12 things they never taught you at design school

We ask leading graphic designers and creative directors to tell us the most important things they’ve learned in their careers. What they say may surprise you.

Sue Asbury

“When it comes to actual craft – knowing your em-dashes from your en-dashes and your widows from your orphans – I learned most of that through experience. And that seemed to involve sitting at a monitor late at night with a hovering creative director asking ‘Is that how it’s going to look?’”
Co-founder, Asbury & Asbury (asburyandasbury.com

Christian Bird

“I wasn’t taught how to present work or talk to clients. One tip is to listen – to listen more in order to fully understand others’ views. The ability to respond to feedback is essential. It also helps to understand when an idea is liked so it’s not over-sold, and more importantly to know when it’s dead in the water and should not be pushed. 

“Confidence and clarity comes with practise, so while you’re studying take every opportunity to present your work to friends, family – even the cat and the dog if they’ll listen.”
Senior designer, Design Bridge (designbridge.com) 

Johann Chan

“Working to tight deadlines and a professional publishing pace was one of the first surprises I had at work. Demonstrating a variety of design solutions to your team in real-time, is a far cry from the luxuries of procrastinating over your masterpiece within a college term.”
Art editor, Digital Arts (digitalartsonline.co.uk)

Becky Chilcott

“That it’s the work you do, not who you work for. Creative satisfaction and a happy client are much more valuable than just an ‘impressive’ list of names on a CV. It’s as much about you as your work. Having the ability to do a job well is only half the battle, getting on with the people you work with is just as important, perhaps even more so.” 
Freelance designer, beckychilcott.co.uk 

Jamie Ellul

“I still remember the crushing feeling I got when I worked on my first commercial project and the client didn’t pick my concept. Perhaps art colleges should run a project titled ‘Rejection’ every year to thicken up graduates’ skin. Mine’s like a rhino now, of course.”
Creative director, Magpie Studio, magpie-studio.com

Samantha Farrow

“You know what they say about convent girls. Well, there’s an exception to every rule – and I was it. So you can imagine my first day at art college – but by the end of the week I was wearing bright-yellow corduroys and purple Doc Martens. 

“What they don’t teach you is that it’s your duty to learn for yourself. Plato declared necessity to be the mother of invention. It was a deep need for self-expression that got me moving. Still does every day. Amen to that, as Mother Superior would say.”
Founder, Farrow Creative, farrowcreative.co.uk

Gareth Howat

“It’s good having a great idea, but you have to able to get people to buy it. You learn from watching other people do it, but you need to find your own style. If you take clients through your thinking in a clear, compelling way, it makes life a lot easier.”
Co-founder, Hat-trick Design, hat-trickdesign.co.uk

Rob Longworth

“For me, the biggest learnings without question have come from running our own company... We began at The Church of London as a bunch of like-minded designers, writers and illustrators without an ounce of knowledge in business. We now know what spreadsheets are, what payroll is, what HMRC stands for and how to write a health and safety handbook.

“So my biggest learning? How to run a successful and efficient business, whilst at the same time delivering creative work of the highest quality. It’s also about acknowledging the fact that both those elements need one another to succeed in order for us to flourish.”
Executive creative director, The Church of London, thechurchoflondon.com

Steve Price

“If you can’t find work, make work. Get a part-time job to pay for your rent, etc, and make shit and get it out there, under peoples noses. There’s a sense that the industry owes graduates a living. It doesn’t. “There’s never been a better time to be in this industry; [of course] there’s a global recession, jobs have never been more scarce, but that’s also the best time to find and make your own mark.”
Plan-B Studio, plan-bstudio.com

Michael Smith

“The best designers are pragmatists, not the pig-headed, precious people that you sometimes read about in design journals. Yes, you need conviction and passion, but you also need to listen, negotiate and adapt. Diplomacy is a key skill to develop and upgrade; it’s as important as your Mac. In time you will learn how to deliver the solutions that your clients need, not necessarily the ones they ask for.”
Director, Cog Design, cogdesign.com

James Webb

“When you get in the door of a design studio, remember that you’re not battling against the other designers there, you should be working with them and you can’t choose your best friend to work with, so getting on with people is really important. 

“If someone gives you advice on your work it’s because they’ve learnt through experience, and not because they’re putting you down. It might take a while before one of your ideas gets through to a client presentation, but always keep thinking that’s the absolute key to being a great designer.”
Director, Webb & Webb, webbandwebb.co.uk 

Steven Wills

“Swear at clients. Only use Balloon. Never sketch ideas before jumping on the Mac. Don’t worry about the work other studios are producing. Don’t have an opinion. The first option is always the best. Clients are always right. 12pt on 14pt leading is best (particularly when using Balloon). Don’t worry about copy, it’s the pictures that matter. Never question a brief. Don’t bother going to see clients, just send them PDFs. Design is art. I was never taught any of these things at school. Who knows where I’d have been if they had – possibly on The Jeremy Kyle Showor cleaning toilets."
Creative partner, B&W Studio, bandwstudio.co.uk

Elsewhere on IDG sites

Read Next...