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WAY BEYOND TALENT: CRUCIAL TOOLS FOR YOUNG DESIGNERS


I vividly remember my design school graduation portfolio review way back in 1992. Every graduate proudly set up tables with all our best work while prospective employers from around the region toured the tables to review our efforts and speak with us individually. If you were one of the lucky ones, you might get an interview in a separate room right on the spot. The whole ordeal was nerve-wracking.


I was one of the lucky ones, but nothing materialized from the interviews that day. In fact, an excellent design position wouldn’t materialize for an entire year. In retrospect, my peers and I were equivalent to a person who takes a one-year photography class and expects to go straight to work for National Geographic.


PATIENCE. Being patient in the design world is difficult. After all, you just graduated and you’re ready to show the world how brilliant you are! You send cover letters, resumes, and portfolio links to several prospective employers and hear nothing but crickets. The great jobs simply take time to find…usually because firms are fully staffed or are often looking for people with much more experience. But how am I supposed to gain experience if no one will give me any? Hint: Create your OWN experience!


PERSISTENCE. So, as the months roll on, you have a choice to make: Work much harder than all the other graduates…or give up. I chose to work much harder. I invested $3,000 in a new computer and software (it was 1992, remember) and started working every freelance job I could muster. I cold-called restaurants for new menu designs, stopped by all the local businesses to propose new logos, brochures…anything!


I never allowed myself to be discouraged when told no. In my mind, the odds were simply better that the next person would say “yes.” March forward.

I refined my skills by studying numerous styles of design and illustration while diving into advanced software techniques as often as possible until the bigger interviews came along. Meanwhile, I was building my portfolio, creating valuable networks, and becoming an exceptional user of all the design tools.

This is the perfect time to learn how to effectively communicate with clients. Some of your clients will be difficult to deal with, and that’s just part of the career path you’ve chosen. Learn how to graciously handle as many different personalities as possible; this will serve you very well both personally and professionally.


PRICELESS ADVICE. One major stumbling block many young designers take too long to learn is this: If a client becomes impossible to work with, end your working relationship with them. No law forces you to work with an extremely painful client. In fact, a couple years ago, I dropped my top client. I delivered plenty of warning shots, but they continued their regular practice of impossible deadliness and ridiculous demands.


Even in tumultuous client relationships, try your best to be kind and civil. I responded with something along the lines of… “Listen, I have accomplished hundreds of projects for you over the past seven years with great success. We’ve had several discussions about deadlines and demands without improvement on your end, and while I greatly appreciate the work, I just can’t work like this any longer. I wish you the best in finding a new designer/illustrator.” Done. March forward.


IMPORTANT NOTE: Never, ever, never, ever get yourself into a position in which you cannot financially afford to drop a client. I’ve seen this happen to close design friends running their own small business, and I’ve seen it happen to big, fancy firms who put way too many eggs in one basket. The results are always devastating. Big firms are forced to downsize; and if you inhabit a smaller scale, you are a slave to that one horrible client who knows they own you. That is design hell, and you don’t want to live there. Worst case scenario, they put you out of business. You must be like a stock portfolio…diversified.


HUMILITY. Now we have reached the crux of the entire article. I personally believe humility is the ultimate trait you must possess to be, not only a great designer but, a valuable employee and exceptional co-worker. It took me much too long to learn the importance of humility, and even longer to develop it. Two thumbs down for immaturity and arrogance.


Simply defined, humility is the feeling or attitude that you have no special importance that makes you better than others. More bluntly, freedom from pride and arrogance. If you pay attention to nothing else, please pay attention to this enormous piece of advice; it will greatly impact your career and your life in general.


Humility in the design world means a lot of things; here are just several:

a. Your name does not have to be mentioned on a project.

b. You don’t need kudos from your superiors at meetings in front of your peers.

c. If your work is superior to another’s, don’t turn up your nose as being better than them; help THEM become better.

d. If a client prefers to work with another designer in your company, congratulate the other designer and learn WHY they prefer to work with that person so you can become more versatile.

e. When you become a senior designer, NEVER forget what it was like to be the new hire. BE the person for THEM that YOU needed back then.

f. You are not above ANY task the company needs you to perform for the greater good at any point in your career.

g. If you have stressed relationships with anyone in the office, you should (no, you must) find a way to move beyond it. Gossiping to co-workers, hatred, disdain, division…they’re all terribly unhealthy ingredients for you, the other person, co-workers, and the overall health of the company, not to mention terribly immature and unprofessional. A SOLUTION that has worked wonders for me? Invite the other person to lunch. What? Absolutely! I have learned that volatile work relationships generally come from misunderstandings. Be the bigger person. Sit down and discover common likes and interests. Ask the other person more about their life, how they grew up, what inspires them. Explain that you’d like to work at a better relationship with them because you genuinely care about them. Take your time. Don’t be defensive. Be nice. You might be amazed by the results.


When I finally did get the big firm job, I couldn’t wait for people to see how awesome I was. Right out of the gate, I wondered why I couldn’t have a shot at the big projects rather than the senior designers. Come on, people, I have brilliant ideas!


What I learned very quickly was that I was terribly inept compared to the senior designers, senior illustrators, project managers, and owners of the company. They were on an entirely different level. Big time.


SO WHAT DO YOU DO?

· Be brutally honest with yourself. Recognize and accept the absolute fact that you are a brand-new creative who can’t possibly know what the senior people know.

· Become an excited sponge for all the knowledge you can absorb from your peers by asking intelligent questions such as:


o Can you teach me why this color palette is so effective for this project?

o Will you teach me why the kerning and leading are so much tighter on this section of text verses the other sections?

o Will you help me understand why this particular font is a smart choice here?

o Will you help me understand why it’s so vital for this client’s audience to grasp this particular concept so deeply?

o What tool are you using to manage all the components of such a large project?

o Is there anything I can do to help you in any way?”


· Notice how these questions are posed. You are asking for teachable moments, which makes all the difference in the world. If you approach senior creatives with a fast “Why did you pick this color palette?” it sounds as if you’re questioning (possibly even undermining) their design, and that’s just a bad idea.

· Intently study the work EVERYONE in the firm is doing. No matter your specific discipline(s), you can learn great skills from every department of the company.


THE I.T. TEAM. Even though I was primarily a technical illustrator, I learned a lot about file organization and project management from the I.T. team. Looking at their server software gave me ideas about subsets of information and where to place them to become a better project manager. I also learned smarter solutions when I was tasked with creating process maps.


SENIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNERS. I learned an enormous amount from the senior graphic designers. Early on, I would get so frustrated over a senior designer obsessing over the tiniest details. Later, I would learn that obsessing over the tiniest details is truly invaluable on numerous levels, but that’s another story.

Is it REALLY so important that your brochure photo is 533 pixels wide verses 535? Or that you’ve increased the magenta in your custom spot color by 1%? Or that your column gutter is 2 picas and 1 point wide verses just 2 picas? Usually the answer is yes when you begin to get into expert-level design aesthetics, but sometimes it’s a straight-up waste of time. Learn to know the difference. At the end of the day, the senior designers’ work was vastly superior to mine. Of course.


THE RECEPTIONIST. I learned a lot by sitting near our front door receptionist. All sorts of people visited our firm…clients, job seekers, relatives, friends, sales people, etc. They were all very different people of different ages, races, demeanors, and agendas. I found it rather fascinating to listen to how well she handled every single visitor with professionalism, care, intelligent communication, and expediency. Extraordinary. Through observing her, I learned to be a better communicator.


THE CLEANING LADY. I worked many late nights, and that’s when Donna the cleaning lady would come in to do her work. I really grew to love, respect, and admire Donna. She was an older black woman who worked two jobs six days a week. Skipping all the details of our conversations, I learned so much about life, growing up, tenacity, perseverance, kindness, and gentleness from Donna, all of which could be applied to my position in the firm. I’m still very thankful I was raised to treat every single person exactly the same. I miss her.


THE CLIENT. You can forget the old saying, “The customer is always right.” I understand what that means from a customer service approach, but the customer is often very, very wrong— especially when it comes to design. The design client most often has no idea whatsoever what great design requires, looks like, or even IS.


Our firm didn’t subscribe to the silly notion that the customer is always right. Instead, our thought process was “Knowing the customer is often wrong, how do we address them when they are?” Long story short, you gently educate the client with examples of your other successful work, teach them why this specific color, font, spacing, scale, format, etc. are the very best decisions for their project.

At the end of the day, also remember this…if after you’ve educated a client, they still vehemently demand something be done that goes against every universal rule of design and makes the entire firm shudder in horror - like choosing the Comic Sans font for their entire website (extreme example) you must do what they’ve demanded. It hurts so bad. You may lose sleep and pixels may leap off your screen in protest; but allowing the client to make the decision is better in the long run. Really.


THE OWNERS/PRINCIPALS. Listening to the owners of the company during design meetings with clients and/or other employees was always the most profound learning experience. After all, if the owners of my firm win the accounts of enormous clients and endless design awards, they probably know something, right?


I could go on for days about this, but let me make it short. You must literally STUDY these conversations. You have to listen to every single comment and response made by all sides of the table. Pay attention to inflections, eye contact, volume, intent, fidgeting, etc. Observe how the meeting began, where it went, how it ended, and where it’s going from there. Be able to recognize how all of that happened and why. You must become an expert in extrapolating precisely how your company eventually delivered a home run for every client on every project. The path between an initial client request and final deliverable is an extraordinary story. Read it cover to cover.


My former firm’s owners are brilliant. A client would make a statement, and our owners would formulate a smart question based on that statement that I wouldn’t have thought of in my lifetime. Each of these excerpts were catalysts to get to the point as effectively as possible. Our owners were flawlessly in control of the conversation while not appearing to be so. It was like having front row seats to a psychological orchestra, with my bosses as the conductors. Don’t misunderstand this - there was nothing sneaky or tricky going on in the least; it was just a matter of ninja-level communication skills that got the job done.


FINALLY. You need so much more than talent to be a successful creative. The design world is one of the most opinionated, competitive fields you’ll ever experience. Share your opinion, but always remember that someone else’s opinion is just as important to them as your opinion is to you. Give them the respect by listening intently.


Your ideas or designs will absolutely not be the ones that always win. Pay attention to how the other ideas and designs won. Learn. Implement. Win more.


Always work. Always learn. Always help. Always humble.