Tips to designers who are starting out

There’s nothing more daunting than a blank page. There’s also nothing more exciting than a blank page.

When you are first starting out as a designer, whether on your own, in-house or at an agency, everything is exciting and daunting at the same time. There’s so much promise but also the feeling that you are walking around in a booby-trapped jungle and might get swept up and turned upside down in one of those clever nets that Scooby Doo is good at rescuing people from. You’re probably working non-stop if you’re in-house or at an agency and if you’re on your own you may be on the first ride around the almost inevitable rollercoaster of workflow.

For freelancers and people building up their own portfolios – perhaps even in their free time from their day jobs – here are some tips gained from more than twenty years working in the design business, from freelancing to working in-house at Gucci Group to having my own design studios since 2002.

1. Be open to criticism.
This is still the hardest thing for me to do! If you can manage to not be personally hurt if someone doesn’t like your work, and better yet to learn from feedback, you will grow and learn to work with difficult clients. There will always be differences of opinion and sometimes you will need to decide whether you want to stick to your guns, maybe even losing a project, or do what the client wants. Sometimes you will need to telepathically understand what a bumbling client wants and bring it to life, amazing them and probably yourself.

Graphic design used to be called ‘commercial art’ and these days people probably talk even more about brand storytelling than even graphic design. Design is not the outlet to expose your tortured soul to the world. You are probably putting your heart and soul into your work, but part of the beauty of graphic design is that you are doing it for a purpose, which is often a commercial purpose. There is a clear brief (in reality an endangered species!) and your job is to answer the brief. It is difficult to get away from the subjectivity of design and there will not be one right answer. It’s a journey that you and your clients are on together and it’s not always easy.

2. Be professional from day one.
Part of being professional is charging for your work. If you don’t want to charge properly, that’s up to you – you can think of it as a training ground, like getting an allowance as a kid. If you always charge for your work, your clients will value your time more and won’t waste it: after all, 10 hours x $0 is the same as 20 hours x $0. That’s the outward face of professionalism, together with good communication – about what your client needs to provide to you, your timelines, and any hiccups along the way.

Being professional in managing your own work means tracking your time, costs and profitability – knowing your numbers. It also means being strategic about the work you take on, for example if you want to work in a particular sector or avoid others because of ethical reasons. Over time your experience will evolve into a refined business sense that will allow you to thrive.

There’s a rule of thumb you can tell your clients: ‘Good, quick, cheap. Pick two.’

3. Choose your projects wisely.
Especially if you are undercharging it won’t be hard for you to find work. On the flip side, you may find it hard to pay your rent. For designers just starting out, there are 3 reasons to take on projects. At the beginning, just one of these 3 reasons is enough.
1. It pays well.
2. It’s for a high profile client so it will boost your portfolio and can create publicity.
3. It allows you to develop creatively: taking on that blank page that daunts and excites you.

You can set your own brief for the third type of project. Even established design studios like our ‘cousins’ Grain Creative in Australia regularly explore ‘What if…’ briefs to keep themselves on their toes.

4. Find your inspiration.
Beer (or margaritas) and pizza (or kale chips) can keep you going for years of late nights. Eventually their power will probably fade and you will look elsewhere for fuel and inspiration. Part of why I like working across different design disciplines and client sectors is that things can often connect in surprising ways. One client might mention something about a naming challenge they had which is a good story to tell to a client in another sector.

Outside of the design world completely, a triple rainbow might spark a layout idea focusing on repetition and colour. Helping my left-handed son with his written homework makes me realise how the world is set up for the other 90% of people; even where a spiral is placed on a notebook is taken for granted.

Whatever you do in your non-design time: writing music, playing video games, travelling, cooking, watching films or TV…your mind will be whirring along in the background finding inspiration and connections. With the change of scene, your mind and spirit will be refuelled and ready to tackle the next design brief.

In conclusion: congratulations! You have chosen a field which allows a wonderful balance of creativity and business awareness. You can support yourself doing what you love, and helping other people grow their businesses all the while. Pretty amazing.

Say Something