Since I graduated in 2016, I've been meaning to sit down and write down some of the things I've learned in the time since then that I really wish I had learned about before graduation. Speaking to other graduates from the past few years, it seems not a lot has changed. This is especially true for those of us that jumped straight into freelancing post college. Comparing notes with someone who went to an on-site school vs my mostly online education, many of the complaints remain the same.
Let me know in the comments below if you agree or disagree, and if there's anything else you wish had been included in your higher education to prepare you for the future!
1. HOW TO CREATE A PASSIVE/ALTERNATIVE INCOME
For a lot of graphic designers, artists, and illustrators, being able to create additional means of income outside of client projects is essential. It can create a buffer when booking is slow, clients are behind on their payments, or you just need a little extra to pay the bills. There are many different ways to create passive income, like; selling art, teaching art, selling e-books, selling apparel and home goods featuring your own work, and more. This was never mentioned in any of my classes in school, but it is now an important part of how I make enough money to be independent as a designer.
2. THE POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Having a strong social media presence can be just as important as having an online portfolio. Social media pages can be very beneficial - you can be discovered through your work you've shared online and a potential client or customer may be encouraged to follow you, share you, or contact you. In this day and age everyone knows what social media is, but not everyone is social media savvy. I look back and wish we'd had the opportunity to learn about social media more, how to start a professional social media profile, how important the branding of that is, and ways to post to attract attention/get found online.
3. CUSTOMER SERVICE IS THE KEY
Easily one of the top three things I attribute my success to is customer service. I cannot emphasis enough how that can make or break a relationship with a client or customer right in the beginning. I never got to practice interacting with anyone professionally while in school. One thing that I believe would help a lot of students is having the opportunity "role-play" scenarios where they could practice communicating professionally, asking the right questions and delivering the right answers, and learn how to manage tough client situations. Designers should be able to see things from both perspectives, as the one doing the work and the one requesting the work.
No matter how difficult a customer is I always try my best to be level headed and kind. You would be surprised how many work relationships can be turned around this way! Or at the very least, you'll walk away feeling better about the interaction knowing you stayed professional through the entire situation.
4. WRITING & NEGOTIATING CONTRACTS
Looking back It's hard to believe this was never discussed at all in school. The school I went to (Art Institute of Pittsburgh) included nothing in the curriculum about contracts. It is so important to protect yourself and your work, as well as your client. It can be used to define your responsibilities, set a timeline, set your payment (and how you will be paid), who has ownership of the work, and more. There are many times in the past I wish I had a client sign a contract before agreeing to long term work. It could have saved our working relationship or saved myself time when the client didn't fulfill their end of the agreement. Having everything in writing makes expectations clear on both ends.
5. COPYRIGHT, TRADEMARK, AND LICENSING BASICS
These are all very different things to learn but all important in knowing how to properly respect ownership of other artist's designs. Sometimes it's necessary to download assets online to assist in a client project. It can be a real timesaver to purchase work from someone else, like an illustration or vector artist, rather than make it yourself from scratch. You need to know the licensing that is included in your purchase, like whether it is intended for personal or commercial use, can be used as is or needs to be modified, can be resold in any form, etc. Licensing can be very tricky and it is useful to understand what all the terms mean.
Before creating a design for a client or selling a design to a customer, you should do some research into your idea (as best as possible) online. This includes checking to make sure it hasn't been created for another competing brand as well as knowing if a design or a term hasn't already been registered. As an example, it's very popular to sell SVG graphics. Checking the United State's Patent and Trademark Office to see if a quote is registered already can save you a lot of time - otherwise later on your design may be pulled for infringement.