You’ve decided graphic design is the career for you. You want to apply your creative streak to something that will allow you to get paid for doing what you love. That’s fantastic. But before you embark on a course or get that job, allow us to share some wisdom from people who know what they’re talking about.
We spoke to some of Shillington’s own teachers and graduates to find out what they wish someone had told them before becoming a graphic designer. From finding confidence and knowing when to speak up to accepting criticism and confronting fears, this is an essential read if you’re about to take the plunge.
“When I first started out I think I held myself back and was risk-averse,” says Dave Bird, teacher at Shillington Manchester. “I wish someone at the time had said ‘take more risks, say yes to things, then figure out how to do it’. Failure is a great way to learn.”
When you’re young and keen, it’s a common mistake to bluff and pretend you know more than you do – even to yourself – says Sophia Mary Mac, a part-time teacher at Shillington Brisbane.
“When I was a student, I wish I’d known that I didn’t know everything,” she says, and advises today’s youngsters to: “Just be a student while you still have the ‘student pass’. Admit you don’t know everything, and people will be happy to help you. Seize them and ask questions where you can. And be good to your peers and teachers, because you’ll be with them for the rest of your career.”
“Probably the biggest thing for me was the sudden realisation that my actual design work meant nothing unless I had the communication skills (and confidence) to sell in my ideas,” says Hilary Archer, teacher at Shillington London.
“I wish I’d known how freelancing while working remotely actually takes a hell of a lot of focus and self-discipline,” says Shillington graduate Emily Somers. “It never really crossed my mind when I started, and it’s a skill I’m still working on. Sometimes sunshine or offers of coffee, brunch or wine are really hard to say no to!”
“I wish someone had told me to ‘fight the good fight’,” says Anthony Wood, Director of Shillington. “You will always have clients who want to make changes you don’t agree with and I used to expend all my energy on trying to making every job perfect. But that energy is better put into the jobs and clients that are worth the fight. Sometimes, you just need to let go!”
Early on in your career, the right opportunities can be vital in establishing you as a creative. But that doesn’t automatically mean you should say yes to everything, believes Dylan McDonough, a past Shillington guest lecturer.
“Saying yes to every opportunity can lead to brilliant work and strong partnerships,” he says. “But it can sometimes lead to taking on a project that may be out of your depth, or not actually paying enough for what the client needs.
“My first failure in this came from third-party costs on a freelance job,” he recalls. “I said yes to the job without properly investigating how much the photographer would cost, how much the studio would be, if we’d need retouching, and so on.”
“To understand that critiques of my work are not reflective of me as a person,” explains Shanti Sparrow, teacher at Shillington New York. “I put so much of myself into my designs that negative criticism could feel very personal. I needed to separate myself from my work. I eventually grew to appreciate this feedback because it inevitably made me a better designer.”
When you’re starting out, one of the easiest things to forget is that you won’t all be students forever. “So it’s important to value the people you meet along the way,” stresses Shillington graduate Dan Villalobos. “You never know where things will lead; you could end up working with – or for – each other.”
“Every brief and piece of work will always feel scary at the beginning, no matter how experienced you are,” says Amee Wilson, a graphic designer and Shillington graduate. “Self-doubt is completely normal—although it feels horribly uncomfortable you have to trust it will motivate you to create something amazing. Being humble and willing to learn will open way more doors than trying to barge your way in.”
“I wish I’d had more guidance to how to develop an idea quickly,” says Shillington teacher Wayne Smith. “My third-year degree was very ideas-focused and we would often spend weeks pondering, thinking and discussing potential solutions to a design problem. When I started working in studios, though, I quickly realised that the luxury of pondering design solutions for weeks just wasn’t commercially viable.”
“Ask lots of questions,” says Emma Stokes, former teacher at Shillington London. “Without them, progress is not made. Always go back to the client with questions that will help you better answer a brief and understand who they are and what they want.”
“And don’t forget to question your own work. Ask yourself—does this answer my brief? Will a user know what that means? Because without questions you get stuck in that little circle of doubt. And you risk making swift misinformed decisions. By staying curious, you won’t spend your design career worrying about looking stupid or wasting too much time on work the client won’t even notice.”
The best advice I ever received was to be fearless about learning,” says Shillington graduate Keiran McCann.
“One of the reasons why I love design as a career is because you don’t have to be limited to one speciality. When I want to broaden my skillset, I tend to have a DIY mentality and will attempt personal projects outside of my day job that will ultimately teach me that new skill.
“I’m also a big advocate of investing in yourself, and one way I like to do that is by taking classes and workshops for the skills I can’t teach myself.”
Always familiarise yourself with the rules and regulations of the industry you’re designing for, advises Shillington graduate Sean Raynor, who now works as Watermark Studio in Virginia, and specialises in branding and packaging design for the drinks industry.
“I highly recommend designers familiarise themselves with the rules and regulations of the government for products they’re interested in designing, along with what printing processes are available,” he says.
“For example, everyone at Watermark is very familiar with TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau) regulations. A large amount of the packaging work that we take on is alcohol, so knowing these guidelines is very important for us.”
“Trust your teacher and never take their feedback personally,” says Janice Leung, Shillington graduate. “I always found that they were right by the time I got to finished art, even if it didn’t make sense at the time.
“Also, when it comes to finding a job, the best advice given to me was from my teacher who told me that it’s not a case of whether you find a job, but rather – how much you want it. If you want it enough (and work for it), you will land one.”
Shillington graduate Ani Monteleone has a great piece of advice for anyone seeking a career in graphic design. “Go out into the world and meet people,” she urges. “Surround yourself with people who are better than you, who are doing things you want to be a part of – even if it’s not exactly what you think you want to be doing.
“If you don’t have your own project going on, get involved in someone else’s project to stay busy and inspired,” she adds. “Work really hard but be nice, be humble, and be able to take criticism and embrace rejection.”
When you’re starting out, it’s natural to run with your creative instincts. But that can mean you lose track of your process, cautions Eman Abdallah. Instead, she advises: “Document your creative process in words as you go”.
“One of the main problems I faced when I started designing is not being completely attentive and aware of my own process,” she admits. “I’d end up with something amazing, but I couldn’t remember exactly why I’d gone this specific route instead of another. I found it hard to describe my process because I wasn’t conscious of all the decisions I was making.
“Over time, though, I developed ways to document the process using text, voice and imagery. It works like magic when you have to explain your work to someone else.”
“Experiment with the skills you’re taught, and try and expand beyond that in your spare time,” advises Zoie May, Shillington graduate. “Be it asking your teachers how to apply a specific effect in Photoshop or trying your hand at different illustration techniques. It could come in handy for your portfolio and future job prospects, and when you go back to full time work you might not have the time or energy (or resources) to practice new artistic endeavours.”
“Don’t be afraid to push yourself outside of your comfort zone, whether that’s trying a new technique or using a font that you normally wouldn’t use,” says Shillington graduate Julia Zou. “You’ll thank yourself later when you develop into a well-rounded designer who’s unafraid of any design project.”
“There has never been an extra hour on the beanbag, thinking or resketching, that hasn’t resulted in a better design. Great design takes time to refine,” says Andrew Hesselden, Shillington graduate.
Want to become a graphic designer? Study 3 months full-time or 9 months part-time at Shillington in New York, London, Manchester, Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane –> www.shillingtoneducation.com
Illustrations by former part-time Shillington Manchester teacher Katie Baxendale.