Design school is great. It gives you the opportunity to mature as a designer, illustrator or artist, prepares you for your future career, and helps you develop the beginnings of a design portfolio. But it can’t teach you everything.

With that in mind, we’ve talked to some successful creative professionals and asked them what they wished they had known when they were at art college – so you get a head-start on your course mates.

01. How to actually find work 

The Times illustrator

Ben the Illustrator had to learn how to find work the hard way

 “The one key thing I don’t remember being taught was how to actually find work,” says seasoned pro Ben the Illustrator. “How to market ourselves, approach potential clients and so on. Whether we were going for full-time jobs or freelancing from the outset, nobody really knew what to do once we left college. 

“The upside of this is that I learnt it all myself, and due to naivety actually had original ideas, but when the chips are down and the workflow is unstable, it would have been good to feel like I’d been taught some kind of foundation in self-promotion. This was late ’90s, so slightly pre-internet. I know there are good colleges now that have students putting together amazing portfolio sites before they graduate, but I still hear from students who have a killer folio, and yet don’t know what to do with it.” 

Check out our 5 essential rules for self promotion for guidance in this area.

02. How to accept commissions

Aaron Miller drawing of lion

Illustrator Aaron Miller was never taught what to do with a new client

“For me, I would say there is a major void in higher education,” explains illustrator Aaron Miller. “You are taught about unrealistic deadlines and creative outputs from the start.” 

“But a huge part of the job that was never explained to me was the ins and out of accepting a new client. Do I send an acceptance of commission doc, do I ask for a percentage of payment upfront? What do I do if it all goes wrong? Does the client really need that editorial illustration at 5:30pm on a Friday night?” 

03. How to manage clients 

The North Face

Knight Studios’ Christian Day wishes he’d known how to deal with clients

“I wish they’d taught us about clients,” says creative director of Knight Studios, Christian Day, in now what’s becoming a common theme. “How to identify them, how to connect with them. Granted, this has changed wildly since I was at university, but networking is networking!” 

He continues: “How to get in front of them, how to get them interested in you and your ideas, how to present and sell your ideas, how to service clients and build those relationships… you can go on and on. Having the skills and ideas is one thing, but if you can’t get them in front of those clients, you’ll be sat alone in a dark room.”

04. The importance of reliability

“Being successful is 60 per cent making great things and 40 per cent being a reliable employee and coworker,” says senior art director Charlotte West. “Graduates need to understand that a gorgeous portfolio may get you in the door, but to move up and be someone people want to work with, you better have a solid work ethic and be a team player.

“On my team, if you want to be considered a valuable designer, you need to make deadlines, have a positive attitude, be willing to learn new things, and help out. In school, it felt like ‘rockstars’ of the office would be the designers coming up with innovative visuals, but in reality the real rockstars are also hard workers and good people. Be the designer everyone knows they can turn to in a crisis.”

05. Why the AOI is important

the AOI's website

Join an association that can help you sell yourself

Illustrator and designer at Empire magazine Olly Gibbs joined the Association of Illustrators to help boost his career and client list. At art school, he feels he missed out on advice for turning yourself into a product that could actually sell. 

“It was great for helping people refine their ideas and find out which pathway of design they wanted to follow, but it didn’t give enough of an understanding of the real world,” Gibbs explains. “I was lucky enough to have done a lot of freelance previously and during my time at art school so that helped. It just would have been great to find out more about the money side.” 

The moral here? Join an association that can help you sell yourself! 

06. That personality counts (maybe more than your diploma)

“Despite what your teachers or parents tell you, your diploma won’t necessarily get you a job,” says Toronto-based web designer Janna Hagan. “Proving what kind of work you are capable of producing through your portfolio, or demonstrating passion and potential will more likely catch a potential employer’s eye; compared to a student who has more formal education. Having a killer portfolio and personality will land you a job anywhere.”

07. Software skills

Jeffrey Bowman's website

Jeffrey Bowman wishes he’d been taught Photoshop at art school

Jeffrey Bowman is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer based in the mountains of Hemsedal, Norway. Formerly of Studio Output and a lecturer at Shillington College, Bowman has worked for numerous clients around the globe. So what does he know now that he wished he’d learned at art school?

“Software skills,” he says. “This is probably the most important thing to really focus on when you’re at college or university.” When Bowman was at university, this was something he had to teach himself, because there was no real help available. 

“Being software-savvy is only going to help when you get out into the industry, because the way the industry is, these kind of skills will set you apart from the next person applying for an internship or junior job.”

08. Real-world processes

spread from Computer Arts magazine

Work experience trumps theoretical knowledge, says senior art editor Jo Gulliver

T3 magazine‘s art editor Jo Gulliver has been working in magazines for 15 years, during which time she’s worked with the world’s top illustrators, photographers and designers. When she was at college, she knew she wanted to be involved in magazines, but was never taught the process of putting together a magazine to be printed and exported across the globe.

“It would be good to explore the industry you want to go into in depth,” she says. The best way to do this is through seeking out work experience while you’re studying. 

“Also consider visiting printers, agencies, photoshoots and so on,” is her top advice. “Make the most of your work experience placement and ask to see all processes of the business. It will make you much more employable when you come to get a job.”

09. To start a pension early

“It has been many years since I graduated from art school, but unless I overslept that morning, one vitally important lecture was missing – Managing Your Money,” says magazine and newspaper illustrator Joe Cummings. “I feel that graduates entering the world of work, especially freelance work, need to have a basic understanding of taxation, national insurance and even bookkeeping.”

“Pensions, too, need to be understood at this early stage. It may seem crazy to be thinking of retirement when starting out, but the benefits are too important to ignore. Young creatives need to be aware of these expenses and bear them in mind when invoicing. I see too many struggle to price their work. Having knowledge at the outset may make you wealthier.”

10. Commercial knowledge

Abigail Daker portfolio

Abigail Daker would have liked some direction in how to make money from her skills

“The main thing I know now, that I never realised at college, is that there is a market for good quality drawing,” says Abigail Daker – a freelance illustrator known for her stunning perspective cityscape pencil drawings.

“There was a lot of theorising about drawing on my course and plenty of discussion about the merits of drawing and its place within the contemporary fine art world, but nothing about it as a commercial product, and no advice about how to tailor your artwork to be better suited to commercial projects.” Daker’s advice is to scope out the latter – no matter what your intended specialism.

11. How to charge your worth

“Don’t take on projects at low rates in the hope of getting better-paid projects from that client in the future, especially if you don’t know the company, or anyone who has worked for them before, says senior creative at Animade TV, Lana Simanenkova.

“In my experience, they either won’t come back to you and try to find someone else who is equally cheap, or will just expect you to keep working at that lowered rate every time.

“Of course, it’s nice to have a constant stream of work and income when you graduate, but at the same time it can make you miss out on bigger and more creative opportunities elsewhere. In short, discounting probably won’t bring in big budget, high-profile projects with that client.”

Next page: more things top designers wish they’d known at art school

12. How to stay creative

Ian Wharton portfolio

Ian Wharton thinks youngsters should be prepared for the possibility of losing their creative mojo in later life

Ian Wharton is a creative director at AKQA and an advocate of young talent (he’s regularly involved in judging, seminars and publications promoting young creativity). So what does he now know that he wishes he’d known at art school?

“How difficult, yet entirely necessary it is to hang onto the innate creative spirit of youth,” he says. “It’s something I took for granted.” And his advice? “Explore endlessly. Every facet of creativity that excites you – dive in and don’t worry about right answers. You have the time, agility and resources to do so. When you leave school, never stop learning and waste zero time making things you don’t want to be known for.”

For more of Wharton’s thoughts on the subject, check out his book: Spark the Fire.

13. How to find your niche

animals everywhere book images

The biggest gap in Jonathan Woodward’s education was the business and marketing side

Wildlife artist Jonathan Woodward‘s beautiful, textured animal illustrations have led him to commissions from the likes of Penguin, Transworld Publishing and Random House. What did he wish he knew?

“I’m probably the same as most other illustrators in that the biggest gap in my art college education was the business and marketing side of things. I’ve had to learn all of this as I’ve gone along.

“One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to find a niche rather than trying to be all things to all people. It was only when I really focused on combining my two main passions for nature and illustration, specialising in being a wildlife illustrator, that things started to move forwards and the right type of commissions started come in.”

14. Not to be precious

James Wignall designs

James Wignall wishes he’d been warned that instantly clicking with the client is not the norm

James Wignall is an animator and motion graphics artist working in London. He wishes he’d learned not to be too precious with his designs.

“Inevitably the client will want changes, and inevitably you’ll think they are for the worse. Your job is to do the best you can for your client, not for your portfolio. There are occasions that you and the client will be on the same wavelength and you’ll end up with a project that will take pride of place on your website, but these jobs are few and far between.

“Behind every amazing project you’ve seen on a designer’s website, there’s probably 10 more that you don’t see that pay the bills. Once you’ve given it all and appeased your client, boss or bill payer, you can always rework it to a state that you’re happy and call it a ‘directors cut’!”

15. How to take a step back

Radim Malinic print saying the original colour spaces established 1810

Radim Malinic feels design education encourages you to be good at one thing only

Freelance art director, illustrator and graphic designer Radim Malinic has been responsible for some stunning campaigns.

“Education encourages you to be good at one thing only,” he says. “When you get out into the sharp-toothed world of client work, it’s easy to get consumed by focusing on small detail in your designs and not worrying about any other essential parts of the commission.

“Whether you are a freelancer or part of a bigger team with the additional beady eyes of account managers or creative directors, it is about projecting your voice through the project. By taking a little bit of extra time and stepping back for short moment to oversee what has been done, you can not only scrutinise all aspects and find any errors, you can also discover potential ways of making the project go further.

“Clients can have a limited vision and creative teams can play it safe to keep them happy. Great work just does not happen by accident, it is the ever-present hunger to create fresh work which makes it succeed.”

16. How to be humble

James Wignall print

A little bit of humility will go a long way in your design career, says James Wignall

James Wignall didn’t take the traditional route into the creative industries – he’s a Bachelor of Science rather than of the Arts. However, there is some advice that applies to everyone. 

“The first thing you should learn when going into the work place is a little humility – seriously it goes a long way!” he says. “A number of people from my course assumed that because they achieved a first class honours they were God’s gift to the industry. Wrong!”

“There is always somebody who’s better than you and employers have no time for that kind of arrogant attitude. A workplace needs people who are easy to work with, to collaborate and bounce ideas back and forth with.”

17. That it’s not all self-indulgent

spread from Computer Arts

Real-world design work is not as self-indulgent as college projects, says Jo Gulliver

“At college, most of the projects are pretty self-indulgent,” says Jo Gulliver. “You don’t really experience what it’s like working for a client. It would have been good to get some live client work while I was at college – working for someone would give you an insight into how the industry works.

“It would also have been useful as a learning experience on how to manage a project – pricing it, time management and so on. These are real-world things that you often discover when you’re in the real world – not before!”

18. How to choose your career carefully

Jonathan Woodward illustration of fish

Thinking about what kind of job you want after design school is vital, says Jonathan Woodward

“My main advice for art college students today would be to really think about the type of work they want to be doing,” says Jonathan Woodward. “To think about the type of commissions they really want – rather than what they think they should be doing – and then create a career and portfolio that reflects this.

“If you show the type of work in your folio that you don’t want, you can be sure that is the type of work you’ll get,” he adds. It’s an interesting point – make sure only your best and most relevant work (if you’re going for an interview) is in your portfolio.

Related articles: