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

Colored pencils

Published May 19, 2018

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 ARE NOT LIKE YOUR INSTRUCTORS. In college, your instructors were a bit like clients — you needed to please them to earn a good grade. You design instructor was mostly concerned about you, your creativity, developing your skills and your growth. Clients care most about their bottom lines and how you can help them accomplish their goals. Unlike your school instructors, they're not designers and their priorities are very different. So with that said, let's move on down through the list.

2. CREATIVITY ISN'T EVERYTHING. I'm not saying it's okay to copy because it isn't. But not every job warrants a creative masterpiece. Unless you just happen to land that one-in-a-million job, much of your time will be spent working on boilerplate projects where great, innovative, ground-breaking design is neither warranted, possible, sensible nor even wanted.

3. SOME CLIENTS CAN BE DIFFICULT. 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. Sometimes they seem dead set on sabotaging your best efforts. Remember, though, that you're the designer. They hired you for your expertise in helping them. It's up to you to convince them that you know what you're doing.

4. GREAT DESIGN TAKES A BACK SEAT TO EARNING A LIVING. 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 considering the budget, the time limits and the various constraints imposed by the client and the project. Make your client happy, get paid, then move on. Save those sleepless nights worrying about what you can control — not what you can't.

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 persuade a skeptical client. There needs to be well-thought-out, strategic 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. 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 little to do with you getting to express yourself and make cool stuff. 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 people. Written agreements outlining what clients expect of you and what they owe you in return serve as the final word in case there's confusion or misunderstandings later on. Contracts protect both you and your clients. They serve as mutually agreed-upon legal documents that both parties can reference in case of a misunderstanding.

10. YOUR DESIGN INSTRUCTOR MIGHT HAVE BEEN WRONG. What? No way, you say. He knew everything and was a design genius, wasn't he? Maybe and maybe not. Think about it for a minute. Was your instructor a working design professional, or a professional teacher who taught design? Did your instructor spend more time wrestling with university politics or actual clients in the business world? I'm not saying to forget what you learned in design school — I'm just saying the business world operates under different rules than school.

Bonus tip

You made it this far, so here's a bonus. It warrants more than a single paragraph, but for now…

11. THE REASON BEHIND THE CURTAIN. Clients (and employers) usually come to us with specific requests. "I need a logo." "We need a brochure." "Our website is outdated. We need a new one." It's up to you to ask questions about why they need what they've asked for. It's up to you to uncover those hidden objectives because your clients just might be better served by a different approach they hadn't considered. Remember, you're more than a rented pair of hands — as a designer, you're an expert at uncovering what's really needed then figuring out how to deliver it.

Cory Maylett

Cory Maylett

I'm a passionate proponent of developing practical solutions to communication problems through good design. My professional career has included newspapers, magazines, books, websites, corporate branding and, occasionally, typefaces. In these roles, I've been a designer, web developer, design director, editor, creative director, communication and marketing director and a incessant freelancer.