College was a whirlwind experience for me. Trying to balance my school workload with an actual job and a social life was tough.
I thought that since I already had artistic talent, all I needed to do was get my degree and I would be set.
I focused solely on meeting the requirements to graduate.
Now that I’ve been out of college and have a bit of real-world experience under my belt, I’ve had some time to think about the advice for graphic design students I wish I would have gotten.
You know, hindsight is 20/20.
Take an Advertising or Copywriting Class
You watch a show like Mad Men and think that creatives work in teams. A copywriter and a designer. Maybe that’s how it is at a large ad agency. But, if I had a dollar for every time I had to develop a concept for an entire ad, I’d be one of those people on Instagram who travel all the time.
My experience working with small businesses is that they think graphic designers are marketers who know how to use Photoshop. I’ll often see job descriptions with the requirements “Bachelor’s Degree in Marketing, Graphic Design, or related field.”
You will be best served in your career by having multiple skills in your wheelhouse, whether you plan on working for an established business or freelancing.
Do Projects Outside of School Assignments
Do not wait until your junior or senior year, when you’re required to do an internship, to start building your portfolio. In the words of Rihanna, “You see me I be work, work, work, work, work, work.”
Work on projects for family or friends in your spare time so that you have more than school assignments in your portfolio.
Your potential boss wants to see work that has a real-world application. Not the high concept bullshit your instructors have you do.
If you don’t know anyone who needs a logo or a business flyer or a website, check Upwork for entry-level projects you can bid on. Even if you don’t get the gig, think of how you would solve their problem and create a spec design.
Setup Your Online Portfolio Like a Business
You’re not just publishing your work online for fun. Well, maybe you are, I don’t know. But, for now, let’s assume you want someone to see your stuff.
No legitimate prospect is going to stumble onto your portfolio unless you treat it like your online storefront. Look at small business websites (the ones that don’t suck) and format your portfolio in a similar way.
Write about your work in terms of the services you can provide for prospective clients.
Follow one of these tutorials and optimize your website. Claim your Google My Business listing. It’s not that hard to rank locally for the type of work you do.
Price Yourself Accurately
Depending on where you live, your wage is going to vary. My best guess for an entry-level creative is going to be $30,000-$50,000.
So, if you live in Savannah, GA like me, you’re starting wage is going to be around $30,000. If you’re in Los Angeles, you’re going to be more towards $50,000.
What about if you plan to freelance?
This infographic does a great job of helping you to calculate your freelance rate based on one of the salaries above + your operating expenses. However, I hate math, so I just remove the last 3 zeros from my annual salary and use what’s left as my hourly freelance rate.
Always Use a Contract
I’d be remiss if I didn’t provide this tip in a post about advice for graphic design students; before you do any work for any client as a freelance graphic designer (unless you’re doing something for free for a friend to build your portfolio) always, ALWAYS have a contract.
You may get in the trap of thinking that since you’re new to the game, you should just take what you can get. However, that’s an easy way to allow someone to take advantage of you. There are plenty of free contract templates online. USE ONE.
In your contract, write out a complete scope of work (the items you will be delivering). This will protect you from a client asking for more work without wanting to pay you for it.
Estimate how long you think the project will take and multiply that by the hourly wage you calculated above. Put that lump sum in your proposal, not your hourly wage. Also, track your hours on your first few projects. It will take you some trial and error before you’ll be able to accurately estimate your time.
Once you and your client agree on the scope of work and your pricing, have them sign it and collect a deposit of 50% upfront. If they are unwilling to do this, then you don’t need to work with them.
Now, this isn’t an all-inclusive list of advice for graphic design students. It was never meant to be. What I mean to provide here is some information that I wish I knew and what I wish I had done before I really began my career.