If Only I Knew Then What I Know Now: 13 Design Lessons

posted by Manda 43 Comments

As I get older and rack up experience in the design field, I realize more and more how many mistakes I made early on. And, as an instructor, I see new graduates making similar errors. There are plenty of things that I wish I had known back when I was in design school, or just starting out after graduation. I wanted to share some of these things with my younger readers so that you can avoid making the same mistakes. And, if you’re an experienced designer, I would love it if you would share some of your own experiences and life lessons in the comments below.

Every class is important

It’s easy to look at your college schedule and think that some classes are just a pure waste of time. Math? Science? English Composition? I have to admit, there are some professions where I might say some classes aren’t going to have any effect on your career. Why does an accountant need to know how to write a research paper? Why would an English teacher need to understand chemistry? As designers, we will put ALL of our subjects to use. Math, business, accounting, speech, and writing skills are an absolute necessity in the design field — if you want to be successful. As for the science classes, psych classes, and philosophy classes, take advantage of them while you can. As designers, we work in EVERY field. When you have a client who has a business in one of these fields, all you’ll have to fall back on is the knowledge you gained of these subjects in school (and all of the research you’ll have to do if you get the job). Clients will expect you to take the time to learn about their field — to understand where their clients are coming from and what their product offers. I’m constantly surprised by the subjects I find myself immersed in. Thanks to my clients, I’ve had to become knowledgeable in finance and investing, human interaction and psychology, skin care, publishing, engineering, distilling liquor, and so much more. Thanks to my college classes (the ones that I thought were useless) I had some knowledge to draw from when I first started working with these clients.

The most boring parts of class are the most important parts

Now when I look back, I realize how fortunate I was. My prepress teacher owned a large printing business. My Photoshop (Photoshop 3.0!) teacher wrote some of the original Photoshop books. My business teachers ran their own agencies. But, was I amazed by their talent and in awe of their experience? No. I was bored. My photoshop teacher droned on about resolution and moire patterns. My prepress teacher put me to sleep talking about bleeds and paper weights. After graduation, I quickly found out that those parts of class that I found most intolerable were actually the most valuable. Drawing classes were fun, but they didn’t help me the first time I got drug out to the presses and scolded for not setting up my files correctly. Color theory was fascinating, but it couldn’t help me when I had to figure out how to get a scanned image to print well on a press. The pen tool was hard in school. I avoided it as much as possible. Now it is my best friend and I could never survive without it.

As an instructor who works as a designer, I know what the important things are. And I try to hammer those things into my students when I teach. But, I see the bobbing heads and the rolling eyes, and I know they are thinking the same thing I was — just shut up and let me play with the filters. I know it’s hard when you’re young and excited and impatient, but try to pay attention to the boring stuff. It will pay off later, I promise.

Electives Matter — Choose Wisely

When you’re in school, you’re really looking for two things when it comes to electives. You want something easy and fun, and you want something that will fit into your schedule. As an old fuddy-duddy with years of experience, I am begging you to choose your electives based on your career goals. You are PAYING for those classes. A lot. Don’t waste your money on Bowling 101 or Cake Decorating. Think about what will help you as a designer. If you want to be a web designer, pick up some extra programming languages. If you want to be an animator, find a 3-D class or Actionscript class. Even a drawing class will be useful. Just don’t throw your time and money away on Introduction to Dinosaurs.

College isn’t a Race

I was in a hurry to graduate. I finished my BFA with a minor in three years. (Sidenote: don’t choose a school because they say you can graduate in three years instead of four. You can do that anywhere if you go summers — as you will in the schools that use that as their advertising focus.) I loved school. I was the nerd I am now and worked hard and got good grades. But, after I got out, I was a little disappointed. What was my hurry? I lost one year of being inspired by fellow students, learning from amazing professionals in the field, and taking daily trips to the Art Institute. I wish I had slowed down, graduated in four years, and enjoyed myself a little more. If you have a family to support, or are on some sort of goal schedule, that’s different. But, if you’re just a regular kid in college, there is no reason to rush through school. Take the time to do well in your classes and really create some beautiful portfolio peices. Those years fly by. Enjoy them.

Your Supplies will Last a Lifetime

When you start your design classes, you will be required to buy hundreds of dollars worth of art supplies. Even now, when much of the design process is digital, most colleges require a number of drawing, layout, and theory classes — all performed on good old fashioned paper. Love your supplies. Take care of them. They will last forever. Well, okay, that stick of charcoal isn’t going to last forever. But, your beautiful metal t-square will be with you the rest of your life. Your large cutting mat, your favorite x-acto handle, your Prismacolor pencils, and your kneaded eraser have years of life ahead of them. Take good care of your supplies.

Learn to Type (the right way)

I didn’t miss out on this one personally, but I have many (many) friends in the design field who can’t type. We are all required to take a typing class in high school. A very (very) small percentage of us pay any attention. And, do designers need to know how to type? YES!! You’ll type EVERY day. Some days it will just be emails, and some days you’ll be transcribing entire pages. I know that most current students grew up with computers, and many of you CAN type. But, for those of you who can’t, get in a typing class. Suck it up. Be a nerd. Don’t look at your fingers or the keys. And reap the benefits later when you’re working as a designer and cranking out emails like a machine.

Use Feedback to Your Advantage — Especially Criticism

You’re not going to get through any (decent) design class without a healthy dose of criticism from your instructor and fellow students. At a young age (highschool and college age especially) it is difficult to take criticism. You naturally think that you are right and they are wrong. It’s even harder in design because art is so subjective. Everyone has a different opinion. Math is easy. There is one right answer. With design, there might be many successful solutions to any problem, so the possibility for disagreement is high. As a student, though, you should understand that your instructor is standing in front of you for a reason. They have the experience and training to help you grow and improve as a designer. If they are giving you constructive critisicm or suggesting that you make a change to your design, try to respect their advice. I can assure you that it is MUCH easier as an instructor to pat everyone on the back and tell them that their work is great. If a teacher is taking the time to give you tips on improving your design, it is only because they want to help you.

Why is it so important that you are good at accepting criticism? There are two main reasons. First, you should use that criticism to revise and improve your designs so they are prepped and ready for your portfolio. Second, you’re going to spend the rest of your life being criticized and making revisions to your original designs. And, these critiques and requests won’t be coming from professional designers with years of experience. They will be coming from your clients, most of whom have absolutely no design training whatsoever. Get used to it. Your job will not be to please yourself. It will be to please your clients. And, listening to their critiques is the first step in creating designs they will love.

Take Advantage of Your College

Most colleges offer so many amazing things to their students. Clubs, trips, and social events are just the tip of the iceberg. If you are having trouble paying for school, check out any work-study or student aide positions that might be available. Take advantage of your financial adviser and get help applying for your loans. Don’t be scared to ask questions, and make sure that you understand EVERYTHING that you sign. After or just before graduation, meet with the job placement people. Let them help you get your resume into the right hands and set you up on some interviews. If your college offers retraining, you have a HUGE advantage. Go back and take classes to learn the latest programming languages and updated programs. You’ll never again be in a place with this many resources and opportunities. Take advantage of them.

All Positive Experiences are Worth Your Time

When you are in college, it’s hard to see the big picture. There were two times I distinctly remember turning down amazing opportunities. The first time, I was asked to present some research I had done at a conference down state. I had discovered something new, and my instructor was impressed enough that he asked that I continue my project and present it. It was a huge deal. What did I do? I passed. No thanks, I said. You can go ahead and use my research. I’m going to be a designer, so this really doesn’t pertain to me. Was I an idiot? Yep.

Later in my college career, we took a field trip to meet a pretty famous director of television commercials. I wanted to work in advertising, and really enjoyed the trip. My instructor was friends with the director, talked to him, and offered me an internship working with him. I turned it down. No thanks. I don’t want to work in TV. What was I thinking? Ugh!

Those stories make me sick to my stomach. How could I be so closed minded? So near sighted? I was just a normal self-centered college student who didn’t want to put myself out for something that I didn’t think would directly impact my career. I was wrong. These stories are embarrassing, but I hope that they will help some of you avoid making the same mistakes. If you have opportunities like these, jump at them. I may have still ended up in the same place (and I love where I am in my career) but I would have had some great stories to tell. I really missed out, and it was my own fault. Don’t be like me — leap at the chance to broaden your horizons and learn something new.

A Referral is a Gift — Don’t Take It for Granted

If you ever are in the position where a teacher refers you to a friend, please realize what a huge deal this is. Instructors and design professionals meet hundreds of people, and their reputation is everything. They will only give referrals to the best of the best students. Don’t take it lightly. Be thankful, be gracious, and FOLLOW UP!! Don’t let it go to waste! Go in for the interview, make the phone call, and carry through with all of your promises. That referral could be the beginning (or end) of your career. Be sure to give it the time and attention it deserves.

Keep Track of EVERY Contact you Make

You’ll meet a lot of important people in college. Your instructors, speakers, and those you meet on field trips should be the first entries in your professional Rolodex. You never know when you’ll need those contacts later — maybe 10 years later. Every time you meet someone, try to get a card and jot down any notes about that person on the back. Save that card. Forever.

Don’t Take a Break After College

This is probably the biggest mistake I see students make after graduation. They worked hard in school, and they want to “take a break.” Sometimes they are just burnt out, and sometimes they want to perfect their portfolios, but 99% of the time, a break like this will lead to a career as a (insert any profession here – other than designer). Taking time off after school is never a good idea. You know how fast programming languages and design programs are updated. You’ll be left behind in no time. You’ll lose touch with your instructors and other contacts. You’ll fall away from the industry, and before you know it, you will feel too lost to even try to apply for a job. Do everything you can to work right out of school. Even if you have to take a low-paying job or internship and then work another job at night or on the weekends (like I did) — it will be worth it in the end. Don’t quit looking until you land a job in the design field.

Live at Home While You Can

I’m going to end with the most controversial of my lessons. Live at home while you can. If you have generous parents and a decent relationship with them, it will work to your advantage if you can stay with them for a couple of years after graduation. I know that in your early twenties, all you want to do is move out and get a place of your own, but living at home will give you many advantages that will carry through the rest of your life. Without having to pay rent, you will be able to take a lower-paying design job to start off your career. You may not have that option if you are trying to support yourself. You can also pay off any credit card debt you ran up while in college and start paying down your student loans. You’ll find that after you move out, paying off anything is very difficult because your entire paycheck seems to barely cover living expenses. I know it’s not fun, but starting life on your own with your career on track, no credit card debt, and lower student loans will put you leaps and bounds ahead of those who don’t have those advantages. (Sidenote: if you do live at home, be respectful of your parents. It is still their house. You won’t have the freedoms you had while you were away at school. Try to help with some of the bills, do as much housework as possible, and when you do get a good job — or a promotion — get out and do whatever you can to pay them back for being so supportive.)

So, those are my lessons — things that I know now that I wish I knew in design school. What about you? Do you have any lessons you would like to share?

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Mike June 18, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Excellent article!

I want to reply to every topic on here, but unfortunately I’m guilty of not being able to type correctly, and it would take me forever to comment on everything. :/ It’s such a pain!

But you really did hit the nail on the head with this article. Every student and future student should see this because it is TRUE.

Tim Smith June 18, 2009 at 4:51 pm

What a great article! I totally agree with the points that you make. I’m definitely going to put them in practice. Thanks!

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Never underestimate the power of spell-check.

Notice the “poular” posts link section at the end of the article.

Manda June 19, 2009 at 11:48 am

Mike & Tim: I’m glad you enjoyed the article! I think my first few years as a designer would have been much smoother had I known some of these things 🙂

Me: Unfortunately, the popular posts section was part of the php code — no spell check available. But, I appreciate the catch.

Chris June 19, 2009 at 2:17 pm

These hints are perfect and spot-on. I took the 4 1/2 year route in college and lived at home.

Also, when you do get a referral, Manda is right. Those professors put it on the line for you, so do your best when an opportunity arises.

Manda July 15, 2009 at 11:24 am

Thanks for the great feedback! It’s true that teachers really are taking a chance when they make a referral. Because students haven’t been out in the work force (and don’t know yet how competitive it is), they often don’t understand the amazing opportunity they’ve been handed. My first design job out of school was for an instructor’s friend. It was one of the best jobs I ever had, and it jump-started the rest of my career.

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Tyler Diaz June 19, 2009 at 4:44 pm

I couldn’t agree more. Some of these lessons are overlooked due to self confidence and arrogance, but when you become more experienced and look back. You really see how important some lessons you overlooked were.

Manda July 15, 2009 at 11:24 am

It’s great to know I’m not alone in my experiences! I find myself continually looking back and shaking my head at things I should have done differently. Luckily, the regrets seem to be slowing down a bit as I get older 🙂

Nikki June 19, 2009 at 6:15 pm

Dugg it. Very awesome article. Too many of these points are overlooked in life. I know I wish I had thought of it back then. Keep Track of Every Contact is something I still have to push myself to do – who knows when it will come in handy.

Manda July 15, 2009 at 11:24 am

Thanks for the Digg! I too still have trouble with keeping track of every contact. As a designer, I think I’m naturally inclined to be disorganized. But, I’m working on it!

Josh L June 19, 2009 at 7:05 pm

Great article, with great advice.

I was once offered a motion graphics internship at a Los Angeles Spanish-language television studio, and turned it down for reasons that, looking back, are baffling. What a gigantic mistake that was.

As Ann Landers once said: “Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work, so most people don’t recognize them.”

Manda July 15, 2009 at 11:25 am

What a fantastic quote! Thanks for sharing it. I feel for you and your lost opportunity. It’s just so frustrating when you get older and can’t understand decisions that you yourself made. I always wonder how my career would be different if I had taken that internship with the director. But, in the end, I can’t imagine being in a better place, or being happier with my career. So, I guess in the end, we all end up where we are supposed to. But I know it still hurts to think about it!nts

Emmet June 20, 2009 at 4:54 am

Really good post! I’ll be heading to design college in September, and can’t wait! the internet is so helpful when you’re starting out because of articles like this one! thanks! (oh, and also dugg it)

Manda July 15, 2009 at 11:25 am

Thanks for the Digg! I have a feeling you’re going to be very successful in life. The fact that you’re doing your research ahead of time and preparing for design school says a lot about you and your work ethic. Bravo! Good luck in school! Design is the best — I’m sure you’ll love it!

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Ryan Rampersad June 20, 2009 at 5:14 am

Great article there! I’m not planning on being a designer but it wouldn’t hurt to know more about the field, I feel like that about every field, any knowledge about it is great. The tip about keeping contacts forever is really important too. You make friends in college that potentially might need your services later in life, you never know until it happens.

Manda July 15, 2009 at 11:25 am

I think you are completely right. Many of these pieces of advice carry over to all fields. Keeping contacts is extremely important. I know there are many people I wished I had stayed in contact with. Start while you’re young. You won’t be sorry!

Kelli June 20, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Take a class from the instructor everyone hates. Most of them get their “hated” status because they push their students constantly and hold them to a higher standard. You may have to work harder, but you will learn more and these instructors are quite often very knowledgeable in their field and most of them will be happy to share that with you if you work with them rather than against them. On the other hand, if it turns out the instructor is just an ass, you’ll either have time to transfer out, or get a lot of really good practice for those difficult clients later on.

Manda July 15, 2009 at 11:26 am

Fantastic advice! It’s true! The one teacher at my school who would make us cry (literally) was the best instructor I ever had! It’s easy in college to chicken out and go for the easy A, but you’ll learn the most from those intense challenging classes — and come out with the best portfolio pieces as well.

Caitlin June 22, 2009 at 7:52 am

Such a great article!

I can really relate to being in a big hurry to graduate. I was in such a rush to finish, and now I wish I really hadn’t. I sacrificed internships, study abroad, and college organizations because I thought they would keep me from graduating on time. In hindsight, those were such valuable opportunities, and they could have really improved my chances of getting a job in my field right out of college.

Very nice post! Thanks!

Manda July 15, 2009 at 11:26 am

Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. It’s hard to look back with those regrets. I try to think of it like this: at least I learned early-on how important opportunities like those are. And, I’m not going to let anything like that ever pass me by again!

Andy P June 23, 2009 at 4:20 am

Superb article.

One other point I would add having watched younger designers come through the ranks – learn to be courteous and respectful when dealing with colleagues, bosses and lecturers. There’s nothing worse than being copied in on an email with no punctuation and – shock! – the recipient being addressed as ‘mate’ or ‘buddy’. Awful behaviour!

Manda July 15, 2009 at 11:26 am

HaHa! YES! You are right-on there. Manners and respect should have been #1 on my list. I guess I assumed that was a given, but I know I’ve seen the issues you are speaking of, and I’m glad you mentioned it!

Martynas June 28, 2009 at 5:51 am

That made me laugh “Just don’t throw your time and money away on Introduction to Dinosaurs.” 😀

Manda July 15, 2009 at 11:30 am

HaHa! The sad thing is that I KNOW someone who took a dinosaur class as an elective! Not an anthropology class – a dinosaur class! Probably not the best decision he ever made 🙂

Michiel July 1, 2009 at 9:03 pm

Hey, good article.

I’m not to sure if I agree with your comment regarding not taking a break after you’ve graduated. I did it for two years, and although it made it slightly harder to get into the industry afterwards it gave me life experience which counts for bucketloads. And really when it comes down to it – 1 year is not really that much time for programmes to be updated. Sure they will get updated but its not any different to someone changing from CS3 to CS4, everyone has to do it at some stage….

Manda July 15, 2009 at 11:30 am

Everyone has to do things their own way. There are always people who break the rules successfully, as it sounds you did! You’re correct, life experience can be great, and I’m glad you were able to choose the right path for yourself.

I just know that I’ve had some students who take Photoshop their freshman year, and have already forgotten some of the tools when they reach portfolio class. You learn so much in those four years, it’s easy to forget much of it – even in a year. So, for most people, it’s makes sense to just jump right into the design field.

I’ve also found that my students who did take time off after school are having a harder time finding a job. It’s usually a bit easier to get an entry-level job or an internship right out of school. You can use your teachers as references, you can take advantage of your college job-placement, and don’t have to try to explain a gap in your resume during an interview.

Jess July 5, 2009 at 1:23 am

Great article! Definitely agree with the one about seizing opportunities. Fell victim to that one back in college. I have my own bundle of regrets, like many of us here. Although those opportunities are now long gone, I have learned to be much more appreciative of new knockings on the door. Best thing we can take from this lesson, I suppose.

Bookmarked your blog. I will definitely be checking back to read future posts!

Manda July 5, 2009 at 1:35 am

Hi Jess,

I think you’re absolutely right – as long as we’ve learned something from our missed opportunities, we haven’t lost out completely. I guess it’s good that most of us learn those lessons when we’re young, but it’s not fun to look back and think about it.

So glad that you’re enjoying the blog! Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment – hope to see you back soon!

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Lån Penge August 25, 2009 at 8:42 pm

Alot of very useful advise. I study graphic design in Holland and need all the advise I can get. The part about ‘The most boring parts of class are the most important parts’ is so true!


Steve Simmons October 17, 2009 at 8:23 am

Great article! Also, don’t forget that even though you may want to be ONLY a designer, don’t pass up electives on programming and marketing. They will come in helpful. However, by the same token, if a school couselor tells you that you should minor in business in case the “art thing” doesn’t work out for you…run. 🙂

P.S. I started on PS 2.5 (no layers!)…I also typed this with my thumbs. They didn’t teach that in school. 🙂

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Drew Hollings March 10, 2010 at 5:09 pm

Thanks for this! Shall keep this bookmarked for future reference. Wont be too long before Im starting college(few years).

Again, thanks!

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jess April 3, 2010 at 9:39 pm

very good article and good points ..your right about college it goes way too fast i did 4 years and I want to go back.


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