5 things you wish design school have taught you

cartoon teaching graphic design

When you were a kid, you used to get praise from friends and family on how good your drawings skills were. I’m sure your first thought was: – “meh, you’re just patronizing me…”

But when you started winning poster-making contests, and seeing your creations in mini art exhibits at school, you’re finally convinced.

– “I am an artist!”

You’ve developed design skills over the years and decided it’s time to get a proper course on it.

Even if your parents wanted you to be a lawyer or a doctor (“hi mom!”), you’ve decided to pursue a career in design because you know, deep in your heart, that it’d make you truly happy.

Boy going to design school
Graphic design school, here I come!

Your parents then let you go to a design school (half-heartedly, nonetheless), where you had the time of your life designing ads, creating illustrations, and painting masterpieces.

You graduated and landed a job in graphic design. #WINNING!

In your first job, your boss assigned you a web design project, which you eagerly took on. After reading the brief, you poured 150% of your time and attention just to get the first pass done.

Design Sent. Awesome!

Few hours later, you get an email from the client: A 5-paragraph essay about your choice of color with the gist being: “they like orange better than blue”.

– Orange it is, then. 

You revise – ironing out a few details here and there. 

Design sent. Done.

A few minutes and another essay came. This time about the fonts you chose.

– Uhhh. Okay. Font revised.

Design sent.

– “We need to change the stock photos”.

Design sent.

– “Make the logo bigger”.

Design sent.

– “I’m still not feeling it…”

Table flip meme

You can hardly recognize the first option you created, and every bone in your body knows that the original design was way way better. But yeah, the client chose the ugly morphed version.

You created a masterpiece only to be chopped up and replaced with different parts.

A few projects later and you feel empty like a robot: only getting instructions, not creating at all. 

You quit. 

It’s your boss’ and the client’s fault, right?

You get another design job only to find out that everything is happening all over again with the next company. And the one after that, and the one after that…

The design industry is not only rainbows and butterflies. It has storms and spiders too.

What am I missing here?

Sometimes, love (for design) just ain’t enough to get you through complex projects with difficult clients. You need more skills to thrive in the creative industry.

And you surely wish those skills were taught in design school…

Skill # 1: How to educate clients

Most people are not designers, so when they think of design, they’re usually overwhelmed, busy and not very knowledgeable about design rules. So, their tendency is to request designs that are overwhelming, busy, and might break a few design rules.

They are “babies” (design-wise),  trying to walk but plops bum first with every attempt.

Since you’re more mature with design skills, you are the “parent”. You must hold their hand and help them get to where they want to go. They know the toy they want, they just need your help to get it!

Pop Quiz!

Let’s say a baby wants to reach for a glass of water. What do you do?

Go!

(a) pull the baby away and say “no, no, no”, because you know the glass will break

(b) give the baby a plastic tumbler with water

(c) get the glass of water yourself and you let the baby drink from it while you hold the glass

(d) let the baby get the glass and watch it shatter to pieces a few moments later

The ideal answer is the option B, right?.

The baby doesn’t (just) want the glass, they’re thirsty. With option B, you not only give them a drink, but you also teach them how to hold a tumbler.

As the primary caregiver, you need to assist them without spoon-feeding (option C), leaving them thirsty (option A) or irresponsibly let them make a mess (option D).

So whenever you have a client who has no idea what they need, remember this analogy and be a responsible (design) parent 👨‍👩‍👧

mother teaching baby to walk cartoon
Parenting a client will be worth it.

Skill # 2: How to think outside the box

If I got a penny every time I heard someone say “think outside the box” to a creative person, I would be able to buy myself a trip around the world. In the business class. Bye! ✈️

It’s easier said than done, of course! People who say that, most often simply want something new but they don’t know exactly what.

How do you think outside the box?

Before you break the rules, you have to know the rules enough to break them.

Start with the “box”.

Begin with the brief and figure out what are the confines of the project, what’s set in stone and how much leeway you have to work around it.

For example, because the logo is part of the branding, it must always be black. Due to this  rule, you should never use a black background against the logo because you won’t be able to see it (duh). But you can always use contrasting elements in the back to help it stand out.

Thinking outside the box means you keep the box as reference, stay near the box and not travel to a faraway galaxy to get to a new concept.

When your idea comes from another world, expect the client to say:

– “This is off-brand”; 

– “Not like what I instructed at all”;

– “Please give me another option”;

– “I like our old design better”.

Remember, out of the box, not out of this world.

Thinking of ideas cartoon
Thinking out of the box

Skill # 3: How to process feedback

Most designers are eager to give their best in every design simply because they are oozing with passion for what they do. That being said, negative feedback (or too many revisions) can feel daunting and disheartening at times.

As a designer, how do you deal with this? Objectively, of course.

Remember, it is not about you. Never👏 about👏 you👏.

Think about it:

Your project is to design a shampoo label with a cartoon illustration in the front. In the illustration you made, the character’s hair looks like yours because you love your new haircut.

Then the client sends their feedback:

– “Wrong hairstyle! Please change the cartoon’s hair to an afro because this product is for that target audience”.

Does the client hate you? Of course not!

The design simply doesn’t meet the objective. That’s it.

What about clients with never-ending revisions?

Some people just don’t know what they want so your best bet would be to
(1) educate them
(2) give them options or
(3) just follow their instructions to the dot.

Now, if even after all these efforts revisions still keep coming in, it’s time to remind yourself:

It’s not you. It’s them.

Like in a relationship, you date a person you jive with. Someone who gets you, and you get them. If both of you have a lot of friction and you totally are out of ideas on how fix it, maybe it’s time to part ways.

There are many fishes in the sea.

Skill # 4: How to communicate effectively

– “Oh, I’m not a people person, that’s why I chose to do graphic design: because it’s for introverts”.

Van Gogh, is that you?

✨Newsflash✨

Graphic design’s objective is to grab people’s attention. And your client is the first person you have to attract.

That’s impossible without communication.

If you’re expecting people to get your message just by looking at your design, you’re better off framing it and displaying it in a gallery. (On second thought, people in galleries don’t usually know what they’re looking at, but you get my point…)

Unfortunately, web and graphic design isn’t supposed to be showcased in a gallery. Design is a skill to be used in advertising, marketing and sales.

If you’re more comfortable writing your thoughts down first before getting into a call, do exactly that.

If you are not a native English speaker, consider the message in your native language before translating it. You’ll gain more clarity this way. However, if the majority of your clients are English speakers, it is beneficial to pursue fluency in the language so that communication becomes more fluid in the long run.

Your design has to tell a story and engage your audience in a way that they take action. So if you don’t know the purpose of your designs well enough to explain it, you’re toast.

Cartoon presenting designs
Effective communication is critical to a successful design career

Skill # 5: Empathy

Emotional design is powerful.

A designer can impact a customer’s feelings toward a brand and push them to buy just by using design and illustrations.

That’s a superpower in itself.

To sharpen this superpower, you need empathy, which is the ability to understand and share someone else’s feelings.

Empathy with the client’s target audience is a solid method to perfect the design and the copy. Why? Because by understanding the customer’s emotional triggers, the designer can connect and get the idea across.

Take, for example, a tampon brand. Do you believe that all designers that make tampon ads must be female? Is it necessary for a designer to have a period? (gross…)

Obviously not, right?

The key: Empathy.

Bonus Skill: Patience

Be patient with clients but also be patient with yourself. There is a lot of room to grow, and even big-time designers continue to learn each and every day.

Hold your improvement against your own standards. When you make a mistake, learn from it. Be brave enough to try designs out of your comfort zone. Growth doesn’t happen in that zone. 

Make an effort to improve every day, even if it’s just 1%, it’s still an improvement. 

Real-life is the best school

Only by putting these abilities into practice in real life will you be able to master them. And if you go back and read what I mentioned, you’ll notice that these skills are also applicable in other fields outside design.

Consider every situation as a learning opportunity and you’re golden.