When I emerged — blinking — into “real” life after being a design student, things didn’t exactly go to plan.
I couldn’t find any paid jobs in London, only internships, so I stayed put in Glasgow and pretended to be self-employed for a while. But working from your bedroom when you have no connections and no experience probably isn’t the best plan.
Over the next six months, I realised just how sheltered I’d been as a student.
And when I finally did get over my sense of entitlement and land a real job, it turned to one of being thrown in the deep end. (That’s not to say I didn’t relish the challenge though).
Of course this was back at the start of the millennium, in a world where not everyone knew what Google was, and where design blogs were few and far between.
It might be easier to tap into design trends and best practices these days because of the internet, but I think students have got it even harder when it comes to finding work.
So I wanted to compile some of my thoughts here — as a reminder that gearing up for the realities of the design profession is as much the student’s responsibility as the teacher’s.
And some of this list serves as a reminder to myself, of things I was taught as a student but somehow forgot in the years since.
15 things I’ve (re)learnt about graphic design since I left art school
No-one’s going to hand you a job on a silver platter when you graduate.
I remember thinking that once I had my degree show up on the wall, I was done. I hadn’t counted on spending weeks trying to find a job, and only being offered unpaid or barely-paid internships. I expected too much from other people, and did too little myself. Be sure to start networking before you graduate. Hopefully your design course will include some kind of internship or placement, which is another great way to make connections in the industry. (Keep reading for internship tips from MultiAdaptor’s creative director Ben Brookbanks).
You won’t graduate with all the skills you need
But… it’s not a problem, because you’ll learn them on the job. In fact you might feel like you learn more in your first 4 weeks of working than on the 4 years of your course. Admitting that you have a lot to learn is the first step to enjoying the rush 🙂
Sometimes the brief is just plain wrong.
It’s your job to interrogate what a client wants, to read between the lines, and if necessary, assemble a new brief from the pieces.
If you can’t describe it in words, it’s not an idea yet.
So don’t just start a new project by collecting visual “reference” and then assembling it into mood boards. (I’m shocked by how often this happens in some design studios). Start by working out what the big idea is, and make sure you can summarise it succinctly in writing before you begin your visual explorations.
Don’t just learn to design, learn to communicate
Practice the art of writing — you’ll need to be as much a wordsmith as a Photoshop-smith to create a compelling presentation. Learn how to write clear, concise emails that end with a menu of action(s) for the recipient to take next. Design isn’t just about creating new concepts, but selling them to your clients. Recommended reading: How to be a Graphic Designer, Without Losing Your Soul.
Pinterest is for storing your inspirations, not finding them
Your design language can become a dangerously predictable if you’re visiting the same watering holes as everyone else. Looking for inspiration out in the real world, beyond design blogs and Pinterest, will always be rewarding if you look carefully enough. Recommended reading: Ways of Seeing by John Berger
Your printer is your best friend.
Nurture a friendly relationship with your printer(s) so that when things go wrong or you need something in a rush, you know the person on the other end of the phone from you.
Keep an archive of all your finished projects.
If they’re physical items, photograph them, and put a few copies somewhere safe. If it’s something digital, take lots of large sreenshots, or better still, clone the website to your own hosting setup somewhere. Nothing lasts for ever.
Don’t stay too long at your first job.
I spent five years at mine. I probably should have moved on a bit sooner. A new job is also a chance to grow and to build your network. (As well as the time you’re most likely to get a sizeable pay rise…)
Practice negotiating your salary.
Question: what’s an easy way to make £5,000 in 5 minutes? Answer: negotiate your salary confidently. Know what you’re worth, what the industry is paying people with your experience in your area, and stand firm. Granted, at the start of your career you won’t have much leeway here, but with each new job you have another chance to improve your pay. Also remember this: if you don’t ask, you won’t get. You don’t always have to wait for your review — I once asked my boss for a raise because I wanted to buy a house (indicating my commitment to stick around), and got it.
Don’t forget about side projects.
Working as a designer can get pretty full on. And sometimes it feels like you’ve lost control of the process. Maybe the client is doing things you don’t agree with… maybe even your creative director too. Either way, having your own project to tinker with at home will help your sanity. Having control over something of your own will make you feel good.
Always be learning.
Technology is moving fast, especially on the digital side of things. If you’re a digital designer, you need to have a solid grasp on how websites are made. That might not mean building a website from scratch, but it’s your job to lift up the hood and point out the various bits of the engine. (I’ll put that metaphor to bed right now). Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to ask questions — and lots of them.
Get into the habit of putting some money aside
Yes, I know you’ll have loans and other nasty debts to pay off. I did too. But once you’ve had a few paychecks, try to move a small amount into a separate savings account as soon as you get paid. That way you won’t really notice it’s gone. I know so many people who live paycheck-to-paycheck, and are locked into a job as a result. If you can save up a couple of months of living expenses, you at least have a short runway if you suddenly want to escape to something or somewhere else.
Watch out for the signs of creative burnout
Real life design is different from student projects. Things usually move faster. You have clients to deal with, budgets to meet, timelines to contend with, and multiple plates to spin. If you’re don’t allow yourself to recharge, it’s easy to burn out. Be sure to book holidays in, so that you have something to look forward to, and a chance to rest up your tired old brain.
Pass on the knowledge (and the love)
Believe it or not, you’re already in a hugely knowledgeable position compared to people who are just starting out as design students. Don’t be shy. Help people if you can — and you’ll be helping yourself too, because teaching also helps YOU to understand what you already know better.
Tips for design studio interns from MultiAdaptor’s Ben Brookbanks
I asked the creative director at MultiAdaptor for his take on getting the most out of an internship and he sent back these words of wisdom. Damn, I wish I’d had these tips when I was an intern.
The most common advice I give interns is to be more demanding (in a positive way!)
- Ask to work on that new brief that just landed in the studio
- Ask to do one project (or aspect of a project) that you can use in your portfolio
- Ask for feedback on how you’re doing
- Ask for a portfolio review from another two, three, four designers in your agency after you’ve got the gig
- Ask for contacts
- Ask for help with… you get the idea!
Once you’re in an agency, the resource and opportunity available to you is invaluable so don’t waste it by sitting quietly in the corner.
You might feel like you’re a nuisance, but people are surprisingly generous and even flattered when asked for an opinion or assistance. And demand that they’re candid with you, brutal even — a bunch of advice is useless if it’s no more than ‘nice’.
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