An open letter to design graduates: How to be a successful designer in the real world

It’s that time of year when students graduate college and prepare to enter the workforce, many for the first time. To help ease that transition, I wanted to share some tips from the front lines of design.

Having a career that forces you to be creative most of the time can be a stressful endeavor. Unfortunately, sometimes the best plan in the world won’t help designers when they are stuck in a design rut. Being a graphic designer for the past eight years has really taught me how to manage my time.

Once school ends and the glory days of having a month or a semester to finish a project are over, you enter the real world. Here, the designer usually gets a week to two weeks of design time, which in reality is about five days. “Five days?” you ask. Yes—and sometimes that means three work days and your weekend since content often falls on the designer on a Friday afternoon.

(Okay, many clients give you adequate time to work on your projects, so I am being a little drastic. But believe me, you will have only five days to do a lot of them.)

Don’t panic, though; there are some things you can do in case you’re facing a short deadline and a creative block.

Grind away. The most important thing about being a designer is that you never turn your brain off. If you expect it to be a nine-to-five gig, there is no way you will make it in the field. The second a project gets proposed, I start imagining and creating visuals of what I would want to portray. Some of my best ideas come while driving home, commuting by train, or stomping on my apartment floor to shut up my awful neighbors.

Take a break. Now, how will taking a break help you when you have a horrible deadline? Well, there is not a 100 percent foolproof plan, but aggravation and panic won’t take you very far. When I have a project due Friday and it is Wednesday and I am staring at a blank screen, I don’t punch my desk like I wish I could. I take a deep breath, walk outside, put on some music, and don’t think about design. This is a great refresher for me because I am clearing my head and also saying “f**k this” at the same time. That rebellion and angst give me the power to come back and kick the project’s ass.

Review your greatest hits. Sometimes the creative block takes longer to get over than one desires. In these cases, I like revisiting some of my previous work and the client’s portfolio to jot down ideas on what we can improve on. This generates more concepts and helps recall forgotten design tricks. I know many designers swear by reviewing design sites, blogs, and books. I do appreciate those resources, but I try not to heavily rely on them, so my creativity remains original. Inspiration is great, but I do not want to be inspired by taking others’ work.

Okay, I might have exaggerated a bit about those tight deadlines (or did I?). But seriously, for the designers coming out of school and starting in this field, juggling creativity and production turnaround time is essential. Long gone are the professors with their Starbucks in hand, giving out crossed-arm critiques with tilted heads. As much as their countless “Um…?” remarks nauseated me, I do miss the type of design critiques that come from the education environment. Such is life.

In closing, I found this great image online a designer made about the production timeline (with a slight addition from me).

Jake Godziejewicz

Jake is a senior designer at Leff. He works together with the team to conceptualize and create striking graphic content for infographics, public reports, brochures, and more. He is also the office record aficionado and periodically hops on the blog to write about music.

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