7 Things I Wish I Knew As A First-Year Designer

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When you reach that finishing line for any degree program or intense training, you should feel confident. You did it! You’ve gained a wealth of knowledge. But on the other side awaits a whole new bucket of game-changing learning moments.

In my first year as a professional designer, I’ve learned some pretty important (and unexpected) lessons. Here are 7 things I wish I would have known when I started.

1. You will make mistakes. Often.

Stay calm. Don’t rush. Your computer won’t explode if you open that file yet again. As creatives, sometimes we have a one-track mind; spacing, color, typography, resolution. Don’t be afraid to run your designs by a non-creative before passing them along to the client. Often, a colleague with an opposite skill set is the best person to review your work – they catch things you would never notice.

2. Next year, you will cringe at your first-year work.

I’ve gotten in the habit of reviewing my work months later to remind myself of previous work. I usually find that the “This is perfect” timestamp has expired. Don’t freak out – at  the time it was the best solution for the client. The problem is not a flawed design. Rather, your tastes and talents have refined. As a creative, your “eye” is constantly evolving.

3. Your terminology is different than “client speak”.

“I want something more fun. More edgy. Maybe with a little sophistication.” I (and we) hear things like this often in our client work, but I’ve learned the importance of dissecting and distilling all of the abstract words a client may use into more tangible, relatable ideas. One person’s “edgy” may be closer to your “bold”.

Also remember that their reservoir of ideas doesn’t always line up with best practices. Your client may want a website with music, drop shadows, and gradients, but you are the professional web designer. It’s your job to tell the client what will and will not work, and to make creative recommendations based on the best possible solution(s) for their users.

4. Pantone 151-15 is sad, but Pantone 151-16 is money.

Color is a big deal, and for a good reason. Remember that everyone sees color differently (blame the cones and rods). Every client has their color preferences, but it’s up to you to recognize which colors compliment each other and which vibrate against one another. Are these colors going to print muddy? Is this white text legible on a dark background? Am I straining my eyes? Color theory is a wild beast, but you can (and must) tame it.

5. Web isn’t your thing? You better make it your thing.

I remember sitting in my last web design class in college and thinking to myself, “Thank god this is over.” Think again. If you are considering a full-time job in the design world, you should prepare yourself for a lot of web work. In fact, I would say the majority of my work is web-based.

I used to shudder at the thought of designing a website, but, now, I love it. In the last year alone, I have learned so much about user experience, interface, and functionality. Because UX is an ever-changing facet, it’s important that you adapt along with it. Stay informed and keep yourself up-to-date on the latest solutions. When it comes to web design, maintain your hunger to learn or you will quickly fall behind.

6. “Trend tug-of-war” is fatal.

Whatever it is you’re designing, keep in mind that your client has probably already searched through tons of examples. This means they are privy to all of the latest fads. It’s important to stay well-versed in the latest trends, especially the not-so-good ones. Be able to properly communicate to the client that you understand why they like this aesthetic, but also why it might not the best solution for them. It’s okay to explore trends, but make sure to stay true to what you know, and what’s best for your client.

7. Don’t neglect the basics.

Grids, Gestalt Principles, and proportions. Remember the very first “design elements” class you took in college? Drag that textbook out of storage because it will come in handy. If you can’t figure out why something isn’t working for you, the problem might lie in the groundwork. Flip through the table of contents and give yourself a refresher.

The greatest piece of advice I received in my first year (and one that encompasses all 7 of these tips) – don’t lose momentum. You’ll only be able to rule the world for that precious gap between getting your badge and starting your beat. Don’t lose that drive, that creative authority you’ve worked so hard to protect.

Stay knowledgeable. Stay passionate. Be yourself.

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