Lately we’ve received a number of inquiries from aspiring student designers seeking advice and perhaps, some info for an assignment or two. Below is a collection of those questions and corresponding responses as provided by Founder and Strategist, John Earles.
Where did you go to school?
I have a BFA from University of Houston and an MFA from School of Visual Arts (SVA) in NYC. My Partner, Jennifer Blanco has a BFA from SVA.
How long have you been doing this?
We’re in our 8th year of business.
How and where did you get your start in this field?
Jennifer has a background in “traditional” graphic design while my experience and education is more in critical theory and management. We had in interest in working together and identified there was an opportunity to apply our different areas of knowledge to craft unique solutions to design problems.
Are you a member of any professional organizations?
Yes, we’re both members of AIGA.
What is your favorite thing about this job?
We get to work with great clients and take on new challenges daily. There’s a high level of opportunity for personal satisfaction and growth.
Design is a pursuit whose boundaries range far outside that of a normal profession. Your job, if you’d like to be an effective designer, is to be an attentive observer, listener, and thinker in order to create things that interface into the world and shape it in the manner you intend. This means that you never stop “working” as every moment is an opportunity to learn and grow. There’s a huge amount of value in this.
What is the worst thing about this job?
Investing so much of yourself in thoughtful, creative solutions to problems can be a challenge when faced with realities such as timelines and budgets. Balancing business and creativity is a tremendous challenge to designers in any role, and any position.
Plus, the fact that you’re pushing yourself to the limits of your creativity and ability every day is a double edged sword. It’s empowering but sometimes exhausting.
What kind of skills should a beginning designer need to know?
Design covers a huge range of facets. There’s individuals that specialize in UI/UX web design, there’s individuals that work in branding, packaging, or advertising for example. All of these areas have slightly different concerns and you should learn how working in these areas differ, what your interests are, and how you can develop skills to suit them.
At the most basic level, every designer should be competent in the tool of their trade so learn the appropriate software. This will be the Creative Suite but if you plan on working on web, look to learn the best practices of web design, user experience and interface, and some basic coding. Learn about typography. Designers are communicators and type is a huge part of this. Learn what makes a good, well constructed typeface and how to pair styles and fine tune details such as kerning.
Additionally, work on your soft skills. Every job requires interfacing with a team and a critical part of your journey will be learning how to explain your work and sell others on your ideas and your skills. You need to know how to be professional, when to say yes, when to say no, and learn to provide a context for your work that allows clients or supervisors to be able to judge it as a solution to a problem.
I would say, all the above aside, the most critical skill you can have as a designer is being able to see and to think. Your goal is to create visual solutions that convey complex thoughts or feelings to the viewer and encourage them to think or act. This requires that you be able to analyze problems, create solutions, and have the facility to execute those solutions. You learn this by analyzing the world around you, seeing what’s successful, what isn’t, and thinking about the ways that emotion or information are conveyed in visual formats. This information is available everywhere and for free if you open your eyes.
Any job search recommendations?
A great place to start is figure out the work you want to do and find someone who does it. Contact these people. You’d be surprised at how far a cold email with a well written letter will get you. Ask for a portfolio review if there isn’t a job available.
Most importantly, if you’re looking for a job, be familiar with your community. Know and recognize the owners and employees of the firms and employers you’ve identified as places you’d like to be. You don’t want to miss an opportunity to connect with these people or leave a great impression because you didn’t know who you were talking to.
What kinds of portfolio pieces should I have in my portfolio?
Your portfolio isn’t a formality, it’s a tool to sell yourself to potential employers and as such should be tailored to what you want to communicate about yourself. Know what you want to do, find employers who do that kind of work, learn about them, and tailor your portfolio to tell them you can do that work.
No matter what, as a designer you’re solving problems using visual solutions. Demonstrate you can define a problem and come up with a solution that solves it.
For example, if your assignment is to design a logo and visual identity for a retail facing company, you need to define what this company’s products are, what they cost, what’s a key selling feature, and who the probable buyer is. This allows you to craft a targeted solution that solves your client’s problem—which is namely to sell more product. Show your understanding of this.
Any other advice you could offer to a graduating student?
No matter what you do or where you go—employee or leader at a firm—you’ll need to be able to present your ideas in a manner which is compelling, organized, and concise. I can’t overstate the value of this. The best and most successful designers are always extremely effective communicators which leads to understanding, and ultimately, adoption of their work. Learn how to speak about complex ideas and become an effective writer. These tools can transform your value as a designer and provide you with significant advantage in your career.