Five thoughts for young designers

A better title would have been “Five brutally honest but not necessarily nice things that young designers might not be eager to hear” but it would have been too long, and — who’d like to read that?

The inspiration for this post came from Mitch Goldstein — who posted a few days ago a call to designers to share thoughts with soon-to-graduate students (read the thread on Twitter, some of the answers are insightful and smart):

Mitch Goldstein (@mgoldst) February 27, 2019
Hey, let’s start a thread: it’s that time of year when soon-to-graduate students start stressing out about leaving college, getting a job, and moving into professional practice. What is one thing you know now that you wish you knew back then?

I left the Academy of Arts 25 years ago and I mostly practiced design since — with an already short (by comparison) intermezzo in advertising. I spent a lot of time in 17 out of those 27 for hiring designers (and firing designers — sometimes, painfully, not because of their mistakes, but because of mine) — so I think I qualify to give some advice.

So here are five thoughts that I would like to share:

One  The academia is just your first attempt of learning design,  and probably not a particularly great one. A whole lot more attempts will follow.

The first prototype of your learning model, designed to teach you how to learn. Fact is, design has no end. Your job will be to learn as long as you will practice. All your presentations will be exams, and those exams will get harder and harder, until the CEO of a top conglomerate will crush your 120-minute painstakingly prepared presentation with the words: “The King of Sweden is in the other room, I have 20 minutes, make them count” and all the exams you ever have ever done will suddenly seem the definition of boring.

Two  The job of academia is not to teach you design.  The job of academia is to make you fall in love with design.

Consequently, you will be graduating with one and only one piece of really valuable knowledge: that you love design — enough to get married to it — or that you don’t. That’s it, and it’s not what you want, but it’s all that you need.

It will take a design company two to three years of dry runs and continuous investment in you to actually teach you some useful design. It may cost them north of € 100,000 in money — and probably just as much in valuable time — to make you a designer; it’s going to be a hard couple of years — for them and for you —, but it’s worth it in the end.

And please remember — the most dishonorable thing you can do is to quit afterwards, believing that all that investment is well deserved because you’re a unique snowflake. It’s not, and you’re not — it’s just the chance that they decided to give you, instead of another equally talented candidate.

Three  Do not drop out of school,  like me — or you’ll regret it later. You might not need a diploma in your neighborhood, but Earth is so much larger than your backyard.

“Why do I need a degree to be a designer,” I thought, “when the market is such a fantastic teacher?” Together with some wide-eyed friends we were just forming our first design company. I was going through the 4th year — out of six — of studying Design at the Academy of Visual Arts. The 2 more years to go until graduation seemed like a colossal waste of time so I decided to quit in order to fully dedicate myself to the commercial venture.

Everything moved smoothly and my portfolio always superseded the missing diploma in all the coming years — until I decided to move to Singapore, where the Ministry of Manpower needed a proof of graduation in order to award me a work permit. I finally got it, in the end, but it wasn’t easy — so just believe me: don’t drop out.

Four  You need to understand your tools.  And your tools are software and computers.

Please don’t regard your computer as a magical black-box that mysteriously outputs nice work. When working, you become a co-symbiont of that machine and your capabilities are limited by the fluidity and understanding of the symbiosis — just as your future as a Top 10 guitar player would be fairly improbable if you don’t give a shit about guitars.

Five  You can only be as good as your team.  And by “good” I mean able to leave a mark.

So you want to be a rockstar designer — that’s fine. Go be one.

Yet alone you’ll only be able to be the rockstar designer of a tiny restaurant, two amazing startups ready to pay you a grand total of nothing, and a really cool barbershop — per year. Don’t get me wrong, restaurant and barbershop jobs are cool. Startups are cool, too.

But they’re not a bank. Not a major beer. Not a large retail chain. Not a corporate turnaround, a telco, a power utility or an Olympic team. For those, you need massive bandwidth: a team. The greater the team, the greater the results — while some nice speculative concepts can come from a single, passionate designer, impactful real-life work always comes from a team. Find your tribe!

That would be all for now. I wish you — and I mean it — good luck.