14 Tips I Wish I Knew About Graphic Design When Starting Out

The following is a guest blog post contributed by Lexie Lu of Design Roast.

One of the best things about the modern age is that you can truly forge your own path as a creative. If you’re a writer, you can simply write. And if you’re an artist, you can sketch or create. So many “professionals” out there did not follow the traditional route to success, and that’s okay. Maybe they didn’t go to school — or they did but have a degree in something completely unrelated. Perhaps they started designing logos and websites for friends and family before getting work from others.

Whatever the case might be, not everyone follows the same path. That doesn’t mean we don’t have things in common. In fact, I could share hundreds of tips and comments on my experience in the industry that you will someday come to find on your own. That’s the beauty of this work. Professional in the traditional sense or not, those of us with experience have a lot to offer novices.

In light of that, I thought I might share some tips with those of you who are just starting out in the biz.

1. Don’t Limit Yourself

Practice makes perfect, so the only way you’ll get better is by practicing your craft. That means constantly stepping outside your comfort zone and trying new things, using new tools or even taking on new forms of work. Don’t become complacent in your field — learn to switch it up so that you’re not limiting your talents and growth.

Early on, you’ll feel at times like you’re not qualified to do a certain project or complete certain work. It’s natural, but don’t let it stop you. You don’t have to be an expert to succeed as a creative because talent and skill can carry you just as far. Learn to experiment and try new things and don’t limit yourself by thinking you can’t do something or don’t have the knowledge. Many of the things you’ll learn in a creative field take some figuring out and hands-on time.

Gert Jan Lodder, a relatively unknown graphic artist, created this Trash Can icon, which is available on DeviantArt. He used inspiration from another artist to create this version. What’s more interesting, however, is how he created the icon for himself after a long time looking for something similar. Don’t limit yourself — you never know what will come of it!

2. Get to Know Your Software

Design and graphic arts in the modern age call for the use of various computer and design programs. Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, for instance, are two incredibly popular programs that you’ll likely include in your repertoire. To be honest, it doesn’t matter what tool or application you use. If it works for you, then great!

What’s more important is that you understand the ins and outs of the software you’re using. When you’re not working, experiment and get to know some of the less-common functions. Take an online course (SkillShare is great) or read a public tutorial. Browse forums and Q&A sites like Quora to find new information.

You’ll be working intimately with the software to create your designs and content, so make sure you’re incredibly familiar with it when the time comes.

3. Your Work Will Get Better

Growth is inevitable — especially if you’re practicing your craft regularly. It’s just something that happens naturally over time. You’ll learn new techniques and styles, new apps and maybe even discover new talents you didn’t realise you had. Your performance and efficiency will also grow. Projects will be completed much faster and you’ll have better ideas.

Unless you stop working. Don’t do that.

4. The Customer Is Always Right

This is a tough pill to swallow, especially in a field where the work is your own and you’re pouring your blood, sweat and tears into it. Unfortunately, the customer is always right. Or, in your case, it’s not what you may want for a design, but it’s what the client wants.

It’s easy to forget you’re doing actual work when you’re in the midst of something you love. Yet, that’s exactly the case. You’ve been commissioned by a client to create something of their choosing. You could absolutely love a design, image or final product only to find the client hates it.

The only person whose opinion holds weight at the end of the day is your client. Remember that — otherwise, you’re going to be spending a lot of time back-pedalling.

5. Creative Block Is a Real Thing

At some point, maybe years from now or possibly tomorrow, you’ll sit down to get some work done and it will be like running headfirst into a wall. Creative block happens even to the best of us and it can be crushing. When it happens, acknowledge it and do your best to move forward. Don’t procrastinate and give up — at least, not right away.

Find ways to reignite your creative side by looking for inspiration. Maybe your “thing” is playing some great music and getting into the beat? Maybe you’d prefer to look at the work of other designers and artists? Maybe you’d like to go outside and meditate in the grass for a while? Do whatever you need to do to move forward.

The sooner you understand that creative block is real, the faster you can overcome it when it hits. And make no mistake about it — it will hit you.

6. Prioritise Your Design Portfolio

In a creative field, your portfolio is essentially the only resume you’ll ever need. You can show it to potential clients so they have a jumping off point. They can see your design skills and gauge whether or not your style matches their needs. That’s why it’s incredibly important to prioritise your portfolio early on.

Set up a website to act as a public, professional portfolio. Use design techniques and content that a client might want to see on their own site. More importantly, when accepting work, think about how it’s going to look on that portfolio. Sometimes you’ll have to accept a project just to get by, but that doesn’t mean you need to include it on your portfolio. Showcase only your best.

For a great example of this in action, see Grant Burke’s professional portfolio. He is a Toronto-based freelance graphic designer who has made a name for himself in the circuit. One thing you might also notice right away is that his initial homepage design is pretty text-heavy. But as you scroll down the page, you’re treated to more visual content, which highlights his ability to fill several roles outside of graphic design.

Grant Burke - Graphic Designer - Website Homepage

7. Do More

Graphic design and website development are your forte, obviously, but you have to branch out if you want to succeed in the industry. Sometimes, a product or design you create will need accompanying web copy and you’ll have to write it. Other times you may be asked to use your design skill to create and build an attractive infographic for your client.

Learn to do more so you grow more as a creative. Become a Jack or Jane of all trades, if you will. This will not only help you get far, but will also help you secure more work in the industry.

Experiential graphics, for instance, are an incredibly popular thing right now. It involves the use of modern technology in combination with art. You might have a blank canvas on the wall and users can see what’s on the image using an AR app. As a designer, this might not seem important, but I’d argue it definitely is. The world is a much different place today and being familiar with modern technology and emerging trends puts you in a powerful position. You’ll be able to achieve more for your clients, and that makes you a much more desirable asset.

8. Never Work for Free

When you’re starting out you’ll be inclined to take cheap or free work to pad out your portfolio. It’s ultimately up to you what you do, but you’re likely better off avoiding projects that are too far below your skillset.

When you work for free or relatively cheap, you devalue yourself and your talents. That’s never a good thing and it sets a precedent that many clients will follow.

9. Get a Deposit Before Starting

Piggybacking off the tip above, always get a deposit or initial fee before starting work. The unfortunate part of telecommute and remote jobs is that the client or customer has no recourse to pay you when it’s all done. You’re simply taking their word that they will send you the money you’re owed. If and when they don’t, that’s when all hell breaks loose.

To save yourself the trouble, always ask for a deposit up front. That way, if the client takes off and doesn’t pay the full amount, you at least have something in return for the time you invested. And in a creative business, time is money.

10. Make the Most of Your Time

Learn early and upfront that time management is a necessary skill when working for yourself. You have the power to put off your work and duties and you alone decide when you sit down at your desk and begin putting in the time. That also means it’s your fault when you run out of time and miss a deadline or simply have to work longer than planned because you weren’t efficient.

It’s not always about the total amount of time you put into a project — it’s about what you do with the time you do invest. Learn to be efficient and productive and try to eliminate as many distractions as possible to stay on task. The earlier and faster you get your work done — so long as you do so accurately — the less time you’ll have to spend working.

Designer Mengdi Zhang has an amazing portfolio, and perusing some of her achievements you can really see that she has made the most of her time. She’s been a part of several high-profile projects, including Workspace ONE and an app called Everydaying.

Mengdi Zhang - Everydaying App Design Project

11. Ask Questions

Never assume you know what a client or manager wants. This could lead to an extensive development process on your end that turns out to be all for naught. Right up front, ask as many questions about the project and your duties as you need.

A great question to ask is what your client or manager is expecting of the finished product. This cuts right down to the meat, letting you see what’s most valuable to them with respect to your design and work.

12. Network and Make Contacts

You could be the most skilled and experienced contractor in the world, with the best designs and sketches anyone has ever seen. But none of that matters if you’re all alone. Why? Because at some point you’re going to come up against a project or task you’ll need help with. It’s these times where your networking and connections really pan out.

Maybe you met someone who is super good at coding and development? Maybe you met a writer who can whip up some web copy for you? Learn to network early and make connections even in other fields, as this will help you in the future.

13. Imposter Syndrome Is Also a Thing

I’ve struggled with it many times and so will you. This is especially strong if you haven’t gone the traditional route to achieve your career, such as attending school or online courses, or even working in an office outside of your home.

Imposter syndrome is when you feel like you don’t quite belong in your current situation. For creatives, it usually comes after they’ve met with a certain amount of success. You don’t feel qualified to be doing the work you’re doing and surely someone is going to oust you as a fraud.

This will pass — just ride it out. But it’s certainly better if you understand what it is and that it happens to nearly everyone at some point.

14. Mind Your Health

This is something that’ll become more apparent the older you get. Your mental and physical health directly affects your productivity and, by proxy, your success. This is especially true if you spend most of your day sitting and staring at a computer.

Learn to take breaks. Get up and walk around and get some exercise. Make sure you’re eating a healthy diet and that you’re not loading up on sugar throughout your day. Sugar will give you a burst of energy up front only to make you crash later.

And as you get older, you may find that you need to take naps. That’s okay. Mental and creative work puts a natural strain on your brain that physical work does not. That’s not to say they are not equally exhausting — it just means using your brain all day, every day, will have a toll on you.

Starting your career as a young graphic designer can be intimidating at first. It can be easy to get swept up in the first job demands and feel overwhelmed by the design requests. Just know, there are many designer communities (such as the Logo Geek Community) willing and able to help you out as you begin your journey.

Lexie Lu is a graphic designer and blogger. She enjoys writing about the latest graphic design trends and creating mobile app prototypes. Follow her on Twitter @lexieludesigner and visit her blog, Design Roast.

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