Home > Business, Technology > What does it take to be a Graphic Designer?

What does it take to be a Graphic Designer?


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During various conversations one day with a client of mine about a particularly interesting project, we stumbled across this subject. In fact, I believe the exact question was “So Tim, with all the art you see come through Optima, what do you think it takes to call yourself a designer?”

Wow, there’s a big one. Got a closet full of hats? I ask because as a Designer, you’ll wear a lot of different ones. Customer Service, Technical Support (letting a client know what will and won’t work, working through file and compatibility issues with them), a dash of Sales, and oh right, Design! You’re also responsible for following up with your clients to make sure that not only were they happy, but what you could have done to make them even happier. You need to be knowledgeable with the programs of your respective area of expertise, and you need to be able to sit down and figure it out if you aren’t. A designer has to understand the different printing processes, or web applications (depending, again, on your area of expertise) and be able to accurately schedule, quote, and bill your time accordingly.

Customer ServiceA thick skin is essential. You need to be able to take constructive criticism not just by your peers, but have your creative endeavors potentially picked apart by someone who thinks “Photoshop” is a verb.

And no, Photoshop is not a verb, by the way. At least not until Merriam-Webster says it is.

You have to be able to detach yourself from your designs at times. This is your client’s work, they are paying for it, therefore they get what they want. As a paying customer they have the right to tell you redo your design, no matter how good you think it may be. You need to be able to not take things personally and still enjoy your work.

Ultimately, you need to be creative. That may seem a bit cliche, but its true. You can teach anyone how to use a program or draw the human figure, but in the end you have to be creative to make the skills work. My wife is an analyst for a local hospital, extremely intelligent, and a quick learner. She’s told me time and time again that while she has learned the mechanics of mixing yellow and blue to make green, she just can’t translate that into art on a canvas or a computer screen. You can’t fake being creative, either you are, or you aren’t.

What about you? What do you think it takes for someone to call themselves a designer?

Tim Toolen
Graphic Designer
Optima Graphics

Categories: Business, Technology
  1. Ack
    December 4, 2011 at 9:22 am

    Good article….u say the way it is w/o
    b.s.

  2. December 4, 2011 at 9:43 am

    Great post! Sent it to my two graphic designers to read 🙂

  3. Caby Smith
    December 4, 2011 at 9:52 am

    You have to have a spine… you need to be able to tell your client that you were hired, not just to make things pretty, but to sell something. Clients very rarely make good copy writers, so your biggest asset it being able to boil down what your client wants to say about their product into something that will actually SELL their product (usually less is more)… you need to be able to tell you client “NO”, and have the knowledge and conviction to make them believe you… ultimately, they really want to.

  4. Brian Travers
    December 5, 2011 at 8:55 am

    Merriam Webster says it is a transitive verb. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/photoshop

    • Tim Toolen
      December 5, 2011 at 12:21 pm

      Darn it… That’ll teach me. I wasn’t aware they had included it yet. Hmm.. maybe I can just pretend they hadn’t?

  5. KevinMOD
    December 5, 2011 at 8:59 am

    I think a key point to make, also, is that designers can’t always be looked at as pixel-tweakers for a client. We pursued this career because we have a talent that our clients do not. It is ok to (softly) remind them of that.

  6. December 5, 2011 at 10:07 am

    I find the most important thing I can do for my trade show clients is to help them focus on what their PROSPECTS expect to accomplish at a show. What is it that will make them stop at their booth and talk? Focus on that and the copy (especially the headline) and design will follow.

  7. December 5, 2011 at 11:04 am

    Wow Tim! You made a lot of good points in your post. It is extremely important to have all of the “mechanical” skills to be a designer, but it is critical to be creative in an effective way that will help to sell something. I feel that it’s not so black and white as “you either are or you are not” creative. Creativity is a muscle that can be exercised with practice and being aware of styles, patterns and designs that impact you personally. It seems like everything nowadays is derivative of something else and I think that designers can draw on ideas from others, adapt them and create something truly unique to satisfy the client.

  8. Tim Toolen
    December 5, 2011 at 11:30 am

    While I don’t believe you should roll over and play dead to your clients, saying “NO” to a client isn’t the best customer service either, and this is still a service-driven industry. This is when I’ll refer back to my article on Customer Service from a Designer’s Perspective.

    “NO” is like a four-letter, two-letter word when it comes to customer service. If a client requests something that my experience tells me won’t work well, I will bring that to their attention, and suggest a series of alternatives. However, if a client is adamant on their way or the highway, who am I to tell them “no”? Does this scenario happen often? No, it truly doesn’t. The vast majority of clients do indeed listen and appreciate my perspective on their projects, and a solution is realized that accomplishes their needs as well as the design asthetics. However this scenario does happen, and the minute I say “no” like that, is the minute I lose their business on that project and the potential to lose their business on the future projects as well.

    As I said, the client “my way or the highway” scenario very rarely happens, but those couple times a year it does, you still need to keep in mind they are the client, not you. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a comment along the lines of “You mean you’re not going to tell me no, and that you know better cause you’re the designer?”

  9. December 5, 2011 at 11:51 am

    Tim —

    Well done, very well done. As someone who works with graphic designers every day, but who is not a graphic designer, I feel your pain. You may enjoy this blog post I wrote a while back: “When It Comes to Graphic Design, I’m an Idiot.” So true.

    http://www.classicexhibits.com/tradeshow-blog/?p=155

    –Mel

  10. December 5, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    As an exhibit designer, creativity is key, but “dumbing down” a design is common. Keep those fancypants drawings for your portfolio, but it is important to not take it personally when your best details and solutions don’t make it to the floor. It’s usually an issue of budget. Sadly, sometimes, filling all their criteria with straight lines is the most important thing.

    When a client comes to me with a design that’s completely off base, I try to give them what they NEED, rather than what they WANT. Clients don’t always have the skills to visualize or understand proportion, or that a crucial ID is partially hidden behind monitors or walls… Rather than simply telling them NO, it’s important to explain WHY your modifications will benefit them and their goals on the floor. They may want to put ‘ten pounds of stuff in a five pound bag’ but may not be able to understand why it won’t work until you show them accurately, and provide an alternate design that people can actually walk through! It’s a fine line, but so much more complicated than “no.” I think that the ability to communicate this effectively (verbally and visually,) is what makes a good exhibit designer.

    Remember that you are the “expert,” so if a client provides a panel file that looks like a line card with 14pt text below knee level, it’s up to you to help them understand why making it simpler will make their show much more successful. They’re rarely going to argue, if your point is well made. In those cases, if it’s a matter of “That’s all we have!” it’s an opportunity to provide more services!

    • Tim Toolen
      December 5, 2011 at 4:21 pm

      Naomi, I think you put it very well. Lord knows how many times a designer is asked to put a trifold brochure, with all it’s information graphics, etc., on an exhibit, verbatim. As designers in that situation, we’re tasked with… well, you put it so well I’ll quote you:

      “Rather than simply telling them NO, it’s important to explain WHY your modifications will benefit them and their goals on the floor. They may want to put ‘ten pounds of stuff in a five pound bag’ but may not be able to understand why it won’t work until you show them accurately, and provide an alternate design that people can actually walk through! It’s a fine line, but so much more complicated than “no.” I think that the ability to communicate this effectively (verbally and visually,) is what makes a good exhibit designer.”

      I don’t think I can put it better than that. In my article, I spoke in generalities. This is a very specific application of how a designer should deal with a specific situation… that happens to come up often. When this type of service is applied to the working relationship between a designer and their client, 99% of the time a good design that is well communicated to a client will win out.

      Thanks everyone for taking the time to comment, and bringing me some feedback even more to think about! If you haven’t commented yet, please do! I’d love to continue this conversation.

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