You’ve finally done it, you’ve spent the last few years studying. Many weekends (or weekdays for that matter) nursing hangovers, wondering why your tongue is green and what on earth that taste is in your mouth. Your end of year show was a success. That poster you designed for a fictional brand of beer looks super rad tacked on your wall alongside that book jacket of Alice in Wonderland, which your lecturer wasn’t overly keen on but it really reflects your artistic abilities and that’s important – perhaps the overly sexual imagery was a bit over the top but you needed to stand out from your peers somehow. Yes, the show was definitely a success. Ten of the business cards you got printed have been taken and you know that you only gave six away to your classmates!
The above anecdote is only slightly exaggerated but there were a few important things I wish I had known before getting my first graphic design job. This industry is tough and I felt overwhelmingly under-prepared to deal with it. I was taught to harness my creative abilities. I’m absolutely not having a dig at my college lecturers (they were fantastic) but I felt there should have been more emphasis on the practical side of design and indeed the business aspect. Speaking with current colleagues and ex-classmates, I’m not the only one with this opinion. Whilst having a beautiful portfolio with solid pieces of work which shows your creativity is very important, I’ve listed a few things below that I wish I was taught:
1. Learn how to take criticism
This is possibly the hardest thing to do. You don’t have to be a proud person to not get the littlest bit upset or defensive when something you worked on all day gets ripped to shreds by someone’s personal opinion on it. Possibly that person isn’t being particularly fair and being able to give good, constructive criticism is as much a skill as being able to take criticism. Seek the opinion of someone who’s work you admire and get as much information from them as you can. If they don’t like it, ask exactly what it is they don’t like, if there are bits that work make sure they emphasise that. This is also true of receiving a client’s opinion of your work and they won’t necessarily soften the blow unlike a fellow designer. Basically, don’t take it personally and you will learn from it.
2. Use your gut instinct
Now this may directly contradict the last point! You should seek the opinions of others, it is helpful but don’t rely on them to the point where you become unsure of your own work and even your own opinions. Sometimes you just know when something looks good. You get that light bulb moment in your head and when you explain your idea/concept to your client or co-worker, you’ll sound much more convincing.
3. How much time you have on a job
Remember in Uni when a design brief for a leaflet took about 6 weeks? Well that’s not likely to happen anymore! You’ll probably get the brief on Monday morning, two concepts over by Tuesday morning, typeset and client reviewed by Wednesday mid-day, amends Thursday and off to print Friday. Initially it’s a scary prospect but this is an on-the-job learning process and it won’t necessarily happen overnight but you will naturally get quicker at completing jobs. Jobs with such short turnaround times may not always be portfolio worthy but they will be your bread and butter so don’t get hung up on it.
4. Job processes
This one could be a long one. How much did you learn about setting up a job for print? Or how to typeset a 40pp document using paragraph styles and master pages? It may have been included in one lesson where the lecturer explains that images should be 300dpi for print and colours should be converted to CMYK but unless you get round to actually sending something to print, this information may not sink in. I wish this information was drilled into my brain or fed intravenously to me. An incredible looking job can turn into a complete disaster for you and your client if something bad happens with the print process. Graphic design is equal parts creative and practical, make sure you learn properly about setting up jobs for print and learn about setting up pre-flight checklists to make your life easier. The same goes for typesetting of documents whether it be a flyer or a 100 page health and safety manual. You probably learn about the intricacies of typefaces and you might have spent quite a bit of time downloading free fonts from Dafont.com but actually learning about how to set up files in a clean, professional manner won’t just be good for your sanity It will also make it easier if another designer has to work on the same file. Simple things like putting page numbers at the bottom of every page by using a master page is something that, surprisingly, is not taught very often. The hierarchy of type is another – headings, sub-headings, body copy, bullet points etc. These can be set up using paragraph styles and will definitely save you time, in case the client of that 100 page health and safety manual decides he no longer likes Helvetica as his body copy and wants you to change it all!
There are many, many other examples of job processes that I could list but I think that will belong on another article. The next point though will help you with that though.
5. Ask questions
You don’t know it all. Don’t act like you do either. Be humble and ask questions. If you don’t have a clue about how printing works, ask a printer – they will thank you for it! In your first job or internship, don’t sit there struggling through something if you don’t understand it. Asking questions is actively encouraged so that you can get it right. Quite simply it’s the quickest way to learn.
6. Never stop learning
Our industry is in a constant state of change, whether it be design trends, updated software or shifts from traditional print to digital. Keep your skills up to date and make sure you visit a design blog once in a while to see what’s going on. Sometimes it’s the simplest of things that can make the biggest difference. My colleague Dan blew my tiny brain the other day by showing me a shortcut to put multiple rectangle boxes on a page without copy and pasting madly (fyi, you drag the rectangle tool box out whilst tapping the arrow keys).
This is a bit tricky if you freelance but if you work in an agency you should try as much as possible to collaborate. Even if it’s just simply asking another person’s opinion, it goes a long way to making a great team which is crucial when you have a particularly busy day. You will lean on your teammates and them on you when a busy day at work almost becomes a brown trousers moment. It also means that if you ask their opinion, they will most certainly ask for yours which in turn makes you into a more respected designer and valuable co-worker.
8. Enjoy what you do
Personally I think it would be very tricky to last very long or have pieces of work which you’re proud of in this industry if you don’t genuinely like what you do. The hours can be long, the clients can be very trying and sometimes the briefs can be downright uninspiring, but with the bad comes the good and occasionally you’ll have a great project which you’ve actually enjoyed. If you love what you do sometimes those stressful days just seem like another challenge to rise to and if you’ve got great workmates like I do, the days pass by in a flurry of laughter. Even a boring brief can be turned on it’s head if you have the courage to challenge the client but none of this is possible if you don’t enjoy what you do.