Everything Design School Didn’t Teach Me About Starting My Own Business

Design school taught me the principles of design, typography, and how to use Adobe Creative Suite - all of which I use on a day to day basis as a graphic designer.

But in the grand scheme of things, design is only a fraction of what I do as a business owner.

Even if you aren’t a graphic designer, you can probably relate to the feelings of overwhelm and self-doubt when you entered into the world of entrepreneurship and learned that many of the tasks you do each day don’t have anything to do with your field of expertise.

If so, you can probably relate to these 6 things design school didn’t teach me about starting a business.

Everything Design School Didn't Teach Me About Starting My Own Business | Elle & Company

1  |  Design school didn’t teach me how to differentiate myself

In fact, they didn’t even embrace the different styles of everyone in the program. 

The students with the more modern, edgy aesthetic received the praise from my professors, so everyone else inevitably ditched their own style and attempted to mimic them. 

So when I started Elle & Company, I found myself looking to the styles of more experienced people in the industry. (You, too?)

Instead of sticking to what I knew and loved - colorful, feminine designs that would differentiate me from others - I tried to follow suit. 

Everything Design School Didn't Teach Me About Starting My Own Business | Elle & Company

And not surprisingly, I failed miserably.

Two things happen when you look to others around you for inspiration in your business:

1  |  You fail because your work isn’t original
2  |  You sacrifice what would have differentiated you and end up blending in

This doesn’t just apply to aesthetic, either. 

You might be tempted to copy someone else’s business model, pricing, process, etc., all of which can keep you from setting your business apart.

It took me a long time to not only embrace the things that made my business different, but highlight them. And once I did, my business began to grow and succeed.

2  |  Design school didn’t teach me how to attract clients

They placed a lot of emphasis on building a beautiful portfolio, which is important. 

But how in the world are prospective clients ever supposed to find my portfolio? 

And better yet, what good is a portfolio if it isn’t filled with projects that would appeal to the type of people I want to work with?

I never learned to market myself and reach a client base.

So when I started Elle & Company a year and a half after graduation, I bought into the age-old lie: If I build it, they will come.

I launched my website, shared it on Facebook with friends and family, and received a couple of inquiries for services outside of what I wanted to offer.

I quickly learned that if you rely solely on word of mouth and referrals, you’re putting your business at a major disadvantage. Your growth will be slow and limited.

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You must find other ways to market yourself and expand your reach.

3  |  Design school didn’t help me determine which services I should offer

Yes, we took classes on package design, branding, publication design, and web design and most of us naturally took a liking to one or the other.

But we were never taught how to specialize in order to reach a target market.

Maybe it’s because our professors assumed that we would all get a job at a design firm. Or maybe our professors hadn’t had much freelance experience. 

Whatever the case, their oversight in this area put me at a huge disadvantage when I started Elle & Company.

Instead of specializing and narrowing my focus, I took on any and every design inquiry that came my way.

I designed wedding invitations, prints, logos, websites, planners - you name it.

And as a result, I didn’t become known for anything but “the designer who takes on everything.”

Everything Design School Didn't Teach Me About Starting My Own Business | Elle & Company

4  |  Design school didn’t teach me how much I should charge or how much I should set aside for taxes

I remember one class where we talked about freelancing and pricing, and I don’t even think it was planned into the curriculum. One of my classmates asked a random question about it, it was discussed for a brief moment, and it was never covered again.

There was no pricing method. No system for increasing our prices. And definitely no insight into setting aside money for taxes.

How in the world are you supposed to make money as a freelancer if you don’t know how to price your services?

So when I started Elle & Company, I priced my services ridiculously low out of a fear that higher prices would drive away potential clients.

I worked crazy long hours, offered unlimited revisions, and ultimately worked for pennies.

You can’t sustain a business and support your family when you’re getting paid half of minimum wage, and you’ll quickly lose steam if you aren’t getting paid what you’re worth.

Everything Design School Didn't Teach Me About Starting My Own Business | Elle & Company

Thankfully I eventually learned to increase my prices before Elle & Company tanked! But I didn’t learn how to do it in design school. 

5  |  Design school didn’t teach me how to manage multiple projects

While college is good practice in managing a bunch of work at once, design school never taught me how to realistically manage several projects at once.

I didn’t know how to book clients, create (and stick to) timelines, manage a client calendar, etc.

So instead, I took on every client that came my way, right away.

I had no system for keeping up with them all. I randomly chose dates that each project would be completed. And I worked long into the night/early morning - totally and completely stressed out - trying to get it all done.

You cannot keep up with projects, stick to deadlines, and maintain your sanity if you don’t have a system.

Everything Design School Didn't Teach Me About Starting My Own Business | Elle & Company

I eventually reached a breaking point and was forced with two options:

1  |  Figure out a clear-cut system for booking and managing clients, or
2  |  Give up and find work in another industry

Thankfully I pushed through with Option 1! But again, no thanks to design school. 

6  |  Design school didn’t teach me how to set boundaries and manage client expectations

A smooth client experience is crucial to reaching an end result that both you and your client are proud of (and receiving glowing testimonials). 

But here’s the crazy thing about design school: We didn’t even work with clients!

Most of our projects were fictitious, made up by our professors. 

So we learned nothing about managing client expectations, maintaining good communication, setting boundaries, or dealing with difficult clients (although we did have to deal with some difficult professors).

And in hindsight, that may have been one of the most difficult aspects of starting Elle & Company. 

I allowed clients to walk all over me for fear of disappointing them. I allowed unlimited revisions and late payments (and in a few cases, no payment at all). I let my clients run the show, and it was incredibly defeating.

Everything Design School Didn't Teach Me About Starting My Own Business | Elle & Company

Design school never taught me how to do any of the tasks above, which are crucial to starting and scaling a creative business.

Instead, I was forced to figure them out on my own by trial and error.

I learned how to:

  • Pare down my offerings and specialize
  • Attract and book clients
  • Build a portfolio that appeals to my ideal clients
  • Set up my business legally and keep up with business finances
  • Build and price my design packages
  • Refine my client process and improve client communication
  • Handle critiques and cut down on revisions
  • Balance multiple projects and meet deadlines

And within a year, I booked out my client calendar and grew a waiting list of over 250+ prospective clients!

I’ve discovered the creative strategies YOU need to implement to build a successful freelance business, and I’m sharing them in my signature course, Freelance Academy!

Freelance Academy | Elle & Company

Registration for Freelance Academy opens TODAY, September 19th at 10:00am EST and runs through next Tuesday, September 26th at 11:59pm EST.

You can see all of the details about the course here:

You won’t have to wing it any longer; simply follow the plan. Hope to see you in the course!