11 Things I would Tell my Past Self About Being a Graphic Designer
Party Like it’s 1999
As I write this article, I have been in the graphic design business for about 17 years. It’s been a long but rewarding haul.
In 1999, I launched my first graphic design business… Steel Dolphin Creative. I had cultivated a few clients from networking at the gym I was working at, and it wasn’t long before I had my first deposit cheque in hand. At that point, I went from student to professional. Or so I thought. There is a lot more to being a professional in this or any industry than just getting paid for it, but that’s another article altogether.
This trip down memory lane got me to thinking, If I could reach back in time and give myself some advice, that could have helped me avoid some issues, headaches, or just speed up the learning process in my design career, what would I say to that ‘self’? Would that advice help anyone else out?
So with pen to paper here are 11 things I came up with to get started...
1 - Learn To Take Criticism Like A Pro
During my time studying visual communications and design, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the ‘critique’, but I found out that in real life outside of college, critique can be even harder to take. Partly because you feel you have the expertise (and you are receiving comments about your work from non-designers) and partly because negative comments (or what you may perceive as negative) damage that freshly grown, and very delicate ego.
If I could shout back to that past “me” I would say, “Listen up chump, and learn to weed out the subjective critiques from the objective ones.” It’s been my experience that most clients are more concerned with moving their product forward or improving it than discrediting your design skills. So learn from it, and if it’s valid, it’s okay to be wrong, it’s how we all improve. Be a pro, accept the critique, make the changes if necessary. That client’s success will more than likely leave them thinking of you as a great designer, rather than one who didn’t nail it the first time. That can translate into more work from that client and even referrals.
2 - Focus On Your Drawing Skills
I wish I had spent more time back in those days cultivating my drawing skills, rather than much later in my career (though it’s never too late). The better you can draw, the better a graphic designer you will be. I wrote an article on Drawing Every Day that goes into more detail on this, and a personal challenge that I took up this year (2016).
3 - There Is Always Someone Better Than You
This is an adage, but it is absolutely true in graphic design. There will always be that designer, illustrator or artist who is ‘better’. So you can choose either to be jealous and depressed, or you can turn it into inspiration and fuel to become better. Be thankful for those folks, because without them you would probably stagnate and we would all suffer from a world of comic sans, abusive drop shadows and enormous bevels.
4 - Do What You Love
This is a tough one, and sadly not many of us get the chance to do it. Most professional designers have to work on projects they are not moved by, or even strongly dislike at some point in their careers, so I am telling you now (and my “self” in 1999) if you are in a position to do or work on what you love, make that stand now… If you love and truly enjoy what you are working on it will shine through, and others will love it too. If you can’t get that kind of work right away, see if you can find some side work (if you are allowed to) that will motivate you or work on a self-started project that moves you. Your success with these side or personal projects may get you noticed and into a position that will allow you to continue doing it.
5 - Listen
Early in my career, I could have used the advice, “Listen”. Listening, I mean really listening to your client's needs and goals are critical to your success. There were a number of times early on that I would already have what I thought the solution was in my head, and not fully listen after that point. Had I taken the time to listen further and follow up with the right questions those projects would have been more successful.
6 - Observe, Learn, and Grow
Do everything you can to learn new things, and observe everything around you from nature to all the design that surrounds us in all its forms. Visual communication is everywhere. If we get too laser focused in one area we can get into a rut. You won’t know everything about design and its myriad of disciplines, so humble up and be prepared to learn or try new things. The solution many times is in the discomfort of trying something new or different.
7 - Don’t Give It Away
Early on I had to do some work at discounted prices just to get it for the purpose of building a ‘portfolio’. It's not that uncommon, and you may have to do it, but don’t sell yourself too short, or even worse don’t give it away. I don’t like design contests, either where the prize is that the company will use your work and pay X dollars to the winner. Giving away your work or participating in certain design competitions hurts the profession, and does nothing for your self-esteem later.
“If you get good enough at something, people will pay you to do it.”
8 - Track Everything
I really wish I had heeded this advice early on. If you are a freelance designer, it is essential to track your time and costs. How else will you be able to figure out what to charge for services? Granted there are different models today for billing other than hourly, like value-based pricing. But if you are new to the game and you don’t track things, you won’t even know where to start.
9 - Perfect is the Enemy of Good
How many times have you found yourself taking far longer on a project, trying to make it perfect or as close to as possible? How long have you spent second guessing or trying to anticipate what the client might “like” or “approve”? I can tell you, at least from my experience that this can add up to a lot of wasted time (refer to point 8 in this blog…). A 7.5 that gets shipped is better than that ten that never gets launched.
Find that balance of quality and acceptance. Get things done, and get them in front of the client. The sooner this is done, the sooner the project is completed. Paydays are good.
10 - Buy and Read “The Elements of Typographic Style.”
There are so many good books out there on graphic design today; there were fewer back in 1999, but there was one that I wish I latched onto earlier. The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst was one of those books that all designers need to read. Despite its title it transcends typography.
11 - Just because Photoshop has a layer effect or filter for it, that doesn’t mean we have to use it
Back in circa ‘99, there was a prevalence of drop shadows, bevels, chrome effects, and various other filters being overused. I fell prey to this early on because it was easy and it often impressed the client. Knowing what I know now, it didn’t really help them at all.
Remember that design or design elements that aren’t necessary to conveying the message or enhancing the user experience are just decoration.
All these potentially gaudy affectations like Photoshop layer effects and filters take away from the message far more often than they help to promote it. Remember trends come and go, be discerning and recognize what the trend is and what is useful to move the design and message in the right direction.
Legendary designer, Deiter Rams said this about good design:
“Good design is as little design as possible.”
These are just some of the things I would have liked to impart on my past self, and I sincerely hope that if you are just starting out that these help you too.
So, is there any more advice you would have given to a past self?