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Art school was a wacky, wild and totally weird time for me. That was back in the 70s when we still used press type, rapidographs, markers and 360 layout pads. Another thing I never quite understood was who had the brilliant idea to put an art school in the back of a Holiday Inn, on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, with a bar in the front and another one across the street. It was the notorious Elbow Room. I think it’s still there. It was akin to saying, “If you remember the 60s, you weren’t there.”

I had a great time and, as luck would have it, had two wonderful teachers. I learned more from those two over lunches, dinners and somewhat maniac parties, than I ever learned in the classroom. If you’re reading this, thanks, Sue and Ron.

And therein lies our first lesson.

If you’re blessed with teachers who actively work, or have worked, in the field, tap into them. There’s another saying you’ll hear around at one point or another. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t teach.” Try to find a school with teachers who also actively work as designers. These folks understand life in the trenches. They know what it’s like to work until midnight crafting a design item. They know (hopefully) how to work and deal with clients. Learn from their experiences. Theory is fine, but practicality is even better. Sue was an art director at Readers Digest, designing album covers. Ron, my studio photography teacher, shot the Corning “fire & ice” campaign; shot all the Manhattan shirt stuff and a ton more. That kind of knowledge and experience is priceless.

Ask a boatload of questions. Suck out all the knowledge you can about how to be successful at this graphic design thing. Ask them what they did. How did they create a career? What are their joys and sorrows as designers? People are usually pretty good about sharing information if you simply ask. Truth be told, people love to talk (or write, in my case) about themselves. There’s something therapeutic about it.

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Talent is important. It should be a given. Production expertise is the same. Sorry folks, but that’s the hard truth. You simply cannot afford to be mediocre or average. Strive to be the best designer you can. Some folks have talent dripping out of their ears. For others, it’s a little tougher. Look to the well-known “superstars” in our industry for inspiration. Don’t steal. That’s generally a bad thing. But, learn how they do what they do. What is their process? How do they approach a design problem?

Read

Read everything you can get your hands on. That means reading about cave paintings in Lascaux, France as well as contemporary trends and thoughts about graphic design and other design disciplines (industrial design, architecture, etc).

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Immerse yourself. Look at publications, ads, brochures, annual reports, products, packaging, Web sites, buildings and pretty much everything. Why? Because everything we see and touch was designed by somebody.

Sure, it takes some dedication and work, but, when you need that little bit of information for a gig, it will be there stored somewhere in that brain of yours. Maybe the solution to the design problem in front of you requires knowing about French Deco logos from the 1920s. Maybe the solution lies in a cave painting. You just never know and the more you know and experience the world around you, the better prepared you’ll be to create a solution on the spot.

Write, write and write some more

In as much as we tend to focus our efforts on visuals, writing is still a critical skill for any graphic designer. You need to write business correspondence, proposals, briefs and a bunch of other stuff. Beyond those day-to-day pieces of prose, being able to write articles is a good idea.

Here’s the thing. If you write articles and get published, you’ll begin to create a name for yourself. Having a “name” makes it a lot easier to get a great job and command a higher salary. Think about it. If you were doing the hiring, whom would you prefer? The person you’ve never heard of, or the guy or girl who’s better-known?

Poke around the Web. With not too much investigation, you can find several sites that are looking for your potent prose. You might even create a secondary revenue stream. If you’re really clever, you might be able to also offer copywriting in addition to design services. Cha ching! That way, when the design work dries up you can still generate some dough from writing.

You might also consider subscribing to HelpAReporter.com, also known as HARO. Simply put, HARO hooks up writers, reporters, authors, etc., with experts for interviews.

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HARO is a great resource created by p.r. superstar, Peter Shankman. When you subscribe (free), you’ll receive three emails each day, Monday through Friday, with queries from writers looking for folks to interview. It’s a great way to get some press or broadcast coverage. I’ve used it for a few years and have landed several magazine and book interviews, press coverage and more.

Beyond the coverage, you’ll also have some ammo for your public relations efforts. Get an interview, send out a press release, link to it on your site, etc. Get as much mileage as you can.

Follow your favorite design publications such as CMYK, HOW and Communication Arts. If you don’t see an article about some important issue, consider dropping them a pitch letter or email. Learn who the editor is, and get in touch with them. A few well-written articles in a well-known publication can seriously jump start your career and give you some nifty info for your resumé.

Nab Some Face Time

Lots of designers hate networking. I’m one of them. But, it’s a necessary evil. People buy from people and usually people they like. Networking gives you the opportunity to meet potential clients and demonstrate your skills and value.

But, like most things, there’s a trick to networking. First, AIGA and the Graphic Artists Guild are great, but it’s kind of like preaching to the choir. These are excellent places to hook up with your peers, but probably not the best for landing a luscious, deep-pocketed client. Hang out where your prospects hang out. The American Marketing Association (AMA) might be a better choice, depending upon what your niche is and the type of work you focus on.

The other thing about networking is to avoid high-stress, intense venues. For example, Chambers of Commerce and tip club meetings tend to be, what I call, business card orgies. Everybody and their brother is trying to shove their card down your throat and sell you something you probably neither want nor need. Go for the low-stress venues. Those are usually workshops, seminars and the likes. If you’re in the U.S. check out SCORE workshops. Very low-key and you can meet some folks who just might need what you’re selling.

And, don’t just sit there. Get active. Become a mover and, possibly, a shaker, as well. Sign up for a committee or two. Maybe even chair one. This gives you the opportunity to show how you work, your leadership and management skills and more.

Remember to not overdo it, though. You can burn yourself out straight away if you’re not careful.

Competitions

Enter them. Win them. But don’t break the bank. Entering and winning a few awards is an excellent ego booster, but they can get expensive, quickly. I knew an ad agency that used awards as one of their primary marketing tools. They entered everything they did over a year and won a ton of awards by leveraging the Law of Large Numbers. In effect, they bought awards. They also spent around fifteen grand doing it. Try to stay away from that. Check the awards, enter your best work and cross your fingers. If you can manage to win a few, it makes for great copy on your site and also excellent p.r./press release content.

In the end, even as a student, don’t slack off. Now is the time to start planning and implementing your career public relations strategy. If you start now, you won’t end up like me and taking 20 years before this stuff dawns on you. Next time you’re in class, look to your left and look to your right. See those people? They’re your competition. You may be friends. You may like each other. But, odds are, they’re going for the same job you are. Be nice. Be professional. Then, as Sir Paul said in Live Or Let Die, “You’ve got to give the other fella hell.”