Back in the day, when I proudly exited college with my BA from Kent State University’s prestigious VCD program … I thought I had it all together. I went to a great school, worked really hard, got good grades, and even had a half-decent portfolio of work to show for it. My resume even included a 6-month internship with a top Cleveland/Akron advertising agency, AND a letter of recommendation from its Creative Director. Yeah. I was set.
Or so I thought.
Nothing could’ve prepared me for actually working in the totally subjective, “real world” of graphic design. So now, 11 years later and running my own design studio, I thought it would be helpful to spell out some of the things I only WISH I knew when I graduated.
1. How to work with actual clients
This one is huge. In college, you tack your work up on a board and have classmates and instructors offer constructive feedback on ways to make it better and improve yourself as a designer. For the most part, you leave the critique feeling proud of your efforts, and are taught to uphold your design sensibilities and principles — regardless of “what everyone else says”.
The truth is that you really need to develop a thick skin in this business. Your job is to do what’s best for your clients — NOT your portfolio. A happy client is much more valuable than awards and accolades. Clients will want changes that you don’t agree with, and you’ll have to do them (against your better “design principles”). Occasionally you and your client will be on the same page and you’ll end up with a project that you are truly, 100% proud of. But this isn’t the norm. Behind every amazing portfolio piece are at least 10 others that don’t fully represent your artistic vision.
2. Be humble
Getting your first dose of negative feedback is a hard pill to swallow, especially when YOU were happy with the end-product. We invest a lot of ourselves in our work, and are constantly offering it up for scrutiny and judgment. When we receive criticism and perceive disappointment, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of, “I might as well quit. I’m a lousy designer.” OR … “This client is a moron. They have no clue what they’re talking about.” This is a tough mental space to get out of.
I would encourage every young designer to (quickly) accept the fact that as long as you are putting forth your best effort and making choices for the right reasons, you have nothing to be upset about. Try to really consider the negative feedback and use it as an opportunity to grow, rather than lashing out and giving up. Because, trust me — it’s bound to happen again!
3. Deadlines, budgets, schedules and project management
Most college projects are pretty self-serving and unrealistic. I remember one particular project where we had to build this 3D illustration out of “unconventional materials”. I spent 3 weeks on it. The concept could never be manufactured or reproduced … the materials were idiotic … and I still have no idea what the point was. We wasted a lot of time in school on projects like these — with no real-world application.
I wish we would’ve actually learned how to take a project from concept through completion — working with an actual budget, actual deadlines — even pricing out the production end. Sure, you can have an amazingly creative idea … but without knowing how to actually PRODUCE it in an economical way, it would never even get off the ground.
People talk too much. Period. We really don’t take time to listen to what others have to say … or really understand the meaning behind what’s being said.
This is especially true in design school. We spend a lot of time in college defending our work, talking about it, talking about research and reference, and blah, blah, blah. And none of this really matters in the real world.
I’ve learned that it’s much more important to listen to what a client has to say, to learn where they’ve struggled in the past, and to understand their business. This is the only way to guarantee a successful project — and the potential for a long-lasting relationship and trust in the future. As designers, it’s our job to deliver what our clients NEED — not necessarily what they ask for outright.
5. You can’t be everything for everyone
When you’re first starting out as a freelancer or graphic design business owner, the inclination is to accept EVERY project that comes through your inbox. You need money. You need a portfolio of work. Plain and simple.
I would encourage designers to really consider the client (and the project) before giving in to the knee-jerk reaction of accepting a new job. Go with your gut. I’ve declined many projects just because there wasn’t a good “connection” between myself and the business owner. That relationship is really important, and can even dictate whether the project itself will be a success or failure. Sure, it’s hard to turn down paying work … but I’ve found that turning down “so-so” opportunities frees your time and creative energy for the ones that will really make a difference for your business.