5 Biggest Graphic Design Career Mistakes to Avoid

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It’s easy to make mistakes on any career path, but some are less detrimental than others. Typos and bad print jobs are par for the course when you’re a designer. However, there are some much larger mistakes that you may not even realize you’re making that can have long term consequences.

In some cases, these mistakes boil down to bad habits, misinformation or simply getting comfortable with the current situation or marketplace. The tips below will help you recognize and avoid some of these mistakes and set yourself up for the career success you want and deserve.

Not Developing a Career Plan or Choosing a Career Path

Many of us have heard the phrase “start with the end in mind.” This isn’t just a good principle when working on a design project, but for plotting your course in life and your career in general. You should know where you want your career to lead in the long run.

Understanding what you want to accomplish years from now means your actions today and tomorrow will align with that goal. You can always test the value of something you’re going to invest time and money into by asking yourself how it helps you reach that long term goal. If it doesn’t, you can reevaluate whether it should be a priority.

Too often designers flounder through their career from job to job with no real overall plan for what their career should look like by the time the stop working. They can find themselves in the unfortunate situation of not having made real progress toward their goals, leaving them concerned about job security; all as a result of not having a clearly defined plan.

It’s fine to want the freedom and flexibility to change your mind or even make a career shift, but you still need to have a plan—even a flexible one—so that you’re acting with a sense of purpose, and you can measure your progress.

Resistance to Developing New Skills and Learning to Use New Tools

Sometimes designers are romantic about their skills and don’t see the need to change the way they’ve done something if it has worked for them in the past. This could mean failing to upgrade to new software, embrace new technology or develop a new skill.

This leads to missed opportunities. For example, Many designers chose not learn the ins and outs of digital publishing and the EPUB format. Now that it has been popularized and demand is growing in that area, it’s harder for those designers to break into the field and find job opportunities in that realm.

Learning new skills, staying up to date on current technology, and keeping up with the demands of the marketplace are all important if you want to have a long-term career as a graphic designer. You can’t afford to ignore practicality, even if you feel irritated by the prospect of investing time into constant learning. Staying relevant matters in a heavily saturated marketplace.

Listening to Destructive Criticism Instead of Real Constructive Criticism

Everyone’s a critic, but that doesn’t mean they are qualified to be. The reason this is important is because intentions trump everything. Constructive criticism is well intentioned and meant to add value and given opportunity for improvement. The root word of constructive, after all, is “construct” meaning “to build.”

If someone gives you an opinion that is meant to tear you down, they will often try to mask it under the guise of constructive criticism, and if you try to defend yourself or ignore it you’re being “overly sensitive.”

The ability to recognize this and pay attention to valid, constructive advice will help you stay motivated and focused on producing quality work.

I’ve come up with my own way of identifying constructive criticism that may help you. I define constructive criticism as: accurate, actionable advice.

For advice to be accurate, the person giving you advice must understand what you were trying to do before they can tell you whether you succeeded or if it can be more effective.

Suppose someone criticizes your work because it makes them feel uncomfortable. If discomfort is the goal and the call to action is tied to it, then changing the project doesn’t make any sense. However, if the goal is to make them trust a brand then it might make sense to reevaluate the message. If they don’t understand the intent of your work, how can they offer accurate advice on improving it?

Actionable advice means you can use that advice to improve. Many designers are accustomed to vague feedback such as “I don’t like it” or “Something about it doesn’t feel right.” There isn’t much you can really do with that, so it isn’t particularly helpful.

More specific feedback such as “I find it difficult to read without my glasses,” or “The color don’t match any of the other branding,” is actionable. You can respond to the feedback and use it to improve your work.

Constructive criticism is something to be coveted, while destructive criticism are to be ignored.

Not Understanding Business and Marketing

Many creatives encounter problems in their career when they fail to empathize with employers and clients. Often their artistic concerns don’t align with the business goals or realities that take priority in a project. Compromising your creative vision can be frustrating.

However, when a company or client is relying on your artistic abilities to help them accomplish goals that impact the bottom line, your artistic sensibilities might have to take a backseat.

Having an understanding of business and marketing will make it easier for you to connect with a client or employer and approach the project with their considerations in mind.

The other benefit of understanding business and marketing is that you may have more leverage when negotiating your rates and your salary. These skills will also help you develop and strengtehn your personal brand should you ever find yourself in need of a new opportunity.

Ignoring business sense and failing to develop your marketing skills is a mistake that can cost designers quite a bit in the long run.

No Longer Taking Joy in Your Design Work

This is probably the biggest mistake that designers make, and it is heartbreaking. When you no longer love design, but find that you have no other means of making a living, it can be devastating.

There are many reasons people fall out of love with design, but the main one that I’ve heard among my peers is that it became something that didn’t enjoy their work environment or circumstances anymore. For some it is because they were not doing work that mattered to them—that they felt a sense of pride or ownership over.

Maintaining your personal brand isn’t just beneficial from a marketing perspective; it also gives you an outlet for personal work that can help you stay motivated. Passion projects and creative work allow you to explore your creativity, develop your skills and mitigate the frustrations of producing work for others.

Recap: Avoid These Career Mistakes as a Graphic Designer

  • Not Developing a Career Plan and Choosing a Career Path
  • Resistance to Developing New Skills and Learning to Use New Tools
  • Listening to Destructive Criticism Instead of Constructive Criticism
  • Not Understanding Business and Marketing
  • No Longer Taking Joy in Your Work as a Designer

Avoiding these mistakes will help you cultivate a successful and a happy career in the graphic design industry.


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2 thoughts on “5 Biggest Graphic Design Career Mistakes to Avoid

  1. Tmd66

    Nicely done @robertoblake! You’ve articulated some really important career insights so well. This should just be laminated or printed on a card and given to everyone either already in, or looking for a job in the creative/design field(s). Especially #4 (Not understanding marketing & business). To be effective visual communicators, we have to be strong strategists – and a lot of creatives take that to mean “design strategists.” While this is a crucial component, understanding both the clients’ business, and how the project /piece/campaign will be positioned, targeted and distributed within the context of that business, as well as what the piece is ultimately supposed to do is an intrinsic part of end results and success.

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