1 : the pace is different
Ask anybody who has been to design school how they managed to survive. Some might say they were lucky, others might point to their innate creative genius. However, I believe the majority of former students might share one answer: they worked non-stop (and learned to live on coffee and bagels). The reality of graduate design school, or undergraduate for that matter, is that there is no time to lose. The speed with which class assignments, professors’ demands and part-time work (for those who are crazy enough to attempt it) pile on can be overwhelming. In order to survive school, we learn to establish schedules and processes that enable us to be more efficient and succeed—or at least not fail miserably.
In contrast, professional work moves at a different speed. Busy days when you don't have a minute to spare are followed by slower ones that never seem to end. Work flows in between frantic deadlines and sluggish days when you have nothing to get you by. Why am I making this differentiation?
I don't intend to place school at a higher level of difficulty than client work. I do want to highlight that in professional work, the responsibility to manage, maximize and make the best use of your time is up to us.
Our job and paycheck depend on this crucial detail. The efficiency with which we manage our employer's resources, budget and time speaks directly to the value we add or subtract.
We need to make ourselves indispensable, not only by the quality of our work, but through initiatives and activities we can propose. Be sure to make your value clear to your employer and clients and you will quickly become an essential piece of a team everyone wants to be part of.
2 : collaborate or fail
Design school teaches us to identify our strengths and limitations as we strive to establish our own voice and aesthetic—a design personality of sorts. These programs expose us to unlimited design possibilities that help us define how we might approach the growing design challenges of our time. Furthermore, the variety of teaching methodologies make it difficult to decipher what professors are really asking us to do. Class assignments sometimes seem to be written in code. Navigating through these uncertain scenarios tends to promote a “working in a vacuum” mentality. Like a man stranded on a desert island, students are taught to work and survive alone. With some exceptions, school dynamics generally follow the following steps:
• Class assignment
• Students work on their own
• Class critique
This process—while conventional and somewhat effective—leaves us, students, at great risk when shifting to professional work. Design school’s focus on theoretical, historical and practical knowledge produces talented, creative and conceptually-thinking individuals who are generally not prepared for the foundation of client work: the need to work well with others.
Collaboration, that essential bonding human relationship, is not nurtured in school. The competitive class environment tends to peg students against each other fighting for the professor’s approval. Conversely, professional work flourishes when collaboration is not only fundamental to the studio’s process, but encouraged and protected. In simple terms, companies who don’t collaborate, fail. Learning to be a team player, not just a team member, is the most important advice we can give to students and professionals alike. It means leaving egos, personal preferences and biases aside and learning to sweat for the team and not for personal glory. Now that sounds like a challenge we can all try to face together.
3 : the “best” doesn’t always make it
It’s true. Some of your “best” and most conceptual work may never see the light of day. Work that your are proud of may never reach an audience. Even with “innovation” and “design-thinking” being the latest buzzwords, routine remains the business world’s comfy leather couch. If humans are creatures of habit—which makes unproven methods feel risky—clients are guardians of the status quo. With their expectations, low budgets and industry conventions they push towards expected design solutions. That doesn't mean that you should resign yourself to being one of the bunch. You don’t have to be safe or boring. Nor does it mean that groundbreaking design is not created every day. Our industry is filled with creative excellence next to visual crap—or “visual pollution” to use designer Massimo Vignelli’s more eloquent term.
As designers, it is our job to keep pushing boundaries, challenge conventions and be unwavering defenders of our standards and values. And it pays off.
The fact that everything we present to clients is not automatically approved makes the occasions when this happens feel more special. Those are magical moments.
Clients who have strong and defined goals and seek to communicate their message with impact, clarity and substance—who want to lead not follow—are more open to visual solutions that may feel uncomfortable at first. Others, who see design as a needless expense, will want something similar to what their competitors have. We should always seek to work with the first kind of client, as they can push us to come up with smarter and better solutions.
Good design does not have to be unconventional nor convoluted. Projects excel when designers help clients scour through mounds of content and help them transform the most relevant information into a sincere visual language. When designers and clients place content and context before aesthetics, great design can be achieved. That’s my definition good design. Surely, design solutions that are honest, keep audiences in mind and meet the client’s economic goals can be appropriately filed on our shelves under “best” work.
4 : we must make room for process
Time is money. Yet, we know that design is not quick and easy. Like the saying goes: cheap, fast and good; pick any two. Professional work is filled with unforeseen stumbling blocks and moments of frustration. Budget cuts, indecisive clients and creative blocks can all undermine our hard work and success. Further, the lack of understanding of the time required for profound design thinking gives reign to the notion that good design is just a few mouse clicks away. What can a designer do with this constant rush to make clients happy while presenting design solutions we can be proud of? We must make room for process.
There is not one design process. But with enough practice we can learn to coax our best work by following procedures best suited to us. We all have our methods for brainstorming, concept development, sketching, research and finding the appropriate inspirational avenues when the inevitable creative block comes visit. And, through the years, we should be able to identify and exploit the ones that make us more efficient. This is the process of building your own voice. It's the equivalent of having an educated and informed opinion on any relevant conversation—so you don't make an ass of yourself.
A strong design voice helps distinguish us as people and professionals from all other designers—it’s what makes us unique. Regardless of what your process is, the important thing is that you find it, refine it and make time for it. But is it easier said than done?
In the real-world, some projects will require an automated, production-minded mentality. You will need to get it done fast. Yet, it is vital we don’t let the redundancy of daily tasks take over our ability to frame our design point of view. There is a correlation between allotting ample time for process and high quality work. Great projects are normally not created in a flash—without proper thinking. Timeless design projects—the ones we celebrate and admire—come from a constant desire to define the problem at hand, develop an appropriate solution while building a strong design voice.
Processes are encouraged in design school. Failure is also welcomed. In professional life, building our process becomes fundamental to nurturing our individual talents and strengthening design as a growing industry. Defining our process is an unpredictable lifelong journey. But, with commitment, patience and care we can all start to mold a design personality that differentiates us from the crowd and that clients will want to be around.
5 : ownership has a new meaning
Everything we make in school is ours to keep, showcase or even throw away. Nothing is ever truly ours in a professional design studio. Whatever we touch, create, design, develop, print, upload and code remains property of the client and the company we work for. What one makes belongs to all. So what can we own?
Not being the sole owner of any piece of work emphasizes the fact that we are now part of a team moving toward common goals. We can only own our work ethic, our principles and our knowledge—everything we bring to the table. However, technical skills are not enough anymore.
We must evolve as designers and be able to prove our worth to both clients and employers. How we relate to them defines our professional worth and potential. And, those are powerful things.
Owning our professionalism means staying hungry and up to date, engaging with our peers and building a quality portfolio. Yet, being a proven, honest and hardworking team player will be the thing most people look into when they consider adding you to their studio’s credit line.e.
6 : relationships still matter
Relationships are the essence of our personal lives and professional careers. The exchanges and rapport we build with our fellow employees mean the difference between loving or hating our job—and have a huge impact on our designs. We don’t make good work when we’re unhappy. Creativity blossoms when environments are open, fluid and sincere. And the people that surround us have greater impact on our level of happiness than we might realize.
Designers are at our best when we enjoy what we do—when what we make serves a purpose. In school, fellow students have a big influence on our emotions, confidence and work. We quickly connect to students with similar design tastes but even more to those we relate to at a deeper level. Those are the friendships that help us survive the all-nighters and the heart-wrenching critiques. Designers are in fact social human beings (in case anyone asks). These relationships will be our closest allies even after we leave school. Many of them will help you get a job or will buy you a beer when you can’t.
In the real world, our enjoyment and paycheck can depend on our relationship with coworkers. The people we collaborate with on a daily basis have the biggest impact on how we feel when we wake up every morning. Does work repulse us or excite us? If you hate your job, it would be wise to rethink what your next career move should be. However, if your job excites you then you must cherish and safeguard the bond within our team.
Collaboration should not be a burden but a way of life. Asking for advice, admitting mistakes and being open to opinions enable us to squeeze every ounce of knowledge from the people we interact with.
Fellow employees don’t need to become our best friends. Neither do clients. Yet, a professional relationship built on mutual respect can increase productivity, success and help us reach boundless possibilities.
Emotions are reflected in our work. Our best work normally comes from periods of—not only creative bursts—but extreme engagement and enjoyment. So be nice and try to love what you do. Letting people see who you are can build transparency and peace of mind. Ultimately, it can increase the probability that our personal happiness will be tied with professional success.
bonus : there is a weekend
Let me remind you: a week is 7 days long and includes 2 weekend days. It may sound stupid to mention, but time off becomes one of the many things we learn to live without while in school. I cherish my years in grad school, nonetheless, whenever I start to miss the rush of student projects, I am reminded that rediscovering a life outside of the studio and the classroom has been the biggest gift I've received in a long time.