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A Computer Hobby Turned Into a Graphic Design Career

Early on in your college career, you are expected to pick a major that will become your career… for the rest of your life. But that’s not real life, that’s just pressure to keep you focused. Real life has so many different paths and unknowns that shape your career and you as a person. In the first 10 years of my career, I had my share of successes and failures, sprinkled in self-doubt. My path to becoming a graphic designer started as a hobby and evolved into my career.

I went to Virginia Commonwealth University for their graphic design program. It was a rigorous course load but the biggest challenge for me was getting used to the subjective nature of art school. This exercise in subjective critiquing turned out to be the most important lesson I would learn in my entire college career.

In my senior year during one of my critiques, my professor said to me, “some people aren’t cut out to be a designer”. I have never forgotten that comment. Before my career even started, I felt like a failure. Six months left to graduation, and this one professor has me doubting everything. What I think she should have said was, “you need to learn how to handle the critiques better”. I realize now, I had trouble seeing the bigger picture, identifying what message to take away from the critique and not to get hung up on the details.

5 Key Points I Learned in My Decade of Graphic Design Experience

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  1. Burnout is real. It’s hard to be creative all the time and easy to burn out. There have been many moments I considered changing industries.
    Suggestion: I found mixing small mundane tasks in with my larger creative projects helped me give my creative brain a rest.
  1. You’re the designer, but it’s not your design. You have a gift to manipulate software and bring an idea to life. Sometimes you have to make concessions with a design and just be the visual voice for someone else. As the designer you have to decide what concessions you are willing to make. In this case I do what makes the client happy as long as I am morally comfortable doing so; I won’t break copyright laws to make a client happy.
    Suggestion: Usually I provide an alternative option if I think I can sway their decision to a more aesthetically pleasing design.
  1. Graphic designer = mind reader. “Can you make it pop” or “Just tweak it a little” are two of my favorite of feedback from clients. I always want to say “sure” and pop confetti over the design but I’m not sure clients would appreciate my sarcasm.
    Suggestion: In this case I always respond with a suggestion to try and pull more information from them: “I can change the font color to a bold green to emphasize the headline.” If that is what they had in-mind, great – maybe I am a mind reader! If not, the client will usually respond with more info like, “I was thinking more along the lines of adding images.”
  1. Misguided direction. Often the client doesn’t know what they want. You may follow their direction explicitly but it’s not what they are looking for.
    Suggestion: I always provide at least two options, one that is exactly what they said and another that I recommend. Sometimes it takes the client seeing what they don’t want to figure out what they do want.
  1. Only show the “good” options. It seems like the client always chooses your least favorite design (especially with logos) and you are stuck working on a job you are not so passionate about.
    Suggestion: I never show the client any option I don’t like because they will inevitably choose that one. Laws of attraction I guess!

Ten years post graduation and that comment from my professor has stuck with me and I am constantly doubting my career. But what I often overlook from those 10 years are all the technical things I have learned, what I learned about myself and being a professional, and all of the incredible connections I have made along the way. I never “climbed the ladder” to the extent that I envisioned when I was in college but the path I am on is leading me to a different direction. I’m not quite sure what is next but I have learned to always keep my options open because you never know where the next opportunity will take you.

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