10 truths they don’t tell you in graphic design school

We’ve all been there. Fresh with graphic degree in hand, we embark on a predestined career rich with accolades and riches beyond our wildest dreams. We were big shots on campus. We aced every project. Other students (and even professors) turned to us for our advice. We were revered and ready to take the world by storm.

As you soon found out, a funny thing happened between the date you jumped off the stage with diploma fresh in hand, and the time you landed your first gig. The real world demands of the job intrude on your idyllic dreams and you’re left scratching your head as to why your professors never warned you about certain aspects of the job. Had you known, you might have reconsidered this career path in favor of something less apt to make you question your self worth and all the success you had in school.

Since your teachers didn’t warn you, consider this preemptive warning shot across the bow of anyone wanting to pursue a career as a graphic designer. These are some of the deep dark secrets you haven’t been told.

10 Dark Truths of the Graphic Design Profession

  1. Everyone is a graphic designer—It doesn’t matter if you have a degree and 20 years experience, you will never be able to argue against the customer who considers himself an expert in all things design. It doesn’t matter if they’re color blind and have the visual aesthetic of Roman vomitorium, all your education and knowledge will be powerless against their self-determined sense of superiority.
  2. No matter how experienced you are, you will invariably be turned into a monkey with a keyboard at multiple points of your career—There’s no avoiding the simple fact that all your talents and experience will not be able to change a customer’s mind bent on a specific design. Resign yourself to the fact that some projects will be devoid of all artistic merit and creative satisfaction and you’ll be stuck working solely for a paycheck. Just hope that you built in a “P.I.T.A. tax” into your pricing.
  3. To be great, it’s going to take every ounce of your soul—There’s very few things about the graphic design profession that are simple. It’s a stressful, hectic, and often soul-sucking profession. It requires you to pour every ounce of your creative soul into a project and be willing to stand silently while your creative vision is eviscerated in front of you. You’ll then be expected to pick up the pieces and go fix whatever others deemed wrong.
  4. Sales reps will be your worst enemy, but you need them—There will be strife. There will be conflict; wondrous, hair-pulling, screaming strife. They will make promises without any clue of what’s involved to make good on their guarantees. They will miss deadlines. They will shower you with praise and turn around and blame you for their failures. But they are the ones whose efforts pay for your salary, so best make peace with them as best you can.
  5. The only people who adhere to deadlines are graphic designers—Sales reps will blatantly ignore whatever deadlines you give them and plead either ignorance or poverty. Clients will miss every deadline for content or approvals, yet still expect you to meet the delivery date.
  6. Odds are, you’ll never strike it rich as a graphic designer—Contrary to what they may tell you in school, an average salary as a graphic designer is around $40,000 per year. To make the big bucks you need to work your butt off and land an art or creative director position, and in most cases the pay for the added responsibility and stress isn’t all that great.
  7. Graphic designers are made of memory foam—We remember every lie, every broken promise, every missed deadline, or derogatory comment ever made about our work. Yet no matter how many times we’re asked to bend over and take one for the team, we bounce back the next day with renewed vigor and desire to prove everyone wrong. Any wonder why we’re considered moody and temperamental?
  8. You’re not a marketing professional—You’re part of the marketing process, yes. But a marketer, no. Unless you know how to calculate ROI, or can streamline a sales funnel, or break down demographic information and formulate a strategy based on sales objectives, your job is to make things look pretty.
  9. You must never stop learning—Your education does not stop with your degree. To succeed in this business, you must continue to learn at every turn. You must embrace new technology. You must diversify your skill set. You must pay attention to changing trends in color, type, photography, layout. You must resist the urge to play it safe; to get comfortable with your craft. The market changes. The demands placed upon you will change. You either make the commitment to adapt, or you’ll be left behind.
  10. You are disposable—As vital as creatives are to the process, we are all ultimately disposable. We’re among the first people cut loose when sales fall. We’re cast aside when we get older; a byproduct of earning too much and becoming too old to be trendy. You will be under-appreciated at many turns; a hero one day, a goat the next. This career is not one for the faint of heart. Prepare yourself for a bumpy ride; be wise with your money. If you don’t already have a burn bag, make one. You’ll likely need it more than once.

Take these truths to heart. None are meant to discourage a career as a creative professional. It’s a wonderful profession; it can be a rewarding profession. But as with any job there are upsides—the things you wanted to be working on like ad campaigns—and there are downsides that you can’t avoid (like TPS reports) and that ignorant coworker who believes she knows everything. Consider the big picture at all times, and you’ll be all right.

You’ll want to quit, but you won’t—There will be days that you walk out of your job ready to give it all up and walk away. You’ll be fed up with the stress, the unreasonable deadlines, the ignorance, the lack of reason, and the rejection. Maybe you’ll look elsewhere. Maybe you’ll find context at the bottom of a bottle of Fat Tire. But you’re resilient and a tad bit masochistic. Either way, you will pick yourself up off the mat, and come back for another round because while we may be moody and temperamental, we’re also stubborn. We’re fighters. And we don’t give up that easy.

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