10 things you should know before becoming a designer

Thinking about a career in design? Then there's some stuff you should probably know before you make that choice. You know, the things they don't teach you at design school

To get the lowdown on what life's really like in the creative world, we spoke to 10 designers, all at different stages of their careers – each of whom shared something they wish someone had told them before they entered the industry. 

The advice ranges from the practical (about experimentation and failure) to the forthright (about being a knobhead and not getting laid much), as well as the things people never say about colour theory, the hard truth about not liking what you do, and the fine art of shutting up. Yes, these are 10 things you should definitely know before you become a designer...

Lead image: Med Badr Chemmaoui

01. Read the books, then ignore them

Various books on graphic design laid out on a table

"Read all the design books," advises SomeOne founder Simon Manchipp 

SomeOne founder Simon Manchipp says it's important to know design isn't just a job. It's a vocation. You should never stop thinking about it. You also need to not chase the money: chase opportunity. Learn how stuff is done "the right way." But know how to do it your way. 

"Read all the graphic design books," Manchipp says. "Then ignore all the design books." But perhaps the most important thing is this: "The best design comes from not thinking about design but about people."

02. You’re learning a craft, not just a lifestyle.

Peter Saluk is manager at New York studio Karlssonwilker – which recently gave its website a smart redesign. Saluk stresses that design is a craft, something you learn and hone throughout your career, not just a lifestyle. But this doesn't mean you should put the blinkers on. 

"All your outside interests will inform your practice," Saluk says. "Keep your outside interests." All this ties in with one thing they should definitely tell you before you become a designer: "If done right, you’ll be wrong a lot of times."

03. Do it like Picasso

Marta Yarza is creative director at London studio Yarza Twins. She says it's important not to feel frustrated if your early work isn't very 'ooh'. Nobody became a designer in a day. It's a process that takes years. Which is why Yarza is particularly fond of Pablo Picasso's famous quote: "Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working." 

"My advice is, before you become a designer, do design yourself, experiment, try new things and don't be scared of it," Yarza adds. "Try to mix disciplines. Try to bring something new into the industry, and always try to add a value to our society through your work."

04. Create your own opportunities

Not waiting around for opportunities has led Ana Abreu to exciting projects, like this one for the government of Schiedam

Not waiting around for opportunities has led Ana Abreu to exciting projects, like this one for the government of Schiedam

Ana Abreu – aka Humana Studio – is a Portuguese designer working in Rotterdam. She says travel is important for designers: "By experiencing new cultures, your design will evolve in a way you never expected." 

This leads onto the one thing she wishes somebody had told her. "Don’t wait for someone to give you an opportunity. Create your own opportunities." Once you have a chance, it's important not to let it slide. Never stop working hard, Abreau says. "Be different and stay creative."

05. It's the best of jobs, and the worst of jobs

NotOnSunday director Trev Townsend says it's important to know you're not the only designer in the world. In fact, there are millions of designers, all keen to get ahead. "Therefore it's super competitive," he says. "It’s the best job in the world when you work with great people and it’s the worst when you work with dickheads." 

The key thing every new designer should be told is to put the work in – and keep putting the work in. "For me, it’s just about enjoying what we do, as we spend a lot of time doing it. Oh, and always do self-initiated work. It’s so valuable in all stages of your design career."

06. Everybody thinks they can do it

"You're entering one of the few industries," Mark Richardson says, "where everyone thinks they could do your job." Richardson – aka Superfried – says you have to stand your ground and remember the client hired you to solve design problems, not to make whatever picture they already have in their head. 

"Always question the brief," he says "Don't assume that the client has actually ascertained the source of the problem and knows what they require to solve it – that's your job and the reason you've been hired."

07. Know when to speak up and when to shut up

Daniel Greene is creative director Wolff Olins. He says: "Learn about empathy. Grow a thick skin. Have the courage to speak up and the good sense to listen." 

This is about getting the balance right; knowing the difference between being assertive and being pushy. "Confidence is infectious," Greene says. "Over confidence is not. Take comfort from the fact anxiety strikes everyone. Enjoy the victories and learn from the defeats. Aim for progress, not perfection." Last but not least, he says: "Always be kind."

08. You don't have to like it

Oh Sh*t What Now book by Craig Oldham

Craig Oldham had to learn the hard way about being a designer – which is fully documented in his brilliant book

Craig Oldham's new book OH SH*T WHAT NOW?! is full of things they should tell you before you get into design. But the Manchester designer says one thing immediately comes to mind. And it's something that took him a while to figure out: "What I had to learn the hard way – and I'd put serious money on other folk too – was that, as a graphic designer, you don’t have to like the work for it to actually work. And that’s the most important thing: that it works. Tough, but true." 

09. Don't be a knobhead

Chris Myers, senior creative director at LOVE in Manchester, says there are a few things you need to know: Firstly, the work doesn't always explain itself. "You need to be able to tell the story of your work. Be articulate and clear, and make sure you bring your energy into the room." 

Secondly, it's important you don't look at design in isolation. "If your passion is design, and you spend every waking minute only consuming design magazines and blogs – like a lot of creatives – you’ll only see things through a design lens. In other words, your work runs the risk of going unnoticed." 

And, lastly: "Don't be a knobhead. Design is important, but it’s not life and death. Try and retain a sense of humour and don’t take yourself too seriously."

10. You won't get laid much

There's a ton of stuff Fredrik Öst wishes somebody had told him before he got into the industry. Öst is founder and creative director of Snask in Stockholm. "You're getting involved in an industry full of people who bullshit," he says. "Make sure you're not one of them." 

When you're starting out, it's easy to become overly defensive about your work, but try to relax. "You won't really be able to defend your design in a rational and sober way until you're experienced enough to not give a fuck about how you come across." 

And there's one more thing. Maybe it's down to the deadlines, the late nights, the weekends, or maybe it's not as glamorous an industry as people think it is, but Öst wishes somebody told him what he learned: "You won't get laid much."

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Gary Evans is a journalist with a passion for creative writing. He's recently finished his Masters in creative writing, but when he's not hitting the books, he loves to explore the world of digital art and graphic design. He was previously staff writer on ImagineFX magazine in Bath, but now resides in Sunderland, where he muses on the latest tech and writes poetry.