Tips For Newly Graduated Designers

I have had the good fortune of sitting with some recent grads who also happened to be former students of mine. When they were in my class, they were still barely whetting their appetites for design. The rules of clear communication were not so clear to them — they wanted to make “cool” things, not understand them. Of course, that’s a generalization of the students I had, but I can confidently say that it’s an accurate one. Mainly because I remember being the same way.

As I met with these now graduates, I was both elated and disheartened. They have come so far! And yet, I know they have a monumental task ahead of them to keep up. On the one hand, they are so well prepared for what is to come — often these students are more comfortable with adopting new technologies. They have a thorough understanding of how to manipulate images on screen. On the other hand, however, they are about to get completely blind-sided by an industry in constant change. They are walking into a field with competition so fierce, so good, so varied that it makes me grateful I’m not in their shoes.

You see, when I graduated school interactive media was in its infancy. Though it is still a young medium, it is one that has been moving at lightning speeds, constantly evolving and introducing new variables to the playing field. I am constantly overwhelmed by the amount of information and creativity I encounter each day. It literally feels like trying to drink from a fire hose. (I am reminded of the very first time I walked to Times Square in Manhattan. Anyone who’s been there can recall the very first time they were bombarded by all the lights, billboards, people and visual stimulation all around them. It is an overwhelming feeling to say the least.) But I have the added advantage of a few years under my belt to spot fads and trends more readily than new designers entering the field. I am able to curate and select the things that I need to focus on and understand. It is still an awesome task trying to sift through the information, but perhaps not as overwhelming as for some of these new grads.

Because of this I feel like sharing some things that may help. So without further ado and in no particular order:

Tips For Newly Graduated Designers

1. Be Medium-Agnostic. Forget about print vs. digital. In today’s design world those lines are blurred beyond recognition — you simply cannot afford to ignore one or the other. At least not as you begin your career. Learn how to manipulate and control both. Use the skills you learned in school to apply sound reason and thinking to your work – regardless of medium. If technology intimidates you, tackle it head on. You cannot afford to hide behind the many excuses about how you don’t like it. Not yet.

2. Think. Think hard. Not about what color harmonies go well here or what type face matches well with Minion, but about the right solution to the problem at hand. Understand the communication issue that you have been challenged with. Think not like an academic, but like an end-user. What is the purpose of the piece you are working on? Who is it for? Is there a better way to do it? Is the message on brand? Is it the right strategy? I often tell my students that designers and decorators are a dime-a-dozen. Thinkers, problem solvers, creators are difficult to find.

3. Study. Here’s a bit of heartbreaking news for you: your school, no matter how great it was, did not prepare you well enough. In today’s school curriculums, it is simply impossible to teach students even a tenth of what they should know. All that your professors can do is give you fundamental tools for you to chisel your way through. Four years (only two of which are dedicated towards core curriculum) is just not enough. You must supplement your education by reading up on the history of your craft. Learn about those who came before you. Learn about those who are your contemporaries.

4. Get Involved. As a new player in an over-saturated industry, it may be difficult to find your way on your own. Participate in as many industry-related events as time and money permit. Attend meetings, events and groups with your peers. Make yourself known. Put the introvert away for a night and hit that event. Meet your peers, your competition, your collaborators. And above all, be friendly. This is an industry overflowing with egos. The smallest hint of arrogance on your part and you may find yourself in a very uncomfortable situation very quickly.

5. Learn About Business. A designer is only as good as the work he or she is able to sell. For most (if not all) of your career, someone else will be calling the shots. Usually that someone is a marketing director, a ceo, a ceo’s spouse. Seldom will you have the freedom to do things your way — without selling the idea first that is. Keep in mind that the problem you are trying to solve typically involves a bottom-line. Don’t let academia or egos blind you into thinking otherwise. You are in the service industry. The single most important goal you should have is to make your client look good in front of his or her boss. So instead of trying to battle it out on making the logo bigger, take three steps back and determine what the root of the problem is. Nine times out of ten, the size, color or placement of the logo is only your client’s way of saying there’s something that’s not working, but he/she doesn’t know what it is. You should. A good rule of thumb to follow: never fall in love with the work you’re selling. Your personal work? — you can marry it if you want.

I will stop at five as this is getting super long, and I’ve got work tomorrow. Good luck, and feel free to comment or ask any questions.