We all learn through experience, and for new graphic designers, this experience is usually gained in school. However, there are some mistakes that designers don’t realize they’re making because either teachers don’t point them out, the students won’t accept the criticism, or they are unconsciously incompetent (meaning they simply don’t know enough to know that they don’t know). In any case, these common blunders are best realized early to avoid a costly disaster or even losing your job.
1. Develop your Communication Skills.
We must be sufficient in our oral and written skills as well. If you haven’t had to already, there will be multiple times when you will need to give a presentation to a client. Even if you have a great concept and imagery in place, if you can’t intelligently speak about it using the proper industry-specific jargon and criticisms, then you will fall flat on your face. This is also true when it comes to writing about your work. Sometimes you will need to create a write-up to go with your concepts, and other times you will need to write copy for an ad or a script. Just because Copywriting is a profession and there are great ones out there, doesn’t mean that your client will be able to afford to hire one. They will expect YOU to be a jack of all trades! A side note to writing: use spell-check and edit your grammar before sending anything to your AE counterparts or to the client – they do know the difference between there, their, and they’re. And you should too.
“I want this on my desk by 5pm sharp.” For some new designers, this would cause instant panic. In school we generally have at least a week to work on something, not just a few hours. The best way to handle crunch-time is to have a solid process to fall back on. Know that you can’t just jump into Photoshop with no clue on the layout, content, or overall goal of the project. I know you may want to maximize every second you have for perfecting a design, but the truth is, you’ll just end up moving stuff around the page for an hour and won’t get anywhere. The same is true of the opposite – say they do give you a week for a project. No problem, you can get that done in a day. So what do you do? You wait till the day before to even start on it, and then it’s too late. If you don’t think of an awesome concept right away, you start panicking. Pace yourself. Get started as soon as possible, and know your limits.
3. Do the Research.
This seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people skip the entire first half of the design process. If your boss asked you to design a logo for a new high-tech science research/product company, would you just get in Illustrator and create some slightly altered type-dependent mark? No. Get online and research the company – what do they make? How do they make it? Who do they sell it to? How many people work there? Are they modern or traditional? Get to know the client. Even if you are given a brief on the project, I still recommend poking around a little yourself. Once you get a good feel for them, concept around visuals that would make sense for that company. Keep in mind that logos and branding are different than advertising strategies; the logo must make sense for the brand while advertising could be almost anything. For example, Geico wouldn’t use a cartoon picture of a caveman in their logo – it doesn’t make sense. But as an advertising strategy (with a good copywriter), it can and does work.
4. Follow Directions.
Another no-brainer, but following directions is one of the biggest problems with new designers. This could be partially due to ego, the idea that “I know what size a business card is,” but then that 3″ x 2.5″ card you designed has to be completely redone. Don’t put yourself in this embarrassing situation, just Google it if you don’t know for sure. This not only goes for size, but also resolution, margins, bleed marks, file size, file type, etc. If your client needs a PDF and you give them a JPG, you’re a moron. Just pay attention to the specs, please.
5. Know the Software.
After spending countless hours, months, and even years studying and using the Adobe Creative Suite while in school, its hard to think that there’s still stuff you don’t know; but there is. The first time you get an internship or even a job at a real agency, you will be humbled very quickly as your Art Director steps in to show you a few tricks. In approximately 3.5 seconds, they’ll have aligned all of your text boxes, reversed the color on that image, added a logo and a tagline in the bottom right corner, and made your jaw hit the floor because he never even touched the mouse. You will then spend the next 20 minutes trying to figure out what all those keyboard shortcuts were and feverishly writing them down in your little black book. My tip for you would be to start learning and practicing the shortcuts ASAP. Not only will it save you time, but it will also give you a clear advantage over everybody else in your class that is applying for the same job or internship.
6. Ask Questions.
If you don’t know something, ask. Ask your co-worker, ask your manager, ask Google. Although you may want to prove your worth and intelligence by figuring it out yourself, the hour you waste doing so is better spent designing after a 5 minute Google search or software tutorial. The longer you sit there staring at your screen hitting the same 3 buttons trying to figure it out, the lazier you appear. Learn when it’s the right time to experiment and when it’s the right time to just ask. Who knows, maybe you’ll even get some inspiration out of the quick internet search.
7. Photoshop for Dummies.
Along with numbers 5 and 6, you need to know what software program works best for each project. Photoshop is for image manipulation and pixel-based projects, Illustrator is for vector design, logos, and minimal typography, and Indesign is for page layouts and booklets. In school, I’ve run across all types of people who refuse to accept the worth of each program. Most of them are content with doing everything in Photoshop, from logo design to typesetting to web design. Don’t be one of those people! Despite what you may think or have been told, not everything is best in Photoshop. And not everything needs a parade of preset filters, either. Use the programs for their intended purposes, and everyone will be much better off.
8. Stay in the Loop.
When we graduate with our fancy graphic design degree, we think we are on the forefront of all things ‘Design.’ However, things are constantly changing, technology is constantly evolving, and more and more amateurs are competing with professionals in the industry. The best thing we can do is to keep up with these changes as best as possible. Engage with design blogs and newsletters, subscribe to magazines, and keep doing tutorials. The minute you stop learning, you become irrelevant. There will always be somebody that knows something you don’t, but you can give yourself the best advantage by staying active in the industry.
9. Attention to Detail.
This may be harder for those of us who are more right-brained, but it is a crucial aspect of design. Everything from page layout to web design to packaging involves an underlying grid that must be consistent throughout the project. I like to think of it as blueprints for design, similar to that of an architect. Other things that need to be consistent are your margins, spacing, style of imagery, typefaces and sizes, color palettes, and logo usage. A lot of these elements fall into a brand manual known as a style guide, which is becoming increasingly popular for brands to create a stronger visual identity. Knowing how to design for your client’s brand and keeping it consistent for consumers to identify with is key in your success of the project.
10. Be a Team Player.
Regardless of how great of a designer you may be, you still need to have people skills. You must know how to share, how to give and receive constructive criticism, and when to stay late for Joe so he can go out on his anniversary, etc. Make sure to meet your deadlines, ask for help when you need it, and be considerate of others. One of my teachers always says, “The same people you see going up the ladder, you’ll see coming down.” Keep that in mind before you start badmouthing your peers when you think they aren’t around.