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After almost ten years working as freelance graphic and web designer, there are many things I miss about my time in graphic design school. First, the environment was excellent to become better at designing; no constraints, lots of creative freedom, passionate conversations about design between classmates, interesting teachers, and much more.

However, I must say that although studying graphic design taught me some solid basics about graphic design, there are areas that I did not cover in graphic design school. In this article I try to take a look at these.

1. You are not an artist, at least not in your client’s eyes

In graphic design school, students are very enthusiastic about what they are learning. They exchange their ideas and designs, trying to be creative and encouraging towards one another. In short, design students appreciate each other’s work. Your teachers also understand your work and will usually not make idiotic comments about it. They are design professionals after all.

In the “real world”, clients did not have a design education and they do not care about your feelings about the work you created. All they care about is how the graphic design you presented to them will make them look. Therefore, you should be ready to hear criticism that doesn’t make any sense, bad design decisions that you will not be able to go against, and remarks that will make you feel like a tool in front of your client.

Hopefully, this situation can be improved by learning to communicate with your clients and teach them how your designs are better for them and their company. If you can persuade them that they will make more money and you gain their trust, you will be able to design more freely. However, still do not expect to be considered like an artist.

2. Worry about your portfolio, not your diploma

Students tend to worry about their short-term goal, which is getting good grades on projects. Then they try to get a good mention for their diploma. Unfortunately, in the long term none of this really matters. Of course you need to get that diploma if you want to be considered as a professional graphic designer, but the most important thing is to build up a nice portfolio.

If a company is looking to hire you, they will want to see what you are capable of, not some diploma. The same applies if you are a freelancer; potential clients will want to see what work you have created, to check if they like your style. Try to build a great portfolio both online and offline, and keep it up to date.

3. No matter how good you are, you will need to market yourself

Whilst in design school, you will learn a lot about how to create visuals that will help your clients’ marketing efforts. However, you will not learn how to market yourself as a designer. Unfortunately this is a crucial skill that you will need if you want to find clients. If you are not a freelancer and want to get a graphic design job it is equally as important.

To market yourself, you will need to set up channels, thus understand the power of networking, both online and offline. You will also need all the right marketing material, business cards, letterheads, brochures, but the most important will be to know how to use this material. Obviously you should also learn how to network online and use social media sites to your advantage.

Ludwig Gatzke

4. Backup!

Backing up your work is a piece of advice you will hear in design school, but you will never hear it enough. Crashes happen, and they usually happen at the worst time.

To be efficient, make sure to backup as often as possible and in multiple locations, for example on an external hard drive and online. Of course you should automate that process otherwise it will be an overwhelming task that you will stop doing quickly. With teachers you may have an excuse for losing a project, your clients however will not accept excuses, so make sure to keep your work safe.

John Kirriemuir

5. You need to manage your time well

Time management in graphic design school often consists of procrastinating a lot, then pulling an all-nighter to hand in the project. With clients, especially with big projects, this will not work. Firstly, you cannot take the risk of any kind of accident happening, thus preventing the project to be presented on the due date. Also, clients may ask to see what you have done so far and you will have to show them something or they will worry, and eventually replace you if they believe that you have not done anything yet.

Last but not least, good graphic design doesn’t happen overnight. You want to design something awesome? Then take the time to do it, and do it every day until you are happy with the work you have done.

6. The business side of graphic design

Graphic designers do not need to become experts at financial planning, but it is important for you to know how to save money, when to invest and plan how to spend your money wisely. Especially as a freelancer, you will need to understand how to handle a budget, know the taxing system in your country to avoid unexpected trouble, and much more…

On the other hand, you will also need to learn how to find work to make more money. This goes with point 3, you will need to market yourself. However marketing is not the best way to find work, the best way is to network and build strong relationships with potential customers. Make sure to attend design events, local industry conferences and any other event where you can meet entrepreneurs.

To end, this article should not be a reason to avoid going to a graphic design school. Getting a proper education is important and will help you tremendously in your career. Nevertheless, it’s good to know about the things you are missing out on and to try and educate yourself. To learn about all the mentioned topics, search the web for blogs that talk about it or head to the library to find some good books that will give you an in-depth overview.