Ten things your design instructor didn’t mention

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

Colored pencils


FOUR YEARS and many thousands of dollars later, you got what you wanted — an excellent 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. The skills and talents that led to good school grades don't necessarily translate 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 learning it on my own. With that said…

1. CLIENTS ARE NOT LIKE YOUR INSTRUCTORS. Your instructors were a bit like clients in college — you needed to please them to earn a good grade. Your design instructor was mainly concerned about you, your creativity, your skills, and teaching you to become a designer. 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 isn't important, but not every job warrants a creative masterpiece. Unless you land that one-in-a-million job at a perfect company, you will spend much of your time working on boilerplate projects where ground-breaking design is neither warranted, possible, sensible, nor even wanted.

3. SOME CLIENTS CAN BE DIFFICULT. I know this hardly surprises anyone 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 clients (and employers) 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, not a copywriter — correct? You didn't become a designer because you were great at spelling? Um, think again. Your design isn't an island that is somehow separate from the rest of the brochure, poster, or catalog. Nope, it's all the same thing — if the copy is terrible, 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 ALWAYS 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." Listening to your client is critically important, but you're not simply an order taker. Remember, the client (or employer) came to you because you're the designer. In other words, they need your expertise. 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 why 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 anyone hires you to design anything has little to do with you getting a chance 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. Doing so isn't just a matter of protecting yourself from less-than-honest people. Written agreements outlining what you and clients expect of each other 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, right? 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 dealing with 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 academia.

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 why they need what they've asked you to design. 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 needed, then figuring out how to deliver it.

Cory Maylett

Cory Maylett

I'm a proponent of developing practical solutions to communication problems through good design. My career has included newspapers, magazines, books, websites, corporate branding and typefaces.