The Life of a Graphic Designer (in Training)

Do you want to be a graphic designer but aren’t sure what to expect? The path of discovery happens at different times and speeds for all of us. Below, I share my story about how I got involved in design. Also included are some general insights into the process and why schooling can be beneficial.

I first became aware of graphic design during high school in the late 90s. My school had been built in the 60s and the library was literally frozen in time. I would search though the art books, only to realize that there wasn’t anything current- everything appeared to be 25+ years old. One day, I discovered a George Lois book; his brilliant Esquire covers and Braniff ads featuring celebrities like Andy Warhol totally struck a chord. Everything was so creative and satirical that I forgot I was even looking at advertising!

In our fine art classes, there were sheets of transfer letters in the corner and I would make silly little sayings on my artwork. I had no idea that they’d once been a graphic design staple. More searching at another library yielded a book of vintage Swiss poster designs. The style and aesthetics completely represented the look I was striving for.

Still, when I graduated from high school in 2000, I didn’t know that graphic design was a viable career option! I toured an art school in Portland while contemplating a degree in fine art, but when an advisor flipped thorough my portfolio and saw mannequin head sculptures covered in machinery and very little drawing or painting, he wasn’t impressed. 

The school was also prohibitively expensive. I didn’t think that making a ton of money as a fine artist right out of college (to pay back the loans) was realistic, so I went to school for business and marketing instead. That choice turned out to be a good one- I kept making art on my own time and finding out more about graphic design on the internet. It wasn’t easy to carve out time to dabble in design, but like Gala says, it’s true that if you want to do anything badly enough, you’ll find the time:  

“I have no time” is not an excuse — if something is truly important to you, you make time. So start to make time to write. When I worked in an office, I used to write on the bus on the way to work, on my breaks, on the way home & all evening — & I filled notebooks quickly. It can be done!

I definitely enjoyed the process of learning about design more than my business courses, but I stuck it out and developed my senior project around the branding and presentation of I knew that if I wanted to be successful, I didn’t have to be the best, but I’d better know how to market and differentiate my work from the competition while creating a cohesive image.

After earning a B.S. in Business Administration, I took a few months off to tour the country with a rock band and hang out in New York. Taking time away from home and school to travel helped me clear my mind and decide what to do next. I had my computer shipped out to keep up with personal projects, but soon enough, it served another purpose: while at a club, I handed a photographer my business card and within a week, I was designing a mini fold-out magazine that was published and distributed throughout New York City! It was hard work (and I wasn’t well-versed yet in grids and typography), but I enjoyed the final outcome enough to pursue more design jobs. 

In the Fall of 2006, I signed up for a two year degree in a limited entry graphic design program. I’d already been doing freelance jobs in my spare time, but I knew that if I wanted to be a legitimate designer, I needed to improve my technical skills.  

In reality, graphic design isn’t all about flashiness and creativity and the general art of making things look cool. There needs to be a strong foundation to build off of. The best advice I’ve ever been given is that you can’t break the rules unless you’ve learned them first!

I know a handful of self-taught designers and their work is amazing, though it’s a rarity. Even with schooling, Adrian Shaughnessy says:

In my experience, a graduate fresh from school takes between six and eighteen months to become a contributing member of a studio- and that is with careful shepherding and plenty of attention…

1. Learning the proper way to build files

Even if you have an ‘eye’ for design, it’s a must to know how to piece your documents together properly. Leaving stray points in your Illustrator files, forgetting to convert text to outlines, and working in the wrong color mode (sending a client a CMYK file for web-related work or an RGB file for a print document) could be the nail in your design coffin!

I was coasting through my second semester last year when I got offered a freelance job from Virgin Records. With all honesty, I can say that the basics I’d learned in the first few months of school got me through it. Even though I was making collages by hand for every page of a band’s booklet, I still had to know how to place the designs into the templates and lay out and kern the song lyrics over the course of twelve pages.

2. Internships and connections

School will teach you the basics: how to use software and the fundamentals of design. But, the only way to get real world design experience is to venture into the real world. Thanks to my teacher’s connection with a former student, I’ve been interning at a local advertising and design company now for four months. It’s been a great experience and everything I could have hoped for. Working alongside experienced designers has taught me some useful tricks, afforded me the opportunity to work on projects including ads and catalogs, and the ability to sit in on conference calls with clients. I’ve learned about the fine balance between making designs look cool and staying within the client’s budget. Also, working within a client’s time constraints is a lot more stressful than making sure a school project is in on time!

In How to be a graphic designer, without losing your soul, Adrian Shaughnessy says that:

For many young designers, the way into full-time employment is through internships. A successful spell as an intern can often lead to job offers. I’ve employed many designers this way. If I’m not sure about someone, an internship is a low-risk way of testing them. The designer given an internship must firstly use this as an opportunity to learn – but also as an unrivalled opportunity to impress. Look for ways of making yourself indispensable.

3. Peer evaluations

There’s only so much you can learn from sitting in front of a computer screen. Human interaction is a big component of making your work better. Sometimes, pinning a piece of work to the wall and getting a peer’s input and suggestions will pull you out of a rut and push boundaries. I’m lucky that my brother and my boyfriend are both graphic designers. (They are both willing to provide instant feedback and are also brutally honest!)

Saul Bass discussed the problem students and new designers often face:

‘They are not privy to process,’ he noted. ‘They may have the illusion that these things really spring full-blown out of the head of some designer. This is a very unsettling perception for young people, because they struggle with their work. They have a go at it… They redo… It gets better… It slips… It gets worse… it comes back… It comes together. And maybe it’s something that’s pretty good, even excellent. But they say to themselves, “Gee, it comes hard and it’s so difficult. Am I really suited for this?”

Essays on Design 1: AGI’s Designers of Influence, 1997

It’s true- there are days when it feels like it would be easier to give up. There’s no magic process to producing great content. Design is so subjective. But, so is writing and fine art and fashion (and everything else). When it comes down to it, are you happy with the final outcome? More importantly, is your client happy?

If you want to get famous and be treated like a rock star, graphic design is NOT the field for you. It will require long hours, pleasing a client’s aesthetics (instead of your own vision), and devoting tons of time to minute details most people will never notice.Even if your passion is keyed more towards fine art, graphic design can be a viable way to make a living while you’re trying to break into the gallery scene. I know a number of graphic designers that do this and still find time to work on their personal projects. Everyone needs to earn a living somehow! As a graphic designer, the learning never stops… and it really is a labor of love.

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