This is part three of my quick tips for learning graphic design on your own. In the first two posts, I talked a bit about learning the tools and design strategy.

Both of those are about getting the work done. But there’s something just as important, which isn’t taught in standard university curricula: developing the posture of a professional.

It sounds easy, and maybe even like a checkbox item. But like learning design tools and coming up with ideas, being professional never ends. There will always be challenges along the way, and it’s something to work on throughout a career.

Learning the posture of a professional designer:

  • Call yourself a designer, no matter how early you are in your design career. If you’re creating graphics as part of your lifestyle, you are a graphic designer, by definition. You don’t have to be getting paid. You don’t have to be in a firm. You don’t have to have a fancy degree. Own that title so that you will fulfill what it means to you.
  • Decide on your own terms when you’ll work for free. Some people are worth it. Some missions are worth it. Some opportunities are worth it. But be fully aware that your work will be taken differently when it’s free. It might not be taken as seriously, it might not be used, it might be overly critiqued, and it might be modified by non-professionals later. In the right circumstances, though, it might be appreciated and valued far more than if you had charged. If you work for free, know it is a gift…and some people look gift horses in the mouth, others want gift receipts, and still others will surprise you with a thank you gift in return.
  • Develop a mission statement of your own—be super clear with yourself about why you are in this industry. When making career choices, check in with that inner compass. Is it aligned with your larger career goals? If you don’t prioritize your goals, no one will call you out on it (unless you have an amazing mentor…more on that in a bit).
  • Know what kind of work you will not do. Know what industries, political candidates, social issues that you will not work for, no matter how high the offered rate. Know what kind of boss you will not serve, no matter how prestigious the company. Being able to stand tall as a professional means you believe 100% in the ethics of what and who you’re serving.
  • Ask for advice and feedback, and be willing to be told you’re wrong. People don’t have to be professional designers to give good feedback. But don’t settle for receiving opinions. Ask why they think it’s pretty. Ask why they think you’re doing well. Ask what they’d like to see instead. And if it’s impossible to get solid feedback from them…
  • Find yourself some mentors. People who you can count on to give you straight talk and smart counseling. People you can trust your career with. If you don’t know any candidates, do research before approaching someone—look for one who seems to engage with others generously and humbly, whose style of communication matches your own, and whose thinking and career choices you respect. (If you’re paying for mentoring, I consider that “career coaching”—that’s often useful, but that’s not the type of relationship I’m talking about here. This person will ideally look out for your career safety and success in a way that’s integrated into their own life—you’re not an appointment or case number to them.)
  • Be mentorable. If you’re lucky enough to find a good mentor, don’t latch onto them like a needy leech. Don’t expect them to rescue you. Don’t whine incessantly like a mosquito about problems. Don’t ask them how to make columns in InDesign and other questions you can ask Google. Instead, be clear with your questions and requests for advice. Let them know they can count on you to help them, and reliably deliver on that help if ever requested. Keep an eye out on them; reach out if you see them stumble and when you see them shine brighter than usual. Keep them posted on big news, and celebrate your successes with them—tell them how they helped you move forward. Thank them privately, thank them publicly, and polish their reputation by talking about them gratefully to others. (And this should all feel like a joy to do for this person; if you find it hard, maybe there isn’t a good fit.)
  • Go to conferences and meetings wearing something presentable, have business cards, and do not hide from people. Be friendly. Talk to people who are more junior to you as you wish you were treated back then. Those design stars walking around? They are HUMAN BEINGS. They need showers and they sneeze and if you tickle them, they will laugh. Smile and tell them you think their work is cool. If they’re not nice to you, then they don’t really deserve so much of your admiration—true design stars do their work well in every sense of the word. They are generous, humble, and compassionate to everyone at all stages of their career.

For tactical advice on being a professional graphic designer (like handling invoices), I recommend Michael Janda’s excellent book, Burn Your Portfolio.

Knowing how to move pixels and where to put them is only one part of this craft. Being a professional while doing this work is the part that is rarely taught, but counts just as much…if not the most.