Jessica Helfand | Essays

Open Letter to Design Students Everywhere

My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned to myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the claims that shackle the spirit.  —Igor Stravinsky, The Poetics of Music

June, which so famously heralds the beginning of summer, also marks the conclusion of the academic year — and with it, calls and emails from students trying to make sense of what to do, where to go, how to reconcile the various components of their education that lead to greater self-knowledge, better work, more challenges, and maybe, just maybe, an eventual opportunity to begin paying back those student loans.

And so, they come to see me. I look, carefully. I listen, hard, to see what, if anything, I have to offer them. I am aware, extremely aware, of the generational gap that divides us (perhaps one of the few benefits of my getting older) and I try to remain vigilant about that distance in time and space, resisting any comparison from their orbit to my own, now comparatively antidilluvian education. And yet they are — like I was, and all students are — overwhelmed by the embarassment of riches framed by the astounding prospect of two to three years of uninterrupted study, a period culminating, for many, in the development of a thesis.

While the definition of a thesis varies from school to school, one thing remains startlingly undisputed: how can you possibly narrow your focus when the world is truly your oyster?

And that's just the beginning in what seems, more often than not, to be a series of paradoxical propositions. If you’re graduating in the middle of a recession, it’s likely that an arc of despair trumps the impending thrill of your newly-liberated station in life. Conversely, though, I can’t imagine a better time to get out of school. Nobody’s hiring, but why let that stop you? While the mechanics of, say, having a roof over your head suggest that a little modest income might be a good thing, the actual economics of making work no longer depend on an actual employer. The portfolio no longer means a big black suitcase schlepped around from studio to studio. Get your work online, put your videos on YouTube, and get busy. 

On the other hand, if you’ve selected the work-for-someone-else route, concentrate on having as many conversations as you can with as many people as possible. (Bonus points for people smarter than you: isn't your tennis game supposed to improve if you choose a better opponent? The same holds true for interviews.) Never leave an interview without at least three names of other people to go see. Don't be afraid to ask them about their choices, too. Ask them to tell you what they think you should read. And assume that as busy as you are, we’re all even busier, so send a link to your work ahead of time. Arrange your interviews by email. And afterward, go that extra step and send a thank-you note.

If you’re heading to school in the fall as a first-timer, you’re likely to be truly overwhelmed by a level of option paralysis which is, arguably, unlike anything you've ever experienced — which is an even more persuasive reason for you to find ways to focus your energies. If you don’t already do it, start keeping a notebook. Travel everywhere with it, as you do with things like your camera and your cell phone: consider the notebook an extension of your mind and of your studio. Do not wait to get back to your desk to write things down or, better yet, to draw them. If you draw something every day, you will find, over time, that your facility with the pencil is a huge boon to thinking visually. If the notebook is with you all the time, you can afford to be a little unfocused. Later on, you’ll look at what you wrote and saved and drew and you will realize that without even trying, you created a time-capsule that is, itself, a manifestation of what mattered. Instant, retroactive focus. Go to the head of the class.

Students returning in the fall, especially seniors and final-year graduate students, face a somewhat different challenge: how to narrow the frame of investigation (deciding on a topic, or a method, or a principal focus for your final investigations) while still leaving the door open to think broadly and widely and deeply? How to be specific — and here, I will go to my grave insisting that each and every one of you find the elevator version (also known as the Hollywood log-line) of your topic, that expresses in a smart and pithy fashion WHAT YOUR THESIS IS — while at the same time, opening yourself up to as many ways of producing work that reflects and extends and amplifies your central idea.

So here it comes, with apologies for the been-there-done-that sound of the following disclaimer: less, in fact, is more. Less in the sense of fewer words to describe your idea. (Refer to “elevator version,” above.) Less in the sense of less ambitiously framed, but not one speck less ambitious in its intellectual rigor and its craft and clarity and intent: so if you’re looking at the big implications of the big world of big public space and the big, undefined audiences that inhabit it — well, maybe you want to start with something more specific, as a module that can be defined and then scaled, torqued, re-examined but that originates as a more specific and controlled organism. Less with regard to less immediate interventions: less stuff, fewer fonts, smaller expressions. Start simply, and go from there. There's plenty of time to get complicated later.

With structure comes freedom. And freedom, let’s not forget, is what education is all about. It is a great time to be a student. Go out and make great things, things that help us, inform us, enlighten and change and impact the world in millions of meaningful and glorious ways. Your education will not end the day you graduate: on the contrary, what you're doing is learning how to learn, and how to think, and how to visualize the ideas that percolate in your brain. So here's what you do: never stop thinking. Never stop asking questions. Never, never stop reading, looking, imagining what else can be done. And don’t be afraid to start small. You’ll get there, eventually. And when you do? Send somebody a thank you note.

Posted in: Business, Education

Comments [65]

Thank you for this.

Very powerful words from a real pro!
pat Taylor

Thanks so much for this inspiring post Jessica! It's encouraging for me and I'm not even in school.
Jason Alejandro

This post is a perfect example why impressionable minds should stay away from people that brand themselves as intellectuals. You just said a lot ... without really saying anything. Empty advice, not practical or meaningful.


i am turning old this month, i can make a top twenty list of the benefits in a minute. to youthful people, all i can say is get started, it's a riot and fun getting here.

I want to underline something Jessica says here as being counter-intuitive, but really important: the "less is more" version of a thesis definition. I remember thinking that this piece of advice was literally painful when I was a grad student: how could simplicity be of value when I (thought) I would be inciting design revolution with the brilliance and complexity of my ideas? And yet, to get something done that meant something, I had to edit and edit and edit again. I've been working with grad students on developing their thesis projects now for eons of time, and the principle of simplicity - along with specificity - has never faded.
Lorraine Wild

Very wise words.

As a seasoned Designer and Designer Educator, I would suggest that students globally should read this Open Letter.
Nigel Aono-Billson

And while you're keeping it simple, remember to follow your gut, your heart, your bliss. Choose the environment, job, school, place that makes you happy and content for, if you're not happy, it'll be hard to get much of anything done.
david stairs

Excellent post Jessica. thank you.

Steer away from simplistic and complicated ideas and expression, and refine complex ideas and express them in a simple manner. Less is definitely more.
Rebeca Mendez


Speaking of heart and guts and intestinal fortitude:

Don't slouch! Your bones and organs will thank you, too.

Ingest sunscreen. There's a food for that!

Loved the conclusion

"Your education will not end the day you graduate: on the contrary, what you're doing is learning how to learn, and how to think, and how to visualize the ideas that percolate in your brain. So here's what you do: never stop thinking. Never stop asking questions. Never, never stop reading, looking, imagining what else can be done. And don’t be afraid to start small. You’ll get there, eventually. And when you do? Send somebody a thank you note."
Priyanka Bagda

Great advice, even for us older folks. Makes me want to go back to school.

For employment seekers, I would add that prior to going on an interview, even prior to asking for an interview, and even prior to making first contact (phone call, sending that email, cover letter, resume, whatever) learn everything you possibly can about the person/firm with whom you are trying to land an interview. It's not hard to do this homework, and doing it can demonstrate that you are interested in your interviewer, which in turn might spark his/her interest in you.

Failure to do this little bit of research spells certain death. I get letters every year addressed to "Dear Human Resources Manager," which go straight in the bin, regardless of their content, because the salutation instantly demonstrates the person hasn't bothered to learn anything about my little one-person company.
Rob Henning

Design Observer
First and foremost, thank you Jessica for sharing such a topic at such a pivotal moment, since I am one of those that sending email after email, letter after letter. And its funny for couple seconds when you mention, its a great time to graduate, but the next sentence states, nobody's hiring. Then it sends chills down my back.

But I understand where you were going with that, and it's inspiring. I am actually glad to see a professional recommend e-mailing studios. I am going to New York next week and I've emailed many studios, but I imagine they are all very busy. And yes, thesis was quite the process. I think that is the biggest thing I learned, was how to clear in your statement. Less is more, since your message will become more direct to the audience, and therefore more powerful.

Thank you for the advice, and yes never stop!

- Robert Huston
Robert Huston

THANK YOU for the advice. Well written and motivating. This article really pushes home the fact that everyone, no matter what's going on, has a chance, and as designers, thats all we ask for...a chance
Jason Cook

Thanks. This is just what I needed to feel more confident in my recent and upcoming life decisions. The freedom available in education, especially in creative fields, is an opportunity unavailable to most, and I have realized I need to take full advantage of it while I still can.

Best article of this kind I've read (as a recent graduate myself) - personal, practical advice without dragging statistics and whatnot into it.

Mitch I agree, while this is well written technically as a new graduate WITH A JOB (yes I managed to score a job in this recession) this really did not help me at all.

Yes! When it comes to a thesis, better to do small* things perfectly than big things poorly. As the sages know, if you can't be bothered to do a small thing right, how can you do a big thing right when the time comes?

*or focused, or specific, or constrained, you get the idea. With something focused, you can work out all the angles and know it intimately, and develop some expertise in that area, as JH said. A small thing done well becomes large in consequence anyway.

Thank you, Jessica, for this honest and well-articulated piece. It's important that we continue to be students of design as we embark on our career paths as professional designers. The seeking of new knowledge, inspiration and perspective isn't something to be confined to the classroom, but rather will always be the starting point for every decision made and project undertaken.
Sarah Badr

Wonderful! THANK YOU

Just wonderful Jessica. Thank you for this inspiring article for both students and those of us practicing.

I'll be starting my MFA studies this fall. These are words to live by these next few years. Thank you Jessica.

As a graduate student about to embark on the beginnings of her thesis, I found this to be timely and marvelously helpful. Remembering to focus and to abandon the notion that you can (or want to!) tackle the whole wide world all at once will be key. Thank you for reminding me of that.
Liese Zahabi

"If you draw something every day, you will find, over time, that your facility with the pencil is a huge boon to thinking visually"

Juicy Nugget

Jessica, thank you so much for the inspirational words. You don't know how much calmer you have made me feel. Many thanks for that!
Lola de la Vega

"Your education will not end the day you graduate: on the contrary, what you're doing is learning how to learn, and how to think, and how to visualize the ideas that percolate in your brain."

So on point, Jessica!

As someone oft suffers from weighing down a project with too many ideas---my thesis no exception---a clear hierarchy did wonders for a "complex" thesis. So bravo to Rebecca to say no to just simplistic. And yes to complex ideas said simply.

Elegance might be another term that fits. Things that are elegant are both less-is-more and specific.

I want to echo Lorraine's words too---she was part of a team of midwifes (and midfathers?) who helped birth my thesis. She said this about her thesis (and it's true if you read it and look at the arc of her career thus far), "Yes, the end of your thesis IS really just the beginning."

Of your career, of an argument that will manifest in your bodies of work, and in your life with this new way of looking at the world---design and otherwise.
N Silas Munro

This is really encouraging. Being an international student whose ambition was to start and build a career in the United States, the hope was shattered by the recession; employers were downsizing, laying off temps and interns. And for us, foreign workers, the only ticket for an employment in the U.S. is through a sponsorship that comes from a full time employment (H1B Visa). Although it would strategic for a company to cut back their spending through hiring freeze and downsizing, I could not help but feeling depressed, often questioning my own skill and credentials.

Nevertheless, I began to make use of my 'free' time, committing myself to areas that some designers dare not venture; programming and reading. Learning new stuff and new technology, exploring new field of studies, revisiting old question and simply showing portfolio to studios that are not even hiring; these things really improve the self-esteem that was previously crumbling.

Although I can't no longer start a career in the U.S., reading this post, and the comments, really give me the assurance that we can't stop learning, designers can't stop learning, and we can't stop being curious, even in the hardest time. :) Good luck 09 graduates.

—08 graduate

I must admit that I rarely draw anymore. No, I should correct that. I draw ALL the time, but I don't draw drawings, I draw to explain concepts. I'm a full-time instructor now, and drawing to communicate ideas and concepts is a great asset, if not a necessity. I teach in a multimedia program, where drawing is sparse. However, those students who can draw to communicate their points, or to make parallels, etc, have everything it takes to succeed. Learning software? Eh, that comes with time. Yall will eventually master all of it. Drawing conceptually? Hmm, I wish this was more intuitive for more folks. And don't just draw, but draw quickly!
John Mindiola III

Jessica, I do believe you were channeling my typography 101 first assignment when you wrote this. We had to pick a type that typified our personality and write a sentence with "I am ..."

This was four years ago. I wrote

I am (insert name) and I love complex simplicities and simple complexities. I used the font stop without spacing and tight kerning. It made an unbelievably cool complex pattern because of its simple limited shapes and style.

I am finished with school, had put my videos on YouTube and other sites, done free work for my affluent family members but still do not have a job or even one email. I am beginning to think it is the personality of mine that I described in my statement. So heed the advice carefully. What do you think?
Mari Shaw

4 years ago in typography 101 I wrote in a assignment in the STOP font:

I am nancy krabbenhoeft and I love simple complexities and complex simplicities.

Tight kerning and no spaces. My teacher used it as an example and saved it on his vault. The statement was to represnt the font and our personality and the statement. Of was excellent work.

Jessica, can you channel people I'm the Midwest hppsierville?

I never ever got one paying job in this profession. I have been unemployed in the design field for three years.

Let me be an example of what not to follow

Non sequitor sequins.

Wonderful article, thank you.
Great words for design students of our time.
Bijan Berahimi

thank you, that really was quite an uplifting read! :)

Thank you, very inspiring!
Santiago da Silva

shouldn't we acknowledge of an even broader issue here: the significance or relevance of graduate school for designers (teaching endeavors not being a factor in this case, although, I would point out that an overwhelming majority of design professors I have had don't hold a higher degree anyway).

education isn't reserved for the institutions or even the structure they provide. the very structure of higher education (i can only speak of design higher education) is absolutely capable of debilitating one's own capacity to learn, think, respond, question, own. i see it as a student.


another issue is reading. we should be careful about this. i'm really glad you left this open to every possibility Jessica. i feel fortunate to be surrounded by a wonderful "design" library. There are as many books on architecture, pop culture, philosophy, media studies, fiction, sociology, history, illustration, photography, fine art, poetry, and an ancient magazine archive too. these are all as relevant (or irrelevant) as any design book.

as designers we need to develop constructs of form, composition, pace, grid through other media, other disciplines: look at a garden. look at a space. look at folded laundry. watch Alphaville. look at the bench you walk past everyday. then go sit on it. watch the little doggie pee and see what shape it makes. does the slope of the sidewalk carry the pee to the street or to you?


Thank you for this. It gives great inspiration to those of us who are about to undergo something more difficult than we have ever done before... and the comments above are also inspirational.

Amazing words, you just made me realize that maybe I'm not a student yet... Thank you.
André Sousa

Moving and inspiring.

I read this letter in a difficult moment.
I am usually a person who is used to fighting even when beaten hardly, but sometimes it's good to have fuel that is able to give you the strenght to go on.
Well, this letter is part of that fuel.
Thank you so much.
Davide Romeo

Just excellent, not just for students who should carry a printed copy in their back pocket, but for all of us who have been at it for decades, and have learned that the lessons remain the same.
We simply are given a luxurious urgency and less time. Just as Stravinsky said.
Howard Stein

I really graduated from college with a BFA in Graphic Design and this makes me feel a lot better. Thank you for this article!

As an unemployed recent grad, I'd like to add this for people who may be in the same situation—being proactive doesn't necessarily coincide with someone giving you work. Take advantage of your freedom if you can afford to and learn new programs. Fill out your portfolio. Work on that project that you never got around to in school while the economic boat rights itself.

This is not a time to be pessimistic. A few of my good friends have already said to me, "I envy your free time". Don't sit on the couch in front of the tv and fish potato chips out of your shirt while worrying about the economy. Find the lemonade!
Ash Huang

1.Don't give up
2. Never do what I did and throw your old sketchbooks away - you will bitterly regret it forever afterwards as you are throwing out your own history
3. Never stop believing in yourself - if you stop so will everyone else
4.Don't undersetimate your own uniqueness
5. Always look for value in what others do

Currently www.hoteldesigns.net is advertsing a trainee editor post looking for design trained willing to learn individual. Suit a college leaver. Go to the website for details in the jobs columns
Patrick Goff

Patrick, One think impressed me in your job ads:

The phrase, the ability to work alone.

What a concept! You can use a little bit of that fuel. We can all use a little change.

After years and years of reading ads that say team player, teamplayer, team, team team, that was refreshing. When I evaluate my life and sports activies, I know I am a great individual player and do better in relays than in teams. But not many people advertise for a relay artist or player. Most people today who are so used to the social would go crazy in solitude. It is great to see someone who values a certain limited amount of that attribute.


You just happened to post this letter the morning of my undergraduate senior thesis show. Needless to say, I was thrilled to find it and it has given me the boost I needed to present my research and design work with my head held high. Thanks for the encouragement and motivation.
Chris Arth

This came at the right time, at the right place. Thank you!!
I am two days away from my graduation, and these are the words I needed to read!
Simona Kicurovska

Thank you for this, it is extremely encouraging :)
I regret all the times that I've been too lazy to draw!

freedom is the key


Sage advice. As a design teacher I am amazed at how few students read ANYTHING... Also, so often I have made referrals for students and never heard a word back... And yet there are always those few who 'get it', they are open to advice and discovery, they are the ones that make it.
These are the times when the wheat gets separated from the chaff.

I will save your piece to share with all my students.
Eric Baker

I hear Europe is hiring designers!

If you have the financial ability to do so, I'd recommend offering your services for an unpaid internship for a couple of months. I've learned that it seems to be more about the people you know then how well written your cover letter is. Hopefully my strategy this summer will lead to something good in this competitive economy. Besides, sitting around all day unemployed gets old, fast!
Brian Lucas

I graduated amongst top of my class, I've won a few design competitions and I have 10 months work experience. But no design job, but I'm taking advantage of the situation.

I'm currently teaching English in Japan. My hours are easy so I'm making the most of it entering competitions and working on my portfolio. Once I do get a job, I believe it will be a better job because of this preparation time building up my skills and quality of work.
liam mugavin

one bit of advice

do not turn into a housewife and let that linger for 25 years.

NO ONE will hire you at age 45 if the only thing on your resume is housewife , no work experience, since age 20.

which is sad, but to misqoute yusef islam:

i know for sure
nobody should be that ignored

and i would love to be proven wrong by a designer or studio that has hired someone with those credentials. please prove me wrong.


what if they invited ypu to ted?

would not that make a great post!

i would start with the qoute from dorothy fisher i think:

something like... the job of a mother is not someone to lean upon,

but someone who makes leaning unneccessary.

then i would show the picture of my three sons standing six feet tall, lean and true, and with good posture: one with bandana, ripped shorts and unshaven, one with college graduation cap and honor cords, one with suit, tie and white shirt. then the next slide with me too in my leather pants.

could be applied to the head of an ad firm or studio or creative company and pictures of resulting styles displayed.

actually two keynotes without steve jobs as speaker kinda proves that quote, too, for CEOs

good job, jobs, on making the leaning unnecessary for tim cook , johnny ive, phil schiller, bertrand the funny frenchman and that younger programmer guy! and the otherones i don't know by heart.

There is nothing like getting ahead of the game when it comes to applying your art to the rapidly changing modern world of communications. Taking a class even for two or three days could boost your opportunities and connections with veterans and newbies alike.

The best never stop brushing up on their skills! Train and Train others so that you will not one day find yourself disqualified or doing work completely outside of your field.
Training Connection

barely made it out of risd alive. totally full of fear- thanks for this encouragement

Thank you for taking the time to address us newcomers.

I'll be in my second semester of a three year course next month and have been wondering how to spend the holidays. I think I'll spend it with a notebook and at the library.

You rock!
Daniel Purvis

Words of advice from seasoned professors in multiple disciplines: fascinating.

jessica helfand

Thank you!
This is just as inspiring and encouraging as Clijsters' comeback tale at the U.S. Open.


That was fantastic, I had put off reading this for a few hours – as I was preoccupied. There is something intrinsically maternal & nostalgic about how this was written. Thank you.
Youssef Sarhan

Not to sound snide, but after reading that I feel like someone sucked my frontal lobes out with a vacuum cleaner.

Excellent post, great closing statements. As always, I appreciate your writing.
Shawn Meek

hi! first of all i like your article. it really opens your mind to realise what we have to do and how to do it.

Im a student of graphic design in Uruguay im doing my third year and i need one more to finish. i already started to put my self online and try to talk more with differnt people around the world.

What u said about moving and moving and keep ourself busy, is really like that, if we want something we have do to something about it. But my expirence is that something bad happens when we put something online, we spected people to comment, or something to happen and it takes long.

I guess that i have to keep tryin


please check my site and give an opinion!

good vibes

Gabriel Benderski

I am sure that this open letter which must surely have been read by hundreds of people and from the number of comments here, been appreciated by each and everyone one of them!! This is not an open letter designed for students in masters in hr alone – it is something which should be read by everyone from all walks of life to be inspired and follow the advice here!! We need people like Jessica around who can inspire all those out there, who think that they cannot make it in their respective field of work!!

This is a wonderful post to read. I enjoy all the posts written by you and find all of them interesting. Frankly speaking, I'm your biggest fan.

I recently got my homeland security certificate and by mistake looking for other master programs I found your article. It is a really nice post Jessica and I hope only the best for you. Your little article inspired me very much and I think I am not the only one!

My main degree is a human resource degree but after reading your letter I decided I should follow my hobby too: design! Jessica, I have to thank you for your post because it made me realize that money is not the only thing important in life. I really hope you achieve all your targets in life and achieve pure happiness.

Jobs | June 15