10 Truths for a Successful Career in Graphic Design

by | May 15, 2016 | BCBD Careers, BCBD News, Design Education, Graphic Design

I was recently asked to speak to the graduating graphic design students at Louisiana State University before their senior thesis design exhibition on May 11, 2016. I also graduated from LSU back in May 1998, almost 20 years ago — a very different landscape for a design student bracing for the “real world”.

Here’s a fun fact: more than half the tools, software, companies, and job titles I have worked with throughout my career did not exist at the time I received my B.F.A. in Graphic Design from LSU. Words like “internet”, “email” and “web site“ weren’t in my vocabulary when I started college in 1993, yet designing websites make up for more than half of my professional career. In 1998, my Apple PowerMac 7600 had 1.2 GB of hard drive space. Photoshop didn’t have a layers palette, and you could only do one “undo”. I connected to “America Online” at 28.8 bps in the event that I “got mail”. Netscape was my preferred Internet browser. I didn’t have a cellphone until one year later. Texting didn’t become mainstream in the U.S. until about 3 years later (but it was very big in Europe). In 1998, no one could tell you what an mp3 was. Google was not only “not a verb“ yet, it wasn’t even a noun. Same goes for YouTube… Twitter… I could make a joke about MySpace here, but… hell, even Friendster wouldn’t be around for another 5 years. I could drone on and on aging myself in a Gen-X nostalgic Y2K afterglow.

Obviously, sustaining ANY career for 18 years, one learns that trends come and go. Companies fold, and new ones arise. Technologies evolve daily, if not hourly (mobile apps anyone?). But nevertheless, as I’ve grown older, I have become present to ten timeless, trend-and-technology-proof truths that every designer should come to know in order to achieve success. These truths hold up no matter what type of design you do, who you work for, or what stage you are at in your professional career.


1. YOU are more important than your portfolio.
Right now, it’s extremely important to get your portfolio in the best shape possible, but always remember… a company is investing in all that you bring to the table. Your personality, your strengths and weaknesses, and your contributions to a company’s culture will take you farther than your ability to push pixels with a mouse or name a font on sight. Be yourself. Strive to generate enthusiasm in everything you bring.



2. God is in the details, but don’t sweat the small stuff.
Choose your battles wisely. Your clients (or bosses) don’t want a lesson on the difference between inch marks and a smart quote, that’s your job to know. They will continue to use double spaces after periods because they “learned that in English class”, no matter what you say (especially if they are lawyers). I’ve fought and lost this battle too many times to think about. It’s not worth it (hint: just make one space, then track the crap out of it). Oh, and one more thing… “MAKE THE LOGO BIGGER!” Unfortunately there is no cheat to get around that one.



3. Art changes how we see the world. Design changes how we live in it.
Early in your career, it’s important to understand the distinction between you “the artist” and you “the designer”. As artists, we have a natural ability to creative something out of nothing. This is the essence of the design process… and interpreted as our “god-given gift”, but it is not a natural gift for most in the business world (although they may think so and will definitely try to show you).

As design professionals, we are hired to use our artistic skill set to decode unique problems visually where others cannot — to create something out of nothing, but for someone else. Therefore, you must become “nothing“ — an empty vessel or “clearing” for the client and their audience’s needs. Being “nothing” doesn’t mean “do nothing” — it means removing your ego and any preconceived thoughts you have about the project or client. Understanding this distinction is key for keeping your job, your clients, and your sanity — ultimately guaranteeing success.

It’s basic empathy. You must allow the client to become part of the process. Be an “artist” on your own time, but don’t stop being creative. Once you have built a solid career where you can pick and choose your clients, they may start coming to you for your unique graphic style. What keeps them coming back is the positive energy in working with you — much more than the work itself.



4. Get weird, scheme, and stay relevant.
“Getting weird” means moving out of your comfort zone. An ex-designer/ex-girlfriend once told me, “You just have to be good”. F that… be the best. I didn’t get anywhere in my career by being resigned or comfortable with the status quo. When you are stagnant, you are at risk of being bored to death. Push for excellence and follow through in all that you do.

Allow yourself to be pushed by others. Give up your ego, and surround yourself with talented individuals. Collaborate. Competition makes you better, so never be threatened by talented colleagues. What’s created together will always be greater than a solo effort. It leaves a lasting impression and impacts more than one’s own self.

Be willing to learn like a sponge early in your career, and never stop. Just like fashion and music, design and design technologies have cultural underpinnings which are ever-changing. If you don’t keep up, it can pass you by. Constantly update your technology, update your work, and always find ways to create a fresh mindset.



5. Be your word, it’s all that you are.
A wooden chair with a broken leg lacks integrity. Human integrity is compromised when we lack accountability. Imagine what your life would look like if you kept all of your promises? Pretty amazing, I’m sure. I define “integrity” as doing what I said I would, when I said I would do it. No, I do not bat 1.000 here, but this mantra transcends my personal life and into my design business — generating more income than anything I have ever designed. Being my word, simply put, is to be in communication when I have to break a promise. I own up to it. Problems rarely fix themselves, so YOU must take action — don’t expect someone else to fix things for you. When things fall apart, you can clean up integrity by declaring it a breakdown and creating a new promise. This works really great for unrealistic design deadlines.



6. Don’t panic. We’re not saving lives, BUT…
But it’s very important and always best practice to communicate that you understand your manager’s or client’s urgent needs — no matter how big, small, or irrational they may seem. Always be in communication, but make sure to create boundaries for your personal life.

One more thing regarding “panic”. Sometimes we require a crisis to push us into the next chapter — career-wise and in our personal lives. Sometimes the crisis will present itself on it’s own, and sometimes you have to generate one for yourself. I’ve been laid off once and fired twice. I’ve quit jobs on principle with nothing lined up, and I’ve left great jobs for better jobs that tuned out to be worse jobs. I’ve lost good clients for bad reasons and fired bad clients for good reasons. Life is a succession of failures and triumphs. You fall down and you get up, then repeat… again and again and again — it’s a long journey, so enjoy the ride.



7. Breakdowns = Breakthroughs.
You’ve heard “designers are problem solvers” by now. That’s good… the ability to turn a breakdown into a breakthrough should come natural. Unfortunately, it does not. Here’s the secret…

If you, your boss, or your client has an “upset”, it is due to one of three things (or a combination thereof):

· Thwarted Intention… An outcome didn’t go as intended
· Unfulfilled Expectation… The perfect picture of something/someone? did not happen
· Undelivered Communication… A communication was not given and/or it was not received

Gaining awareness of these culprits will help you transform potential disasters into sweet success stories. Instead of putting blame on something or someone else, recognize it as a “breakdown”. Turning it into a breakthrough requires you to “get off it”… by giving up your point of view and giving up being “right”. I once turned a failing $4,000 project heading for certain doom into $60,000 of new client business all in one 10-minute phone call… simply by giving up “being right” about something and by creating a new promise for success.



8. Have a system for existence.
I used to have a story that “I don’t work well with structure or schedules”, that somehow they “squash my creative soul.” Hogwash. It was just my excuse to be lazy and to procrastinate. While I’ve always done solid work under pressure, it can suffer when there is no time for improvement — and there is always room for that. Creating a schedule or structure for existence gives me the freedom to live my life of my own making (and my creative soul somehow remains in tact).



9. Always be on time.
This took me many, many, many years to really “get”. It goes along with integrity and keeping promises. Sure, being late happens. But habitual tardiness is not only unprofessional, it is flaky, and rude. It gives another the impression you are more important than they are, and it implies that you don’t care. Also, being absent or late takes you out of the game. When you are absent, you have no say in the matter. There is no contribution from you if you’re not present. ALWAYS communicate if you are running late… and NEVER EVER be afraid of how that might “look”. You will always look much worse saying nothing at all. People won’t remember if you own up to it, but they will remember if you don’t. So, if you ARE late, simply acknowledge it by apologizing and promise to be on time next time (and then do it).



10. Dream on.
As a creative being, always strive to be a stand for what is possible in the face of no possibility. There is no positive outcome or skill required in pointing out what is wrong without offering a viable solution. This is most unique responsibility we have to our work, to our jobs, to our clients, to our families, and to humanity as a whole. Martin Luther King, Jr, changed the world when began his speech with “I have a dream”, not with “I have a complaint”. Therefore, it is key to understand that responsibility in and of itself is not a hardship or a burden, it’s a grace we get to bestow on ourselves. When you avoid responsibility, shift blame, make up excuses, or avoid accountability — you give up your say in the game of life… and there is no bigger game! You have the choice to be on the court or to sit on the sidelines, so go out and play.. the only person or thing you can count on to do that is yourself.


Recommended Streaming: The Process (a.k.a. Designing The Stop Sign Video)


Recommended Reading: Jobsmarts for Twenty-Somethings by Bradley G. Richardson


The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life by Dave Logan and Steve Saffron

For the past 20 years, Scott Bellina has amassed an extensive portfolio of brilliant art direction and design. Before founding BCBD, Scott honed his craft as lead creative in top agencies located in New Orleans, Dallas, London, and New York City. Moreover, he has provided award-winning creative for clients such as Nike, adidas, Cosmopolitan, Showtime, BBC Worldwide, Madison Square Garden Entertainment, the National Hockey League, IFC, eMusic.com, Fuse, Samsung, Temple Turmeric, Qello Concerts, the New York Rangers, and the New York Yankees.

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