A letter to creative students – the class of 2024

by Sam Collett
A rather personal message to design students of this year, musing on youth, AI, design careers, tribes, community and what makes us humans happy.
Apr 11, 2024

Dear design students.

As happens at this time of year the Easter holidays are done, and suddenly the end of the year, deadlines and most shockingly of all the end of your university career is upon us with remarkable speed. At my University (Worcester, UK) and others around the country, this week marks four weeks to go until the end of modules, hand-ins, dissertation submissions, and the start of final show season.

Make that three and a half. Time speeds up this term.

For students, this is the time of the year when stress is at an all time high. Everything that is superfluous to hand-ins go out of the window. Anything that does not go towards final grades: going out; eating properly; work; boyfriends; family.

Creative students don’t generally have to do exams. But, instead, they do equally stressful things. The final show where they put up the best of their work in an exhibition should not be under-estimated in terms of stress and hard work. The good news is that this comes with an opening night and some sort of let-your-hair down night out. For my university department this is the culmination of the year, and indeed the start of the students careers. This is literal in some cases, with creative students being employed directly from their final show exhibition.

My message to my students is three-fold.

Firstly, hang in there, one last push. You will be okay.
Secondly, enjoy it. You will look back on this with fond memories. This is your time.

Thirdly, though it’s not entirely obvious, this is a great time to go out into the world, especially if you are a designer.

Go with me on this last one.

And this leads me to what I wanted to say to my students directly, to every design class of 2024, but also, I guess, to today’s youth in general.

This morning, I read Zach Lamb’s article about the rise of AI and how we are all staying home stood out because of a quote and a rather scary graph:

Teens are growing up anxious and depressed because their phones have become the medium of their reality. They don’t hang out, have sex, drive, drink or learn about themselves and each other through a healthy flirtation with risk.


Damming evidence of the apathy of youth, how our digital devices are too pervasive and of how big tech in general is harming us all?  In Lamb’s article with AI generated content made ever more specific to the individual, we will make individual safe digital bubbles we will never ever want to leave. Lamb says this can be summed up by an aversion to risk – why risk a romance when I can be safe in my bubble?

This ties in to our work with Obsolete.com which starts with a brutal stance on AI. It is here to stay and if you do not learn how to embrace it you WILL be out of a job. And that its very early days – AI will be as good as you are very soon, especially when the new chips get more powerful than our brains [another time perhaps]. Many jobs are already at risk and almost all are changing [link]. Fold in a cost-of-living crisis, house prices, the unequal distribution of wealth, ecological armageddon, I could go on…  In short, we are past peak human and it is not a great time to end your student career and go out into the world of work.

But, designers and creatives, you have some very good things going for you. And it does come back to AI, which you guys need to embrace and treat as a huge opportunity.

When I came out of university desperate to get a job, way back in 1997, I was hired as a web designer doing Flash animations. They told me this was the “next big  thing”, and they were right [explore some 90s flash websites] . Back then, I had never used the Internet nor heard of Flash.

Now, in 2024, many of the big players on the AI scene, including Obsolete, see parallels between the birth of the growth of the Internet of the late 1990s. As then, we have the rise of smaller, more agile agencies and individuals who are embracing the new and doing amazing things. We also see larger design agencies who are either ignoring the problem, actively fighting it, or more usually not knowing where to start with this “new AI stuff”. It is also a time when the pace of technology seems to be accelerating, and the rules seem to be fluid. A time when we are seeing a rise of new job titles no-one has heard of – “prompt engineer” for example.

When discussing AI, a common refrain I have heard multiple times from companies and agencies of all sizes is “We haven’t got time to learn this stuff”. Which is a bit odd but is understandable given how much time it takes to do something decent with generative AI, and how taking time away from paid work is not in their DNA.

Which leads me back to you, design students. How will these agencies build their skillsets in generative AI? They will hire you, and you will show them the possibilities and teach them. In the same way, eventually, those bigger agencies will buy the smaller AI outfits and subsume their skills, just as happened after the ‘90s. So  students, make damn sure you play with generative AI. Have some examples in your portfolio (but make sure it is tagged and referenced as such). List it as a key skill on your CV. Learn it.

The other thing about being trained as a designer is that design thinking is a hugely transferable and in demand skill. Designers ask the right questions, try to work out what clients actually mean, critically evaluate, interpret user behaviour and stats, and come up with creative solutions. In short, everybody needs a designer-thinker on their team. This is one area that AI will be less able to cover and oddly makes you more employable. AI will do what you want it to do, so you had better be sure to ask it the right things.

Designers should be, and are, the users and instigators of generative AI which will enable them to do the work of many. Contrast with a photographer, copywriter or illustrator whose jobs will be done by designers using generative AI. These graduates should be finding another way to pay their bills. The designers here at Practically are already being asked to do more that we were a year ago [See our article on AI in education vs design agencies]. AI is moving seamlessly into our tools, empowering us to do more, faster.  To take one example, Adobe Photoshop got a huge functionality boost in the late ‘90s to support the growth of digital, enabled by the power of desktop computers. The same is happening now as AI boosts key Photoshop functionality, saving hours of work.

Designers. Like me in 1997 you are riding a wave of positive opportunities.
Take it.

Let me come back to my point about this being your time and you should enjoy it. And I want to bring out another [mis]quote from somewhere on Instagram

“20 years from now you’d give anything to be this exact age, exactly this healthy, and back in this exact moment. Take a second to enjoy it now.”

Found at https://www.instagram.com/natalieborton/reel/Cu7PFapL6tf/ but not the source.

This is not to say that in twenty years you will be unhealthy, ugly and lonely. But trust me, you are amazing right now. Beautiful, clever, bright. Be kind to yourself. You are awesome.

One of the reasons I love teaching is to see what the students come up with and to see their thinking. Their ideas for their major project, for example, astound me: “I am going to create a band from scratch”; “I am going to tell a story with some photos of blank walls”; “How do you grab the attention of neuro-diverse viewers”. If anyone doubts the ability and brains of today’s youth, just watch this week’s University Challenge final. Wow.

They say that your school days are the best of your life. I disagree. School is a stressful place designed to make everyone conform – we wear the same uniform, but also difference of dress, look, behaviour, and thought is quashed. By the sixth-form differences are tolerated. But at University difference (of thought, look etc.) is or should be encouraged. Nowhere is this more prominent than in creative and arts courses.  University and the step just after is where you should find who you are, build your own identity and work out what being yourself means.

For me I was really happy in University, I made a few life-long friends, discovered more about who I was and was not. Mostly I discovered techno music, clubs and typography. Then after a couple of jobs I found my home in a cool Shoreditch based web agency. I stayed for almost seven years and made even more lifelong friends. We are happiest when we find the tribe that fits us best.

Today, with some hours to kill, I had the pleasure of walking around London. Some areas that I used to know well, and others that are new to me (I find the ultra-fast Elizabeth line allows me the freedom to explore that much further and still catch my train home). This got me thinking about friendships, local communities, the tribes we belong to in various parts and times in our lives. Today I went to communities where I was welcomed but did not feel at home. And in ones where I used to call “home” many moons ago – Shoreditch, Camden – the people and places that were my haunts have moved on. “Home”, has become something different to what it was, as is right. My tribe is my own family, my company, and my students.

And this leads me back to that final show. Enjoy it and the people around you – this is your night (graduation day is for your folks). Dress up. Take photos. But don’t build it into a huge deal. Treat it as a window to the next stage.


Sam teaches Graphic design at University of Worcester, is part of the Obsolete.com collective, as well as being creative technologist and director at Practically.io.


Featured image is of last year’s show, Olivia Neath and Rachel Cookson. Sam is in the background. Stolen from LinkedIn.