5 Critical lessons your design professors never taught you

lessons i never learned from design professors graphic design blender
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I don’t know about you, but any art classes or design classes that I took in college were amazing yet unsatisfying at the same time.

Don’t get me wrong: I could never have made it without beginning design classes where we learned about alignment, repetition, font-choice, etc.

And (on most days) I wouldn’t trade my upper-level classes where the professors heavily critiqued your work almost to the breaking point all in hopes to make you a better designer.

But after I graduated from the University, I learned that there were some key things I wish I had known about the business of design.

Lessons my design professors almost never mentioned.

And important skills I’ve noticed a lot of designers struggle with.

So today, I’d like to discuss 10 critical lessons your design professor never taught you. (PS, if I’m totally off the mark and you had a completely different college experience, please leave a comment and let me know. PPS: I should also mention that I had an excellent college experience and learned billions of great life lessons. Here I’m referring exclusively to my design classes. And I’d love to hear what you have to say too.)

5 critical lessons your design professors never taught you

Lesson 1: Clients pay the bills, but the customer’s not always right.
When I started out as a designer, I thought that the client had the final say on any work you do.

And in some cases, that’s true.

But I quickly learned that our entire existence is not solely for the purpose of designing what the client thinks is best. In fact, I think it’s one of the biggest myths of graphic and web design.

If you position yourself correctly, you can establish a partnership with your client where they will respect your decisions and opinion. At that point, you become more than just a monkey with a Wacom tablet. You become a true designer.

Lesson 2: You don’t have to present your design process when presenting your designs.
This was a lesson that took me a little time to learn. In many of my classes we all sat around discussing the “why” behind our design before we ever revealed the final result.

I’ve since learned that this provides a false experience both for you and for your viewers. I won’t rant long here since I just wrote a whole post on this topic. Read it here:

“Why I never explain my designs before revealing them to my client”

Lesson 3: You don’t have to have decades of experience to land some great design gigs.
I always got the impression from many of my design professors that I would have to suffer through many years of low-paying design jobs before I really “made it” and got to start working on fun, lucrative projects.

That’s simply not true.

You are the owner of your own destiny.

And you can make things happen now if you want them bad enough.

Clients aren’t always looking for designers with decades of projects under the belt. Here’s the truth about what clients look for in a designer.

Lesson 4: Your elevator pitch is as important (or more important) than your design portfolio.
Finding new clients can be really hard. In fact, it’s one of the most requested topics here at GDB.

And one thing that got hammered into my head as a design student was the importance of polishing my design portfolio on a regular basis.

But no one ever told me that I needed to prepare an elevator pitch (PS, master your elevator pitch here.) No one ever taught me that I needed to be able to explain my business in 15 seconds or less in order to survive in the business world.

But that’s how it goes. When you’re working on finding clients, you have very little time to make a great impression and capture their business.

So, yes, polish up your portfolio. Put your best foot forward at all times.

And then be ready to explain what you do and why someone should hire you in less time than it takes to ride the elevator to your hotel room.

Lesson 5: Great designers steal.
You don’t have to be a puritan all the time.

You don’t have to have all the great ideas.

And you don’t have to build everything from scratch every day of your working life.

As Cameron Moll put it (ironically, stealing this quote from Picasso sort of): “Great Designers Steal.”

No doubt, clients are going to ask you at least once in your career to copy another designer’s work. (PS: Here’s how to handle that.)

Taking inspiration from other designers is ok. Using templates now and again? Also ok.

As long as you’re not blatantly stealing without giving proper credit (a very unfulfilling way to live life as a designer), then you’re fine.

Explore.

Learn.

Mimmick in an effort to improve.

Soon, you’ll find other designers are copying your work. And you know what they say: imitation is the highest form of flattery.

Did I get it right?

How did I do? Did I get pretty close?

What other key lessons did you fail to learn while you were a design student in college? Leave a comment and grow this list with me!

Great photo from katiew

About Preston D Lee

Preston is a web designer, entrepreneur, and the founder of this blog. @prestondlee

Comments

  1. I think you got it right! I wasn’t even a design student but ended up designing…so i don’t even know what you would learn. I pick up everything I learn from trial/error, educating myself, and google. Thanks for your insights!

    • KrazyKyngeKorny says:

      Not only is the customer OFTEN wrong, but, most designers are, ALSO, often wrong. Designers rely, for the most part, on cliches of design. Cliches are just crutches for thjose who can’t do.

      • Your response just opened up my eyes some more Krazy..

      • I agree Krazy! Most of the time designers do what they want to do, without truly understanding the business problem that their client faces. This is usually what leads to clients insisting on doing it “this way”. Just because it may look good, doesn’t mean it solves the objective.

    • Dan Olson says:

      Pretty liberating guidance. Yes you did get it right!

  2. Love your articles! Down to earth and practical. Most designers suck at the business end of design, so this really helps – even for the more experienced as things are constantly changing out there.

  3. Great insight and really helpful, your real life experience shows me that I am on the right track.

  4. Awesome article. #4 is a lesson that took me along time to understand, probably 3 years after college. I have an interview with a new client who’s never even seen my portfolio. They are speaking to me based solely on a 1-page pitch I submitted them. I highly recommend anyone uncomfortable in this area, should take a sales methodology training course.

  5. Art schools teach you next to nothing about how to succeed in the real world as a freelance designer. I’ve learned you just have to dive in head first to get started. What university did you go to? Going to a small art school verse a normal university are two totally different experiences.

  6. Spot on. But I have one to add: Keep up with technology. Five years out of college you will feel like a dinosaur if you don’t keep learning new technology. Read blogs, buy books, join AIGA or another group or whatever else works works to keep you motivated to learn more.

    • Thats great, as designers we should keep updated with changing technology or else…..trouble and bluff bluff bluff

  7. I’m not so sure about #5. Is this how most people feel? Inspiration from other’s work is one thing, but we pride ourselves on making from-scratch designs so that all of our clients get a unique and custom design. Do most people feel it’s okay to open yourself to editing templates and things of that nature?

    • Design from scratch is a nice luxury if you have the time and budget. I just completed a brochure for a non-profit that had neither time nor budget. I often browse through my template collection for inspiration. In this case I found a template that matched the concept I had in my head. I changed the graphics and text and job was done. Saved time and more important, saved them money they did not have. So, yes, templates do have a place in the design world. :-)

      • In my opinion, I think it works both ways. It is great to build our own ideas from scratch but at times our ideas are perfected when we have a glimpse at what somebody else has done.

  8. Fantastic post! I was lucky enough to have some business training through my university which got me started on basic building blocks like taking a brief, writing a proposal and communicating Terms and Conditions but I like how your post covers a lot of the personal interaction skills that weren’t discussed in my course and are often learnt over time on the job.

  9. Jennifer, in my current role, I find myself having to rely on stock vector art more than I ever imagined I would as a student. (Much more than when I was freelance, when I did my own illustrations and never used stock layouts.) While ideally I would gather inspiration and come up with something from there, I sometimes have a dozen pressing projects and my inspiration runs dry—not that I have time to even get inspired—and being able to take a template and tweak it is frankly necessary. It also takes a skilled designer to make those templates better, to elevate them to work for your needs. Is that the work I put in my portfolio? Never. But the ugly truth is that I don’t get paid enough or have enough time to create an amazing, completely from scratch design everytime, and more importantly, my clients couldn’t care less.

    I think this article was great because it is the reality for many designers that you won’t be able to put your all into every design. I’m striving to reach a point in my career where I can create original, elegant solutions to every design problem, but right now I make compromises that allow me to have a work/life balance. I think honesty is the best policy here; though as a student I think I would have felt like I was “too talented” to ever need a template. I was also “too talented” to wake up before 10:00, so things change!

  10. Totally agree with these especially point two!! Took me a while to realise I couldn’t spend months designing a project and that no-one cared what research/ideas went in, as long as the final design was great!

  11. I also think that what you have said is pretty “right on”. I teach a design class myself at a ‘for profit’ university and I definitely bring up these issues in my own class. Maybe the difference is that I am a business owner first and an instructor second. I actually had my students read your past article about stealing design last week and provide their opinion. I had a great, but lacking college education myself and wanted to instill some critical ideas into my students so that they were not as lost as I was when entering the design world. Unfortunately much of this current student generation isn’t very focused, and there will only be a couple of students in each class that really take away the info I am providing.

  12. I must agree with number one. In the real world where designers would work hard to earn a good reputation, customer’s not always right in our case. And with number 5 maybe it’s not stealing, I guess modifying other designers work, though you have a point on that.

  13. Excellent points, Preston! All of them are fantastic!

    Can I add a #6? YOU are responsible for figuring out the details. Too often in class you get a project where all of the details are already hammered out for you. That’s almost NEVER the case in the real world. YOU have to do the digging and asking with the client to find out what they’ve neglected to tell you, and there’s no cheat sheet of what that might be. You also have to beg for files/content you need instead of them being provided.

    I found this out hiring a designer right out of college at an in-house job. For every project, he needed his hand held. He couldn’t do a search on the server to find the project files on a super-organized server. He’d just stop and put the project on hold for someone to provide the information he needed instead of reminding them he needed that info and providing a deadline. He didn’t have this nice step-by-step project assignment that his professor usually provided, so he had absolutely no clue how to take charge of a project.

    • April,

      I agree with your addition of #6, I was that kid. Not only was everything laid out for me in my college work, but also where I worked as a graphic designer. I did what I was told, and the information was always finite before it got to me.

      I struggled with this when I quit my job to become a freelancer, so thank you for making mention of it here.

    • April,
      Excellent point. When I teach. the students always ask “what do you want me to do next?”. My answer is always “What do you think needs to be done next?”. Learning how to get there is more valuable than getting there.

  14. on Lesson 1: Clients pay the bills, but the customer’s not always right.
    This is an ideal situation if u were to deal with your client directly.

    During my 20 years as a graphic designer, I have being a “monkey with a Wacom tablet” most of the times. I always had to deal with the account manager in our company who just want to please client and made themselves look good.

  15. Point 2 really struck a chord.
    Having always subscribed to the explain first reveal second I had talked myself into believing that presenting without rationalising was some how diminishing the experience for the client but this is the real world, not art school!
    The client wants the result not the working out – we should be letting them make their own mind up and only be explaining our ideas if asked. Good design is like any good joke (if you have to explain it, it isn’t funny!)

    Colour me converted!

  16. I agree with all the points above. They all rear their ugly heads at some point throughout your career. I’ve been a graphic designer for over 25 years (hired and fired), and a good handful of those years also include teaching graphics classes at the college level. My teaching style is a very “real world” approach (and charmingly enough, a bit cynical). The one point I would add is that of communication (and every facet of it) 1) Dealing with clients. Seems simple enough, but students need to hone their skills at communicating properly and confidently with their clients. This is not taught. Rather students learn to just do what the teacher tells them. 2) Learning to networking. Just talking to a friend is one thing, but scoring a great paying design gig with a person you met on the elevator is quite different. Confidence is a big part of this. I’m not saying coddling, we’re talking real confidence where you have the guts to even approach that person on the elevator. 3) Communicating with vendors (printers, web gurus, signage companies, etc). If you don’t know how to “talk the talk”, you risk paying through the nose over time for vendors to “fix” things when you could’ve learned to do it right in the first place. Not all of this can be taught to the “T”, but new graphic designers should at least be familiar and aware of certain production nuances so as not nickel and dime a client or themselves.

    Students seem to be falsely informed somehow that they will get this degree and they’ll auto-magically get these elusive, high-paying design jobs, which will allow them to work in their fishbowl mac existence and not have to deal with humanity. Humanity IS, technically, their entire purpose — it is humanity that “sees” their work.

    One other add-on to this list is students need to learn to problem solve and be more strategic for the long term in their design approach. Will their design work stand the test of time and can it be applied across a variety of mediums? This might be touched on in a class here and there, but it should be pounded into their heads class after class. Repetition will make it stick. They spend too much time pleasing the teacher and not standing up for their work (in essence, what have they learned?)

    Sorry ALL, didn’t mean type your eyeballs out of your skulls. I could still go on and on! thanks for reading

    • LOVE IT!

      I spent too much time “pleasing” the bosses in the company I worked for. Which is why I love being a freelancer now. Working with my clients is much easier, most are open to my suggestions and see me as a professional rather then an employee earning a pay cheque. Thank you for your comments.

      PS I wish I’d had an instructor like you!

  17. When I was at university they told us it was industry standard that we had use Adobe InDesign and QuarkXpress. We then find out that the computers university didn’t have it on them!

    Also we were never taught the different resolutions for web and print!

    Lastly university projects are nothing like real world of work.

  18. You missed point #0: Learn about business….. because they sure don’t teach it to you in design school. Learn about the specific type business you are working in. Learn about pricing. Learn about labor costs. Learn about overhead. Learn about bookkeeping. Learn what a contract is and does for you. Learn how to negotiate. If you’re freelance, learn about taxes and payroll.

    Even though I own and operate my own modest design firm, I strongly believe that having some understanding of how businesses works will make *anyone* a better, more valuable employee.

    For example: how many artists do you know that can’t produce an accurate accounting of their time spent on a project? How on earth can you create an estimate for future projects if you don’t know your expenses on current projects? If you’re an employee, how is the accounting department supposed to bill the client if they don’t know your hours? If you’re freelance, lack of timekeeping leads to discomfort with invoicing, which leads to late or missing invoices…. and late or absent payment. Understanding the business necessity of timekeeping makes it easier to have discipline about doing it.

    If I were King, I’d add a class to the senior year of High School called “The Business of Life” and teach stuff about credit cards, insurance, taxes, banking, the importance of savings, retirement, navigating the healthcare system, how write a resume, etc…

    • So true Alan!

      High school should have more emphasis on life skills, “Business of Life” indeed! I know it would have helped to keep me from falling in a few holes and made running a freelance company a little easier in the beginning.

    • Kirk Taylor says:

      Great set of tips, but agreed – business is the most important point missed by design professors – many of my professors had never been in business, just instruction. They were good instructors, but I had a rude awakening when I partnered in my first agency.

      A design can be beautiful, functional and perfect, but…
      …if it is past deadline, it’s useless.
      …if the client doesn’t like it, they won’t pay.
      …if it doesn’t sell the product, it doesn’t work.
      …if your pitch exceeds 15 minutes, you’ve lost the client.
      …if you can’t exchange ideas respectfully with coworkers and clients face-to-face and without referring to your iPhone during a conversation, you have no business being in this business.
      …if our accountant doesn’t get it, neither will a lot of people (this is not a knock against accountants – it means you get someone with their feet firmly on the ground to review your work – I rely heavily on my wife’s opinion).
      …if you view criticism as a personal attack instead of as a constructive part of the process, you need to go out and fail on your own.

      Welcome to the world of business!

  19. Great! Thanks for sharing.
    What is your thought or experience on this?
    ( wondering how most other designers around the world think… )

    If the boss / clients’ business / event / product / project
    is against your belief / principles / values…
    do you still do it / work for them?

    Is it that those with strong integrity/values/virtues/principles do not fit in the profession?
    Is it that designers’ have to serve whatever bosses/clients (will) pay for?

    • Stephanie,

      If a project or situation with a client goes against my beliefs I walk away. My personal integrity is worth more to me than any amount of money. I chose to be a freelancer because of the freedom it gives me to pick and choose who I work with. Life is far too short to work with people who make your life miserable. That being said I have worked with some difficult clients (i.e. personality conflicts) sticking it out allowed me to grow from the experience. You have to know who you are and what you stand for, otherwise you’ll get bullied and pushed around.

  20. Chikondano Chinthiti says:

    You’re right on point. Most of what I know about designing was/is self taught, so thanks for the tips. Looking forward to more great tips like these.

  21. Studying design at a university is very different than studying visual arts and design at a studio art school. At the Univ. the non visual arts required classes prevent the student from having enough time to focus on design and image making, both disciplines that are very labor and time intensive. Learning software too, uses up of the precious time that designers need to learn visual arts skills and visual arts ideas. Shaping curriculum for designers should not be done by the visually challenged.

    • That may be true, Don, but not every student can afford art school. I had to pay my way through college–another valuable learning lesson–and so art school was not a possibility for me. I disagree about time learning software. I spend 90% my of my day using the software tools I need for my job and getting my job required that I had extensive working knowledge of design software. If you’re a fine artist or illustrator, perhaps software seems secondary. For my graphic design work, it’s critical.

  22. Dead on with #1 — As I tell the people I work with constantly: The client is not always right but they alway have a right to be heard. It comes down to respecting that they understand their business, and we ours, then working together to make the best work. I’d much rather have a client as a partner than a boss.

    Good calls on the others, but #2 and 5 are great: If I go to a great place to eat, no way am I going to ask the chef to explain how he did everything! Same with clients; be quiet and let them tell you what they think (they definitely will!) As for imitation, Bruce Mau said it well: Stand on someone’s shoulders.
    You can travel farther carried on the accomplishments of those who came before you. And the view is so much better.

  23. Nice article, especially for someone like me, who never attended any school, and always felt I missed out – mainly I’ve missed having a forum to discuss design, play and experiment.

    Instead I got my experience hands-on, sales pitches, keeping track of time etc. as a trainee. Looking back now, I see my schooled colleagues

    • Whoops, tablet glitch :)

      I see my schooled colleagues as less daring, less technically proficient, reliant on a few cliches, when making a sale, and with less interest and understanding in the clients situation.

      When I freelanced, I joined a forum for graphic freelancers – also to meet prospective clients – but the designers there, were constantly bickering over others underbidding them, but noone took the time to actually make the sale and explain their worth, or even consider the nature of the clients there.

      The same goes for all the tablet monkeys out there, hiding behind their Account Managers. So what, if you don’t get to see the “client”. You’ve got a great advantage, in you only needing

    • Whoops, tablet glitch :)

      I see my schooled colleagues as less daring, less technically proficient, reliant on a few cliches, when making a sale, and with less interest and understanding in the clients situation.

      When I freelanced, I joined a forum for graphic freelancers – also to meet prospective clients – but the designers there, were constantly bickering over others underbidding them, but noone took the time to actually make the sale and explain their worth, or even consider the nature of the clients there.

      The same goes for all the tablet monkeys out there, hiding behind their Account Managers. So what, if you don’t get to see the “client”. You’ve got a great advantage, in you only needing to develop one client relationship – your Account Manager. Ask yourself, if you take the time to make the sale, do you provide him with the necessary tools to go out and sell your stuff to clients. Just because you happen to be colleagues, doesn’t mean you don’t have to put an effort in your relationship :)

  24. Dushyant Nathwani says:

    V.TRUE……..in fact design is intended purpose…..professors most of the time try to mold in their millue, inner creative process and presentations are two different things….concept to commission is whole,parts are emphesised in lessons,at times leaving many points of essential kind.

  25. The biggest lesson I learned was that when designing anything for print, realize that the pre-press guys are some of the most important people you will work with, and keeping them happy is almost as important as the client. If you’re in good with them, any last minute changes or additions (as long as it’s few and far between) can be taken care of easily and quickly, making you look like a hero to the client.

  26. Thank you for the concise and commentary. Great things to remember!
    Another good thing to remember is that sometimes the best ideas come from the
    client, even if they don’t know how it should be expressed or executed.
    We (designers) are just as capable of getting into a rut of listening only to our
    own limted perspective.

  27. I would add to your 5 lessons: “Pencil skills are more important than computer skills.” You want to impress a client, try drawing a concept directly in front of them in 30 seconds. Button pushing designers are a dime a dozen but someone who can conceptualize quickly and accurately in pencil will be more effective and creative than any mouse wheeling monkey.

  28. Great read, forgot one important lesson though: Don’t be offended if they don’t like your design or idea.

    I work in a corporate design group that often contracts out to other designer firms. Often times they will miss the mark, only to come off offended if we do not jump for glee at their designs. Professional designers need to be able to take compliments as well as criticisms.

    • So true…when a client speaks, always listen for the clues to get them what they need. Don’t be upset, be happy that you are getting information that can help make your design better. You are not creating fine art…you are creating a communication vehicle. Rise to the challenge and figure out a way to make both your client and yourself satisfied. My best work (IMHO) is always a result of interpreting the clients’ needs and creating a way to communicate them…realizing that the client has the idea/need and I have the skills to translate them into good design.

  29. The most annoying thing teachers said: Enjoy doing your art and design now, once you work in the real world you’ll never get to do what you want again. WRONG! If you are good or great, your style is what sells you. Believe in yourself. Classroom art looks just like that in your portfolio. Be real. Do jobs. Push the limits. Experiment. If all else fails, do “free” work with free rein. Or go back to your cubicle. And I do agree… copy styles to learn. Look, be aware, figure out what makes it great. Thats what the great painters used to do…. copy their work, get good enough, they sign their name to your piece, and finally stand on your own.

  30. Nice work, really to the point article about many things that you dont get to learn in the college and yes, some are very improtant and some are a bit less important in my opinion. Still you DO need to learn most of all these things fast enough as you evolve as a designer, but i think that you can still learn them in time, like a year or two later on and i dont think learning them before their time is right. It would take out the fun of exploring them and learning them for your own which is really a key aspect of what their purpose is. To learn to adapt and explore. Bottom line as described in the first line, GOOD job!

  31. Yes, this article is quite right. As well as most of the comments above. Sadly, i have to say that even in college, students who were ‘copying’ existing designs from previous designers out of ‘Creative Review’ for example were often getting higher marks than students coming up with their own concepts from scratch. So… No surprise that the same goes on in real professional life. I feel myself that we have no time to create anything too ‘wow’ for a client in the real world. Everything has to be produced so quickly that there does not seem to be any space for strong creative thinking. Unless the client has the budget to allow that of course!
    I also know the feeling with Account Managers. All that you end up doing is what the client wants through the Account Manager. That’s the way it goes in ad agencies. What can we do?! So, you’re better get on with your colleagues.

  32. Right. Especially the lesson 1.
    A client once told me ” I am a costumer, and I am always right”. Then I asked him “would you apply that rule at your dentist, doctor or car mechanics? If you know how to fix you car, you don’t go to the mechanic, but if you do, he do the job he knows. And how would your smile look if you teach your dentist how to fix your teethes.” Same is with the design.

    • Shobe…you are spot on with the dentist, doctor or car mechanic comment. I’ve worked mainly for gov’t. agencies where it is “design by committee”. They all think they know good design but not one had ever even worked in any type of marketing capacity. It was just a bunch of egos having a pissing contest. I always wanted to say the same thing, “so, I guess you tell your dentist how to do his job?”.

  33. Quite frankly, I think college classes in a lot of disciplines—not just design—are short on business smarts. Could be that most of these classes are taught by academics and not business professionals? Just a thought.

  34. Spot on article!! I graduated from DePaul University in 2011 and now work for a corporate company in the restoration business as one of three in-house designers for the company. This is my first job out of college and no one could have prepared me for this. I have learned more in the past 7 months working here about business design then I ever had in my 4 years of college. Don’t get me wrong, I had a FANTASTIC foundation coming from DePaul and I did learn a lot. But sometimes no one can teach you about business design until you experience it for yourself.

  35. You hit the nail on the head! Well put! I loved this post. Thank you for your great insight.

  36. Regarding explaining the thinking behind a design….I find it essential when presenting logos for the first time to a client. Explaining the reasons, and please note, weaving in some of the clients own directives for the project, will involve them directly in the solution, making the buy-in and acceptance MUCH more likely than if we simply put the designs out there. Learned the hard way by emailing designs when tight schedule demanded it. Now we require face to face with client and anyone else with veto power in the project. Many happy campers as a result.

  37. Being new in business myself, i find i sometimes struggle with a few of the points you have mentioned, in the end design courses don’t teach business skills! – although they definitely should. Thanks for the great insight, your article has shed some light on some tough issues.

  38. Monkey with a wacom tablet..:) that is precious and hilarious!! sometimes it feels that way thanks for the helpful hints..great observations!

  39. I think you hit the nail on the head…so to speak.
    I’ve had design courses at major universities as well as several of the Art Institutes and now after 20 years, back in school again at AI online to obtain a second degree.
    Wisdom comes with practice and trial and error as another mentioned.
    You are accurate regarding building those relationships and then your expertise on design is respected and makes for an easier sell.
    I like the elevator comment, good comparison and also correct.
    We all learn from our experiences and professors positive and negative contribute to those experiences and all provide value of some kind.
    We are the keeper of our own destiny as well, which drives us to seek constant growth and knowledge.
    My advice for new designers would be to always keep it professional and treat others with respect.
    You have to be able to sell yourself, your product-service-design in order to succeed.
    The client is not always right as you’ve said, but we must all learn to convince them with why your advice and direction is in their best interests. They may not always agree, but they will respect you for speaking up, rather than just following orders. They are paying for your expertise and if you don’t act the part, they’ll eventually move on to someone else.
    Thanks for your article.
    I’m going to send the link out for my current class.

  40. Great suggestions! I agree with pretty much everything. But I think number two depends on the client and on what you mean by “explain my designs.” I’ve worked with some who absolutely need my help in focusing on the objective, rather than their own personal aesthetic. I’m a problem solver, and every design decision addresses a specific communication goal. Reviewing those goals before the reveal is appropriate and necessary in some cases. Clearly, to elaborate on your design PROCESS is unnecessary, but to pretend that each client brings the necessary focus and objectivity to the meeting is naive. It would be a diservice not to help them prepare, by first restating our agreed objectives. Plus, to provide rationale AFTER they react simply sounds amateurish–either defensive or insecure. That’s been my experience, anyway. Thanks for the article!

  41. While teaching drawing and design at the local community college, I conducted special classes on day-to-day business realities for any interested students in our advertising art department. There were no classes about basic stuff like billing and client relationships in our department–none at the University level, either. Even though my experience was mostly as a freelance graphic artist in the local marketplace, the principles are the same at any level of business. As far as I know, classes like this are still not a part of either schools art program.

  42. You really hit the nail on the head about the not explaining your decisions part. While I was in college, we constantly got grilled about our decisions to the point where I would make things up because, really, sometimes my decisions were because “It looks good,” or “The deadline was so short that I started to pull things out of my ass”

  43. Actually, I don’t think Lesson 2 is correct. I feel an important part of the design process is showing the iterative direction you take with the project. It’s not relevant all the time, but the more involved a client is, the easier it is to pass off the final design when its complete, as the client feels they have helped shape the result. This process often involves conceptualising, wireframing, mocking up and prototyping before the final project can be revealed.

  44. I wanted to add something that combines points #1 and #2. I probably could elaborate more on this, but I didn’t want to make this very long.

    Client pays the bills, but they are NEVER right. Their is no such thing as the perfect client. Clients design for themselves, you need to learn who their customers are and design for them. This may sound stupid, but remind them who their customers are, and how they think and teach them that what they want won’t work for their target audience. In the end, you may still have to do it the Clients way to get paid, but try as much as you can to avoid giving in, you will become a better designer and freelancer for it.

  45. just to add to my first post, is that your not explaining to them why you choose this color, or this font, sometimes you don’t even know why, it just fits. Your an artist, you can’t explain why. Teaching them is not explaining your design…

    i.e you design a website, they want a black background with red lettering. Design the site with those instructions, then design a 2nd one with the black background with white lettering, or some other color that is easier on the eyes.

    You explain to them, that what they want isn’t the best option, because red lettering on a black background is really hard to read and can hurt the eyes. Show them your suggested version. Your not explaining why you choose those colors, your teaching them by example.

    Hope that makes sense.

  46. Great article! One thing is, before you begging talking about the 5 lessons, you tell us that there are going to be 10 of them, “So today, I’d like to discuss 10 critical lessons your design professor never taught you. (PS, if I’m…” It’s not a big deal, but it’s something that stood out to me.

  47. If clients get there hand on this. It’s all over. just joking, I very much agree with all of the above. Spot on!! As for lesson 2 it can be a double edge sword, Clients are split down the middle, where half are intrigue to see the process of the design to gain the full experience, which helps them understand what led the design from point A to B. Where as the other half, don’t care much for it, and rather much skip the process and get to the final product.

  48. Totally agreed. Back when I was freelancing ( broadsighted.com ), it took me about 2 years to learn all these things.

    Other things I’ve learned:
    – If you’re freelancing, a degree doesn’t matter. And if you’re seeking work at an agency, a lack of degree can be overlooked with a strong portfolio.

    – Give clients few options. They like packages, i.e.: A (most affordable), B (nice balance), and Premium (the best). My clients tended to go for Premium packages.

    – Emphasize your Change Order policy at the beginning of every single project. Even on your 11th project with a client of 2 years. Your Change Order policy will be that the client is required to pay for all additions or changes outside the scope of the original agreement.

    – Be careful working with family and friends. I suggest avoiding it where possible. Don’t assume they’ll be good clients just because they love you. Make it clear that during all design/dev conversations, they are a client – not a familymember or friend. During those conversations, be professional.

  49. I agree. Design schools dont teach you how to price your services. I had to purchase books, ask veterans in the business and just teach myself how to do that. I suggest the following book for students that are about to graudate: The Creative Business Guide to Graphic Design Business by Cameron Foote

  50. spot on!

  51. I really appreciated your insight on this topic. You’re right about not knowing stuff like that in design school. Thank you

  52. You are right on target. I didn’t go to design school, but I found out that all of your points are true while working in the industry. Thanks for including other articles for further reading, too. A good book for the business side of things is “How to Be a Designer” by Darren Rees.

  53. The BearMaiden says:

    I have to say… I did a two-year intensive degree program at Pratt Institute in Manhattan. All of my professors were working designers, and one in particular, a well-respected package designer, singlehandedly taught me most of what you put wrote.

    What he DIDN’T teach me, though… what I had the misfortune of learning on my own, is that these days, nobody gives a rat’s @## about “good design”. Or the “Gestalt of design”. Or “balance.” All they care about is what they want, and if you don’t give it to them, they drag the process out and/or simply won’t pay you. So you have to make the decision whether or not to swallow your good design sense and do what they want so you can eat, or walk away from a job and pick the ones you want to do.

    The other thing they didn’t tell me… nobody cares about your portfolio. I mean the carefully designed one in the beautiful box/book you spent time and money on. They only care about what’s on the web.

    And pricing… my professors taught me well about how to price my work. And they referred me to the Graphic Artist’s Guild http://www.amazon.com/Graphic-Artists-Handbook-Pricing-Guidelines/dp/0932102158. It’s updated every few years, and is an invaluable tool.

    But then I had to decide whether or not I was going to stick to my price range, knowing the value of my work. As a freelancer, especially a hungry one, you are often sorely tempted to do jobs at a discounted price, and what I learned is… the lower your price, the more crap you get. So don’t devalue your work–and the work of other designers. Stick to your price because you “weed out” the people who don’t care about what you do. The downside to that is that you often don’t get jobs because people go for the cheaper over-the-internet logo or web-designer. But invariably, they come back to you when that doesn’t suit their needs….

  54. The customer IS always right… just not always intelligent.

  55. Jennifer M. says:

    Hmm… I’m only in my 2nd year of design school and my teachers have already covered all of these things. Not sure if I am just at a great school or if yours just wasn’t. Lol. ;) But still, all very good things to keep in mind, for sure! Great list!

  56. Well you did say 10 then gave 5

  57. very interesting blog indeed :)) what i want to add is this: be grateful of what the teachers actually taught you i.e. if they taught you the theory behind graphic design treasure it. i am a graphic design student but i am not enjoying it that much. i havent learned that much to be honest. :S in fact, all the things and tricks i learned about graphic design i learned them through books and the net. or by trial-and-error. and because of that, (students have to learn through research and mostly on their own) there is a LOT of competition amongst students. and that’s sad :(

  58. Useful information. Lucky me I discovered your website unintentionally, and I’m shocked why this coincidence didn’t came about earlier! I bookmarked it.

  59. Wow what a great article with links to other great articles. I had the same reaction to my education. It was great but some things I learned were questionable and felt like I didnt get everything I needed to know about design. Thanks for sharing, this information will surely make me think more about my business and help me land a big job in the future!!

  60. Hi Preston,

    Very well written, I even had the similar situation that I faced with real client after my professional education in Visual Communication. Clients always think and look from end products and commercials point of view rather than design process stand point. :)

  61. Hi Preston,

    I really enjoy reading your posts. I agree with all the points you’ve made! Especially #4. I’ve found that selling yourself and meeting people/networking is the best way to land jobs. It’s just a matter of getting out of your comfort zone: not easy at first. But you snooze, you lose. I have about 2 year’s experience and keep working towards getting better, and getting somewhere. I found this encouraging, and I hope you’re right about #3!

    Love your site and work. :-)

  62. nick spalding says:

    The points made are correct. Ive studied design and designed, not in the graphic design field, but have always maintained that the client doesn’t know what they want and they’re not always right. I try to give the client what they need , not what they want, and I’m very happy to tell them that. Sometimes heading clients off at the pass by telling them why copying a format is wrong for them, followed by your own ideas can be the best policy. Universities and lecturers give us a false impression of the real world, telling us half truths to keep us motivated. However the truth would set us free to design with fresh eyes, so dont I think if we treat professors as false gods, we’ll be disappointed in real world practice.

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