Digital Lifestyles

Lessons Learned Along The Way

While I do not know all there is to know about graphic design or running a small business, I am grateful for this fact.  Learning new things everyday is what keeps this business fun for me.  However along the way I have learned some hard lessons, and to me very big ones.  They have shaped who I am and how I run my studio on a daily basis.  I feel like they have made me more successful and I can only hope the education continues.  Some of you who are already freelance designers may have learned these same lessons, but if you are just starting out, let me make things a little easier for you!

1) The Customer is Always Right
Well almost! We have all had a boss or customer who thinks they have mastered the art of Graphic Design by dabbling with their free Corel Draw or Painter Pro programs. I’ve had worse, a boss that bought all the professional applications, and then automatically titled himself “Creative Director” Whew!  That was fun.  Anyway, there are those customers/employers who don’t have one ounce of creativity in their body, yet know “exactly” what they want in a design.

Hear me now – GIVE IT TO THEM

Because in some cases nothing but their concept will ever do and if they want to pay you to create their vision, great! On the other hand here is where the “almost” comes in… Give them options. Even though there is a chance that they will choose their original idea, you are a designer and it is your job to concept and create.  If you are not giving your customer more creative options than their own, then you should not call yourself a designer. From my experience, nine times out of ten they see your design and never look back, often wondering why they didn’t think of that. The last thing you want to do is become a production artist for someone with a real estate degree calling themselves a creative director!

2) PCs are not COMPLETELY useless…
I was extremely blessed to attend a college that was predominantly Mac based.  I was also blessed to have parents who bought my first Apple computer my sophomore year in college.  Before this, I had no experience on a computer other than looking up the Dewy Decimal System on PC in high school.  So I was spoiled from the beginning! My experience in the field was lovely too as I was provided with the latest in Apple technology at each job.  I never had to face the evils of trying to design on a PC.  UNTIL – I accepted an in-house job as an art director – my last job before starting out on my own.  The art department there was new, and our new G4s were on order.  In the meantime there was still work to be done, so I was provided with a wonderful Dell for the first few weeks. I really had no idea what a blessing in disguise this was.  Even though it took me twice as long to accomplish something, I became accustomed to what my co-workers and customers were using. Unfortunately, since Apple has not taken over the world of technology, it is important as a designer to know how our designs (especially web) are viewed on other platforms. There is always that one thing on a site that re-flows on a PC, yet looks beautiful on a Mac.

Your customers don’t want to hear “well it looks fine here”  …really, they don’t! They want it to be right when they see it. Believe it or not, this could also help you to become a Hero or Heroine in the eyes of your customer.  Being well versed on both platforms, as painful as it might be, may come in handy when your PC based customer is trying to export a file for you or complete a task that may be a little different on Mac.  Telling them that you have no idea how to work a PC doesn’t sound good to them either. So this hard lesson has brought me to a point in my life where I admit that my next purchase will be the new cross platform IMac.  Not only is it beautiful, but it will also allow me to test all my sites on a PC platform without actually adding to the value of Dell’s stock!

3) If all else fails, try “Design by Numbers”

If you read my last article, you know that taking designs of others is a big no – no in my book.  However, I do believe that stock designs (web or print) can be a useful learning tool.  If you are a serious artist and this is your passion, you are constantly looking at the world though your design goggles. We have a grocery store here in Georgia that has the most awesome package design. I cannot let myself shop there anymore, because I spend way too long there, and I spend way too much money!  I find myself wanting to buy things I don’t need just because I love the design on the package. Now that is great advertising.

The same goes for web design.  I come across sites out there that are phenomenal. Not only in animation, but even exceptional layouts, or the way the content is managed.  It makes me want to redesign my own website on a daily basis.  Looking at great design (especially in web) doesn’t automatically give you the knowledge of how it was done.  To be honest the really cool stuff can consist of lines and lines of code that can make your head spin.

If you aren’t one who does well with “how to” books on the application of your choice, try the design by numbers version. Go to royalty-free sites that sell flash animations, layouts, etc., and buy them.  Do not use them as is, since even thought you bought it, it is not yours -really! But if you tear it apart and rebuild it little by little adding your own style, you can learn the way it was built while making it yours.  You can use what you learned on your next project, keeping yourself and your customers up to date with the latest technologies and techniques!

4) The clock is tickin’!

I don’t toot my own horn very often.  As a matter of fact, I am my own worst critique.  However one thing I am proud to admit is that I have never had an employer or customer ask me “where is this?”  I have learned that what attracts and keeps customers is not only the quality of your work and attention to detail, but the ability to take care of projects in a timely manner. I have gained about 50% of my business from customers who were unhappy with their current design team because of their lax attitude and inability to complete projects on time.  While what we do is not brain surgery and there is no need for us to wear a pager, there are still design emergencies.  At least there are emergencies in the eyes of your customers and they are the ones who pay your bills, so take them seriously.

In other words, if graphic design is the career path you have chosen and you put your name out there as a professional designer, BE ONE.  Take care of your responsibilities in a reasonable amount of time or, hey, I would be glad to take them from you! :) With that being said, if you are like me and run as a one-person show, unless you have figured out the secret to cloning yourself, you are probably scheduled past your limits.  If this happens, congratulations…success! Now it is time to find DEPENDABLE and talented freelancers to contract for you to take up the additional work so you can continue to provide reasonable turn-around times to your customers. Honesty is the best policy when communicating with customers.  I have found that if I give my customers a reasonable timeline of when I will deliver and make the deadline, everyone is happy!

5) Times- they are a changing…
My background and education (pre Arnold Graphic Design) was mainly in the areas of print advertising with a touch of multimedia mixed in my last year of college.  Being that 75% of my current workload is web design or email marketing, you don’t know how blessed I feel for that.  I think to be a successful designer in the area of print or web you MUST first have a deep appreciation and understanding of what works and what doesn’t.  Great design is great whether it is on screen or on a tangible item.

If you do not have the basics of design, you will fail in this career. I had one professor that I despised my first few years of college, not because of who he was but how he taught.  I thought I knew it all and was very competitive as a student so if I didn’t make an A on a project I demanded to know why. I would tell him my questioning why was so I could do better on the next assignment, but at the time it was honestly because I didn’t agree with his decision.  This professor had a very irritating way of answering a question with another question.  He never actually told me how to make my work better, yet challenged me to figure out on my own how to make it better.

THIS IS WHAT BEING A DESIGNER IS ABOUT.  Challenging yourself and learning the things that it takes to make great design without using the ideas of another. I will be forever grateful for my Advertising professor teaching me for four years to think on my own.  This gave me a foundation for design that has made me successful no matter what medium I am using. When I started Arnold Graphic Design I was a predominantly a print designer from packaging to magazine design; I dabbled in all of it at one point or another.  What I had very little experience in was web design.  However, this is what people wanted. Which brings me to this…

Times are changing.

Technology is changing and if you want to make money in this industry you cannot just stick with your comfort zone. As long as you have the design fundamentals behind you and take the time to learn new technology, you will be great at what you do.  You may even have a little fun along the way. I had to quickly learn Dreamweaver and Flash if I wanted to eat, so I did.  Since then I have designed over 40 websites and have even taught myself a few content management systems to further my capabilities and marketability. Now I realize that starts getting into the programming side of things and my personal opinion is that if someone can be a great programmer from scratch as well as a creative and talented designer, then they deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.  Oh, and they need to give me a call; I would like to meet them because this just doesn’t happen.  Most likely if you think with the left side of your brain you have the creative talents of a cardboard box.  So by no means am I saying that as a designer you should run out and take C++ classes.  However, there are easy content management systems that have pre-built databases allowing you to custom design on top. They are a dream and will make your life and your customer’s lives much more pleasant down the road.

6) Speaking of time…
Whatever you do, do not work for free…….unless you are independently wealthy and your passion for design is so great that it is all you want to do with your spare time! My point is, be as detail-oriented in keeping your time and doing your billing as you do creating your work. Otherwise you might be the best designer in town, but the one who will soon be standing on the street corner in a chicken suit holding a sign that reads “will design for food”

There is nothing wrong with loving your job and still getting paid for it. So, be meticulous on keeping your time, from extended phone calls discussing projects, to time researching printing companies, getting contract estimates and uploading your work.  Your customer does not expect you to do these things for free and it is part of your job process.  So bill it.  Believe it or not I use to feel guilty about sticking my customer to every minute until one slipped up and told me how ridiculously cheap I was. I realized then that my attempt at trying to be as competitive as possible was actually hurting me. As far as your time/billing process – do whatever works best and most efficient for you – whether you keep time the ancient way (like me) on a spreadsheet, or record it directly into your billing system.  There are some great suggestions on this topic in an article written by madBADcat on Asset Management a few days ago.

I learned a hard lesson when first starting out on my own and realized one day “hey no one is going to be sending me a salary check in two weeks!” I was working like crazy, but not taking the time to record all of my time accurately or to actually bill at the end of the week.  This really hurts when you get a customer who decides that they need their work done immediately as if it were on fire, but when it comes to paying your bill, it is not so important.  So billing accurately and timely helps you get your money quicker and in the end makes you a better designer.  Have you ever met a really creative successful person who was unhappy all of the time?  And who can be happy when their extra time is spent in that chicken suit! On a side note – there may come a time when the occasional pro-bono project comes to you.  Just make sure if you take it that you truly feel compelled and that the experience of donating your time is rewarding.  If not you will surely resent the project and customer.

7) There are things greater than this…

This is the hardest lesson I have learned and continue to learn each day. I have a tendency to become obsessed with my work.  We have to remind ourselves that in the grand scheme of things this is only our job.  When I was single or even just married with no children it was very common for me to spend anywhere from 12-14 hours a day working on a project.  Living on nothing but coffee – especially if I was on a roll or feeling the MOJO that day. I even worked for three days straight with no sleep on a magazine once because of the unrealistic deadline I was presented with. At this time I was a mom of one and he was about six months old.  Imagine how that played out!  This is when I started to really accept the hard truth that my job could not consume me no matter how much I loved it. I knew that things had really gotten out of hand when I was in labor and my cell phone rang with a customer on the other line wanting to know when I could complete a job for him.  He honestly asked me if he gave me the files that day if I could have them completed by the next Monday.  This was a Wednesday.  For fear of failing, I had my son on a Wednesday, was released from the hospital two days later, had the weekend to recover and enjoy my new baby, then it was back to work on Monday to build and turn in five ads.

I know some of you are thinking what a horrible mom.  But at this time, I had no idea that the world would not end if I told this customer “No”.  While I am a HUGE advocate of timely presentation of my work as you read above, I have also become more realistic of what is important in my life. I love my job, but I love my family more and I strive everyday to make sure I have a healthy balance between the two.  I have also taken on new hobbies that expand my creative mind that take up a lot of my down time at work.  I have developed an undying passion for photography and if I am not shooting, I am thinking about shooting.  So add that to the mix and I am really in trouble.  But remembering that there are things greater helps me juggle and not cut off an ear in my insanity.

By Wendy Arnold

My name is Wendy Arnold, owner of Arnold Graphic Design, a small design studio in Atlanta, Georgia.
I am also a Wife and Mom of two beautiful children. Web and print graphics, as well as advertising design are my passions, and my artistic brain is never at rest. When I am not involved with my agency you will find me painting, dabbling in interior design, and just recently branching out into the world of digital photography.

One reply on “Lessons Learned Along The Way”

Comments are closed.