Opinions, diatribes, apologies and other random nonsense

So you thought your fancy new diploma meant that you knew it all. Think again.

Colored pencils

Published May 19, 2017

FOUR YEARS and many thousands of dollars later, you got what you wanted — a great design education from a top-notch school. You've done everything right, and it's time to make your mark on the world. But wait, the professional world is turning out to be different from school. What happened?

Many former students have difficulty adjusting to the realities of work. All too often the skills and talents that lead to good school grades don't translate all that well into immediate real-world success. I know that I had trouble adjusting after graduation. Years later, I've written down ten of those important differences that would have saved me a good deal of anguish if only someone had told me sooner instead of having to learn it on my own. With that said...

1. CLIENTS DON'T CARE. This is important, and most everything that follows hinges on this one important truth. Well, okay, it's not completely true because they do care — they just don't care about what you, as a student, were taught to care about. Instead, they care most about their bottom line and how you can help them. So with that said, let's move on down through the list.

2. ORIGINALITY ISN'T EVERYTHING. I'm not saying it's okay to copy because it isn't. But there's no need to make everything you design a creative masterpiece. Unless you just happen to land that one-in-a-million job, much of your time will be spent working on ho-hum projects where great, innovative, ground-breaking design is neither warranted, possible, sensible nor even wanted.

3. SOME CLIENTS CAN BE ILLOGICAL. Yeah, I know this hardly comes as a surprise to anyone who's been working in the field for more than six months. Still, I don't remember seeing it mentioned in any design books or discussed in class.

4. GETTING PAID IS MORE IMPORTANT THAT GREAT DESIGN. Yeah, I said it, and I'm standing by it. Since most clients aren't all that concerned with you winning a design award for their work, just do the best you can. Make your client happy, get paid, then move on. Save those sleepless nights worrying about this stuff for when that truly promising project comes along with potential for doing something great for the client who needs that kind of work.

5. EVERYTHING IS PART OF THE DESIGN. You're a designer and not a copywriter — right? I mean you didn't become a designer because you were great at spelling? Um, think again. Do you really think that your design is an island that is somehow separate from the rest of the brochure or poster or catalog. Nope, it's all the same thing — if the copy is bad, the design won't matter. It's your job as a designer to ensure the whole thing is designed right — words and all.

6. DON'T ALWAY DO WHAT THE CLIENT WANTS. I know this goes against the whole customer is always right philosophy. And I can't count how many times I've heard designers say, "It's the client's money." Remember, the client (or employer) came to you because you're the designer. In other words your expertise is needed. Now sometimes you'll need to use your best persuasive powers to convince them, but that's part of the job. If your best efforts don't work, go back to item 4.

7. THERE NEEDS TO BE A REASON WHY. If you can't explain why you decided to use yellow instead of green or why you decided against using this typeface instead of that one, you'd better start figuring it out. Just saying, "it looks better this way," won't sound all that persuasive to a skeptical client. There needs to be well-thought-out reasons for your design decisions, and you need to be able to explain how your decision is in the client's best interests.

8. FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION. Okay, so you already learned this little maxim in school, but I'll bet it didn't fully sink in. And the instructor who told you about it most likely didn't say it with heartfelt conviction. It's true, though — the reason you're hired to design anything has almost nothing to do with you getting to express yourself and make cool stuff. Instead, making things cool or beautiful are simply strategies designers use to create solutions that solve problems. Putting it another way, if the brochure you're working on is meant to sell widgets, the success of that brochure will be determined by how well those widgets sell — not by the number of design awards it accumulates.

9. GET IT IN WRITING. It's not just a matter of protecting yourself from less-than-honest weasels who are out to screw you over. Written statements outlining projects and what's expected serve as the final word in case there's confusion or misunderstandings later on. When the client expects a third, fourth or fifth revision, you've got a piece of paper to pull out saying that you both agreed that there would be only a maximum of two revisions before that hourly fee kicked in.

10. YOUR DESIGN INSTRUCTOR MIGHT HAVE BEEN WRONG. What? No way, you say. He knew everything and was a design god, wasn't he? Maybe and maybe not. Think about it for a minute. Was your instructor a working design professional, or was he a professional teacher who taught design? Did your instructor spend more time in academia wrestling with university politics, or did she spend most of her time wrestling with clients in the business world. I'm not saying to forget what you learned in design school — I'm just suggesting that you need to be skeptical and keep an open mind.