1. Win the good work ethic points.
Design is by its nature is tricky because taste is so subjective. You might create something you think is fantastic and the client might not like it, or you might be asked to pursue a direction you feel is misguided. Essentially, you might be asked almost daily to, “impress me.” That’s a tall order. That’s why it’s all the more important to always win points for your professionalism. Develop a reputation for always arriving at meetings on time, answering emails promptly, being methodical in your requirements gathering, and your attention to detail. Did you name your layers properly? Are your files named according to the nomenclature and structure the company has asked for? Did you remember to archive old work, etc.? All that should be the easy stuff. Consistently creating work that is universally appreciated is harder.
2. Never present a comp you don’t like.
It might sound like common sense, but often when you develop three ideas, you may think the first two are so strong that you don’t have to put a lot of effort into the third. Invariably, the client will choose that third comp. It is some sort of bizarre Murphy’s Law of Design. There will also be times when the client requests something you think is a bad idea so you comp it up just to show them how bad it will look and sure enough the want to go with it. You don’t want to let yourself get stuck in that situation either.
3. Ask clients to give you the problem and not the solution:
Often if the client has something they don’t like about your design, they will try to give you suggestions on what will improve it. They do this either because they think they know better than you, or because they may actually think you will find this helpful or expect this from them. Most of the time its not helpful and will just look bad. It’s important for you to find the root of the issue. For example, if they ask you to make the logo bigger, it might be because they feel that it doesn’t stand out enough on the page. You know that there are a variety of ways to make an element standout w/o actually enlarging it. So the problem is that the logo doesn’t standout enough. You might find a better solution than enlarging it, such as increasing negative space around the logo, placement, nearby colors, etc. I often tell them literally that the process works best if they “tell me the problem and not the solution.” They may actually be relieved to hear that the responsibility is not theirs. They need to trust you to figure out the design solutions.
4. Give reasonable time estimates.
Never give a time estimate until you are sure you understand the full scope of a project. If anything is unclear, get in the habit of asking questions. Not only do they help you, but they show you are paying attention and know how to clarify things. If you receive a very vague assignment whose scope you know could change, don’t commit to a time estimate. If pressed, give a wide range.
5. Stand by your work and your ideas.
Practice articulating why a design works. Eventhough most people form judgements viscerally and almost immediately, clients want to hear you sell your idea. Some new designers cave the moment they see a client show hesitation, and that would be a mistake. You might be surprised how much sway you have if you take the time to explain why you did what you did. Before you present your work, practice what you plan to say so it sounds more polished when you do.
6. Look around.
One of the great things about being a designer, is that you are constantly surrounded by inspiration. If you are an interactive designer, pay attention to what works and doesn’t as you surf. Create a folder in your bookmarks of sites you think are successful (well designed, very usable, well organized, strong functionality). A good source of ideas is also TV. If you are a print designer, pay attention to everything from the signage on the metro to direct mail to book covers. Even if you don’t work on those specific things, its all a great influence. Often when you create, you don’t know where an idea comes from.
7. Always sign a contract.
If doing freelance work, always get a written contract. Its a legally binding document that spells out exactly what you are expected to deliver, what it will cost, and how long it will take. It also should assure that you will get paid in a timely manner and that the client cant suddenly change the scope. I worked for a company once where they didnt mention a contract, so I insisted on one. Later, after I was paid, I heard from another designer who told me that the company had never paid him and that they had pretended he had never done anything for them. He didnt have a contract. There are plenty of sample contracts you can use as a starting point online, if your client does not supply one.
8.Don’t get married to your work.
When working at a design firm, there will inevitably be a lot of compromise. If you get too attached to your work, that can get to you. Do your best, but when the client insists on mucking it up after launch or the developers are sloppy with their implementation of your comp (and its too late to call them out on it), just let it go. You can always keep your original work of art as an initial comp for your portfolio.
9. Never stop working on your skills.
This is especially true of interactive designers. The field changes quickly, and just because your current skillset is sufficient for the moment, doesn’t mean it will be soon. If you are laid off, you might find a more demanding market. When a new version of an app comes out, take the time to learn all the new features. If you are hearing certain apps mentioned in passing that you had never heard of, look them up. It will also be appreciated if you know of a better way of doing something and can suggest improvements in your team’s flow.
10. Trust yourself.
There is always an intimidation factor when you are staring at a blank canvas and have little more than the vague client direction of, “I want something cool and edgy.” You might first look at that canvas and panic because there are no immediate ideas in your head, and thereby question your own abilities. Remember that you have produced work you are proud of in the past and that you were chosen for this job based on that work. You can do this. If you are patient with yourself, trust in the process, and systematically develop your ideas, you will come up with something strong. Also, don’t be afraid to go back to the client/art director/creative director and say you need more direction.
11. Don’t be a prima donna.
A lot of places I have worked, coworkers (non-designers) have told me that the “last designer was such a prima-donna” or “diva” or was “difficult”. I think when a lot of designers start working at a company, they start with a great attitude and over time get more and more grumpy about having to take direction from people who know nothing about design. Its understandable to want to just tell them that their idea is not going to work and that they should just trust you, because you are the designer. Unfortunately, the work world doesn’t work that way, and being easy-going is a particularly desirable quality for a designer.
12. Try to communicate directly with the client.
Most likely, where you work there will be a producer, project manager, or account rep that will insist on being the go-between for you and the client. The client gives the feedback to the project manager who then passes on that feedback to you. Sometimes there are even more people in between. The problem with this is that its like playing “telephone”. The feedback can get a distorted along the way, or you might need further clarification and then must give the project manager your question to pass on the the client etc. which just slows down the process. I’m not saying I am against project managers, they can serve an important role. But I have found that getting design feedback straight from the horse’s mouth works best. The project manager can be in on the call/meeting, so they are still included and in the loop. Some middlemen will be threatened by this because they feel that that is supposed to be their job, but many others will be understanding and even appreciate it because it just makes their jobs easier. Also, the process is often determined by the director, so you might need to clear this with them first.
13. Expect technology to break.
Invariably, there will be a last minute tweak that should only take a few minutes, except that’s the moment your computer decides to crash. Hit command-S (control-S on a PC) so often that it becomes almost a nervous twitch. For presentations, bring a backup on a flash drive because the computer in the conference room might have trouble connecting to the server. When coding, don’t forget to test on all applicable browsers/platforms. Ive often seen a site about to go live and just happen to test it on a browser the developer didn’t test on and see it break. Fixing those bugs at the end of the cycle can sometimes be a real hassle, so test all along.