7 Things I Would Tell a Design Graduate

Since the end of school is just around the corner, I thought I would contribute to the seemingly endless articles detailing the list of things graduates should know. I hold the following to be true:

1. Social skills are just as important as hard skills

Your design skills will only get you so far. No one wants to work with someone they don’t enjoy being around. So, when you're in an interview keep in mind that your personality and how you would fit into the company culture is as important as your portfolio itself. Be yourself and show who you are.

2. Don't burn bridges
aka: It's important to be nice to everyone

It sounds cliche, but it’s true. Don’t burn bridges. Yes, you can get a job without having a reference. But it's much more common to get a job because you know someone, or you know someone who knows someone. What this means is that you need to be meeting other people in the design world, and that you need to be nice. I don’t mean obnoxiously nice — just leave people with a good impression of you. You don’t know when they may hold the key to you getting your next job.

3. Know what you don’t know

If you don’t know something that someone expects you to know or assumes you would know — don’t pretend like you know what they’re talking about. You will start making stuff up. You will look like an idiot. And you will wish you had just said, “Could you explain? I’m not sure I’m familiar with that concept.”  

If you’re a recent design graduate, you’re allowed to not know everything. And owning up says: 1) You’re wise enough not to pretend you’re something you’re not, and 2) You actually want to learn.

I'm trying real hard to pretend I didn't take a good chunk of that from the brilliant, Debbie Millman

4. It's easy to be heavy, hard to be light

It is easy to disagree. It’s easy to look at a design and dismiss it — to say why it won’t work, why it’s not good enough, why it needs more thought. It’s much harder to find the morsel of really good thinking in a design and help grow that. To ask the right next question. To protect an idea and to explore it more deeply. Sometimes that idea eventually won’t be "the one".

But asking questions and giving credit will lead to more fruitful conversations about what is needed than taking the easy road and saying, “I don’t know what’s right, but I know this isn’t it.”

More on this idea from Jason Fried.

5. Listen and be humble — but not afraid to push back or ask why

Listen to advice and criticism. Be humble about what you know. You may have a good grasp on design itself, but you may not have a solid understanding of how design works when mixed with clients, budgets or timelines. Take criticism without feeling personally insulted and begin with the assumption that those with more experience than you actually do have good advice.

That said, if you come upon a situation that you truly believe doesn't make sense, push back or ask why. Don't be afraid to challenge authority so long as you aren't rebelling purely out of defensiveness of your own ideas.

6. Know how to write

I've come to realize that the literature & writing classes I took in college were equally important as the design classes I took. The ability to take a concept in your head and translate it in words in a way that is compelling as well as clear is a very difficult task.

For me, understanding how to write has helped immensely in my design life. It's crucial in communicating with clients, coworkers and design contacts. It has enabled me to reach into the business side of design — writing lengthy strategy documents and proposals. I find it comes in handy almost everyday, and tangentially deepens my design skills in one way or another. 

This all comes down to building communication skills and for me personally, writing is key.

7. Follow impractical curiosities

I think people often put aside their passions or curiosities if those curiosities don't feel as though they further their current career path. For instance, if I'm currently most accurately described as a web designer, it seems that in my free time I should be deepening my knowledge of development, learning HTML and CSS. But, while I think it's important to understand the basics of those things, I have no passion for that kind of work.

While I'm sure it would be useful, I believe investing in the passions and curiosities that instinctively drawn us are the ones worth following. You never know when your knowledge in one of these tangental subjects will land you a really interesting project or turn into an entirely different career based on your passion and experience in that area. So, while you deepen your design craft, don't neglect impractical curiosities purely because you think they won't advance your career.