10 Things No One Told Me About Being a Graphic Designer

I graduated from college with a Bachelors degree in Graphic Design almost 4 years ago. I was hired into my field just a few months after graduation, and in that time, I’ve learned a great deal about the industry and the process of design that nobody ever told me in college. So, without further ado, here is my own personal list of things I wish someone had told me sooner!

There’s different types of “design”

In college, the term “graphic designer” seemed synonymous with “artist.” In my recent experience, I’ve instead come to understand that there are different types of designers, including those I like to call “high volume creatives.” These are those of us who handle lots of artwork for lots of customers very, very quickly. These individuals may or may not be creating artwork themselves–sometimes they are only editing existing artwork supplied by a customer, checking for problems with that artwork, or simply sending it along to production.

Then there are graphic “artists”–individuals who may focus on only one project for an extended length of time, and may or may not be using digital mediums to create. They may or may not sell their work, and they may or may not work directly with customers.

There are also “typographers” who may focus on type-oriented art, typesetting publications, or anything else relating to the web-based or printed written word.

Lastly there are “graphic designers,” whom I consider to be a mashup of a graphic artist and a typographer. In my opinion, to be a graphic designer, you need to be spending a significant amount of time on a project, tweaking every aspect of a design, and considering what effect each of those tweaks will have on the way that artwork is perceived by not only the customer, but the general public. It requires a marketing background of some kind, since a lot of that understanding of message and impact comes from an understanding of marketing.

A background in photography is WELL worth your time

If you can’t take a good photograph, or at the very least, recognize what makes a good photograph, you may have trouble when it comes to designing certain logos, fliers, infographics, or any other project that is meant to recreate an environment or appear photo-realistic. Can you do it without photography experience? Of course you can…but why would you make your life any more difficult than it has to be?

You don’t need ALL of the Adobe programs

After you spend enough time working on various design projects, you’ll realize you’re spending the majority of that time in just one of the Adobe programs. For me, it’s Illustrator. My professors swore up and down that I would be spending 99% of my career in InDesign. Can I use InDesign, and Photoshop, and Bridge? Do I use them? Of course. But for me, personally, I can do almost any project 10x faster in Illustrator.

You will be revered as some sort of “magical computer genie”

…and even though you might know Adobe quite well, this instantly that means you know everything there is to know about computers. In addition, if you’re any good at what you do, your customers will surely let you know…repeatedly. And then again to boot. And once more. And then…yup, one more time. Let them do it. They mean well, and an ego boost is always pretty cool.

It actually IS important to learn about CMYK vs RGB vs Pantone vs Web Safe colors

Unfortunately this was one of the things your professors probably DID talk about…and it’s something you will need–every day, every design. And yes, there IS a difference between how Pantone inks look on coated vs. uncoated stock. On another note, if you (or your employer) doesn’t have a Pantone booklet, it’s a very worthwhile investment. It makes things so much easier.

You will become hyper-aware of every moment of computer lag

…especially when you’re in a hurry to finish something or have a customer watching over your shoulder. Seriously though, computer lag can be a real problem if you’re working with a lot of files, particularly if you’re in the business of large or grand format printing. If you or your employer can afford it, invest in a high-powered custom-built machine. You can put together a very nice design computer for $1200 or less.

You WILL be able to identify fonts from afar

This just sort of happens, and eventually you will also discover that not everyone you hang out with appreciates this super power of yours. Like…probably no one, actually. Okay, maybe the people you work with will appreciate it.

You will be able to identify newbie designers

Okay, I get it–everyone is a newbie once. We all have to learn. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, as time goes on, and you gain experience, you will begin to realize just how annoying you probably were when you were starting out. If you’re new to the industry, it is far easier to simply ask for what a fellow designer, printer, etc. might need than to send them an AI file, an EPS, a PDF, a JPG, a PNG, and a TIFF with bleed and printers marks, only to find out they actually just needed a PSD and no bleed. You’ll wind up saving both yourself and your contact time, meaning faster turnaround and happier customers.

Customers will probably ignore their own deadlines

When they’re in a rush, that means you have to rush. Then, once you’ve rushed, they’ll take their time getting back to you. Generally I’ve found that a 48 hour or less turnaround time is acceptable to most customers, and if you can do that, most deadlines won’t be an issue. If you’re worried you can’t meet someone’s deadline, tell them so up front, or don’t take the job.

Not every design will fly with the customer

Sometimes after multiple concepts, revisions, and mockups, you and the customer still can’t agree on a design. It may be that your brains just don’t operate on the same wavelength, and you have to let the customer go–to save both of you time and frustration. Be honest with them and explain that it will save them time, frustration, and in some cases money to consider finding another designer to handle their specific project. There’s nothing wrong with doing this–as long as it’s legitimate and you’ve given it a real go. Try your best to please everyone–it will earn you a good reputation, and word-of-mouth is everything.


What are some things you wish you’d been told in graphic design school? Questions and comments are always welcome!

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