Career Advice
November 24, 2021

How to Work Your Way Into RISD

How to Work Your Way Into RISD

                         An interview with RISD alumni

Rhode Island School of Design is one of the top graphic design schools in the US. The aim of this blog is to shed some light on the graphic design course in one of the top schools by sharing a real-life story on what it is like to be a graphic designer; graphic designer portfolio tips, other required skills, and qualities to succeed in the industry.

We hope that this story will inspire you. 

1: Hi 👋🏻, please introduce yourself.

Hello! My name is Maddy, and I’m based in my hometown of sunny Manila, Philippines. I’m currently an Illustrator at Canva and a Brand Designer at ADPList. I graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design (also known as RISD or riz-dee) in May 2020 (yikes) with a BFA in Graphic Design. When I’m not designing, I practice yoga and read books (44/52 done this year!).

2: Why did you choose to further your study at RISD?

I have two main reasons for choosing RISD.

One: I was (and still am) obsessed with this show called Avatar: The Last Airbender. The creators of the show: Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, both went to RISD for their undergraduate education. I love the show so much and thought, “maybe if I go to RISD, I’ll make something as good as this show!”

Two: I visited the campus when I was 15 and fell in love! The facilities are amazing. We have a Nature Lab, a museum, and a bunch of art studios. I also appreciate Rhode Island’s historical and quaint atmosphere, which I thought was a nice contrast to chaotic Manila.

3: Does the portfolio play an important role to be accepted at RISD?

Yes! The portfolio is the most important part of the application. The portfolio and the home test constitute a chunk of what makes a successful applicant. That being said, it’s still important to get good grades and good extracurriculars throughout high school. RISD is an art school for nerds.

4: Could you share some tips on how to create a good graphic designer portfolio?

Never have just one portfolio, especially when applying for jobs. Make a pdf portfolio with a handful of projects and descriptions curated for the specific role and company. Bonus points if you write “Hello [NAME OF COMPANY]” in the opening slide. That’s how I got my role at ADPList.

Also, show work that you love in your portfolio, even if it’s one project and not directly related to the role. You can’t fake passion!

5: Some snap shorts of portfolio from Maddy:

Maddy’s undergraduate RISD admission portfolio.

6: Other than learning about graphic design, what other skills did you learn at RISD?

In RISD, we have something called “Experimental and Foundation Studies” which exposes first-year students to a variety of disciplines and skills. In freshman year, I learned classical figure drawing, painting, performance art (it was a wild time), sculpture, ballpoint pen drawing, 3D modeling using Rhino, Python (the programming language), and HTML/CSS/JavaScript.

We’re required to take courses outside of our departments, so I took a few Illustration classes since I enjoyed drawing growing up and consume a lot of comic books, anime, manga, and animated shows (if it wasn’t obvious before, it is now).

Outside of school, I learned how to adjust to a different climate (I went from living in 40℃ to -20℃) and adapt to American culture. It was a big shock at first, but I actually miss the cold!

7: In your opinion, what other qualities of a graphic designer must have to succeed in the design industry?

I think my answer to this question is an extension of my answer to the last question. One thing that RISD taught me was that you need to define success for yourself. During critiques (or “crits” as we call them in RISD), we discuss a project or a work of art. We ask ourselves “what makes this successful?” and “what makes this unsuccessful?” rather than “what do I like or dislike about this?” Being constantly asked to define what “success” or lack thereof means to us individually in the classroom bled into how I approach daily life. 

That being said, one quality of a “successful” designer is being able to determine what success means for you. We can’t — and shouldn’t — live according to a definition of success that doesn’t align with our values and how we want to live.

8: Could you share with us your career journey after graduation from RISD?

I graduated fairly recently so I’m in the early stages of my career.

After I graduated, I went back home to Manila, Philippines to be with my family during COVID-19.

I tried freelancing for a bit, which was quite challenging since 1. I didn’t have any connections and 2. I knew nothing about working in a professional environment. Somehow, I was able to get gigs (I’d like to thank my lucky stars for that).

A few months into freelancing, I applied for a job at Canva as an illustrator and got it! The role is not directly related to my major, but luckily I took all of those illustrations (and art history classes). A few months into Canva, I started volunteering for ADPList since I love the platform (a good RISD friend of mine, Grace Young, introduced me to ADPList).

9: What are some of your struggles during your degree or in your current career?

I didn’t go into my career with a clear vision of what I wanted.

When I sent out hundreds of job applications, none of the companies I applied to had a common thread. I applied to big agencies, 5-person studios, startups, tech companies, museums, small businesses, etc. Looking back, if I had narrowed down my preferences to a few related industries (.e.g: big tech and startups OR small studios and agencies), I would have been able to cater my application to that community. 

Eventually, everything turned out okay. I like to think that the universe put me on the right track haha! However, being more strategic from the onset would have spared me a lot of trouble!

10: What advice would you like to share with students who would like to enroll at RISD? 

RISD encourages risk-taking and experimentation throughout the four years. Take some artistic risks, go out of your comfort zone, and always learn something new every day!

Thanks Maddy for sharing the inside scoop to enroll at RISD, and sharing career advice as a young graphic designer.

Deciding on the right career path could be overwhelming for some. If you want to share your career struggles and need advice from experts in the design industry, our mentors are available here for support. Take the first step and experience the value of mentorship yourself 🚀.