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.


  • Kevin Boss

    June 26, 2008 at 8:17 am

    A bottle of wine? Awesome payment. My first job was a full website for a friend of mine. Every time I stopped over his house to work on the site, he fed me pizza, cheese steaks, etc. Good times!

    Kevin Boss’s last blog post … Clients and Creative Control

  • Lucinda Thompson – Eightyone Design

    June 26, 2008 at 11:33 am

    Hi Tracey

    What an interesting topic!

    I remember one of my first jobs, it was whilst I was still in full time employment and trying to build up my portfolio to go freelance. I had agreed to do a flyer for a small company (the owner was a friend of a friend) I agreed to do this for free. It should have been a relatively easy task but the client kept changing their mind about the design and concept and it dragged out for ages. From this I learnt to have a limited amount of amends for the agreed price so I can keep a hold of the project. I also learnt to be more assertive and ensure that the client knows what their objectives are before I start any work.

    I think it’s important to look back (even if it’s just 3 months) and see how far you’ve come (or not if that’s the case). I try to look at every project and assess the good and bad points and try to learn from them so I don’t make the same mistakes the next time round.

    Lucinda Thompson – Eightyone Design’s last blog post … Pattern design inspiration from Spain

  • Tracey

    June 27, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    Sounds great! I hope he was happy with the website. It’s good to have such a positive experience of starting out.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the post. One of the things I remember from the time when I was first contemplating moving into Graphic Design, was a friend (a Designer) telling me that in her experience the pro-bono jobs were the most demanding – always changing their minds or wanting a bit more here, a bit more there. I’m not sure that that’s true in every case, but it sounds like it matches your story. You learned some good lessons early on from the sound of it.

  • Lucinda Thompson – Eightyone Design

    June 28, 2008 at 8:09 am

    I definitely agree with your friend, they are more demanding, however you gain a lot of experience rather than money, and sometimes money isn’t everything (that was what I was telling myself at the time anyway!)!

  • inspirationbit

    June 29, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    It is a very interesting topic indeed.
    My first paid Graphic design experience is similar to Tracey’s in that it also involved designing a card. I was 15. There was one store that I really liked with lots of handmade stuff, so I thought of designing a couple of cards for the upcoming Easter and submitting them to this store. Most of my young life i was always drawing cards for my family, so this time I wondered if I can actually get paid for that. I drew two very cute Easter cards with chicks and eggs, and even sprinkled them with tiny colourful glass pieces (from a broken Christmas decoration). One of my cards was sold the next day, the other one the store owner returned to me a week later, and paid me $3.

    What I have learned from this experience is that I better design something that can bring me more money, and that it’s quite difficult to promote and sell your work even in stores where handmade craft is appreciated.

  • Tracey

    June 30, 2008 at 2:57 am

    There are definitely times when the experience is the most valuable thing you can gain out of a project, especially if it produces a piece of work you can put in your portfolio.

    Approaching a store like that with your designs is a pretty brave thing to do, especially when you’re 15. Fantastic that one of your cards got sold, first try! It sounds like the experience encouraged you to push on to bigger and better things, which is how it should be.

  • Tara

    July 21, 2008 at 10:19 am

    Hi Tracey,

    Your story takes me back to some of things I have done. When I was in the 6th form at school we had to set up a mini company made of of students and try to make money and see how a company works. I ended up doing loads of pen and ink sketches of local village churches which we photocopied and make into calendars. I think I ended up getting just a few pounds for my trouble.

    Also when I was first at college I used to do pen and ink drawings of local scenes for a guy who lived in my village and printed tea towels. I think I got about £10.00 then extra if they were reprinted (it seemed like a lot for a poor student at the time)

  • Tracey Grady

    July 25, 2008 at 11:54 pm

    A very discouraging start for schoolkids to go to all that effort for such a low return! And the tea-towel printer probably wasn’t making a lot of money from the enterprise himself I guess, but it’s amazing how some people will take advantage of a student who thinks a few pounds is a lot of money. I’m glad things have improved since those days!

  • Dot Design

    August 27, 2008 at 10:28 am

    I good list tracey, point 4 is always worth reminding yourself of. its good to get away from the mac to form ideas, have a scribble etc! You have a good blog here, I will be back! Cheers, Gareth

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