How Inexperience can teach you about Design

Can you remember your first-ever design job? Whether it was the first piece of work you got paid for, or the freebies you used to do for friends and which gave you the first inklings that a career in design was for you? Looking back is fun, but for me it’s also served as an interesting benchmark on how much things change, and how to change them for the better – even now.

Recently I read on Doug Cloud’s blog about his first paid job as an Illustrator, and it reminded me of an episode I’d long forgotten about. When I was studying (a course completely unrelated to graphic design) I worked part time as a waitress. My boss found out that I could draw, and asked me to design a Christmas card for the restaurant to send to regular patrons. The restaurant had a logo with a chess pawn on it, which I photocopied (!) and adorned with curlicue patterns – all hand-drawn. I had no scanner, graphics software, or even a computer, and in those days I didn’t know how to use graphics software anyway. I think I was 19 years old, and my graphics training was to come later. The finished artwork was photocopied – again – onto thin card. My payment was to choose one bottle of wine from the restaurant’s bar; I chose a mid-range bottle because I didn’t want to displease my boss by taking the top shelf wine!

Remembering this story has raised some interesting thoughts for me concerning graphic design practice in general:

  1. Good training shows; no training also shows;
  2. Know what your skills are worth, and never undersell yourself;
  3. Never be surprised at how breathtakingly low some people’s budgets are (and don’t accept them);
  4. Good design isn’t about the software or the technology: these tools come part and parcel with graphic design work these days, but it’s good for your creative thinking to get away from the computer every now and then, if only at the conceptual stage.

Of coure all of this bears in mind that I was still in my teens and a complete novice. All the same, it can be handy to look back once in a while and use your past (lack of) experience to guide your design practice now.

Have you got a story about an early design experience (go back as far as you’d like!) that you want to share? What has it taught you? If you’re not a designer but still have a great story, I’d love to hear from you too.

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