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10 Design Skills They Won't Teach You in College

Kevin Whipps April 12, 2024 · 9 min read

I remember college. Playing roller hockey by the library, going on late-night food runs with the guys, putting on 20 pounds because I thought that ice cream sandwiches and chocolate milk was the staple of every diet – good times, for sure. But back when I was 18, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, much less how it was going to turn out. And now, I think about the things it didn’t teach me that I actually need out here in the real world, and it’s staggering.
It’s easy to feel like you’re living in a bubble when you’re on a college campus, and that’s because you are. And if you’re going to school to be a designer, the things you learn are great, but the things that you don’t become quite apparent quickly. If you’re in school right now, you might be wondering what you’re missing, so we went ahead and put together a list of some of the more important things that you’ll need to know so that you’re more prepared than most. With any luck, you’ll come out of it stronger and better than the competition (and hopefully 20 pounds lighter than I did, assuming you don’t follow my diet plan).

Revealing my Sources

Have you met Mike Monteiro before? He’s one of my favorite people on the internet, and not just because his Twitter feed is amazing. It’s also because of his famous (and very NSFW) talk, F*** You, Pay Me. I watch it all the time, and it played a heavy role in one of my recent posts. So it’s understandable that I watch other things that he does, including a recent visit to Sara Dietschy’s That Creative Life. The video below has some curse words in it, so be forewarned:

There are three topics that he brings up in this interview that pertain directly to this post. So take a moment and watch it (earmuffs for the kids, obviously), and then come back here.

How to read an email

The way we communicate in the written word has changed dramatically in the past few years. I get professional business emails all the time with emoji. Never thought that would happen, but sure enough, it’s now a regular thing. I also get emails with missing punctuation and misspellings – from editors, no less. But the more interesting issue here is how to read the email itself.
Why? Emails can be subtle and misinterpreted, particularly when they come from a client. Your head may be translating it into designer-speak, where everything makes sense and there are lots of clouds and unicorns. But if you’re not picking up what they’re putting down, you could be making a huge and costly mistake. It takes years to figure out on your own how to get that right, and it sure would be nice if there was a class on that in college.

How to handle clients

As a designer, there are lots of different places where you could hang your hat. Maybe you’re at an agency where you never talk to a client, or you could be freelancing and dealing with them on a regular basis. How you interact with them is critical to the relationship and whether it succeeds or dies. Good luck learning that at school.
Client Brief
Some of this comes with experience, but eventually you learn how to manage the people that are, ultimately, your customers. These are the people who pay your bills (directly or indirectly), so talking to them like a peer might not be the best idea. It’s almost like you need an interpreter at times; someone that can translate what they say into designer. You’ll figure it out as you go along, but it can be a rough road to climb.

How to Present Work

So you stroll into the client presentation, ready to go. Your stuff is prepared, everything is tight, and you’re ready to lay it all on the line. You’ve even got your fancy turtleneck on. After putting it all out there, you look at the client and you’re like …
Steve Jobs Perfection
And then the client looks back at you like …
Ice Cube has questions
(OK, so maybe they’re less intoxicated, but you get the point).
The way you talk to a client and the way you talk to another designer are completely different things. And sometimes that’s hard to swallow, because after all, you’re the professional. If you dazzle them with your knowledge, maybe you’ll get the gig. But they don’t give two craps about your fancy book learnin’, they just want to like your design. And if they don’t, no amount of flowery talk will get them there.

What the Real World is Like

I always assumed that once I got out of college, I’d have my pick of jobs to choose from, all laid out like ducks in a row. Employers would beg me to be on their team, and the money would rain down from the sky.
Dumbledore has choices
Never seems to work that way, right?
Welcome to the real world
Now let me spill two secrets here: first, I didn’t graduate from college. Sure, I spent a lot of time there (veering into Van Wilder territory), but I do not have a degree. And second, I learned quickly that the job market isn’t impressed by your fancy paperwork. They want results, degree or no. The only thing that paper will get you is that first interview, but after that, it’s on you.
Now college isn’t going to teach you that, obviously, but it’s one of the realities we have out here in the real world. That, and paying rent, taxes, managing clients – you know the drill. None of that comes from book learning, it’s all on-the-job training.

How to Stay Fresh and Inspired

When you’re at school, you have the luxury of time. There isn’t a boss breathing down your neck with tons of deadlines, just your professors, and usually you’ve got more than enough time to handle things. In fact, you even have time to get inspired. Out here on the mean streets, there isn’t anyone giving you that time. Not unless you’re hanging out with Oprah, anyway.
Oprah inspiration
You do not have the luxury of waiting to be inspired as a professional. You need to buckle down and get things done. The problem is that you do need to be creatively fueled, which means that you need to seek out things that are inspirational. And if this sounds like a fine line, that’s because it is, but you’re going to be walking it out here. Get inspiration, but work whether you’re inspired or not. Otherwise, you’re not getting paid.

New and Emerging Technologies

My son had his first computing device at two – an iPad – and when I went to school a laptop was really more of a small suitcase than the MacBook Air I use today. Point is, college never taught me anything about the technology I use now, much less what I did back then. And it’s not totally shocking, even if this was my teacher:
Knight Rider Technology
Man could he drive, though.
Teachers need books to teach from, and by the time a lot of books are done and on the shelf, they’re outdated – particularly when it comes to tech. What’s new today is old tomorrow, and you have to learn that on your own or get left behind. College just doesn’t have the ability to be on the cutting edge, and although that’s unfortunate, it’s a reality that you’ll have to deal with when you get out.

How to Handle Criticism

Let me say this: I don’t believe in everything people say about Millennials as a generation. Sure, some were raised to be a special little snowflake, but I was taught the same things and I’m out of the demographic. And guess who else was? My parents. So take heart, Millennials, we all think we’re special, so tell the haters to back off.
Special snowflake bulldog
With that in mind, know that we all need to learn how to handle criticism better. Sure, there are jerk professors who tell you what-for, but there are some clients you just want to punch in the nose. Obviously that’s not professional, even if Carl deserves it, so you’ll have to learn your own techniques.

Software Skills

Today, you’re probably a ninja with Photoshop, Sketch, Illustrator and every other tool out there. You know your Creative Suite inside and out, plus you’ve even got the keyboard shortcuts down pat. You, my friend, are rad.
Flash has mad skills
College doesn’t teach you that because they can’t. OK, they can introduce you to the software, and get you to click around for a bit, but the actual productive skills come from hours of work. There’s no class for that. Just dedication.


Know what’s hard to do as an adult? Making friends. Seriously, in college, you could bump into a dude in a towel in the elevator and next thing you know you’re buddies with Towel Bob from the Fourth Floor and he’s the best man at your wedding. But everyone has their guard up as an adult, and it can be tricky to get your foot in the door. Now imagine trying to cozy up to someone with the explicit reason being to get their connections.
Seriously, it ain’t easy. And you learn pretty early on that every field is a small world unto itself, and you’ll bump into people all the time. Dan from your job at the magazine may become Dan that guy who works for a senator, and next thing you know, you’re designing the logo for their next run for office. Wish there was a class for that.

Contracts and Money

File this one under a more general rule, but I sure wish college had taught me something about finances. And now that I’m out in the world, working with contracts has become a regular thing. Gosh, that kinda info would’ve been handy.
Ariel signs a contract
It doesn’t matter if you work for yourself or a boss, you will have to deal with money at some point, and you should be working with contracts. How do you manage all that stuff? Well you’ll figure it out eventually, but better make it sooner rather than later.
Stewie wants his money

The End Goal

So have I gotten you all excited about going to college? Yeah, probably not. Don’t worry, it may be a huge waste of money and cost you years of your life that you’ll never get back, but hey – it’s worth it, right? RIGHT?

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About the Author
Kevin Whipps

Hi! My name is Kevin Whipps, and I'm a writer and editor based in Phoenix, Arizona. When I'm not working taking pictures of old cars and trucks, I'm either writing articles for Creative Market or hawking stickers at Whipps Sticker Co.

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