In my business of graphic design and web design, and even illustration, I’ve been able to do some cool projects for over 45 years. Website, email campaigns, logo designs, brochures, posters, newsletters, newspaper ads, and signage fill my days with creativity. I try to convey feelings and concepts, while I play with pretty colors, expensive geek-love equipment, and powerful design software. If that’s not enough, I’m also a fine artist, quilter, and illustrator. How lucky am I to do what I love every day?
Everything around us — our furniture, our homes, the groceries we buy, the clothing we wear, the vehicles we drive — has been designed, indicating the breadth and depth of the design field.
I’ve done portfolio reviews and mock interviews at a couple of local art schools, and there is some really exciting work being created, courtesy of their talented teachers too. It’s enough to make me put aside several hours a week to beef up my design and programming skills, because these kids (let’s face it, I’m old) are going to wipe the floor with me if I’m not careful.
The former Wet Feet wrote, “Expert designers are creative and have technical mastery over their tools. They have an understanding of the raw materials they use — for instance, different kinds of fabrics, in the case of a furniture designer or a fashion designer, or metal, plastic, chrome, and glass, in the case of an automobile designer. In Web design, that means learning new programs and understanding how visual elements will work together.”
“Technical mastery” takes time, even long after graduation. I like to ask students what their plans are for continuing their education after graduation, and most don’t know how to answer the question. I’ve rarely heard a student say they will take classes and get magazines and technical books having to do with their chosen field. I want to shake the hand of a student who gives me an assertive, proactive answer.
One thing I’ve noticed is so many of them have signed on for a VERY expensive education (some schools cost upwards of $100,000 for a 4-year degree) because they’ve just always loved to draw and scribble on things, or do some programming, and they’ve made a logo for a friend for a CD cover or created an animated short film, and they think they want to do this for a living.
That is an excellent indicator that the graphic design, 3D, or web development field might be a good choice. You have to love what you do; you NEED to create as much as you need to breathe…but I’m concerned.
I’m concerned about a design student (and their parents) taking on $100,000 in debt to pay for their education. According to Glassdoor, the average base pay for a graphic designer is $48,256, with the range of $35,000 to $70,000. Fresh out of school will be closer to $35,000, so about $17.50 an hour, so about $700 a week. That’s before taxes and heath insurance. And rent, and groceries, other costs of living, and oh, yeah, student loan payments that start 6 months after you leave school.
There are programs, such as the Income-Based Repayment Program that will help you pay less, but you’ll pay over a longer period. Student loans cannot be forgiven in a bankruptcy. The student loan landscape is changing right now, so do your homework.
If you can find the classes offered, get some decent classes for a much lower cost at the local community college. You don’t need to spend nearly $100,000 at art school to get a well-paying job in design. A state university works just as well, and maybe for only a couple of years, after you’ve taken your pre-requisites elsewhere. You’re applying for jobs on the strength of your portfolio and ability to do the job, not where you got your degree. Make sure the school you’re thinking of transferring to offers credit for courses before you take them.
The marketing plan drives the design, not the pretty pictures
I’m also concerned because many graphic design and web design students have no concept of marketing. Both are a means to a marketing end. It is not just about making pretty pictures. When doing portfolio reviews, I like to ask, “Tell me about the target market you had in mind for that piece. How old is the target? Are they male or female? Are they black or white or Caucasian or Asian? Where do they live? What are their interests? What kinds of things would appeal to them? Would they have any issues with the size of tex, font, or the colors?” These snapshots into people are called buyer personas by marketers. And agencies actually write up the personas.
Too often I get a blank stare or a very uncomfortable look. It looks like they’re thinking, “But, I just want to make pretty pictures all day!”
You are someone’s worker bee
If the graduate works for an agency or marketing department, someone else more seasoned will have come up with the basic design. The graduate will be the “junior designer” (the production artist). Their opinion may not be solicited or appreciated. They’re the art director’s worker bee, with the same unthinkable deadlines, but no input, until they put in their time.
Even if the graduate decides to fly solo, even if they come up with an award-winning, masterfully creative design, there is no guarantee the client will love it. The client may have strong ideas about their design. I have literally been handed a logo drawn by a client’s young nephew. I was instructed to make it work.
At the end of the day, the client signs the checks. The freelancer can be a prima donna and tell the client to take it or leave it, but too often the client leaves it and warns their friends that the artist is hard to work with. I come up with more than one design. In my experience, the client often chooses one of my less-favorite designs. Educating the client and graciously saying why the nephew’s logo won’t work might help. But, I have to suck it up and make it shine.
Speak up, please
One thing that I’ve noticed in student presentations is a great need for speech training, and maybe some Toastmasters. One student spoke so softly, I could hardly understand what he said. I notice many, many “likes” (“Like, this is the color I chose”) and “uhs” (I think, uh, uh, that this would be, uh, like a good choice”). When a designer gives a presentation or sales pitch to a client, this comes across as unprofessional, insecure, and ill-prepared. If the designer is a freelancer, chances are they won’t get the job. If they work for an agency, they probably won’t be allowed in front of the client.
I like to say, “If you want to make pretty pictures, there’s the fine art department. Make all the pretty pictures you want.” Design is hard work, often (but not always) not always gratifying. It’s sometimes supremely frustrating. But, if you do the job right and in a timely and skilled manner, you help your client effectively sell their product or service. You get to keep them for a long time.
If you would like to hire someone who understands the business of design and marketing, contact me, and let’s strategize.