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That’ll teach ’em

Author: Paul Wyatt

Originally featured in issue 169 of .net magazine

Many years ago, I sat opposite a careers advisor and informed him that I wanted to be a designer. He was taken aback! This was a town in which the main career choices were either the pits or the factories.

“You’d be better off learning a trade,” he offered. “But being a designer is a trade,” I insisted.

What he meant was that a trade can be relied upon to pay the bills. Carpenters, builders and electricians are never out of fashion. Houses need to be built, books need shelves and homes require power. In my future, he pictured me sat on a dole heap with nothing but a bunch of crayons.

Fortunately, I avoided this. Early on, I realised that the tools of the design trade change at a meteoric rate. New techniques and fashions come and go on a weekly basis. If you don’t change with them, it’s time to reserve a space on the dole heap and get ready for some colouring in.

At the very heart of a designer’s trade is a need for constant creativity, versatility and adaptability. The core of a designer’s profession is creating good, solid solutions to design problems. The multi-disciplined designer is someone who will always be marketable, and a portfolio that shows this range is highly desirable. These are the keys to continued employment.

This common-sense approach to securing a foothold in the design industry eludes many graduates. Each month, I receive a steady trickle of emails from people who feel unsure of how to package and sell themselves. They lack not talent, but direction; they don’t know where to start when it comes to finding a job. They worry that their courses have painted them into a corner where software is king and ideas come second.

You see, knowing every button and drop-down menu in Photoshop doesn’t mean you’ll become a great designer. Flicking a design switch will get you nowhere. Ideas-led creativity, and knowing what makes you attractive to prospective employers, will.

From the designers I’ve hired over the years the ones that really stand out are those with well- rounded ideas and a desire to push the software and technology to create their ideas. What mattered to me was that their idea was good, and most of the time it was eventually realised using a combination of different types of media. One designer in my team told me that it took him six months to unlearn what he’d been taught at design college. The real world involved interpreting briefs, working to deadlines and making client- requested amends. Let’s not forget all the amends!

I’m constantly amazed by designers who are startled at the prospect of selling goods via their creative talents. If you want to get ahead in advertising, your designs will eventually be used to flog something to Joe Public. Designers need to realise this, or agencies will run from them.

As a business, it makes sense to embrace designers who offer a multitude of skills. In a small team, where resource is compromised by holidays and illness, it’s reassuring to know that projects can continue. This would be disastrous in teams where each member does only one thing. Workflow is compromised and clients are left unhappy.

Students should remember that having great ideas will never date. Ideas are power and everyone loves a good one. Versatility will stand you in good stead. To be successful, you need to become a shape-shifting chameleon. If you can manage all of that, you’ll be a successful jack of all trades.

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