You must have humility.

10 Jun

Graphic design giants like Bantjes, Carson, Kidd, Sagmeister, Scher and Vignelli are not universally loved. You won’t be either. There will always be people who disagree with your choices (even the “good” ones) and not always without “good” reason. To be a great designer, you have to be able to take these detractors in stride—and recognize when complaints are not only valid, but when outside suggestions will make the work stronger or clearer or more on the mark.

Graphic design done in the service of a client is indeed a service—and remaining humble and adaptable can mean the difference between repeat business and an empty appointment book. Some designers treat clients as a nuisance, an obstacle to creativity that must be worked around. I have witnessed designers becoming impatient, snippy, haughty, and outwardly irritated with the very people paying for the work. This is not a sound business strategy, nor does it usually lead to truly creative and collaborative solutions to be proud of. Working WITH your client will be much more fulfilling and inspiring than simply working FOR or AROUND him.

A designer with an uncontrolled ego is not fun to work with, and doesn’t always know better. Often, the person who knows the client’s business the best is the client. Listen to her, and take her suggestions seriously. If you disagree strongly, explain your reservations clearly and calmly. Often clients assume that many (or even all) design choices are merely subjective. Of course, sometimes they are. But a great designer will have reasons for their choices based on training and expertise, as well as aesthetic sensibilities. Explaining this rationale can go a long way toward making a case for your preferred design.

What you must guard against—at all costs—is becoming defensive or emotional. This will only make you seem like a bratty child or a ranting lunatic. Logic and reason work much more effectively toward convincing a client you know what you’re talking about. A good design education will include learning how to talk about your work—how to describe the different elements and explain what is working and why. However, the most important lesson a great designer learns (whether in school or through experience) is to not take critique personally. This can be a difficult thing to remember, even for seasoned designers. But it is critical to keeping your cool and objectively absorbing critique and suggestions—and will allow you to later turn those suggestions into better work.

As a student, humility is extremely important. School, especially art school, is a stressful and confusing experience. It can bring out the best—and worst—in seemingly sane and level-headed people. In almost every case you do NOT know better than your professor. (Please re-read the last sentence to make sure it sinks in properly.) You don’t always have to agree with him, but you should carefully listen to and consider any critique you receive. Even if you later decide to disregard his advice you should always critically analyze and consider it. Reacting emotionally or defensively will only make you seem like a whining child.

Remember, your professors have had many experiences you have not. They have reviewed the work of countless students and other professionals. Professors are also (presumably) approaching your work in an objective and detached way. You never have to take advice from someone verbatim (nor should you, part of critical thinking is knowing what advice to take and when), but you should always give feedback due consideration. Graphic design is about communication, and if someone doesn’t fully understand what you’re communicating, then it’s not working yet.

Humility needs to be balanced with confidence. While no one wants to work with an arrogant egotistical designer, neither do they want to hire a doormat. As a wise man once said, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em….” Learning when and how to act with clients and other professionals is just as much a part of your education as learning how to use grids or typography. And I promise, it all becomes easier with experience.


You must have confidence.

13 Oct

It always seems easier to believe in someone or something else: but, if you want to be a successful designer, you MUST believe in yourself. And you MUST believe in your work. Nothing can kill a great design quicker than lack of confidence. And great designs don’t deserve to die!

You must have confidence in yourself. Part of designing is selling you, your person, your skills and knowledge. If you cannot come across as someone who knows what they’re talking about, employers, coworkers and clients will never feel at ease with you. Design can be tricky intangible stuff. It’s often hard to describe, and even harder to explain. If you don’t have confidence in your ability and expertise, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone else who does. Which means it will be harder to find someone to pay you for your work. And that’s the whole point!

You must have confidence in your work. Not everything you design will be masterful or amazing. Not everything you make will be a true expression of your soul. Not everything you create will be worthy for submission in contests. And that’s okay. The core evaluation of your work should be about how it solved the design problem, how it met your client’s needs, and how it conveyed a message to someone. I would bet that no designer is 100% happy with 100% of their work. Not even Sagmeister. Not even Chip Kidd. Not even all the successful and incredible people at Pentagram. That’s to be expected. Greatness comes from a continued striving to be better and better, and from delivering solid, thoughtful work that makes the client happy. Once you see the distinction between the two, it becomes much easier to be confident in what YOU’RE producing.

Many young designers get caught up in the notion of becoming a rock star, or producing perfectly perfect work effortlessly, every single time. This is not very likely to be your reality. Instead, you should approach your work with determination and confidence, with an open mind to learning from every project, every mistake, and every client. And if you don’t feel very confident right now, FAKE IT! When you meet with someone to present your work, and you explain that it’s not very good, that the color is all wrong, that you wish you had more time, that someone else could have done a better job—you’re basically TELLING that person not to like your work either. Even if the work is good and does the job properly. This business is all about presentation, and you must present your work in the most positive light possible. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, PRACTICE it, until you do.

If you believe that something is impossible, it will be. The converse is also true. If you believe yourself capable of great work—and you’re willing to keep learning, evolving and improving—you will produce great work. Having the confidence to do so is the key.

You are responsible for your own success.

22 Sep

Yes, YOU. Not your teachers, your parents, your friends—you. You are the only one who can work hard and make things happen for yourself. And, rightfully so. You are the one who has to live with the results.

I wish someone had told me this as I worked toward my bachelor’s degree and searched for my first job. Instead of busting my hump, I simply did what was asked of me and waited for accolades and job offers to rain down upon me. Much to my surprise, neither were forthcoming—and I was at a loss to figure out why.

Eight years later, the answer is very clear. I was waiting for something to happen, instead of making something happen.

Instead of taking fair criticism from my teachers and classmates and turning it into important lessons learned, I was defensive and irritable. Obviously they were all idiots who didn’t know genius when it was right in front of them. I cursed them silently, and subsequently did nothing to improve.

Instead of doing an exhaustive search for firms to interview at and people to network with, I simply looked in the phone book for graphic design companies and despaired at how few there were. And then did no further searching—obviously those were the only places to apply.

Instead of looking for opportunities to continue building up my design skills outside of class, I lazed around, listless, feeling uninspired. I could have looked into doing pro-bono work for a local charity. I could have offered to do business cards for a friend of a friend. I could have created projects on my own—to practice composition and typography. I did none of these things. I was unable to recognize that design is everywhere and anywhere, and that constant motion within it is necessary to keep the spark of inspiration alive. Design is not just what your teacher, boss or client assigns you—it is your lifeblood! It’s the spark of creativity pumping through your veins!

So for all the students and recent grads out there lamenting the fact that success is not knocking on their door—rejoice! There is hope! YOU can make something happen!

Ask questions. Ask everyone questions! Write these questions down, as well as the answers you get. Ask about design, design firms, other designers. Ask about job opportunities—if there are none, ask about an informational interview. Many firms will sit down with you and look at your portfolio even if they don’t currently have a position open. If they are willing to do this: DO IT! Every interview you have will be beneficial to you—even the ones that seem like they were a disaster. At the very least, you will learn what NOT to do next time. And remember, amazingly enough, designers know other designers. So even if the firm you’re talking to has no open positions, the designer there may know of one somewhere else. (In this vein, remember that the design community is smaller than you think, and designers like to talk. Always conduct yourself in a courteous and professional manner. You never know who will hear about your actions.)

Make business cards for yourself (spend some time with the design!), get them printed, and give them out to everyone you know. In fact, give those people more than one and ask them to give them out too. Make yourself a website while you’re at it. And if you don’t know how to do the technical part, look online for a free portfolio site ( is a particularly good one). Again, spend some time with the images of your work and anything you write about it. You want to exude professionalism. Ask a few trusted people to check your work—and carefully consider their feedback.

Keep creating! Create as much stuff in your free time as you can. If you don’t know how to do something, get a book and then do it! Try it! Keep creating! And keep asking for feedback from other creatives. This is the only way you’ll keep learning and growing. If you don’t have a computer with all the software you need, buy one!  It will be well worth the investment. The internet is full of sites dedicated to graphic design and creativity. Find these sites and use them! Poke around and see what you can discover. Do the same at your local library and bookstore. And don’t forget to look around you in your local community. Design is everywhere. It is ubiquitous!

Don’t give up hope. If you haven’t heard this already, you need to know that design is a very competitive and tough industry. There are only so many good jobs in the market, and scads of designers waiting to fill them. Not everyone will be able to find a job immediately, and many grads give up and move onto other careers. If you’re one of the lucky ones to land that first job right away, it will probably not be very glamorous or creative. But don’t despair! Remember what inspired you to go into this amazing field and hold onto that. Keep creating work in your spare time. Keep your eyes open to opportunities around you. And if you’ve got the guts and moxie to stick it out, the determination to keep pushing and knocking on doors, the desire to keep developing your talent…if you’re able to make it in this industry, you’ll never look back.

Hello Graphic Designers…

30 Aug

Welcome to my brand spankin’ new blog! I have been a graphic designer for over 8 years, and want to share what I’ve learned during that time with students, young designers just starting out, people thinking about going into design, and anyone else who wants to take a look.

So, please, look around, and feel free to ask questions!