Nobody said it was going to be easy. Sure, as a design student you might dream of finally escaping the classroom into the big, maybe-possibly-not-so-bad world; shaking loose the shackles of coursework deadlines and crits and teachers. But maybe those dreams aren’t going to turn out quite so sweet as you imagined. Guess what? Being a big old grown up graphic designer is just as deadline-packed and just as stressful. And the feedback that comes your way won’t be coated in sugar.
As charming, sweet, and brilliant as he is, Christoph Niemann knows all too well the trickier side of making it as a creative. Thankfully, he’s charming and sweet enough to share the tougher realities with us (and did, at this year’s Design Fabric Festival). So in the spirit of generosity (not dream crushing, we promise), we’re going to share them with you.
1. It’s not always about the quality of the work
So you’ve got a red hot portfolio, a ton of ideas, and enough chutzpah to land the job. But are your wild, original concepts and pixel-perfect execution enough to convince the client of your genius? Not always, we’re afraid. “With clients, it should be about the quality of the work, but it’s often about getting it through to what can be numerous different people on the client side,” says Niemann. “Get as close to the decision maker as you possibly can.”
Also, be realistic and honest with yourself about how great your work really is—and whether it’s something you’re truly going to be proud to call your own. “It’s important to check in on yourself every once in a while and think ‘would I be jealous if someone else did this?’ We’re not just in this for a job.”
2. Don’t make promises you can’t keep
Rather than overselling yourself to a client or a potential one, realize that in any relationship it’s a two-way street. You can never predict what they’ll love and what they won’t be so into. The most important thing is to build trust with them, so they know in the end it’ll be worth it. “You have to get [the client] on a bus ride with you and say ‘I want to go a nice route that might be different to the usual one, but we’ll still get there on time,’” says Niemann. “If they’re willing to go on that ride with you, you should be very grateful.”
“The most important thing in the client relationship is trust.”
3. Take caution with your portfolio
“Be careful what you put in,” Niemann advises. “Only showing the best work is a promise. It’s like a menu, if people see the steak, then 14 other people want it too, and they will all want it perfect.
“Don’t just put your best stuff in your portfolio, put in what you know you can deliver again and again.”
4. For god’s sake, get your shit together
It’s all well and good being a creative genius, but if you’re not one that’s at least semi-responsible, you’re not going to cut it. Boring old punctuality is absolutely vital. “You can be the greatest designer in the world, but a deadline is non-negotiable,” warns Niemann. He also makes the astute observation that being a freelance designer or illustrator is far from just being in a world where you design and illustrate: you’re essentially the boss of your own little company, and you have to deal with all the dry-as-hell paperwork that entails: “Have your stuff in order. If you’re a designer and a freelancer, you’re a businessperson. If you can’t do it, get someone to do it for you. Being a terrible business person might derail a great design career.”
5. Never take your foot off the pedal…
You’ve learned how to do what you do. You can operate Photoshop with your eyes closed. Your craft, it seems, has been mastered. But has it? No. “This isn’t something you’re born good at, you get good at it,” says Niemann. “A top tennis player doesn’t just stop training once they win.
“It’s a lifelong learning curve. Take time out to practice drawing, learn new software and so on. It will never be done.”
6. …But take care of yourself, as well as your craft
He also points out that to many people, sleep and taking care of your health—especially as a younger designer—can feel like slacking off. “You think ‘who needs weekends?’,” he said. “That works until you’re 23 ½.
“As designers we put things out, but that only works if you put things in,” he added, with a nod toward indulging in interests like movies, traveling, reading, and going to museums. “You do this actively to develop your design career.”
7. Be positive your good idea is really a good idea
In any sort of visual communication, your execution is only as good as what it can say to people. “The most important question is ‘will they get it?’,” says Niemann. He makes an astute point about a positive shift in the cautiousness-levels of clients, thanks to Instagram. According to Niemann, since the platform has changed pretty much everything about how we consume visual culture, clients are now understanding that consumers are perhaps rather more visually literate than they had previously given them credit for. And as such, they’re becoming a little more willing to “take risks” with the work they’re commissioning.
But what truly makes a great idea? “One thing that engages people is to have something unexpected,” says Niemann. “Ideas don’t have to be funny, they can be tragic or abstract or real.
“The one rule I have for visual ideas is that if you can describe them in words then it’s not enough. If you can communicate it in two lines of an email, think again.”