Things I wish I knew before I knew them

Graphic design touches a lot of areas, used an an umbrella term to cover print, web, typography, branding, and more. The path to a successful design career can be challenging. The road isn’t always well paved and more closely resembles a sinkhole-laden dirt road covered with unruly shrubs and speedbumps. A recently reflection on my years spent in the design world eventuated a list of things I wish I knew before I knew them. If you’re an aspiring designer, just starting your career, feeling a little lost or not sure if you have what it takes to get into this field this post is for you.

Story time

In my teenage years I spent an unhealthy amount of time on the Internet. Combined with a copy of Photoshop 5 and an unlimited resource to tutorials, I began to work on my craft. It was terrible. Gradients, embossing and blend modes were all the rage, and I produced some very questionable PSDs which at the time felt like masterpieces. Experimenting in PS and solving design problems made me feel accomplished, and this planted the seed which would (much) later blossom into real design talent. However at the time I considered myself lacking the skill to ever seriously consider a career in design, comparing myself to the likes of designers whose work I was blatantly copying trying to emulate. “I’ll never be good enough.”

At the end of high school my grand ambitions of becoming a designer were nothing more than a quiet whisper, so fragile that speaking of it out loud made it dissipate in the wind. “I don’t have what it takes.”  Lacking confidence in my design skills and intimidated with how much I had to learn, I decided to pursue post-secondary education in creative advertising at Seneca College. Unknowingly, this would be the spark to reignite the burnt out candle that was my inner designer. The curriculum was sprinkled with classes teaching design theory parallel to Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign. I proved myself capable at conceptualization and copywriting, but spent hours of my free time learning the ins-and-outs of CS apps. 

My First Illustrator Project
CAB200: My First Illustrator Assignment

Towards the end of my second semester, in a fit of rage brought on by lack of sleep and dissatisfaction with a copywriting assignment, I stormed into the office of the coordinator for the Graphic Design program and demanded I start next semester. Bless her heart, she found me a slot and within an hour I had a completely new, unchartered path. “Oh God what have I done.”

The seed planted when I was 11 years old by Photoshop began to grow. It also became glaringly obvious how terrible of a designer I was. “This will never work.”  But out of a class of 30… we all sucked. We were all terrible. We were starting a journey to learn together and grow as designers, and I took comfort in not being the only one afraid to admit they knew nothing. To this day I thank my former teachers for their infinite patience. We were all tough, lumpy bricks of clay which needed molding and without the proper guidance would have remained as such. Fast forward three years. I was graduating top of my class, hungry for a job and ready to hit the pavement. I took internships. I didn’t get paid. I was given menial tasks such as cutting business cards, relegated to the status of “office bitch”. It was hard, I was broke, deflated and quickly losing hope I could make it in this industry. “I don’t know what to do.” Days away from returning to full-time waitressing, I caught my first break as a paid intern. I worked with amazing people who recognized my potential and helped foster my growth, and they eventually hired me on as a full-time salaried employee. “I can’t believe I did it.”

Working with an intensely talented team and being receptive to their feedback accelerated my design powress and I went from being a inexperienced intern starving for knowledge to a valuable contributor capable of design for both web and print (with a healthy amount of coding chops). I continued my rapid evolution by testing my capacity for learning, taking on projects outside my comfort zone (“You want me to code what?!”) and absorbing the talent of my peers. The hunger never went away. The more I learned, the more I realized there was to learn. The lust was persistent. The satisfaction from solving a design problem is inimitable; the same feeling an 11-year-old girl gets after applying her first filter in Photoshop.

The hunger was insatiable. I had gone rogue, learning new design concepts, illustrating, badgering my art directors, going on press approvals, drowning myself in HTML, CSS, JS, PHP and always searching for tricks to translate design to web. It became apparent I could never learn everything, but found satiety in the fact I had a universe of knowledge to tap into. To my employers dismay someone at Adobe caught wind of this maniacal designer gone developer, and lured me away dangling carrots of fortune. After much deliberation – there’s something to be said for working somewhere you love – I took the carrot. It tasted like wine, Korean BBQ, promise and opportunity. My former post-grad, starving, deflated self wept generous tears in disbelief. I called my mom and she wept with us. “Holy shit I made it.”  

Still here today. While my current role in Product Management doesn’t require any graphical training, my design background has been a valuable – if not the most valuable – stepping stone. It taught me how to solve problems, think creatively, work collaboratively, pay attention to detail and always search for new ways to improve myself through trial and error. These fundamental components will serve you well in any industry.

My design career took my places I never could have begun to imagine. As a result, I learned things which can only be acquired through experience. To aspiring designers everywhere, these are the important lessons:

Learning doesn’t end with school

Post-secondary education is a resource not just for teaching you how to do things, but for teaching you how to learn. You cannot possibly absorb everything you need to know to have a successful career in design (or any field, really). There simply isn’t enough time. It’s imperative to fuel your own growth by pursuing interests and projects outside of the classroom. School will give you the building blocks. It’s up to you how you assemble them.

You’re going to stumble. Hard.


It’s inevitable. You’ll suffer through school projects, bad grades, go through droughts of uninspiration, cry and feel like giving up. These are all natural parts of learning and nurturing a craft. It’s important to stick through the bad times, especially in the early stages of education. You’ll come out the other end having learned a few lessons and better off for it.

Unfortunately, loving something and getting paid for it don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. You’ll have rough internships, bad beats, be undervalued and have doors shut in your face. Dust your shoulders off and move on. Patience, persistence and unwavering enthusiasm will pay off in at the end game when you catch your big break.

You don’t need to draw

Depending on who you ask this may be a controversial topic, but from my experience the ability to sketch a design by freehand isn’t a necessity for a successful career. I can’t draw worth skat, but give me Illustrator and I’ll blow your mind. Graphic design isn’t all about art, it’s also about layout, composition, typography, pagination and communication. Learning a tool to convey your ideas is imperative and in the professional as almost everything is presented on a digital medium.

That being said, grab a notebook and doodle. Even if it won’t hang in a museum the pen to paper process helps stimulate ideas.

Take criticism and feedback wherever you can find it

Your fellow designer is an invaluable resource for helping shape projects.  A significant part of design culture is to be overly protective of our work; after all, we designed it, we know best and this other person is just going to steal all our good ideas. Right? Wrong. First of all, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. If someone hijacks your style take it as a compliment. Secondly, two minds are better than one. Eyes other than your own can pick up details you become blind to by working so closely with a project. I’ve often found myself spending hours musing on that thing that just isn’t quite right, and an alternative perspective was able to pick it up in minutes. Conceptualizing and brainstorming is better done in groups of two or more, and your ideas evolve in ways that can’t be done solo.

Be adaptable to learning new things

Get outside of your comfort zone. You never know what you might be surprisingly good at unless you try. Once you land a job, there’s going to be surprises and expectations thrown your way and you can either nut up and take the challenge or say “I don’t know how to do that” and let the opportunity go to waste. The world of design is shifting, and designers are expected to be adaptable to both print and web. Flexability will help you stand out in the industry. There’s nothing wrong with being humble and setting expectations to others on your abilities, but willingness to try and exhibiting initiative goes a long way.

Be willing to fail

You’re going to suck at stuff. It’s inevitable. You’re going to start projects that never see the light of day. Course correction, revisiting, rebuilding and recognizing when to do so are all part of being a good designer. A failed project isn’t always a reflection on your abilities, it’s a part of life and a great designer knows when to walk away.

Don’t overcompensate

It can be tempting to overkill your concepts with high-complexity effects in an attempt to prove your technical abilities. This is a trap commonly experienced by novice designers. See the forest for the trees and learn when to dial it back; the tell of a good designer is not how complex you can make a project, but how you evoke communication and feeling through visual storytelling.

Everyone is human

When entering new territory it’s easy to be intimidated by teachers, experts, influencers and anyone else put on a pedestal based on their talent and expertise. It’s important to remember hey… they’re people too. Everyone from your teacher with 20 years in the industry to the featured TED speaker started somewhere. They’re humans with human problems, feelings, thoughts and most importantly, they can be wrong. Hold yourself to high standards, but don’t get demotivated by them. You’ll get there in time.

Stay hungry

You probably entered this field as the consequence of curiosity, passion, artistic ability, a ferocious need to tinker or any number of drivers. Nurture this influence and never let it go. Not every project will be sexy, and you’ll be given tasks which are downright menial (“Oh boy, I get to populate another template.”) There will be client-driven, boring, frustrating projects which make you question your own existence. If you find yourself in a string of lackluster projects, do something on the side. Try out a new tutorial or take on a new design challenge. Keeping the passion alive is good exercise for the creatively brained.

You are good enough

If you tell yourself you’re not good enough to accomplish something, not smart enough, not capable enough, you’ve set yourself up to fail. Everyone starts somewhere, and it’s only through trial and error you can become exceptional. Don’t be afraid of challenges; perceive them as opportunities to grow. If you start to feel your self-confidence wavering, learn something new by reading a book or completing a small design project. No one starts off as an expert in their field.

The world needs more truly talented designers. You could be one of them. Godspeed earnest designer, you’ve chosen a tumultuous but rewarding path. Remember to be persistant, stay open and take chances with a spirit of healthy competition. Graphic design is an acreage with many opportunities, and those who don’t take risks will never reap the glorious rewards of doing so.

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Posted on March 14, 2013 by Sarah · 16 comments


  1. Jessica Fields
    - Reply

    Thank you very much for this. A lot of the things you went through hit home. I want to be a designer but never think I’m good enough. Maybe I’ll try harder. Thank you!

  2. Andrew
    - Reply

    Impeccable timing for another day of worrying about a lack of skills in certain areas, the constant “I’m not as good as them, could never be” attitude when seeing some crazy awesome design work.

    It was really helpful, thanks :)

  3. Jake
    - Reply

    Like everyone else is saying, thank you so much for this.

    As a senior in school hoping to bust into the world this next summer, this was exactly the pep talk I needed. You’re awesome. Keep it up!

  4. Jason
    - Reply

    Thanks so much for a great read. I will be the first to admit that I wished I worked harder on learning design when I was in college. I did just enough to get high B’s and A’s and that was it. I was able to find a low-paying job 6 months after graduating and now 4 years later I’m doing much better at a higher-paying job and doing a ton of freelance work on the side for some extra money.

  5. Scott Bennett
    - Reply

    Thanks for a great read :)
    there have been many times in the past when i felt i was never going to get anywhere in this industry. when i look back at my work from when i first started i do cringe lol

  6. Michael
    - Reply

    Hello Sarah,

    I just wanted to say thank you for writing this information. I have finish recently and graduated under the directions of many years Paul, Kinmond, Lazo and the others. Your writing has given me faith in the future as I have starting to lose hope in finally breaking through in the industry seeing that you have made it where you are today gives me hope and straight to get going. I wanted to say thank you for lighting my day. If ever you have time I would love for you to give me some feedback on my work. As you have my email with this post please email me if you would be willing to do so. Have a great day.

  7. Robin Zheng
    - Reply

    Thanks for writing this. You don’t know how much this means to me– how much it cleared my anxious head. In a few weeks I will be starting my first internship– and your point about teachers, experts, etc being HUMAN struck home. I remember thinking this repeatedly to myself but always faltering. Even though I know it’s true, I still stiffened up and felt very intimidated in front of my interviewers. I could barely speak clearly, the other half of my mind in panic mode because I’m so obviously inexperienced and in over my head.

    All in all, what you said is very encouraging. I felt the same way months ago, when I didn’t think I would ever pursue design seriously as a profession. Looking back on it, I behaved so ridiculously, applying as a finance and risk management major at colleges. How even?! Now I’m prepared to plunge into the deep end– into one of the most competitive, rewarding fields ever.

    Feels like home.

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