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The Five Things I Wish Somebody Had Told Me as a Design Student

Published: February 21, 2016
Updated: January 19, 2021

I recently had the privilege of attending Meet the Pros 2016 and addressing multiple small design student groups in roundtable discussions focused on the question: what do you wish you would have known about being a professional while you were still a design student?

I was at Meet the Pros myself two years ago, and it was a seminal experience in my professional path. I still flip through the small notebook in which I keep notes, quotes and advice that I wrote down during that two-day conference. And while I’m technically not a full-time graphic design professional anymore (I still freelance, but my focus is more diverse), it still got me thinking: what have I learned in the past two years? What would I have benefitted from knowing as my two-years-younger self?

Here’s what I answered, and what I told the design students I spoke to last Tuesday. It was fun to think about and write for me; hopefully it’s helpful for you in some way as well.

Being a Great Person is Just as important as Having a Great Portfolio

I’ve written about this topic before, but I feel it bears repeating: we’re reminded constantly as design students that the goal of everything we’re doing is to come out of our program with an amazing portfolio. That portfolio, of course, will (hopefully) get us a job. And we have the message drilled into our heads on an almost daily basis: a bad portfolio can cost you a job that you might have otherwise gotten.

But not enough attention is paid to the other side of that coin, in my opinion. An important message gets lost in all the talk of a perfect book full of perfect projects: when it all comes down to it, an employer can’t hire your portfolio; they have to hire you. And you can cost your portfolio a job it might have otherwise gotten.

I was in a Q&A session recently with Dusty Davidson, one of the founders and owners of Flywheel, in which somebody asked him: what should companies be looking for in a potential employee?

If you’re not familiar with Flywheel, it’s an enviable place to work. (Full disclosure: Flywheel is my current employer, but this is far from a subjective stance; Flywheel recently won two Silicon Prairie Awards for Best Culture and Startup of the Year, respectively). They’re a respected company with a phenomenal culture and a highly successful product, built on a firm belief in design.

So one might have expected Dusty’s answer to follow along those lines professionally and to sound like a checklist of résumé items. But in a somewhat unorthodox and casually practical manner, he answered with the following three almost entirely non-résumé- and non-portfolio-related items:

  • Someone who is impressive. Whether that’s related to their job directly or not is somewhat beside the point. Are they an impressive person in some way, whether that’s their portfolio, their background, their conversation, the way they carry themselves, or some other way?
  • Someone who is passionate. Again, not necessarily related to the job. Ideally, yes, you have passion for what you’re doing professionally, but it could be anything. Knowing that this person is somebody who cares about something and is focused on it says a lot about them.
  • Someone other people want to be around. A successful work environment, team and culture starts from there, and any hirer worth their salt knows this.

Frankly, I wish I’d been given that list two years ago. I wish somebody had told me that my portfolio wasn’t the only way I could stand out, and indeed, wasn’t the only way I should stand out. That my portfolio wasn’t the one getting hired; I was.

There’s a phenomenal quote that I heard from Marty Amsler of Bailey Lauerman when I was at Meet the Pros: “A good portfolio gets you an interview; a good attitude gets you a job.”

Being the right person is usually at least as important as having the right portfolio. So while you’re working on your book, don’t forget to work on yourself, too. Be impressive. Be passionate. Be somebody other people want to be around.

Your Worst Instructor is Still Better Than Any Bad Client

Let’s be real: we all have instructors we didn’t like in school. And while sometimes that may have been for good reason, if we’re honest with ourselves, a lot of the time it’s because we didn’t like their feedback. But whenever I hear students speak derisively of an instructor (which, it should go without saying, is something you should absolutely never do in any remotely professional setting), I feel compelled to let them know how good they have it right now:

  • Your worst instructor sets a timeline and a deadline and sticks to it; bad clients do no such thing.
  • Your worst instructor will lay out clear goals and expectations which will not change; this is not a given with clients.
  • Your worst instructor is one person with one voice; bad clients have committee members with conflicting opinions.
  • Your worst instructor will not drop the project or refuse to contribute as needed or even to show up; a bad client may.
  • Your worst instructor is doing what they do because they believe in design in some way; bad clients do not share this belief.
  • Your worst instructor will give you feedback relevant to the project’s goals and expectations, with an understanding of the design process that went into your work; bad clients will behave irrationally, emotionally, and without any reason whatsoever.

Besides the above, speaking poorly of anyone is a surefire way to throw a giant red flag in the professional world. So just don’t do it.

Instead, realize that your instructors are there to help you succeed. Besides, accepting and acquiescing to feedback you might not agree with is excellent practice for being a professional…

You’re Going to Need Thick Skin (and Zero Pride)

As noted above, real-world clients make all kinds of decisions for all kinds of reasons, many of which are irrational and likely to be against your professional advice. They will tear down your work, give you exactly the opposite of what you need, focus on the wrong things and hold with an unyielding death grip to their preconceived and baseless notions of what the final product ought to look like.

Don’t despair; there is a lot you can do to quell this behavior. If you haven’t read 13 Ways Designers Screw Up Client Presentations by Mike Monteiro (my design hero), you must do so before you ever give a professional presentation. Seriously; bookmark that link right now. Or just go read it instead of finishing this post. It’s fine. That article is much better than this one anyway.

But no matter how good your research, process, rationale and work are, sometimes the client will still be wrong. Sometimes they won’t be able to differentiate between something that they personally like and something that will be effective for their goals. Sometimes they will make the wrong decision even when you find the most superlatively diplomatic and persuasive ways to inform them that they are wrong. And sometimes—sometimes—you have no option but to accept that you and your client simply have irreconcilable views of the project.

There seems to be a bit of elitism that gets built into designers on their way through school. (Design is not unique in this way, of course; many creative fields seem to instill a certain haughtiness in their recruits.) But the sooner you can jettison this baggage, the better.

Ego does as much good for a designer as a 20-pound pair of boots does a swimmer. It will do nothing but hold you back, both with professionals and with clients. Ego is self-sabotage; professionals can sniff it out for the toxin it is, and it will poison every aspect of your relationship with your clients.

Ok, I may have gone overboard with the mixed metaphors. But the point is: ego is counterproductive at best and suicidal at worst. Take pride in your work, but don’t be prideful. Defend your work, but don’t be defensive.

Like it or not, what we do—while grounded in many objective principles and disciplines—is still subjective. My view of green is different than yours and your feelings about this typeface are different than mine. Our experiences lead us to different conclusions about what we see. It’s nobody’s fault. Keep the end goal and target audience in mind (your client probably isn’t at this point) and just move on.

Only Do the Work If You Care (and Don’t Care About the Money)

It’s pretty fashionable—downright cliché, actually—to advise people to follow their passions these days (particularly in blog posts). Sure, I’d give that advice to anyone, but this is about more than that. It’s about aligning yourself to the right people and the right goals because that’s what makes the work worthwhile.

Obviously, you probably won’t have the luxury of picking your employer or your clients right out of school. But when and if the opportunity comes along to choose between making more money or doing something you care more about, my advice is to take the second option every single time.

Let me share a couple of examples from my personal experience:

When I was in school, I was lucky enough to land a gig doing regular contract work. I didn’t care about the work itself, but the money was great and the perks were fantastic. And I loved it…at first.

What you fail to realize as a poor design student is that money is a drug. And like any drug, its effect can only last so long. Then you realize that no amount of it actually changes the dismal situation you’re in.

There was a time when, if that employer who was handing me contract work would have offered to hire me on full time, I would have accepted the position with open arms. But when the buzz of good pay and free soda wore off, I realized I was working for people who didn’t share my values and doing work I didn’t care about to further goals I didn’t believe in.

I didn’t actually want to be where I was or doing what I was doing, and money was comically and tragically powerless to change that.

This advice comes with two very important caveats:

  1. This is not a license to be a lazy creative. You don’t always get to do things you care about when you feel like doing them. Do your work anyway.
  2. Success looks different to everyone, and you need to know in advance what it looks like for you. Maybe to you, success does equal a big paycheck. But for me personally, success has almost nothing to do with money (and I would argue it should be that way for any designer; this isn’t a career to take on if you want to retire wealthy).

I wound up leaving that job for one that paid literally half as well and offered even fewer hours. In effect, I made the difficult decision to take a pay cut of greater than 50% at my next internship in order to work at a smaller shop where I respected the work and aligned with the values of the people.

And you know what? It was unequivocally the best decision I could have made. Sure, it was tough. But I was happier, I was doing better work, and because of that, it led to things my previous position never could have.

Some time later, motivated by some tight financial times, I made the opposite decision. I took on the best-paying freelance project I’d ever gotten even though I couldn’t actually get behind the values of the client. And as you may have guessed, I was abjectly miserable. There was a point in the middle of the dozens and dozens of hours of work that I had agreed to and that I couldn’t possibly outsource when I thought to myself, I would actually pay my contract to get out of doing this work right now.

The thing is, the work itself wasn’t bad. In fact, it was the kind of work that, under most other circumstances, I might have been doing just for fun. But knowing that my time and efforts were being transformed into a vehicle for furthering goals I didn’t agree with for people whose values didn’t align to mine sucked any hope of enjoyment out of the project. It was supposed to be freedom; it became entrapment.

Design is hard enough work as it is. Don’t make it harder by shackling yourself to people and projects you don’t care about. It’s never worth it. Assuming your needs are met otherwise, financial deficiency is an easier burden to carry than creative despair.

School Doesn’t Prepare You to Manage a Professional Workload

There’s little school can do—outside of becoming entirely unreasonable—to prepare a design student for the timeline and workload of a professional environment. In school, you can get away with taking a worse grade or turning in a project a little late or maybe even redoing a project entirely if it doesn’t go well. If you feel like playing video games instead of further perfecting your work, it’s fine. You have weeks to work on it anyway most likely, and you can always revise the project before it eventually goes into your portfolio. The deadline definitely won’t change. It’s possible nobody outside your class will ever see the project. And besides, nobody’s going to hire you based on your GPA anyway. (Trust me; nobody’s once asked me.)

In short, the price for failure in school is relatively low, and this is absolutely not the case in the professional world.

Failure in school is a continuum; failure in the professional world is an absolute. There’s no bad grade and there are few revisions to be had; there are just unhappy clients, which can lead quickly to unemployment if the fault is yours.

The timeline is also often very different; as a professional, you may very well be working on a project that is due this afternoon when you just found out about it this morning. That project may have initially had a completely different timeline when the client suddenly decided they needed it right now. You will very likely be juggling any number of projects at once, and if you don’t feel like it or would rather trade in a little quality work for some quality time, you don’t often get that luxury.

Sometimes all your professional projects are out waiting on client feedback and you have nothing but free time. Sometimes you get all of those projects back in the same day and have to find a way to complete them all. School can only do so much to teach you to manage your downtime responsibly in order to be prepared when timelines shift and work comes flooding in. Because of my own failure to learn this (a longstanding personal downfall), I never worked as hard as a design student as I was forced to work as a professional.

No, not all design jobs demand insane scheduling, but some do. Hopefully you won’t land at a self-serving agency where they treat their interns like batteries to be sucked of their energy and then discarded, but maybe you will for a while. Hopefully your clients stick to timelines and you can keep the flow of work smooth, but maybe not. Regardless, the kind of time management skills involved in maintaining that balance and still putting out quality work is a much more intense and focused version than school often demands.

It’s very important to practice good time management skills before you have to learn the hard way. Trust me; I’ve put in enough unhealthily late nights and torturously early mornings to know that it’s way better to learn it as a student before your poor habits bite your career in the ass.

Hopefully I haven’t scared you away from wanting to be a design professional. This post admittedly spent a lot of time dwelling on the negative, but if you avoid the pitfalls that I failed to sidestep, this can be a wondrously fulfilling career. Best of luck, design student.