Isn’t hindsight always 20/20? If only you could travel back in time and give younger-you some choice advice. Nothing to alter the time-space continuum of course, just a few tips to help you avoid some costly and painful missteps.
You could have totally avoided a few scams, kept out of trouble more often and maybe arrived at life decisions a little quicker. A time machine is pretty out of reach at the moment, but you can have the next best thing when it comes to starting your career (without any risk of catastrophic historical ripple effects!).
If you are considering a graphic design degree, why not look a little further into the future to ensure you are making a smart investment in a great career? We’ve gathered experts in graphic design to share some of the things they wish they’d known before entering the field. And just to make things easy, we’ve compiled the information into a helpful list. Maybe you won’t have to learn the hard way like they did.
So pay close attention because these exclusive insights can help you determine if you want to get serious about becoming a graphic designer.
I wish someone had told me …
1. You work for the client
While there are exceptions, your work as a graphic designer is less about your artistic preference, and more about giving your clients what they ask for. “You are designing for clients, not yourself,” says Dennis Michael of Wake Creative. “As such, your designs might not be the coolest looking designs out there. That doesn't matter. It's all about the problem you are solving.”
Of course, that shouldn’t stop you from offering your artistic expertise. Jonathan Cooper, graphic designer at the Midnight Oil Group says, “It is our job to advise clients on why we make our choices. But at the end of the day they are paying for a service, and we just have to deliver."
Michael says this focus on adhering to a client’s wishes was his biggest learning curve at the beginning. “Designers tend to think like artists and not problem solvers. Once you change your mindset, you will flourish.”
2. To ask questions
“Designers tend to think like artists and not problem solvers. Once you change your mindset, you will flourish.”
“Not every project will be as clearly defined as those you were presented with in college,” says Aespire founder and design director Brian Sooy. When you are working with a non-designer client, your project parameters could be totally ambiguous or misleading.
If you don’t proactively ask clarifying questions to understand the project, you will waste time and energy — and potentially your client’s loyalty. The professional approach is to initiate the necessary communication. “Ask questions to discover what you need to know.”
3. To practice writing
Practicing design is a given, but don’t neglect your writing. “Learn how to write, and write well,” Sooy says. “You’ll be expected to write copy from time to time.”
Sooy adds that writing for blogs to demonstrate thought leadership or to represent your firm isn’t outside the realm of potential responsibilities either. Additionally, it’s important to be able to communicate professionally via email. Make sure your grammar and spelling abilities are up to par.
4. To make the most of your time in school
“Most of the junior designers I work with are fresh out of university, and many of them have spent the past four years partying and completely ignoring design,” says Kevin Stewart, designer for Digital Impact. “When I hear about last-minute essays, skipped lectures and half-assed projects, I genuinely feel sorry for them.”
Stewart goes on to emphasize that university is a unique time where you can take your creativity past limitation without commercial repercussions. “Once you enter the commercial reality of the design industry, that freedom disappears.” Stewart advises all graphic designers to use their time in school to push boundaries, test new approaches and become better designers.
5. Learn to work with difficult people
Clients (or coworkers) might come at you with unreasonable expectations and irritating attitudes, and it is still your job to work with them. “I would have loved to know how picky some people can really be,” says Christian Balderas, corporate identity designer at Dupray.
“I’ve received 4 a.m. emails because a client felt like my page design was ‘one pixel too left’. I’ve been reprimanded because my design was not ‘straight’ (his computer screen wasn’t on a flat surface).” Balderas says no matter how the client drives you crazy, the job needs to get done and the client needs to be happy with the finished product. If you can learn how to please difficult customers, you will be well-positioned in the market.
6. To work harder at drawing
"I wish that I placed more importance on drawing,” says Dolly Sanborn, art director and designer at Appleton Creative. “I saw the illustration majors with sketchbooks, but not many designers carried them around.”
In the field, Sanborn realized how useful drawing is for building a visual vocabulary and forming a clearer pathway to a creative mindset. “I’ve taken up drawing in my spare time now (after 15 years of working in the industry) so I can continue to grow.”
7. You’ll be staying up all night
Don’t carry the misconception that making it as a graphic designer means you can work when and how you want. When you are crunched on a project, the only thing that matters is making that deadline.
“The hours will be long,” says Big Yam senior graphic designer, Katie Blaker. “Like, stay-up-all-night-and-see-the-sunrise long.” Blaker says even while she ‘knew’ this beforehand, experiencing it is always a whole different story. “Your goal will be to make the feeling of sweet victory carry you through the tough times.”
8. To always get a deposit first
“Simply put, my number one tip is to always get a deposit before starting work.”
Graphic design is notorious for clients expecting to get work for free. “I’m sure I don't need to tell you how many sob stories there are, my own included, of being ripped off by bad clients,” says Alex Kemmler of eboundhost.
There’s nothing wrong with an arrangement where your expectations and the client’s expectations are clear from the get go, even if it’s an unpaid one. But don’t allow contract ambiguity to rob you of your work and time.
“Simply put, my number one tip is to always get a deposit before starting work,” Kemmler says. To navigate this, Kemmler advises drafting a statement of work, what's included in the price, what's not included, payment terms and schedule.
Then, get a deposit of at least 25% up front. “Legitimate clients won't have a problem paying a deposit against work yet to be performed. If the client balks, they were probably planning to stiff you anyway.”
9. You can be involved in more than design
When you work for an agency, you have real opportunity to expand your horizons. Blaker says putting yourself in the right position can teach you more about the inner workings of an ad agency in just a few months than you could ever learn in class.
Take advantage of any team you find yourself on, and don’t limit yourself to your job title. There are endless opportunities out there for employees with experience in more than one area. You never know where a little extra know-how can take you.
10. To seriously prioritize your portfolio
“I wish someone would have told me that while GPA is important, it’s your portfolio that will land you the job,” says Jennifer Graven, graphic designer at Appleton Creative. Graven says that a good portfolio is much more than a PDF file loaded with your work.
“A website is the best way to promote yourself, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a way around it.” Since you’ve invested time into creating the best showcase of your abilities, you might as well go the final distance by designing a gorgeous website to display it.
Sending employers a link to your portfolio is much classier and more professional than a giant file attachment. As a bonus, online portfolios allow potential clients to stumble across your talent.
So how does the future look?
Now that you’ve gotten a view of what becoming a graphic designer will take, you are better prepared to begin. “It will turn into the most exciting time of your life,” Blaker says.
These snapshots into your budding graphic design career can help you make the most of your experience and get started on the best foot possible. If you are still interested in becoming a graphic designer, learn about the technical skills and the soft skills needed to succeed in the industry!
Download this free Design Career Outlook to learn more and to start planning your future in design today!