*Adapted from a lecture Katherine delivered at the University of South Australia
Before founding Design & Opinion, I spent many years earning my stripes in other studios. Over this time, I've learned one or two (or ten) things about being a designer.
Here, we share some of our opinions on a range of subjects, adapted from lectures we've delivered at public events and universities and curated for your reading pleasure. Want our opinion on something? Drop us a line.
You never stop learning.
Although there are milestones for every designer (like graduating, getting a job, seeing your first piece in print, etc) there’s no end to what can be learned. No matter how long you’ve been around, there are new things to learn every day — even if it’s just a new software command. And learning is not just skills-based — it’s about being inspired, being informed, being excited about the world around. The easiest way to learn is from more experienced people. However, if your learning is more self-directed some places to turn include your bookshelf (it’s important to have a good reference library), somewhere in the great outdoors (to process thoughts), art galleries & cultural events (for endless inspiration), news and social media (to know what’s going on and to keep in the loop).
Willingness is more important than brilliance.
Many a talented (but arrogant, ambivalent or just annoying) design hopeful has been overlooked in favour of someone who is less talented but willing to listen, is interested in and excited by the world around them and lastly, that is pleasant to be around. Skills can be learned, but personality is hard to change. And this isn’t just relevant when trying to get a job — whenever you meet a potential client for the first time, it’s like going to a job interview all over again. No matter how experienced you are, there’s always something you can learn from the person on the other side of the table — you just need to be willing.
It's not about the money.
Anyone who says a career in design is a ticket to wealth is either stuck in the 80s, or in advertising. According to the Australian Graduate Survey, the average starting salary for a junior designer is about the same as a checkout operator at Woolworths. Of course, if you run your own business there’s more potential for earning, but there are more expenses (and many more stresses) too. You also need to be prepared for a much steeper learning curve — you really need to know what you’re doing, both as a designer and a businessperson, to make it work.
Nothing prepares you for working in the real world (except doing it).
No matter how great your graduating portfolio or how prestigious your qualification, everyone starts their career at the bottom. Especially in today’s world of instant gratification, it can be a bitter pill to swallow when you’re not immediately respected for your amazing ideas, ability or talent (no matter how much of these you possess). What you are respected for, however, is your willingness to learn, your adaptability, and your usefulness. These are skills that are hard to learn anywhere except a real, live design studio. And after you’ve put in the hard yards (which is often years), eventually you’ll be given a chance to show everyone how brilliant you are.
Mistakes are OK (in fact, they're mandatory).
The best way to learn is to make mistakes. Sometimes a mistake informs a better result. Sometimes it causes chaos. But regardless of the outcome, you always end up with a valuable lesson. Just as you never stop learning, you never stop making mistakes.
Agility is more important than aesthetics.
Being able to quickly adapt to different situations, environments, briefs and clients is probably the most important trait of a successful designer. As a designer, you are expected to be able to work on multiple (and often conflicting) tasks at once, and to be able to handle the pressure when it’s past deadline (and bedtime). As a communicator, you are expected to know what your clients know, only better. This often means learning and applying new information literally as the conversation is taking place. It also means taking the initiative to do research to make sure you’re well-informed not only about the brief, but about your clients, their industry, and anything that might be relevant — so you can ask the right questions and deliver the most appropriate result. Research informs design decisions.
Be visible, be active.
Paul Rand wouldn’t let his work be seen without his signature on it. If you can’t get away with this, then find other ways of promoting yourself — online and offline. If you want to be noticed you need to put yourself out there — don’t wait for the fans to come knocking.
You never end up doing what you thought you'd be doing.
I’ve wanted to be a graphic designer since I was 8 years old. Or more specifically, I wanted to draw comics (my favourite was — and still is — Peanuts). But even at that age I realised that unless I was very, very good and very, very lucky I’d probably never be able to make a living out of it. Why was I thinking about these things at age 8? Who knows. I did some of research and discovered this thing called Graphic Design, which seemed to be about as close to my ideal as I could find while paying the bills. All through school I focused on this goal, mainly because it was fun to draw and paint and make things with my hands.
Later on at design school I discovered a passion for typography, and concept development. Looking back on that time however, my ideas might have been good but my execution was fairly average.
After a couple of years working as an unskilled designer-at-large, I landed a job at editorial consultancy de Luxe & Associates (who I initially approached because I liked the way they thought, not because I was necessarily interested in their work, which was mainly newspaper redesigns). It was here that I quickly discovered an enduring passion for editorial design, specifically magazines, which in turn became a passion for discovering how this sensibility could apply to any communication problem. From here I started teaching and lecturing, mostly in typography and magazine design.
At the beginning of 2011 I started Design & Opinion, and in addition to everything else I added corporate speaking and facilitating strategic conversations, creating high-end strategies and campaigns, and more recently copywriting and editing. Nowadays, my role is so diverse (and so different to my original ideal) I never could have imagined I’d a) be doing it and b) loving it. Whether by accident or by design, everything you do adds to building the career you have.
Don't forget how lucky you are.
Whenever you get in the doldrums, annoyed with clients, stressed that your quoted hours are ballooning, or bored with your work, remember you could be on night-fill at Woolworths (even though as we’ve already seen, it potentially pays more!). Being a designer isn’t a right — it’s a privilege. And as long as people are willing to pay you to do something as fun as this, who’s to complain?
It's a way of life.
It all comes back to motivation. In their spare time, most successful designers … design. Or think about design. Or are inspired by design. For most of us, design has a greater role than just selling something, or making something look nice. It isn’t just a day job, it really is a way of life (possibly sad, but true).