What They Don’t Teach You in Design School
Going to school for graphic design was a great experience. I went to a small state school and loved having my creativity challenged and strengthened through different classes and projects.
But now I’m a few years into my career, separated by time from my design education. I’ve logged experience both agency-side and in-house, and I’ve noticed a few things they don’t cover in school. Hoping to help young designers start off on the right foot, I’m sharing those lessons with you.
You’re never on your own for a project.
In design school, most projects are solo projects. It’s up to one student to come up with the concept, copy, illustration, photography, design, production and anything else a professor might require. While that’s great for showing students the different aspects involved in a project, it’s not an accurate representation of the real world.
As a professional designer, there are almost always other people available to help you. Reaching out and asking for help is a good thing—it shows you’re interested in creating the best outcome for the client. Admitting to and owning your strengths and weaknesses is important, because working in a silo won’t help anyone.
Even solopreneurs and freelancers don’t need to go at it alone. Connect with talented photographers, writers and designers to build a group of people you like working with so you can continue to make great work.
You can change the brief.
Most of the time, school assignments are handed out without much background on the company’s problems and needs. Students are expected to carry out a single task—making a newspaper ad, designing letterhead or creating branding for a fictitious company. Professors grade on how well students did executing that task.
But in the real world, clients sometimes ask for help with one thing, and receive help with other things as well. The creative brief changes. Companies hire agencies to improve sales, increase engagement and solve brand challenges. Sometimes, that means challenging the client’s ideas and showing them new ways to reach customers. In the most successful agency-client relationships, clients take the input they get from their creative team seriously—because everyone is invested in doing the best work to get the best results.
The problem with the way assignments (or briefs) are given in design classes is that when actual clients have a problem, it’s usually not “no one is buying our thing.” When you take a closer look, it’s actually, “the ways we’re reaching our potential customers aren’t working.” It’s up to the creative team to not just make what the client is asking for—but make something that will help them reach their customers.
Design students, take note—you probably won’t be successful in convincing your professors to change the brief. But as you work on your projects, think critically: would this medium be the most impactful for your clients, or would you suggest something else?
You could even work outside the brief and add the work to your design portfolio, or in addition to the assignment to show your professor a different way of solving the problem. When companies look to hire a designer, they love seeing the ways you thought above and beyond the ask. It helps show that once you get hired, they can count on you to apply critical thinking to everything you do.
Being able to talk about your work is really important.
One summer during college, I interned in-house at a large company. I worked all summer on a big project that the other interns and I would have to present to the top executives in the office, so naturally I was really nervous. I was so relieved after it was over, thankful I’d never have to do it again.
Little did I realize, presenting work to clients and executives is super common. In fact, I probably do it once a day.
Public speaking should be an integral part of any design education. Your clients will almost never be designers, nor will they care very much about design. You’ll have to convince them that what you’ve created is the best, most creative, most impactful idea. Designers should be able to capture clients’ attention, explain design principles and inspire confidence in their designs.
If you’re a design student or recent grad, don’t skip that public speaking class. Take every opportunity you can to talk about your work. Talk to your roommates about your projects. Talk to your parents about it. Talk to your dog. Practice explaining the reasoning behind your decisions and why your designs work.
Your clients will change your original design.
Don’t be offended when—and it’s not an if, it’s a when—the client has changes. Expect that it will happen, pretty much on every project.
The final product students present in design school feels like a neatly packaged, tied-up-with-a-bow culmination of many weeks of work. However, when working with actual clients, designers often get to that stage and what they’ve created isn’t quite right. And that’s ok. Through the process of edits and reworking things, the client and creative team can come up with the best outcome together—something that solves the client’s problem through great design.
And isn’t that the whole point?
My last bit of advice…
While design school helps students explore design philosophies, develop their personal aesthetics and learn how to communicate visually, there are just some things that can’t be taught in a classroom. Some lessons are only learned from experience. So while I’m hoping this blog post will give current students and recent grads an idea of what to expect, it boils down to this: keep designing. Keep working. Design school ends, but you never stop learning.