What is it like working as a professional graphic designer? Part I

Junior Years

April 21st, 2018

I’ve worked a variety of different jobs as a designer, in a variety of different environments. I started out working for a brand design agency with a strong focus on print design and corporate work. There was also some web design and development work, and flash animation thrown in the mix.

This was my first job as a junior designer that I got before I’d graduated uni. When I first started, there were three of us, which meant that I got to learn a lot from much more experienced designers.

The Tasks

I started out with fairly simple layout tasks in InDesign and Illustrator. I quickly realised that I knew very little about how to use these programs for preparing professional print and commercial work. I learned a lot of program shortcuts. My mentors would tell me new keyboard shortcuts and made sure I wrote them down in a notebook so I’d remember them and could easily refer back. (Now days, I just use Google if I forget a shortcut, but the process of writing it down early on was helpful).

I learned how to quickly manipulate vector shapes in Illustrator for logo and illustration design. I learned about the different qualities of paper, and which to use for different printing methods. I learned about offset versus digital printing, die-cuts and embossing, and how to assess the quality of an offset printed proof (pro tip, take it outside under the sun, and look for ‘kisses’–small flecks where the natural paper shows through due to dust on the roller preventing a proper print).

I learned how to use Pantone swatches, and eventually learned to anticipate how colour choices will look when applied to a final printed product. This lesson was learned the hard way, when I selected the wrong tone of blue-black for a client’s job and it had to be reprinted.

I would work on design concepts for new logo and brand designs. I learned how to professionally present design options for a client to review, and what language to use when rationalising my design choices.

The pressures and the mindset

As exciting as all this work was, it was also incredibly daunting as an inexperienced designer. When I started, I didn’t know how to do relevant research and wasted a lot of time looking at visual resources that weren’t useful. I made expensive mistakes. The deadlines were far shorter than at university, and there was the extra pressure of delivering real commercial work to real clients (using their real money).

My progress was monitored with greater scrutiny than in a class; I couldn’t simply put the problem aside when it become dull or frustrating, watch a bunch of movies, and come back to the project when I ‘felt creative’. I had to produce work consistently.

This was when I first had an appreciation for the concept of graphic design being primarily about problem solving. Graphic design work is undertaken for a purpose on someone else’s behalf. The more coherently that purpose is defined, the more constraints there are on the project and its scope, the easier it becomes to develop design solutions. This is where it became really clear to me the importance of having a design methodology. A procedure to follow for solving various types of design problems.

Working so closely with excellent mentors in a high-pressure professional environment, I learned more practical skills in my first year of design than five combined years of tertiary study.