Like many designers who graduated from a four-year design program, I had high expectations for how my career was going to pan out. After all, I have a great degree and a kick-ass portfolio to show for it. While this skewed mentality ironically bought me many opportunities that sharpened my craft, there were times I felt like I was unprepared for the real world as a designer. Sometimes I even questioned if I was a fraud faking it until I make it.
Here are three things that they do not teach you in design school that young designers should know. Let’s beat them to death!
1. Your design has to be measurable
Your boss will tell you this. Your boss’s boss will tell you this. As well as all the 600+ design articles on Medium (including this one) that will try to tell you this. The sooner you understand this, the better your design will be.
When you design for school, you have more creative freedom to experiment. Usually there is a critique where the professor judges your design for a score. There is a lot of subjectivity being asserted on your work as the “I find it interesting…”’s from your peers become a token of approval.
In the real world, design is more structured and measured by quantifiable metrics. Your design has to be validated by some form of data whether it’s an ad banner with 65% CTR or a product feature with 80% retention rate. Successful design has to solve a specific problem/goal and is backed by tangible data. For example, your design might need to reach a business’s goal of generating more revenue. If that’s the case, then your design better make it rain.
As my mentor put it, if you design something that fails to reach a business’s goal, then you’re a designer who designs as a hobby. There’s a difference between the two, and unfortunately, there is no intersection in the working world that values the latter. Harsh? Yes. Truthful? Absolutely. And I know what you’re thinking — what if I’m designing for a non-profit? Even if money is not involved, your design still has to achieve the organization’s goals, such as gaining more donors.
A few helpful things to ask yourself at the start of any design project at work are: What are the key performance indicators that will measure my success? What are the goals of this campaign/product?
2. Do not get attached, learn to let go of your baby
Designers want others to appreciate our design. We want people to say “this design is the shit!”. Sadly, ideas get rejected all the time in the real world. No matter how amazing you think an idea or project is, there is a high chance they will never materialize. In school, you spend a lot of time designing only a few ideas and perfecting them. Rarely would a professor make you purge all your work and start over mid-quarter/semester. The goal is for you to perfect your skill set and be comfortable with the design process.
However, in the real world, your design has to solve a problem efficiently and effectively. Successful design has to solve a complex problem or goal rather than just providing beautiful aesthetics (point #1). This means that you may have a design-idea-baby and spend a lot of time caring for it, only to have it be purged. Maybe the problem shifted or there was a new goal.
Whatever the reason is, trying to save a design that is no longer useful will be detrimental in the long run. Why? Because then you’re building a house with no foundation. You may even be forced to work on someone else’s design after yours has been rejected. The best case scenario may be that you would need to make hundreds of iterations — a 180° change that would make your design no longer recognizable. Spoiler alert: that’s the design workforce in a nutshell, no matter what level you’re looking at.
In both cases, it’s important to recognize that it’s ok to have your design rejected. If you can remove personal feelings from it, you will be able to see why it didn’t work and learn to not make those same mistakes.
3. Your design may never see the light of day
So your design idea has avoided being purged (point #2) and has lived long enough to grow into something substantial. More often than not, even if your design has been greenlit — be prepared that you may spend weeks or months designing something that may not end up being used at the last minute.
If your design gets canned, did you even work on it at all? Not having your work out in the world sucks and it is worse than having your design killed at a premature stage. You spent all this time designing something from idea to materialization, only for one decision to stop you from pushing it live.
But how can you cope with not having your super-duper-amazing work out in the world? This is something I struggle with often, and here’s a prep talk I usually give myself: There are certain things you do not have control over, that’s part of the design process in the real world. Learn to be proud of your efforts and what you have designed even if it’s not out in the world.
Also, don’t feel too bad because you could always keep the work and show them to future employees privately. Just make sure you don’t breach that NDA contract you signed not so long ago 🙂
- Successful design has to solve a problem/meet a goal
- Don’t get attached to your design
- Be prepared to design things that won’t be pushed live