Advice For Aspiring Designers

I’m not that old (yet) and I’ve only been a “professional” design practitioner since 2010. But over this past year I’ve been treated as one who’s acquired some kind of knowledge and can speak to certain issues with regards to this industry. I suppose I can attribute this to the different kinds of jobs I’ve had and the wise people I’ve worked with. I mention this because I recently had a conversation with a young man who is applying to graphic design degree programs and was soliciting some advice. The topic drifted far beyond just which school to apply to and why. We began to dive into the nitty-gritty of the experience he could expect and I was surprised to find myself able to articulate a few tips, almost systematically. So I’ve decided to share some of what I’ve been sharing with others with you today, should you be in this boat as well.

Design Education Is Valuable If You Make It Valuable.

I am very thankful that I was able to go to college for design and I truly believe those years shaped and challenged me in ways I could not have expected. My waking life was spent deep in my projects and making them the best they could be, while my “rest” consisted of 20-minute power naps in my Jetta whenever I could get them. I did, however, find two issues with post-secondary education that I fought off like the plague: negative peers and misplaced contentment, the latter being the root of the former. Let me explain: So many students would fall away from the program and by third-year, I was left with a handful of peers. But it took me about a year and a half to realize that some of my “friends” we more of a virus to my educational health than anything. They would complain about the amount of projects we were assigned and would incessantly nag to each other about how much we’re not learning. Then I realized that (1) their negativity was starting to make me think negatively and (2) they’re not learning more because they’re not grabbing their education by the horns. I learned so much more than what the curriculum offered because I was just a bit more inquisitive and unafraid to ask for help. I learned so many things by simply asking questions and utilizing the years of wisdom that was available to us in our profs. Moral: Take charge of your own education and learn to stop complaining.

It Only Really Takes Three Things To Get Work After You Graduate.

An Ever-Growing Network

I tell this to as many people as I can because I’ve found that it works like crazy (and I think others have as well): take people out for lunch as often as you can. Your network is going to be one of your most valuable assets so make sure that you are always putting yourself out there in front of people, staying on their radars and finding out who you can be of service. Each meal you share may not directly result in a tangible ROI, but I’ve seen time and time again instances where a lunch has somehow lead to opportunities down the road. So stay in touch with colleagues, profs, bosses, the janitor from your college — stay in touch with these people and it will pay. Make sure to set aside a few meetings/meals a week to get caught up or talk to new people. Do it.

Insatiable Drive

Are you really willing to make it happen? Are you the kind of person who will do what it takes, even if it means learning something on the fly. The only reason I know how to do motion graphics today is because my first boss asked if I could animate something for a client and I said “Sure” not knowing really how I was going to do it, but I did it and it started me off on a few years and tens of thousands of dollars in revenue because of that quickly acquired skill. (Side-note: When someone asks if I can do something that I’ve never done before, I typically say that I’ll do it because I have no idea whether or not I can do it. That’s one way to learn to sink or swim). I had the drive to learn new things and make whatever I put my efforts into something awesome. Is this you?

Skills To Pay The Bills (Or At Least The Pizza Bill At First)

At the end of the day, are you any good? I don’t mean you have to be a superstar, but if I’m interviewing someone who’s obviously got drive and a bit of skill then I like your chances. A solid portfolio of work will definitely work to your advantage, but be sure to curate your work to only show the best of the best. If you can’t stand behind every project in there confidently then it’ll show. Don’t let that happen. And if you don’t have the kind of work you really want to show in your book, make it up. Go ahead, you can do it.

Ditch Your Ego, Continually.

I’ve had the privilege of spending some time with some of the most highly acclaimed designers in Toronto and it truly blows me away to see the level of humility the exude. These are people who are internationally recognized, some of whom have received over one hundred of the highest acclaimed awards, and yet not an ounce of ego oozes from them. How does that happen? Well, humility will manifest itself in people for different reasons, but I think one trait is evidently consistent: curiosity. They’re curious to know what’s new out there. What is the next generation doing? What haven’t I learned yet? How did that young designer come up with that awesome concept? Keep your eyes wide, friend.

There’s so much more I could say on this topic (and maybe there will be a Part Two someday), but if you take anything away from what you’ve read here, let it at least be this: Jim Rohn said “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with” — make sure they’re humble, driven, and down for lunch.