8 things I didn’t learn in design school

It’s one thing to get a degree. Actually knowing stuff is a different deal.

Yes, I earned a B.S. in Digital Media Design & Advertising and yes, I learned a lot: principles of design, color theory, typography, subliminal messaging techniques and the Adobe Creative Suite.

What I didn’t learn was how to be a successful freelancer, and then how to start my own business. Those things took know-how that had nothing to do with design. Things like writing a business plan, devising a marketing strategy and putting together a balanced team. All that came through trial and error, leaning on colleagues, reading, operating from the gut and going with what felt right.  

With a few years now under my belt as founder and owner of Hearthfire Creative, I’ve identified 8 things that I didn’t learn in design school (but wish I had). These 8 beauties keep me afloat and growing! In the spirit of we’re-in-this-together, I offer the following:

1 | Pricing your services

Hourly rates? Fixed prices? Here’s what I’ve learned: look at what your competitors charge, compare your work to theirs, consider offering extras that add value, then decide which pricing strategy you prefer. I focus on fixed-rate projects and typically convert ongoing clients to an hourly contract. Be flexible. Some clients want a set fee and could care less about time. Others prefer to be charged by the hour. Depending on your location and the demand for your services, rates for graphic designers generally range from $50 to $150 per hour.

2 | Getting feedback, then selling the design

Some clients are reluctant to provide feedback; they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Others are harsh and squelch your creative process. Two people can provide the same feedback but mean something completely different. Use your intuition to interpret what they’re saying. Provide visual examples to gain clarity. My logo process includes a mood board compilation as the first step where I assemble a board on Pinterest to ensure that the client and I are visually aligned. 

Incorporate the feedback and then sell your design. Mock it up with different treatments. Show the design on business cards, on a website and, if applicable, a t-shirt. Seeing a variety of applications helps the client feel into the logo and see how the design will work in the real world of their business. 

3 | Specializing in specific web platforms

Squarespace, Wordpress, Drupal—they’re all great solutions for rapid web development. Those archaic programming techniques you learned in college? Hand coding? Dinosaur! Leverage open-sourced modules and incorporate tools that speed up development. Pick a web platform and become really good at it. Sell your expertise as a streamlined solution to your clients.

4 | Using business efficiency tools

There are design tools, and then there’s running your business. A plethora of glorious business efficiency tools are available on the Internet. My favorites? Trello, Slack, Google Drive and a shared calendar. They help you run the show more smoothly and keep your team on the same page.

5 | Networking and building relationships: getting clients

THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING I didn’t learn in design school: how to build relationships that turn into work. Hanging a shingle doesn’t make clients magically appear. Build those relationships. Find a networking group that resonates with you and get involved. Play a leadership role because here’s the thing: networking and building relationships will always take time—and they will always matter. Don’t stop.

6 | Writing proposals 

Most business owners request a proposal before they sign on to work with you. Those proposals provide background information about your business and outline the scope of the work, including deliverables, timelines and costs. I usually end my proposals with an official contract. It makes the decision-making easier for the client and facilitates a smooth transition from discussion to saying yes to paying!

7 | Setting yourself apart

I’ve developed customer service practices that make my clients feel super special. I coordinate print orders on their behalf. I make the unveiling of rounds of logos an experiential moment. I provide ongoing consultation (even after their website has launched). Devise ways to provide above-and-beyond service. A lot of graphic designers offer a skill set comparable to yours; set yourself apart with unique additional offerings. They’re a great way to not only get business but to retain it. 

8 | Keep learning 

Buy and read new design books, attend conferences, surround yourself with designers whose work and business practices you respect and want to emulate. Things keep changing; so does design. I spend a lot of time on Dribbble and MaterialUp to stay on top of what the design community is up to. Stay on top of it and, duh, utilize Google to the fullest. 

9 | How to count... ;)

Starting your own design biz?