Suppose it was possible to return to the beginning of your design career. What invaluable advice would you give yourself (or any beginner) about the field that you ultimately learned the hard way through experience?
I can think of a half dozen ways to answer this question with a joke, but seriously, what have you learned over the years about work and design that you wish you had known years ago?
Never stop developing your skills and learning new ones. The skills you have now will become obsolete in a few years but they give you a perspective on how to progress. If you dislike a particular task, it’s usually because you aren’t very good at it so concentrate on improving that. If you find yourself coasting, search for something new to learn.
You aren’t a Graphic Designer because you have pro software and developed the skills to use it. Graphic Design is about business strategy. Your skills as as an expert marketing consultant are more important than your ability to remove the background from an image.
Don’t under-value your services; it’s so easy to charge too little. But then, you must bring the value. Invest yourself in the success of the client and be certain to see the project at hand, no matter how small, as an integral part of their larger business strategy. Don’t get wrapped up in their “loves” (or your own). Your job is to increase their revenue and justify an increase of yours.
Forget logo design. It’s not a career, and it won’t be a big part of yours. You won’t be famous.
Learn to set type properly.
See negative space.
Production methods and deployment platforms are tools just like your software. Consider them early in your process. Learn how to use them, and how to deliver design that optimizes results without incurring unnecessary cost.
Be empathetic to the audience on an emotional level. See your work in their hands, and your client through their eyes.
Choose a different career. This may sound flippant, but had I been able to foresee the saturation of the market and the rise of DIY / contests / crowdsourcing that all put downward pressure on the field, I would have strongly considered a different career path.
A job is a job. It’s a way to earn money so you can go and do the things you really want to do. If you go into this career expecting the work will bring you happiness and fulfillment, you’re going to be very disappointed.
I don’t mean copywriting—although being good at that can really help—I mean all your writing; emails, social media posts, self-promotion, hand-written notes, every bit of it. Society is whittling down the importance of language on a daily basis, but like most things, society has it wrong. Maybe sometimes your words won’t matter, but you can’t ever know ahead of time. Every word matters, always.
I don’t know if I learned the hard way, but my first job out of college was working in-house for a Corporate 500 company where I was extremely fortunate that I joined a team that already had a very patient, knowledgeable and seasoned designer on the team who was an invaluable mentor. Without her mentorship I’m honestly not sure how my career would have turned out after that. I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time but she essentially provided me real world, continuing on-the-job training that I never would have received in college.
Much of what was discussed already, but this was the late 90s, computers were common, but there were still growing pains. She taught me about typography, technical information about things such as bleeds, ink gain, spot colors, etc. She took me on press checks and had good relations with the people running the presses and also asked them to educate me on file prep, materials, limitations and what not.
Even today, I try to make an effort when we take on younger, junior designers to try and provide that same degree of mentorship. True mentorship. Taking the time to look over files, look over designs and ideas, look over the way that the designs are actually built out.
So, I’m not sure I can offer any one solid piece of advice other than try and find a job that has experienced designers on hand that can offer mentorship.
There’s probably the equivalent of 200 years of experience speaking in the posts above mine. I agree with all of it.
I won’t repeat anything already written, so I’ll toss in a few thoughts from my 40 years at agencies (in-house and ad agencies) in every position, from beginning design intern to leading creative and marketing teams of 20 or 30 people.
You needn’t be a great designer to succeed in this field. It certainly helps, but many of the most financially successful designers I’ve met have excelled more at marketing themselves than design. Let’s take an in-house agency, for example. I’ve seen great talent wasted because the company, as a whole, didn’t appreciate that talent. Mediocre team members who excelled at social skills, playing office politics, and manipulating others often got undeserved credit and promotions. I’m not for a second suggesting that you shouldn’t strive to be the best designer possible — you absolutely should. I’m simply pointing out what you might be up against and need to consider.
Similarly, visionary designers and innovators are often seen as trouble-causers who rock the boat and make others uncomfortable or resentful. They’re often bypassed by those in the chain of command who value conformity over innovation. Again, I’m not suggesting holding yourself back from being the best. I’m saying that if your personality pushes boundaries, you will almost certainly run into this problem at some mid-point in your career (once you’ve gotten enough experience to know what you’re doing, anyway).
Don’t get sucked into complacency at a job that frustrates you. Life is too short for that. If there’s little appreciation for you at your workplace, actively search for a new job. You can’t fix your employer no matter how hard you try. Find a workplace that appreciates what you have to offer. This advice seems obvious, but I can’t even begin to count those who stay where they’re at because it’s easier in the short term to do that instead of thinking long-term and finding something better.
Stay clear of narcissists, psychopaths, and sociopaths! They’re all cut from the same cloth and more common than you might think. They lie, cheat, and manipulate every situation to their advantage with no concern for anyone but themselves. They’re genuinely and fundamentally bad people. They suck up to and fawn over those in positions who might help them. They can be very charming and personable when needed. When you’re of no use to them, they see you as irrelevant. They will do every underhanded thing possible to destroy you when they view you as competition. If you’re hired by one, they will initially pretend to be your best friend, but it’s not genuine. They hired you because they see you as someone to use for their benefit. They have no concern for you and will eventually turn on you. Ironically, they’re also fragile people who take offense easily. If you disagree with one, the response will be to attack and undermine you. Learn to spot them and avoid them.
Learn how to listen to clients (including employers) to pick up on what they don’t say that’s important. Very often, they will have already decided what they want and will tell you they need a brochure, a social media thing, or a poster. They rarely ever bother to tell you the reason behind their requests. For example, you might have a client who wants to run a magazine ad for their local dog food brand. Instead of proceeding to design an ad, dig down into the problem to find what they’re really after. Maybe sales have declined for two or three years, and the client assumes it’s because his national competitors have been running ads. Perhaps he feels he also needs to run ads to compete with them. Once you understand this, you have a better grasp of the problem. After some research, you realize the dog food packaging looks bland and unappealing on supermarket shelves beside the competitors. He doesn’t see the problem because he’s too close to the problem. It’s up to you to tell him the best approach might not be advertising and that redesigning the packaging to give it more shelf appeal might achieve more.
Learn how to embrace clients while keeping them at arm’s length. At the ad agencies where I’ve worked, we would have regular hour-long meetings with clients. Thirty percent of that time probably focused on the previous item in my list — figuring out why they were sitting across the table from us, explaining the processes, and getting their approval to move forward in various ways. The remaining 70 percent of the time was about developing relationships, building confidence, and making clients feel part of the process and that we were listening. Try not to let clients get too involved in the creative process — that’s your field of expertise, not theirs (even when they don’t realize it).
We would always avoid brainstorming with clients or discussing their creative ideas. They would usually want to head down that road at some point, but we would change the subject to their latest vacation or what fun thing they had planned for the weekend. New clients would get a tour of the agency to impress upon them that an entire staff of talented people worked behind the scenes. After that, we would avoid having them interact with our creative team until our final carefully choreographed presentation of our ideas.
Students should prepare themselves to relearn (or unlearn) significant parts of the attitudes they might have picked up during design school. Your instructors — especially tenured professors — are typically teachers first and designers second. They usually focus on teaching their students how to create beautiful and innovative work. I learned the most in my university design classes from the adjunct instructors — working professionals who wanted to teach and share their insights on their days off.
Once out of school, it might be a shock to learn that clients and many employers don’t recognize or care about good design. Great design isn’t their focus. Instead, it’s all about how they think you might help them with their problem. A large part of your time might be spent navigating the obstacles they throw in your way. Most clients don’t want cutting-edge stuff — they want what they’ve seen elsewhere and what seems safe. They often don’t realize they’re too close to the trees to see the forest.
One more thing that @CraigB mentioned, but bears following up on, is teaming up with a mentor (usually a supervisor or co-worker) at the beginning of your working career who’s eager to teach you the ropes, work with you, and give you almost enough latitude to hang yourself (which will undoubtedly happen). When I supervised others, I tried to do this. Sometimes new designers were receptive, but sometimes they felt they already knew the ropes and grumbled about me interfering. Throughout your career, when someone tries to share advice to help, listen to them. You might disagree, and they might not always be correct. However, if they’ve been around the block a few times and are trying to help, let them and let them know you appreciate it.