you, even before designing. Think so highly of the project idea that you have to make a great effort to reach its level.

For example, before we started designing mimo with Sergen, we hyped up ourselves so much that we were practically convinced the product would create a great impact on our lives. It wasn’t uncalled-for hype since the product idea wasn’t really a common theme and there were just two or three other concepts but regardless of the idea, we thought so highly of mimo. We spent days and nights thinking about the design, even before the initial sketch. So to prevent ourselves from a big failure and disappointment, we practically outdid our previous work. When I present my own personal projects, I render maybe 10 images at maximum but for mimo, I think I rendered more than 30 -excluding the animations.

And great news: once you become comfortable with outdoing yourself, it becomes easier for the next project.

So, put your projects so high that you leave yourself no other option than flying.

Observe and analyze what’s missing.

There are countless spectacular designers to learn and observe from. Have you ever wondered why doesn’t our projects never even get close to being comparable while our inspiration boards are filled with every little detail of their stunning designs? I’m still trying to figure out why, but I have some ideas.

When you’re a new designer, you’re often told to “do” things.

“Make it look like Apple”

“Make it a little bit prettier”

But, when do we stop “doing” and start questioning why do we have to do it like that?

For example, your favorite designer just posted a new project. You’re looking at the images amazed. The proportions look great, and CMF looks so good… Well, it’s not like they design it like that “just because”!

I remember when I was designing projects in school, I absolutely loathed the idea of having to decide where to put parting lines and buttons. I thought I had to know everything about manufacturing to know where to put parting lines. And I loved how other designers placed them so gracefully on their designs, making their products even more appealing. It took me some time to realize that hardly any of them are masters of manufacturing processes instead they are great observers.

And observing doesn’t even need to be all about the technical aspects. Observe other designers’ choice of materials, renders, scenes, presentations, user scenarios, and the way they describe their work.

My mentor Bernardo taught me a lot about observing and adapting when he was helping me to design my portfolio. He told me that copying is not a sin if you make it unique to yourself. I collected portfolios I found on the internet, copied the parts I loved the most from each one, and created my own version of the “portfolio collage”. Then I simply observed what I loved about that piece and wrote in bullet points. We can even call this reverse engineering, we take a subject, write down our perception of what makes it great in our own way and create a new subject based on our taste.

Back to that “copying is not a sin” mentality. It is not a sin as long as you don’t duplicate. I’m not talking about personal projects that will not see the daylight, of course. I tried to create exact renderings of some images I’ve seen on the internet and I highly recommend it to anyone. Duplicate as much as you possibly can to improve yourself - but never ever post without credit.

After Mimo was posted and gathered some attention, one of our university friends sent us a post that was an exact copy of our post. The person who did that copied EVERYTHING we did with his own knockoff model and didn’t even try to change the wording or the title. This obviously made my blood boil! So, credit!

When I first graduated college, I was lost just as expected. I made the mistake to buy as many expensive educational courses as I can and I ended up confusing myself even more. I think this is such a common mistake to make when you don’t know what you’re doing. I’m obviously not blaming any of the courses I bought or the amazing tutors but myself. When you graduate and see the other designers, you feel so hopeless about your current work and start blaming education (which has a great role in your work but nonetheless) and you go on a shopping spree. I bought cinema4d courses (I didn't know a single thing about it and still don't), more cinema4d, after effects, typography, and even a Zbrush course which I have absolutely no interest in being a digital sculptor. But at the end of the day, it all boils down to the same problem: not knowing what you want to achieve. I still want to learn C4D but now I know that perfecting what I have will help me more than having two mediocre skills. Back then, I tried to cover my inadequacies with money and hope and now I try to cover them with dedication and communication.

Another thing that helped me after college is “fake it until you make it”.

I still do cringe at myself when I write anything on LinkedIn or my blog. I still think I’m not in a position to give advice on anything. But hey, the worst-case scenario is, no one reads it and everyone cringes at you but at least now you have a great way to see your growth in the future!

So, if you’re still here, you’ve read some of the things that helped me to improve myself since graduation - and I hope it inspired you even a bit! I loved when senior students helped us out in the university and I truly wish to pay it forward and help others as much as I can.

Thanks for reading!

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