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Would I become a graphic designer today?

Would I become a graphic designer today?

Quick answer, yes. But I’d certainly do things differently. But that’s based on hindsight and lots of lessons learned. But first let’s go back to the beginning...

My mother wanted me to be a dental hygienist. I’m not sure why, but she always tried to persuade me as I thought about college. Admittedly, some days I wish I’d listen to her. But most days I still love what I do.

In college, one of my nastier design teachers told me to drop out. She said I had no talent. But here I am 20+ years later still doing design and still helping clients grow their businesses. But I still remember that conversation - and some how it’s always motivated me. I’d like to think she was applying very clever reverse psychology, but mostly I think she was just a bitch.

Design ’aint what it use to be

Graphic Design isn’t what it use to be - but I suppose when I started it was already in flux. The migration from manual to digital was already under way. I did a few “mechanicals” by hand at the beginning, but mostly jumped in when we’d hand of disks to color houses or printers. They’d output film, then strip it up into flats, and then make proofs and plates. Eventually, proofs became digital and plates were output directly.

But the days of worrying about output methods and printing have slipped into the past. Today, a graphic designer needs to be much, much more. They have to understand digital layout, web design, social media, marketing, and all types of print design. Sure, you can sometimes specialize in a single “field” - but most designers I know today are generalists. I think it comes from wanting to “control” the final output - no matter what the medium.

The challenged of designers today

The difficult task for graphic designers today is that you have to know so much more than you did previously. And the pace of change keeps accelerating - and it’s probably not going to slow any time soon. New applications, new technologies, new mediums.

Not to mention competition is more fierce. You’ve got crowd sourcing and overseas designers virtually giving away their talents. Plus, you’ve got commodity design sites offering remarkably nice templates for all types of materials - logos, brochures, websites, etc. And you also have design professionals who’ve been downsized by big agencies or start-ups that hang out their own shingles. Combine all this with downward pressure on pricing for design services and it seems all so bleak and sullen.

But I’d still do it all over again

Even though the pace of change is grueling, and the business environment is perilous and challenging - yes - I’d still do it all over again. I think my passion for design would hold true - even on a second go around. But there are a few things I’d change.

I’d work at a larger agency. I started at a small shop, which isn’t bad, but then jumped into working for myself before my friends were making above minimum wage. It was fun, but it was also long hours. I had to learn lessons the hard way. Today, I often wonder had I worked for a larger agency - would I have learned smarter ways of doing things. I know I would have made more connections.

I’d network more. Connections are the life blood of business and life in general. The old adage it’s not what you know but who you know is true - especially in design. There is an abundance of talented designers out there - but if they know you - chances are they’ll call you. Yes, I have a larger network of friends and associates today - but it could always be larger.

I’d self promote more. Designers are artists - and like more artists - we’re generally insecure. Especially when our work is judged daily and we have to suffer client changes (which usually we don’t agree with). So it’s not unusual for designers to be timid when it comes to self promotion. And I’m not talking about showing your portfolio, I’m talking about discussing your work - why you did things - taking credit for your designs. And promoting yourself to existing and prospective clients.

I’d take marketing courses. In college I wanted to take marketing courses - but they were classified as second year business curricula. And to take them, I had to take statistics and macro and micro economics - all math. So I didn’t try. But in hindsight, I should have. Yes, I’ve learned much of it on my own by reading and following the advice of mentors and simply by doing. But those classes probably would have started me ahead of where I did - professionally speaking.

I’d learn much earlier, that it’s design, not heart surgery. I sacrificed a lot when I started my own business so early in my career. We worked almost non-stop building our business. And while I had money, it came at the expense of doing things with my friends and family. Eventually, my friends stopped asking me, since they knew I’d answer, but I have to work. I just threw myself into the “job” and didn’t look up. Well years later...I finally realized - whatever emergency is sitting on my desk - chances are no one is going to die if it gets done tomorrow. Sure, there are time-sensitive deadlines - but you have to make sure that every thing isn’t a rush. Realize you can’t get it all done, prioritize, and communicate with clients and it’ll all work out.

I’d learn how to discuss money better. The hardest thing about running your own design business is the business part. I’ve always said I love what I do and I’d probably do it for free. The problem is, sometimes I did - well nearly free. I simply didn’t charge enough or did more than outlined without getting compensated. Or I didn’t discuss money or charges for changes and had to deal with the ugly after effects. So now I try to have the money conversation up front and often when it’s necessary. It’s still uncomfortable, but so is not getting paid.

I’m sure there are more lessons I’ve learned that I wish I learned sooner. Things I’d do differently and things I wouldn’t do at all. But again, it’s all hindsight, and some of those lessons were necessary. But yes, I’d still do it all again. Even today.

May 10, 2013
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