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Need an inexpensive designer for your project? Consider hiring a college student!

This past weekend I had a lot of fun giving a talk at StartupDay 2010 on the topic of user experience design in the context of a startup company. After my talk, I volunteered my time at a table in the advisory area, where lawyers, VCs, and various experts on others topics of interest met with new and hopeful entrepreneurs. I ended up spending time with four entrepreneurs, and three of them asked the exact same question: Where can I find budget design talent?

I really wanted to help these people get their business started, so did my best to come up with a meaningful suggestion. They all liked my advice, so I want to share it with you too: Try finding a college student to do your design project.

Photo: Matt Hintsa

There are a bunch of good reasons to hire a college student:

  1. There are incredibly talented undergraduate and graduate students studying every form of design that’s out there.
  2. They are looking for a job that pays better than part-time work in the campus library or a local restaurant, and so are willing to work for less money than you might imagine. (That said: Be fair.)
  3. They want to build a portfolio. The extent to which your design project is actually interesting increases the chance the result of the project will look good in their portfolio. This portfolio benefit can translate into more motivation (and possibly willingness to work for less).
  4. They can have drive and energy to spare.
  5. Instructors want their students to work on real-world problems! I’ve been approached in the past by professors looking for projects for their students. They are farming out cheap (or free) labor, but don’t always know who’s looking for design work, and may not have local small-company connections. These engagements can come with particular constraints: the project probably needs to start and end within a given semester, you may be obligated to submit an evaluation at the end of the project, etc.
  6. If the relationship works well, you can use them for future projects, or potentially recruit them. You may discover someone great before anyone else does!
  7. This is a way of doing some good in the world.

The obvious downsides to hiring a college student for a real business project are lack of experience: specifically in the particular design discipline you’re looking to hire, and generally as a professional with business responsibilities. They may not yet have worked on a project for which failure can entail consequences worse than a bad grade.

It can also be hard to find a good student—it takes time to separate the wheat from the chaff—but if you’re on a  budget, it may be worth the extra time. And if you’re on a really tight budget, you may have no better option.

Reaching out to local instructors can be a good place to start; even if they don’t have a specific work/study project coming up (or one that matches your parameters), they may know current or past students that might be good for your project. These instructors can be found not only at the local college or university, but also at trade schools and other adult learning institutions.