What They Don’t Teach You in Design School

June 4, 2012

During my last semester of graduate school, I attended a design-oriented job fair, hoping and praying that it would be my foot in the door to the professional design world. I dreaded the prospect of being stuck on my parents’ couch for months after graduation, desperately submitting resumes and networking with anyone who might offer even the smallest connection to a job opportunity.

I’m happy to say that I wasn’t warming my parents’ couch for very long. I was finally going to be a real design professional. I’d found a full-time job in Philadelphia that would start in the middle of my first summer after graduation. While I experienced the self-doubt that anyone might have when starting a new job in a new field, I believed that my educational foundation was as good as that of anyone with whom I might be working or competing. The toughest challenge ahead of me would probably be settling in a new city—changing my permanent address for the first time. I’d be living on my own, having to make almost all new friends, and navigating a new place.

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Ten days after moving to Philadelphia, I went to the office for my first day as a full-time employee. Many questions drifted through my head: Would I float or flounder there? Would I get along with my coworkers? Would they like me, respect me, and value my work? Day by day and week by week, I felt more comfortable at the office. And now, over three and a half years later, I feel like a veteran there. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still learning new skills every day. But I think this is a good time to review some of the key pointers that I’ve picked up about succeeding in the working world—pointers that you don’t learn in school, regardless of how great your education is.

Time Sharing (Not the Vacation Kind)

If your university experience was anything like mine—especially for project-based classes—you can recall some nights when you were up past 3 am, crunching out papers or presentations that you had to turn in or present later that morning. As long as you finished it on time, that was all that mattered. Reviews? Edits? Those were superfluous.

But, in the working world—especially in design—you can’t do that. You have to make sure that you budget time for reviews by subject-matter experts, design reviews, and content reviews. You must also plan time for making revisions based on the comments you receive during these reviews. Going through a cycle of reviews and revisions is a standard protocol and, although the consequent reduction in the time you have to do your work might be frustrating, you can think of this as CYA (Cover Your Ass) for you as a design professional. Later, if you’re questioned about your deliverables, you’ll be thankful you took time for this.

Helpful Hints

  • Count backward. Look at the date when you have to present to a client, then conservatively estimate the amount of time you’ll need for each cycle of reviews and revisions. Doing this tells you when you have to hand off your document for the first review.
  • Save everything. Keep a paper trail, including email threads and versions of documents—at least until your client completely signs off on the project.

The Big-Brother Effect

In school, the number of hours you put into a homework assignment or project doesn’t get counted. It’s just your grade that matters. A professor doesn’t care how much time you spend or where you work on a project. But usually there’s a positive correlation between the number of hours you’ve studied for a test or spent on a project and the grade you receive.

At work, you’re being watched. People are always checking in on you to make sure your work is going well and will be done on time—of course, with the best of intentions. Your superiors and even your peers want to know what you’re working on. Project managers need to report status to clients and ensure projects meet deadlines. While you might be happy and excited to talk about your work, sometimes you just want to be left alone. But, it’s hard to hide away in a corner and just do your work while at the office; and you probably can’t go home in the middle of the day to do your work with no one looking over your shoulder.

In the workplace, both how you work and how long you work on a project matter. Regardless of your seniority, the total number of hours you put in at work gets tracked—especially if you work for a consultancy. The ratio between the number of hours you actually put into a project versus the number of hours allotted for the project—in other words, the cost of your working on a project in comparison to how much a client is paying your company for the work—are numbers that drive the success or failure of your company. If you spend a lot more time on a project than you were supposed to, your company is losing money.

Helpful Hints

  • Ask for advice. If you consistently find yourself struggling to complete your work in the allotted time, speak with other people who do similar work in your office and have more experience than you. There may be techniques you can learn from them to expedite your work.
  • Prioritize your work. At the outset of your work, understand what you must deliver to a client versus what would be nice to have. Work on the essential pieces first, then the nice-to-haves—if you have extra time.
  • Focus on your priorities. It’s okay not to be at others’ beck and call. In time, you’ll learn to differentiate between what’s a real work emergency and what you can defer working on until later. If you need to be working head down, you can use various techniques to let others know that you’re busy.
    • In addition to meetings that you book on your calendar, book time for your individual project work.
    • Put ear buds in your ears. I’m serious. Even if you can’t work with music on, ear buds signal that you need to be in your own world.
    • If neither of the last two suggestions works, try finding a quiet workspace away from your desk. You should remain accessible by email and phone, but it’s easier to filter communications when you’re not at your desk, where others can just stop by for impromptu meetings.

Classmates and Clients

While in school, you may have had classes where you were doing work for a real client. For example, several of my master’s program classes at Carnegie Mellon involved doing work for local or national nonprofits and automotive and medical device companies. But, having a client’s name attached to a project didn’t make that much difference. In both cases, teams of students worked on projects that involved doing research, analysis, and design work. However, most of our interactions were with the professor and students who were our fellow team members. There was actually very little communication between the students and client team members—other than the occasional email message. Most, if not all, of our interactions with clients occurred during our final presentation.

While the clients may have had questions or brought up discussion points, they didn’t refute what we’d presented or ask for additional work beyond the scope of the original project. The clients were probably grateful that they had students to do work that they might normally have paid full-time employees or contractors to do. My design school experience made working with clients seem easy. Working with teammates was the most challenging part.

Boy, did I get a reality check when actually doing client work professionally.

Working with a client is an invaluable learning experience, but also a challenging one:

  • Someone on the client side who has a similar function to you may perceive you, the consultant, as a threat.
  • There’s sometimes ambiguity around what you believe you’re supposed to deliver to a client and what the client thinks you’ll be delivering to them.
  • Clients try to protect themselves and make sure you’re not swindling them, so they may ask you to do more work than you believe they should be getting per your contract with them.

All of the above situations require judgment calls: You must look at the facts of the situation as objectively as possible and make the best calls about next steps. Keep in mind that you always have to find the appropriate middle ground between pleasing the client and maintaining your personal sanity, professional integrity, and the terms of your contract. At the end of the day, you just might be able to turn a perceived conflict into a future business opportunity with a client.

Helpful Hints

  • Keep others in the loop. The more consistent the knowledge that you provide to your project manager and team members, the better armed they will be to help you deal with any uncomfortable situations that may arise.
  • Raise red flags. It’s always better to raise red flags earlier rather than later. You don’t ever want to get to the point in a project where your relationship with a client is damaged beyond repair. If you sense that a client is becoming irritated or if there’s someone on the client team who is difficult to get along with, notify your project manager and advisor as soon as possible. They will most likely have advice to offer and can help you work through the situation.
  • Maintain your decorum. Even if a client says something that offends you or catches you off guard, keep your emotions in check. Becoming defensive or raising your voice won’t help the situation—even though it might make you feel better in the moment.
  • Utilize your network. If you work where you feel you have no one to turn to for advice, take a step back and see who, other than your colleagues, you might be able to ask for advice. Likely there’s at least one of your family members, friends, former school professors, or mentors—especially those who have consulting experience—who can assist you. You also might consider getting another job that provides a better learning experience.

If I Were a College Dean

So, why are there so many key aspects of working in the real world that you don’t learn about in school? Are college curriculums faulty? No, it’s simply difficult to mimic in a semester’s syllabus what you might encounter over a couple of years working in the real world. I’m not saying that it’s not possible to infuse a college curriculum with more material that reflects an actual job experience. For example, at my office, we host college students from Drexel University who spend six months working with us, in lieu of taking classes, as part of their education. This opportunity serves as both a resume-booster and a reality check for students.

While learning in the classroom and working with other students on projects are essential parts of a design education and can help you build a strong work ethic, gaining real-world work experience earlier rather than later can ease the transition from school to professional work. You’ll have a more realistic picture of the challenges that you’ll face and the rewards you can potentially earn once you have your diploma in hand, throw your graduation cap in the air, and open the next, non-textbook chapter of your life. 

Research Principal at LiquidHub

Glenside, Pennsylvania, USA

Adina KleinOver several years working in the field of user experience, Adina has worked on a variety of projects, involving the design and redesign of dashboards, complete business systems, Web sites, intranets, and business processes. Her clients have included Mercer, Sun Life Financial, Ford Direct, Radian Guaranty, the City of Philadelphia, Astra Zeneca, Michael C. Fina, American Express, and Wolters Kluwer. Adina holds a Bachelor of Science and Arts in chemistry and architecture and a Master of Product Development, both from Carnegie Mellon University.  Read More

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