From dork to designer
June 4, 2012 2:20 PM   Subscribe

I've landed a temporary graphic design job. When it ends, I'd like to be an attractive candidate for other graphic design jobs. What should I focus on learning?

(Anonymous and slightly vague-ified in case my coworkers read AskMe.)

I've read this question; my situation is somewhat similar, but my question is different.

This is my first real graphic design job. I had an internship years and years ago, but no other professional experience; I didn't feel confident enough to do freelance work, and had no portfolio. My future boss and coworkers have seen samples of my work and I will be able to hit the ground running in this role. I'm a little nervous, but beyond thrilled to have this opportunity. This could be a major turning point in my career, so I want to take advantage of it.

There is a slight chance that this could result in a permanent position, but for now it's a temporary assignment – twelve weeks, maybe more. So I've got good reason to learn everything that I possibly can.

But what?

How can I best use this limited time to transform into a "real" designer? What skills will help me the most in finding future employment? What should I focus on? Any blogs, books, tutorials, or other resources that will help me? I'm looking for any and all advice, no matter how basic or specific (in fact, basic and specific are great).

posted by anonymous to Work & Money (5 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It would help to know what percentage of the work will be print graphic design vs. screen-based design – the requirements are distinct and the kind of graphics you need to provide are different. But for the basics:

Find out what versions of the software they have, because you'll want to search through Youtube for free tutorials or, if you have a little cash to invest, go to and buy access to a basic Photoshop course for the version you'll be using. (If you're familiar with the applications it doesn't make much difference whether you watch a vid for CS3, 4, 5 or 6, but if you're a noob you should narrow it down to the version you know you'll be using, to better target the learning process.)

Photoshop chops will stand you in good stead whether it's print or screen work.

After that, it depends whether you think the work will involve more page layout type work (in which case you will want to look at Adobe InDesign or possibly Quark Xpress) or illustrative type work (Illustrator). And learn the basics of those.

If it's print, a quick run through prepress principles would be extremely good to have.
posted by zadcat at 3:06 PM on June 4, 2012

This is probably not what you are like but I had a friend who was in your situation and DID NOT SAVE HER WORK FOR A PORTFOLIO!!!! Back up your work!
posted by swooz at 5:55 PM on June 4, 2012

Software is easy to learn compared to soft skills, like telling someone their idea sucks without outwardly telling them their idea sucks. Learn how to make your idea theirs. Learn people skills. This isn't necessarily something you can put on a resume, but it will help you loads in the long run. Also, learn how to give/take criticism without taking it personally.
posted by jmd97 at 6:30 PM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had a very tough time finding a job after I graduated, so when I finally landed my first "real" job I was trying to find the same answers as you. I had pretty good technical knowledge but had never sent anything to print, never worked on a real deadline, and only had some freelance and internship experience.

The best thing I can tell you is that you're going to learn more in this job then you could ever learn by doing anything else, because you'll be desperate to learn, so you don't really have to do anything but work. For me, if I didn't know how to do something, I had to learn very fast on my own because I didn't want to seem unprofessional, so I'd google my question and most of the time could find an answer in either the help file or I could find a video or written tutorial, try it, and that was that. You Suck at Photoshop is a good resource, but mostly I just use whatever comes up first on Google. Another amazing resource is your printer! Hopefully the job you're starting at has an established relationship with a local print shop, so you can just introduce yourself and they'll automatically treat you well because they want your company to continue to use them. Printers know so much more than I ever could, and technology changes and printers are all a little different when it comes to how they like their files prepared for print, so they're well prepared to deal with designers who have questions.

If you're not sure if you need to brush up on your technical skills, you might try taking these sample certification for Adobe products here here (note, I just found that from a Google search, so don't know about those specifically). The nice thing about them is that you'll know where you're at with the applications without diving into expert tutorials because you don't know any better. (I mean, I know a LOT about Photoshop, but there are features I'm totally ignorant about because it never comes up in my work.)

I'm a print designer, so all my advice is geared towards that, and if you are doing print design, I'm assuming you'll be using Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. One thing I think separates amateurs from professional designers is that professionals use the correct application for the job. I've been working with files from the two previous designers in my current position, and one of them used Photoshop for everything (when it should be used for photo editing or web graphics, not logos or page layout) and the other one used Illustrator for all his page layouts, when InDesign (or Quark XPress) is the correct application for that because it's vastly more efficient and powerful. So if you're only comfortable in Photoshop, don't design everything you do in it just because of that, because it will make you do things in a slow and often jury-rigged way and really annoy others who have to use your files.

There are a lot of other little things that I've noticed over the years that other designers do that drives me crazy, like using incorrect dashes or not knowing how to use tables or the "space-after" settings in InDesign or not understanding which file format should be used when. You can memail me if you want a quick rundown on those things, but again, so much of it is print-based that it may not apply to you.

Another thing: remember that graphic design is a service industry. I was going to go off on this thought for a little while longer, but I think that Frank Chimero really gets to the heart of it in his Advice to a Graphic Design Student. Yeah, it's geared towards students, but I reread it to this day when I'm really sick of my boss not being able to communicate, because basically it's my job to help him communicate what he wants.

Back up your work for your portfolio! In several places! I have a ton of advice about file naming, but again, memail me if you think you need it, otherwise, I don't want to presume you don't already have a good organization system going on. Also, if you need any help with any legal or ethical issues, AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) has free advice that's helped me on a lot of different occasions. They also put on a lot of workshops that you can pay to attend without having to be a member. Other good resources: Print and How Magazine are good for practical design advice, and Communication Arts (ESPECIALLY their Design, Interactive and Advertising Annuals, pricey but you will get years of inspiration from them) and CMYK (student design, hit or miss) magazines are great for inspiration. Other than that, I've bought a bunch of design books over the years and I basically ignore them in favor of the web.

Also, if you want to impress your boss(es), then present your work well. Trim your paper down to actual size, if you're showing sketches, narrow them down and give them breathing room so that it's not overwhelming, give several options and try to present your work in the appropriate media (e.g., if you're designing a brochure, print it out, trim and fold it, then present it instead of showing it onscreen). And write well, even in e-mails! Copywriting goes hand in hand with design, and a designer who can write copy is more valuable than one who thinks that it's a waste of time because they'd rather be making something look cool.

Congrats on the job! I hope it leads to a permanent position.
posted by thesocietyfor at 7:15 PM on June 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

From the OP:
I should have mentioned this in the original post: I'll be doing all web graphics. I'd love to design for print down the line, so I welcome the print-specific advice since I'm not likely to learn it in this role. I have a good grasp of Photoshop; I won't be using much (if any) Illustrator or InDesign, but I do want to get better at them in my spare time.

Thank you so much for your answers so far; I really appreciate them!
posted by jessamyn at 8:41 PM on June 4, 2012

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