How I Became a Professional

I am embarrassed to say that I was a little bit cocky when I graduated from college with my design degree. I didn’t understand why people (clients) wouldn’t listen to me when I would tell them what was best for their project. I thought that taking their input and making changes to my work was a corruption of my vision. I was angry about this a lot.

Working at an advertising agency where the sales guys wanted us to throw any old thing together as long as it had a big fat sans serif type on the headline didn’t make it any better. There were two guys there in particular that didn’t take any input from the client at all, came back to the office with the job and expected the designers to read their minds about what they’d talked to the client about. They refused to do even the minimal paper workup of the projects, wanted to cut in line in front of the other sales people to get their projects done and then expected us to drop whatever we were currently working on to do their revisions, which were always extensive because, surprise!, they hadn’t told us what the client wanted in the first place.

I beat my head against this particular brick wall for almost four years. I look back on it all and actually wonder how I didn’t burn out sooner than I did. Youth and stupidity count for something, I guess.

From there I started working for an Apple consulting firm. Nothing gives you better ego strokes than fixing someone’s broken computer. I felt appreciated for the first time in a long time and there was no subjectivity in the work I was doing. I loved it.

After the consulting job, I worked for Apple Computer for a brief period. While I didn’t particularly enjoy the sales aspect of the job, I did love working for Apple. What designer doesn’t want a peek inside the mother ship? The support I got and the team aspects of working at Apple were fantastic. In fact, I’ve only seen its like at the church I attend now. That sounds weird, I know. Apple has been called a religion and I think they have some of the better parts of religion. Also, the gadgets are freaking unbelievable!

After we moved to Alabama, we made the decision that I would not get a job because we knew we were going to try to have a baby. It seemed silly for me to get a job and then quit once I got close to the end of my pregnancy. It also seemed like a waste for me to have a bunch of skills and not use them, so I created Granade Graphic Design. I did this so I could work from home and pick and choose the jobs I wanted to take.

I had left the design world on such a sour note that I didn’t really know how I’d feel about doing design work again. I’d lost what little confidence I’d had in my abilities at the ad agency and felt that any work I did would be agonizing and frustrating on every level, ending in lots of contention with the client. I’ve had some work over the years–not a lot, but just enough to keep me in the flow. And over time I’ve actually lost that mentality. A few weeks ago I had a surprising realization that I actually like doing the work I do now. I enjoy meeting new clients and seeing what they are trying to accomplish and figuring out how I can help them do that.

So here’s a list of things I’ve learned about myself, about my work and about being a working designer. I think a lot of these are based on me becoming a more mature person. Part of it is just experience working. And it helps too that I don’t have to have any of these jobs to eat.

I’ve discovered that when you work with clients directly, it’s a whole lot easier to understand what they are looking for without the middle man of a salesperson between you. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back to the advertising environment for many reasons, but this is number one. As my mother-in-law often says, I’d rather be a greeter at Wal-Mart.

I finally figured out that I won’t get every job that I try for. This used to make me feel personally rejected. On a few occasions it may be a personal rejection, but usually people make decisions based on other factors. They didn’t feel like my work was right for the job. They didn’t like my fees. They felt that working with a freelancer was unstable. They woke up cranky with their spouse that morning. Who knows? And at this point in my life, I feel good enough about my work and who I am (and I’m busy enough already) that I can say I don’t care. There will be another job and another client that loves my work. I look forward to working with them.

I’ve found that when you approach people in an upbeat, considerate way and you are honestly trying to solve their problem, they are pretty open to what you present them. Maybe this just boils down to people wanting to feel like they are being heard. (Are my psychology roots showing here?)

I’ve realized that most people who need a graphic designer have no idea what one does or how they accomplish the task. Part of my job is to educate those clients about the profession and the practice of graphic design. Most of the time it’s about sitting in one spot, putting as many ideas on the page as I can and then editing them down to what will work for any given situation. I take the psychology and art background I have to generate ideas, and then start refining those ideas into something that is both attractive and usable. Hopefully by the time the client sees it, I’ve made it look easy.

I’ve learned that I won’t ever be the next Paul Rand and that’s ok. I can still do good work. I can still help people with their businesses and their dreams, and help them reach their goals. That is as fulfilling as fame, maybe even more so.

I’ve learned that when you place monetary value on your skills, don’t act apologetic for what you charge and look people in the eye when you quote them a length of time it will take to complete the project. That helps clients understand that you mean business, that you are a professional person doing a professional service. I think this is much harder for women to do than for men. I’ve certainly had to work on this skill a lot and occasionally if I haven’t coached myself before hand, I’ll falter at this point in a meeting.

I don’t take it personally when people do want to change things around. Maybe they knew what they wanted in the beginning, but it didn’t turn out like they thought it would in the end. Maybe they had a brainstorm in the shower that morning and realized that it must be like THIS instead of that. I’m happy to work on the new thing as long as they are paying the bills. That doesn’t mean I’ll do anything they ask. I do have a few personal lines I won’t cross, but my idea of what “design” is supposed to be isn’t one of those lines anymore. The reason the old adage the client is always right is an old adage is because it’s true. There are a couple of jobs I’ve done over the past few years that I didn’t think turned out all that great. The client wanted something that I didn’t think was the best solution for the project, but they wanted it the way they wanted it and they paid their bill. You just won’t see those jobs in my portfolio.

The last thing I’ll say (Geeze, this has turned into the longest post ever. If you’ve read this far, Thanks!) is while watching Top Design, Top Chef and Project Runway I’ve seen that the people who’ve won those shows have these skills figured out. They know how to get along with others, they don’t talk about compromising their artistic vision–at least not much–and most of them are mature people who’ve worked in the real world. Watching them has done a lot to solidify my thoughts on these topics and, believe it or not, convince me that I’m on the right track. I’m pretty sure Bravo didn’t have that as a goal for their shows.

6 thoughts on “How I Became a Professional

  1. Great post. A lot of what you say applies to software consulting as well, so I found this something I can very much relate to.

  2. Agreed! It resonated even to a stuffy ol’bean counter. And agreed, w/Goef, too. Coming to a place of contentment with your vocation (and more) is awesome. 🙂

  3. A lot of what you said in here resonates in the world of software development as well. There are times that we wonder about our customer’s sanity in what they want, but the ones of us who have done well on my team are the ones that are willing to work with the customer and who have learned to act mature instead of whine constantly. Thanks for the post Misty!

  4. Wow! You might remember that around the time I turned 40 I suddenly became much more comfortable in my own skin than I’d ever been before. I suddenly realized that it was perfectly OK that I’d never become a rock star…just a wedding singer similar to Adam Sandler in the movie. In fact, maybe being a wedding singer was better. Rock stars play stadiums where security keeps them so separated from their fans that they can hardly see the smiles or get to know anyone. At weddings, the guests dance within feet of the band. You can see them smiling and dancing, and even talk with them. You make less money than a rock star, but you have a greater personal impact on the lives to the people you’re playing for.

    I began to like me as I am, which allowed me to be more self-assured in my decisions and my interactions with others.

    This post shows that you’ve had the same kind of revelation about yourself…but earlier than I did. You’re comfortable with yourself, which is my you can now be more open to what your clients want.

    I’m really proud of you!

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