Deane Nettles | Advertising & Graphic Design


PDF of "12 Tips"

There are many elements to being a great designer. There's nature; about your genetics and talent. Some people prefer fine art, some prefer commercial art, and some prefer physics.

There's nurture; who your parents are. if they're artists or, specifically, graphic designers, you've lived in the art conversation your whole life and design will be easier.

There's your specific abilities. Some of you will be better with a pencil or pen; some will be better with Photoshop or Illustrator, with animation or sound, with creating ideas or managing people. It would be smart to try as many of these as you can, to find what really excites you. Graphic design, advertising and marketing are huge fields with lots of room for people with different talents and interests.

And finally there's the working in an environment that supports you. Paula Scher did hundreds of album covers for CBS Records, learning design and typography and project management; Lou Dorfsman did all the advertising for CBS Radio and TV for years, working directly with founder William Paley, learning advertising and marketing and copywriting; David Carson designed Beach Culture and Ray Gun magazines, learning magazine design and expressive typography with the full support of his publishers to do whatever he wanted. If you are passionate about doing great work and are surrounded by people who are passionate about doing great work, you're going to get better; if you are surrounded by people who do mediocre work, you can push to do great work, but it's going to be a lot harder.

With that in mind, here are some tips for putting yourself in the best place to have a great graphic design career.

  1. Be curious. Graphic design isn't just a bunch of classes you take. Those classes are connected to a whole world of skill sets: software familiarity; physical and electronic projects from blow-in cards to billboards to web marketing packages; small and large businesses doing work that's anywhere from mediocre to excellent. The more you know about that world the better you'll be able to work within it.
    • Take business classes. Graphic design is all about designing for business. The more you know about business, the better you can help your client, and the better you can communicate with your clients, who don't understand the difference between a serif and a sans serif font, but do know the difference between investment and ROI. It will also be helpful to you if you decide to start your own business.
  2. Build your reputation. Graphic design is based on being creative within a deadline. You'll be graded in class for your ability to make deadlines; you'll be fired from your job for your inability to make deadlines. Get in the habit of doing the work that your teachers ask of you, and doing it on time. Being responsible gives you an edge over the other students, and your teachers and employers will remember you for it, recommend you because of it, and your life will be easier. (Seriously, if you have issues with authority, get help. The floors are littered with students who unconsciously act as though teachers and deadlines are something to resist.) Being responsible may not always be how you get your future clients, but it's always how you KEEP clients.
    • Don't believe that artists can only design "when the inspiration strikes." This is often an excuse for not making deadlines. By designing even if there's no inspiration, you'll develop your designing muscles and be able to design any time, anywhere. Even though you aren't "inspired," what you're designing might be pretty cool, and can be the basis for that better idea tomorrow. (Read the book "Steal Like an Artist," by Austin Kleon.)
  3. Build the portfolio YOU want to see.
    1. Start a portfolio of work by other people that really excites you. (These days, Pinterest is a great place to start.)
    2. Do interpretations of that work. Then do it again. Like doing reps in the gym, the more times you do design — and the harder the project — the stronger you get.
    3. Find photos and illustrations you like, and create work based on them.
    4. Keep making stuff! The more practice you have, the smarter your mistakes will be and the quicker and more gracefully you'll recover from them. NEVER stop building your portfolio.
    5. (See a list for samples to include in a good broad-based portfolio at Portfolios.)

  4. Go to a GREAT school, the best you can get into. Don't just automatically apply to the school in your neighborhood, the school in your nearest city. Do some research, find the best schools for what you want to do and apply there. If you don't know what you want to do, go to the place with the work that excites you the most. The students in the most competitive schools will set a really high bar, and they'll push you to be that much better — their work will inspire you, and your work will inspire them. Excellent schools may also get you entree to internships and jobs that you may not get otherwise.
    • Having read a little more on this subject, I'd modify this to "Get into the best school that fits YOU." If you are talented and a fighter, by all means apply to RISD. But be aware that you are likely to feel somewhat inadequate against all the brilliant designers you're up against. Not all of you are scrappy street fighters, and you may not like that kind of pressure. There are lots of other schools with good teachers who will give you a good education (Montgomery College is one of them) without so much pressure, and the point should be putting together a great portfolio, graduating, and going out and getting a job.
    • Be sure to both look at the work students create to see if it inspires you and talk to the students about what it's like to go there.
  5. Critique, critique, critique. Ask your teachers for critiques, and make the changes they suggest. You learn by repetition and by knowledgeable people pointing out where your design sucks. Remember, critiques are not a personal attack; they're a contribution to you being a stronger designer. Your design instructor is a coach trying to get you to the Superbowl; who sees things that you may not have been taught or may not be able to see because you're too focused on other problems (like how to get the program to work).
    • And once you've gotten a critique, USE it. When projects are handed back, very few students make the changes recommend, even though making them is the fastest way to get better. The students who do make the changes are future Rock Stars. (Plus it's practice for working at a real design studio.)
    • Get in the habit of making lists both when working and when making critique corrections; the human mind can only store seven items in temporary storage, and we as designers are often juggling far more details than that.
  6. Make friends with other design students. Eat lunch with them, talk about what you're learning, review your projects, brainstorm. Two or more heads are astronomically better than one — one person can have HUGE blind spots about their work; two, three, five friends looking at your work makes it much more difficult to hold on to those blind spots. And when you are concepting, the more concepts the better, so tossing ideas around with them will help you get there. Many great design studios have started out from design school friendships.
  7. Make friends with your teachers. Ask them questions. Ask them to critique your work — they'll often be flattered. Ask them about internships. They're not just some person who doles out tiny bits of knowledge and asks way too much. They're probably working professionals and know more than you can even imagine.
  8. Don't wait for your teachers — learn on your own. There is more information on graphic design available on the web right now than was ever available by any means to design students before. In public school, I was always waiting for teachers to spoon me information. Stop waiting for that spoon — reach for it; if you want to know about typography or what a target market is, look it up. Here are some areas to look at: What designers need to know — a short list on a long topic.
  9. Subscribe to design magazines. It's like making friends with the best design students on the planet. Get a subscription to Communication Arts or Graphis or Print. They contain examples of the best design and advertising work from around the world — look and learn.
  10. Look for opportunities on-campus to practice design. Offer to work on the student newspaper or magazine or website. See if there are opportunities in the school's theater department, or offer to design fliers for one of the school's departments. (They're like having an internship, but easier to get.)
  11. Get internships. Yes, multiple. You want to have a new internship every semester, and you want to have them at the best design studios and ad agencies you can get into. This requires a good portfolio, being brave and sending in your resume and portfolio, and following up with a call. You can also ask your teachers or other contacts to help.
    • There is no way teachers can teach you everything you need to learn in the two or four years we're working with you. Having an internship means you are working that many more hours a week in the field you are learning about. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, makes the case that it takes 15,000 hours to become an expert at something, and your commitment to spending that time is what makes you good. Since no teaching program can teach you as much as you'll learn by actually working in design, collect those 15,000 hours by really doing design. Treat your internship like a Master class and make the most of it.
    • You will meet people. The job market is tough. If you call and are lucky enough to get someone on the phone, or return your email (they probably won't reply to your resume), you might get an interview, but maybe not. If you're just a resume, you'll have to call them back, be persistent, maybe even be a pest. But if you intern with someone, and you do the best job you possibly can for them and they like you, then you call them and they'll return your call; if there's an opening and you're a good fit, they'll happily hire you over some resume coming in over the transom. And if they know you're looking and don't have an opening, they may keep their ears open for you.
  12. And the more internships you do, the more you'll know, the more versatile you'll be, the better you'll know who you want to be when you grow up, and the more people who'll return your calls when you get out of school. (But don't stay in an internship for longer than three months. If they won't hire you after that, it's time to move on.)

    As an intern, you probably won't be a profitable member of team. That said, you should look for paid (minimum wage) over unpaid internships, because, legally, unpaid internships limit you to doing not much more than watching other people work. Here are some of the legal issues around internships: Keeping Unpaid Internships Legal.

  13. Get involved with your local design association. It's an opportunity to make friends with real designers! Whether it's AIGA, AdClub, the local Art Directors Club, GAG, Illustrators Club, or whatever, you will meet people you may not be able to meet any other way. You may also find out about internships and jobs.
    • Go to meetings. Ask questions and learn. Talk to the people next to you and find out what they do. Be really interested in everything. Ask the person next to you if you can come by and do an informational interview with them or their boss.
    • Get involved with their committees. Often the committees consist of people really dedicated to the industry. And often they are people you would never know existed if you didn't meet them on that committee.
    • Get involved in their awards competitions. This gives you access to the top design in your area and to your nationally-known design judges.
    • If there isn't a local design organization, start something.
  14. When you are working for a professional organization, follow through on everything that you say you will do. Be friendly and personable, and your committee members can become job contacts as well. (Don't, repeat, DO NOT take on assignments and get scared and disappear. Show up, do the work, ask for help, and don't get a reputation as someone who can't be counted on.)

After You Get Your Degree

  1. If your portfolio still isn't good enough, consider a portfolio school. According to Adweek, "With leaner budgets, studios and agencies can ill afford to train young staff, so portfolio degrees have become more of a necessity for those looking to get ahead in the business." It's expensive; portfolio schools like Ad Circus in Atlanta and VCU Brandcenter in Richmond cost $40-50,000, as much as an MBA. You might be better-off getting that MBA. But if you're really committed and want to improve your chops, portfolio school may be your best investment.
  2. Get involved with industry organizations. Early in your career you'll want to be involved with design organizations. Later in your career, you'll want to be involved with the associations of your target markets. And always keep your eyes on improving your reputation.
  3. Look for opportunities to manage people. The way to build a career is to take on bigger and bigger challenges. And the way to do better design is to work with better and better teams. Often the best way to build those teams is to put them together yourself. Remember: If you are in charge of a team, you can take credit for what that team does. (But don't be a jerk. You can't honestly take credit if you don't contribute.)
  4. Support certification of graphic designers. Write AIGA and ask them to support certification. Certification will encourage design schools to toughen their standards, and make it harder for designers who don't know as much as you do to compete with you for jobs and projects. Plus, with the design world changing drastically every five years, requiring you to re-certify every few years will help you to stay up-to-date.

As a student, you want to be going a million miles an hour on your career. You're young, you're healthy, you're full of energy and new ideas, and you're not tied down by a spouse, kids, and a mortgage. Think of it as an adventure! Build your reputation and work your way up to a great job in a great studio now, and the rest of your career will be that much easier.

P.S.: If you're a grad or returning student, all of these tips go double.