There are some things they aren’t teaching you. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that there are concepts you can’t teach in a classroom. Like how to deal with that feeling in the pit of your stomach when a client tears apart your professional design. Or why trust is more important to a team’s success than collaboration or talent.
Recently our design team was discussing what they wish they’d known before jumping into their careers. We took some time to document the truths we’ve learned along our own paths in the hopes that your journey to fully-realized designer will be ever-so-slightly less painful because of them.
While you’re learning a ton about design in school, you’ll learn more about how to function as a member of a team in your first 6 months out of school than you did during your whole academic career.
Since being a sponge for inspiration was critical to each of our own obsessions with design, we’ve sprinkled a few inspirational nuggets in too.
Your grades don’t matter.
I have a problem with the dogma around education. From a very early age, we are pressured to get the best grades in the class. Our value is based on a scale that sticks us in molds that we may not fit. For a design student, this can act as a roadblock on the path to going where he or she wants to go.
Design students enter higher education with the hope of graduating and getting a job in the field, but many are distracted by the pressure to get good grades. Grades will not ultimately put you where you want to be. Your portfolio, gaining valuable critique, and building relationships should be your focus.
Your portfolio does.
I am not saying grades are not important. However, if a 4.0 GPA is getting in the way of you building a portfolio that represents you and where you want to go, you’re pedaling down the wrong street.
Not once in my career as a designer has a potential employer asked what kind of grades I managed while in school. What they have been interested in is my portfolio and my ability to talk about what’s in it. Your ability to solve problems and relate to people will be one of the biggest foundational blocks of your abilities and career as a designer.
So do relationships.
Early in my career, my portfolio and resume got me where I wanted to go at that time. But as time went on, relationships I built ended up taking me further than I ever imagined. A couple of those key relationships started in school with teachers and students I spoke to on a regular basis about work and life.
Critique delivers the most valuable lessons.
Through critique you will learn to talk about problems and ask questions about your work. You’ll also learn the valuable lesson about not taking things personally when someone asks pointed questions about work you’ve done. Everyone’s opinion is valuable, it’s up to you to find the lessons.
What inspires me.
I often find myself inspired by people who are making a life they want by their own hand. Musicians and bands like T.W. Walsh, Jason Martin, and Wilco who are quietly making music that I love while raising families and breaking the mold for what people commonly imagine as touring musical artists.
I guess I like people who try.
There are design jobs you don’t know about yet. Find them.
A couple years of school are not remotely enough time to expose students to the sheer breadth of design roles and possibilities. Add to that the constant question of, “So what do you want to do with your life?” and the result is a very appropriate existential crisis.
Relax. It’s ok to not know what you want to be when you grow up.
Your task over the next 10 years is to figure that out. Design is constantly evolving in ways you don’t even know, and each position you take should lead you closer to what you want to be doing. Don’t get disheartened if you haven’t yet found your niche, and don’t stick around in a job you hate just because you don’t know what’s out there. Your role is waiting for you. Take the time to find it.
Understand the business context of your employer.
One downfall of studying design theory for years is it starts to feel alien from its fundamental purpose: business. Design and commerce are not easily separated, and whether you go in-house or join an agency, you’re helping a business. It behooves you to understand how your business stays in business.
On the positive side, it will allow you to maximize your value and impact, hopefully leading to bigger roles, responsibility, and compensation. On the negative side, you may realize when an employer is taking advantage of you, maximizing their profit from your time and energy in a way that’s not mutually beneficial.
What inspires me
I am inspired by people who do things differently, stay true to themselves, and aren’t afraid to grow. In my life so far they’ve ranged from family to peers to strangers, designers to engineers to artists, business owners, musicians, and authors.