While I love helping all creative business owners, I get especially excited when I receive emails from other graphic designers and aspiring graphic designers about my process, how I got started in the industry, and my advice for finding clients.
I received one email last week from a design student asking me to share 10 insights on how to become a successful graphic designer. And as I was typing my response to her, I realized that many of you out there might be able to relate to many of these insights or glean something from them, too.
While these tips are geared toward designers, they can truly apply to any field. Here’s a look at 10 things I’ve learned from my 5+ years of freelance design experience.
1 | Don't attempt to imitate another designer's style
Kyle was the standout student during all 4 years of design school. He had a gift for illustration and design that truly can’t be taught, and his style was edgy and bold. The rest of us would feel awesome about our work until he walked into class 15 minutes late and pinned his sketches on the critique board next to ours. He was (and still is) amazingly talented.
Our professors praised Kyle for his work and it was hard not to take notice of (and envy) the positive feedback he would receive.
So I tried my hand at imitating his design style.
For those of you who’ve been following along with Elle & Company for longer than a week, you know that “edgy” and “bold” probably aren’t words you would use to describe my work. So needless to say, I failed miserably.
Somewhere along the way I realized that I would never be successful if I continued copying another designer’s style, so I stuck to what I knew and began embracing my own feminine, illustrative aesthetic.
And that's when my work began to stand out among my classmates. Not because it was better, but because it was distinctly my own. I walked away from my 4 years at Virginia Tech with a portfolio filled with designs that looked like me, not Kyle or anyone else in my class, for that matter.
You’ll never find success if you’re trying to mimic other people; there’s no creativity involved in copying. The designers who really stand apart from the rest are those who have a distinct, honest aesthetic.
This is especially important when you’re working with clients. People will hire you because they like and appreciate your style, and they’ll expect to see that same style in the work they receive from you. If you’re impersonating another designer’s aesthetic, you’ll be making the design process so much more difficult and frustrating for yourself.
Instead of looking to others and following trends, have confidence in your own creative capabilities. Put more time into developing and honing in on your distinct design aesthetic and less time into focusing on what others are doing.
2 | Listen to your clients
Design is all about communication. As a designer, your goal is to visually communicate the right message to an audience, whether you’re creating brands, invitations, marketing materials, product packaging or websites.
But you can’t communicate the right message if you don’t spend time asking questions and listening to your clients because they know that message best.
Listening to clients can take many different shapes and forms throughout the entire design process, but I would encourage you to brainstorm questions before the initial design consultation, create an in-depth questionnaire for clients to fill out, and check in with them throughout the scope of the project for feedback and input.
The more communication and clarification between you and your client, the more effectively you can communicate the right message.
3 | Gain experience
There are 3 clear paths you can follow in the graphic design field: You can work at a design agency, in one company’s design department, or you can freelance.
At the end of my sophomore year at Virginia Tech, I was undecided on which path I would take, so I interned at a marketing company in their graphic design department. The internship consisted of placing pre-designed logos on t-shirts and keychains with the guidance of 1 lead designer and a handful of other interns in a windowless room in a warehouse. And I hated it.
But the experience was invaluable. I learned that I didn’t enjoy the lack of creative freedom and I discovered that the one-company world wasn’t a good fit for me. Even though the position wasn’t a good fit, it helped me narrow down the types of jobs I would apply for after graduation.
A similar situation occurred when I first started freelancing. I took on all kinds of projects - from invitation design to logos and prints and everything in between - to discover which outlets I enjoyed most (and which outlets provided a stable, feasible income).
I stuck with designing brands and websites, but I continued to narrow down the scope of my work and the clients I wanted to work with.
And through all of this I learned that there’s no greater teacher than first-hand experience.
You can study design, you can plan for the future, and you can seek wisdom from other experienced designers, but you can’t gain an accurate picture of what this industry truly looks like until you jump in head-first.
So take on freelance clients, intern at a design agency or in a company’s design department, and shadow another designer. Do what’s necessary to gain real, first-hand experience.
4 | Welcome constructive criticism
When you invest time, energy, and creativity into a design project, it’s easy to get attached.
But when that attachment keeps you from receiving constructive feedback or neglecting necessary critiques, you’re in trouble. Helpful criticism is necessary in order to make your work stronger.
However, I know this notion of being open to honest feedback is easier said than done. I dreaded class critiques with a burning passion and I still get nervous when I see an email from my clients containing their feedback on my latest design concepts. It’s hard not to take criticism personally, especially when your creativity goes deeper than your occupation.
But it’s also important to remember that you aren’t designing for you; you’re often designing for someone else. You’re being hired to perform a service, and the difficulty comes with balancing to your design skills and aesthetic with your clients’ wants and needs. And while it’s good to have confidence in your work, it’s also important to not cling too tightly to a concept that you block out ways that it could improve.
Think of constructive criticism as a creative challenge instead of a hindrance. Expect to go back to the drawing board and make revisions. Ask your clients for honest feedback and invite them to be transparent with you in order to arrive at a strong concept you both love.
And as hard as it is, try not to take it personally.
5 | Educate your clients
"Amateurs get frustrated with clients. Professionals educate them." - Paul Jarvis
While the words “hierarchy,” “typeface,” and “anchor point” are part of a designer’s day-to-day vocabulary, they aren’t often in the day-to-day vocabulary of a design client.
It’s important to remember that clients are often coming to you for design work because they know very little about design themselves. So in order for them to understand your design decisions, it’s crucial that you educate them.
This can take several different forms. You can (and should):
- Educate them about your design process to help set and manage expectations
- Explain your decision-making to demonstrate the purpose and thought that went into a concept
- Speak in simple terms and teach clients the definitions of common design terms
- And always ask for questions to keep the doors of communication open
Overall, educating your clients will qualify your design expertise which in turn builds trust and results in a better working relationship.
6 | Have a reason behind every design decision
Design is so much more than creating pretty things; there are reasons behind why certain colors work well together, why certain fonts work better for a logo, and why certain layouts are a better fit for a website.
Great designers understand this and put time into learning the ins and outs color theory, typography, and design principles. They not only strive to make things look good; they have an answer for every design decision they make and think through how their designs solve a problem.
So while you certainly want to create a visually pleasing result, steer clear of throwing things together haphazardly until you land on a solution. Instead, use wisdom and reason for every design decision you make.
Not only will this make your design work stronger, but it will help build your credibility with clients and employers in the industry.
7 | Exercise confidence
I felt like an imposter when I first started freelancing. People would ask me what I do in casual conversation and I had a hard time telling them I was a designer without sounding unsure of myself.
And while I didn’t feel like a designer at the time, I had a design degree and previous experience in the field. I was being hired because I had more expertise in design than the people hiring me.
But my uneasiness showed through and it caused my clients not to take me as seriously. And not only is that frustrating as a designer, but those projects always ended in a result I wasn’t proud of because I let the client dictate the design instead of having confidence in my own abilities.
While you should always welcome constructive criticism, you should also exercise confidence in your capabilities as a designer. From a client’s perspective, you want to work with someone who knows what they’re doing, not someone who shies away from providing their opinion and expertise.
Show your clients they’re in good hands by educating them, explaining your concepts, and guiding them through decisions. Even if you may not feel the part 100% of the time, remember that your client trusted your expertise enough to pay money to work with you.
8 | Be leery of working for free
Gaining experience in the industry or helping out a friend are both great reasons for taking on a free project every once in awhile, but free projects have a tendency to be the most time-consuming and frustrating. They’re the ones with the most drafts, the most revisions, and the most emails because the normal scope of work with paid clients doesn’t always apply.
And while this isn’t always true across the board, I’ve found that people who take you seriously and value your work are often the ones who are the most willing to pay you for it.
Molly Jacques wrote an excellent article on this here, and I would highly encourage each and every freelancer to read it.
Go ahead! I’ll wait for you to come back and read numbers 9 and 10.
9 | Don’t get caught up in striving for perfection
With each passing day I realize how much my perfectionist tendencies prove to be a hindrance, especially within my design work. I don’t even want to count the hours I’ve wasted doing minor tweaks on a project or working in circles, not knowing when to call it quits and just accept that a project is good enough.
It’s great to pay attention to details and do your best work for your clients, but it’s also important to realize that a project could always be better. You could always make adjustments and the revisions could go on for months.
Don’t let your search of perfection hinder you from sticking to timelines and getting things done. Put in your best work within a reasonable timeframe and know when to call it quits.
10 | Continue to learn
The cool thing about the design field is that it’s ever changing. There are always new trends, tools, and tricks of the trade to learn and keep up with, and as creatives, that’s exciting news; it keeps our work from getting boring and predictable.
So stay up to date with the latest design news. Network and meet up with other designers to learn from them. Take a class to learn a new skill. Experiment with new software and devices. Continue to be curious.
And in following my own advice in #10, I would love to learn from you! What are your top tips for graphic designers? Even if you aren’t in the design field, I would love to know if anything I mentioned applies to your industry, too.