Design 101 – So You Wanna Be a Graphic Designer?

I’m fast approaching my 20th anniversary of becoming a professional designer. I’ve spent the first ten years in print design and the past ten in web design. Recently I was asked what advice I would give a young professional. Most of this advice took me several years to learn and much of it, much like life itself, is a series of compromises. What should never be compromised however – is your passion for excellence. Know that every design job is going to have its traps and pitfalls but preserving through what the client dishes out is the key to a long career. If you’re good, keep trying and you will eventually crush that fast ball out of the ballpark.

But getting started – well I’m not going to lie, that’s a bitch. My first design job was at Edwin-Mellen Press as a production artist. When I told my boss that I was quitting to go back to college he tried hard to intimidate me and tell me that I would never be a graphic designer. Which was funny because he had hired me because of my design skills. Some people know nothing about design and have a job to do – and they need you to help them do their job. The people that did know what they were talking about, such as my professors in college –  also told me I would not be a designer. They were right – because having great instincts and not sharpening those skills is a crime against humanity. Potential is great when you’re 24 years old, not when you’re 40. You have to work hard to make a good thing great and 80% of what you learn in school may be about theories and principals, history and best practices but that 20% is what’s really important. It’s the inspiration for the list below and believe it or not – has a lot to do with life in general.

  1. Ignore Fear – because you’ll never learn to make mistakes and great design is knowing which mistakes to keep.
  2. Be Afraid – because a hungry artist is a great artist.
  3. Embrace Criticism – hear it, understand it and then…
  4. Ignore Criticism – because you’ve learned a lesson and its time to move on.
  5. Design for Yourself – push yourself to achieve that perfect image in your head.
  6. Design for Others – clients love to use the ‘red pen’ and feel apart of the process.
  7. Share Something – if you learn something, tell someone about it.
  8. Share Nothing – keep your feelings and personal life to yourself. It’s all about the client.
  9. Find Something You’re Good At – and keep doing it. I have several friends who have one style they design with and they’ve made a decent living doing the same thing over and over. Some clients love what they already know.
  10. Find Something You’re Terrible At – and get good at it. Dissect it, break it and then put it back together. Anyone can play the notes to a Jimi Hendrix song but not many can play them the way Jimi did.

Philip Hastings is the principal and lead designer for Swagger Jacket in Buffalo, New York.