Blunt Words for Design School Students

After many years of providing free advice and countless hours spent reviewing resumes and portfolios, we can honestly report that we are a very hard-to-impress lot at 16toads.  Which is a nice way of saying we don't fear for our jobs.  Why?  Well, aside from misspellings, lousy presentations and general lack of attention to detail in most of the portfolios we receive, they also display depressingly under-developed talent, copycat concepts, copycat design solutions, and technical competencies that, in some cases, rival Fisher Price.

And, yes, we do, in part, blame a horseshit academic system and lousy parentage for allowing unprepared students to graduate. However, in the end, it really is the students' fault for not demanding more accountability from their chosen school and for not taking their future careers seriously enough to present themselves as remotely professional enough to handle the challenges of working in the design industry. Students: You are in charge of your own educations.

Harsh, yes. But absolutely honest. This business is tough, and it is far easier to adjust your career trajectory and attitude while a student than it will be when you are attempting to prove your chops as an industry “noob” in the workplace.

Blunt advice from a seasoned pro:

Work really fucking hard
Seriously, this statement is a worn cliche. But students who take classes as if they are working for a paying client are the rarity, not the norm. We see far too many kids with giant egos that are backed up by nothing more than a distorted view of their own talent and a sloth-like laziness that can only be described as stunning. 

School is the time to experiment, push yourself, and make mistakes. Treat your class-work like a job, and approach every project as if you are working for a major client. Miss a class, miss an assignment, do a half-assed job in class and you may get a failing grade ... in the real world, this ambivalence will get you fired. Make no mistake, you are replaceable. Take your student work seriously and potential employers will take you seriously.

Ditch the ego
Good for you!  You just graduated from a design school, and you can brag that you won every excellence award the school had to offer. Maybe you even won the coveted "Best in Show" award. You aren't special. We all won academic awards, some of us from far better schools than the one you are currently attending. Academic awards mean bupkiss, and talent will only get you so far. The confidence you have wrapped up in your inflated ego is balanced by the one thing school can never truly provide for you -  experience. 

There are tens of thousands of people out there who call themselves a designer, illustrator, photographer, writer, art director, film maker, artist, and etc. There will always be someone who is more talented than you, more reliable than you, and more experienced than you. Never forget this.

The learning process doesn't end with your diploma. Staying up-to-date with the latest trends and technology is almost a full-time job in itself. If you slacked in school, be prepared to fall way behind the curve very quickly.

Do you think art history is a waste of time? If so, you are a waste of ours. How many television programs, television commercials, movies, magazine ads, etc. use direct or casual references to significant art historical works? Ever watched Desperate Housewives? Did you recognize the obvious reference to Francis Bacon's Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X in the Matrix trilogy? How many references to art history can you count during a single episode of The Simpsons

It makes no difference if you can Photoshop the mole off the boob of a supermodel with your least-dominant hand, with your eyes closed, while a stop watch is running if you can't apply basic design skills to the layout into which you have to place the photo. Basics design skills, basic drawing skills, basic programming skills, basic typography skills ... ARE ALL CRITICAL. 

There is no question that times are tough and jobs are even tougher to come by. Nonetheless, your success in this business will be determined by your willingness to learn how the business functions. You will need to pay attention and learn how to not only do your job, but also understand how to deal with other designers, work as part of a team, learn new graphics applications and technologies, work with and apply brand requirements, be familiar with market trends, become proficient with project management, understand job trafficking, deal with creative directors and company big-wigs, and learn how to interface with clients. Oh, and no, you don’t get to skip work like you did your art history class ... Particularly as a freelancer.

Reread "Experience" ... then take a deep breath. In order to succeed as a freelancer, you will need to add general "how to run a business" knowledge, project management skills, job costing, business accounting, marketing and promotions, sales, insurance, quarterly taxes, incorporation, legal issues (work-for-hire, copyright), customer service, and an endless stream of additional knowledge to your quiver.

Not to mention that you will have to get used to two very hard realities:

First, you will have to get used to NOT receiving a paycheck every other week. In fact, you will have to get used to not receiving regular paychecks at all. Do you think you can handle receiving a paycheck once every two or three or four months for your first few years? How well can you budget your finances? 

Secondly, you will have to learn self-discipline. If you slacked in school, don’t freelance. If you are easily distracted, don’t freelance. If you think your weekly workload in school was too much to handle ... DO NOT FREELANCE. 

In short, unless you are fortunate enough to have a bailout from mommy and daddy to rely on when you fall flat on your face, take your education seriously.

What every student needs to understand
Every time an employer hires a new employee or contracts work out to an untested creative vendor, he is taking a huge risk. The success of that risk is determined by one factor: How much or how little work will be required in order to clean up your work for the client presentation. The less clean up necessary, the more likely you will still have a job tomorrow. 

And, trust me, we know very quickly who is worth tutoring and who needs to be let go. You won't get many second chances with big agencies, and you won't get any with a small shop like ours.