I’ve been a professional designer for 3 years. I’ve worked for large agencies, digital and advertising and also in-house for a large corporation – a short-yet-varied experience that’s given me some perspective on the industry as a recent graduate. These are my observations; and what I wish design school had better prepared me for.

1. Don’t Stay In Your Lane (Let Other Drivers In Yours, Too)

“Everyone is creative.” Many creative professionals disagree with this statement, thinking that it somehow devalues or threatens the validity of their work. But truth is, *anyone* can have an idea – whether bad, okay, good or great – anyone is capable of forming one. I was instilled with a stay in your lane mentality at school but after working in many teams and being around diverse groups with brilliant perspectives, I believe it’s foolish to shut out your teammates for the sake of process or ego-protection. Opening up creative opinion to the entire team comes with many benefits:

  • Encouraging a holistic approach to problem-solving
  • Discovering human insights that the creative team may have overlooked
  • Acquainting the entire team with the challenges you’re facing
  • Increasing the team’s personal investment in the work
  • Reducing confusion / miscommunication between departments

An ego-free approach is crucial for success of this approach. Everyone must learn that critique is not criticism but rather a healthy part of the process of discovering why some ideas work, why some don’t and how to make them better. Disney’s Pixar is a pioneer of this collaborative model, developing The Pixar Braintrust, which has led to many of the most human-centred animated masterpieces of our time. Don’t be afraid to let other people in on your processes!

2. Adapt Or Die

Design schools are pretty slow to the game – but who’s to blame them? This industry is rapidly evolving and growing, and it’s difficult to keep up. From my experience, the most important concepts for students to learn are adaptability and curiosity. Many of yesterday’s techniques are extinct today, and today’s best practices will just as quickly become tomorrow’s outmoded methods. Self-learning, updating skills and expanding skill sets is of paramount importance to modern creatives survival.

Although I’m a digital designer, I was never taught digital design in school, and I have no formal UI or UX training from my degree. I specialized in branding and illustration, and although that education informs everything I do, my professional practice became rooted in digital as those skills grew from experience. I still endeavour in some branding and illustrations on the side, though. Don’t tell my boss.

3. Don’t Be Afraid To Break The Fucking Rules

Educators might disagree with me but unless you’re looking to do a post-grad or work in a different space… your grades don’t matter. NO ONE in the professional world will ever ask what grade you got on that poster in your portfolio. A lot of what we do is subjective, so good grades might not even represent the best work. Focus on building a solid foundation of practical skill and theory, then smash it.

My biggest regret in design school was not taking enough risks. I was so concerned with getting good grades and being in the top percentile of my classes that I often defaulted to what I knew worked. This limited me and robbed me of the ability to learn new skills. Ignore the rules and the grades. If you want to learn 3D design and you’re in a branding course, work that shit in. If you want to be a better illustrator, then do that. If you want to use the wood shop, do it – even if your prof is dead against it. Learn what you need to learn, even if it’s not in the syllabus. There’s pressure to produce polished work because you need portfolio pieces in school but honestly, not everything will be portfolio worthy, nor does it need to be!

“My biggest regret in school was not taking enough risks.”

4. Be a T-Shaped Creative

Every creative needs to be a T. It’s something that my first creative director taught me. The horizontal bar represents all of the prerequisite skills – a solid understanding of typography, mastery of the tools, understanding of processes – the baseline requirements to be a designer. The vertical bar represents that extra thing you specialize in; those extra skills that might be tangential to your practice but make you a more attractive candidate and an overall better designer.

For instance, you might be gunning for a packaging design job, so you fill your book with packaging, and that is a requirement but it doesn’t set you apart. That’s the horizontal bar of the T. The thing that sets you apart are the vertical bar – side hustles like motion design, illustration, branding or 3D rendering. While not necessarily needed for your position, these provide value, make you a more rounded designer and position you in a more memorable place than other candidates.

5. Prioritize Self-Care And Mental Health

School prepares you for the hustle – the long nights, the all-nighters, the constant deadlines – but it does little to protect you from the negative impact that constantly working can have on your mental health. This industry can often put pressure on young talent and make them feel that if they aren’t working until 3AM every night, then they aren’t working hard enough. I learned the hard way that I couldn’t put 150% into everything, all the time. It was taxing, it was damaging and after a while, I started to burn out, which inevitably caused my work to suffer. There’s absolutely no shame in taking a break or saying “no, I have too much on my plate.” Learn your limits and respect them.

Here are some simple strategies that helped me stay healthy and happy at work.

  • Remember to eat. I have a bad habit of occasionally working through meals.
  • Drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated can do wonders if you are a workaholic.
  • Exercise regularly. If you don’t have access to a gym, home workouts and workouts you can do at your desk are beneficial.
  • Change your environment. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or in need of a reset, go for a walk or try working in a new spot, on a couch or in a different room.
  • Say no. This can be tough, but it is incredibly important to know when you are at your limit. There’s no shame in asking for help from your team. That’s what they’re there for!

Make sure you choose a workplace that not only fits your goals but also your needs. This industry can be really fun and enjoyable to work in but can also be toxic, competitive and lead to the isolation of a silo-ed work environment. Everyone wants to make great work but that’s only half the battle. Don’t underestimate how much culture, people, environment and corporate policies (like work-from-home and wellness days) can impact your work experience.

6. Side Projects Keep Yourself and Recruiters Happy

If you’re a creative professional, odds are that you’re also creative outside of the job. Working on side projects is incredibly rewarding, and it shows the world that you’re passionate about what you do beyond the paycheck. Side projects can also be a lot of fun because there’s no pressure. It’s an opportunity to experiment, fail, learn and grow without the risk of going off-brief or blowing a budget.

At the risk of being the bearer of bad news, the work you do won’t always be glamourous. Some projects will even make you question why you ended up here in the first place. Having a fun side project helps put things in perspective, and is a good reminder that mundane work aside, you don’t need a brief to create your own amazing, satisfying projects.

Michael Fazal is a Toronto-based, multidisciplinary designer specializing in UI/UX, Branding and Illustration. As a recent graduate, Michael has invaluable experience working on big brands for agencies large and small. He has worked in-house for a large corporation, at a top digital agency, at one of the largest advertising agencies in the world and now, Idea Rebel.

October 24, 2017