Let me start by saying this – I loved going to college for design. I had great professors and learned so much while I was there. BUT when I started Wayfarer about a month after I graduated, I quickly realized that there’s a lot of stuff that they don’t teach you. Things that are really important if you want to be a designer and especially important if you want to freelance or run your own business. So let’s talk about a few of the things that I wish I’d learned in school.
How to set up a (reasonable) project timeline
In the beginning, I sort of just guessed at what a project timeline should look like. How long should I spend on each step? When should clients have to give me feedback? Should there be strict due dates or should I let them take their time? So many questions that I didn’t know the answer to and just had to learn as I went. Now, of course, I know that everyone is different and you should set up your timelines according to however you work best. If you need 3 weeks to create your first round of logos, do it! If you can do it in one week, that’s fine too. Clients should definitely have set deadlines for feedback so that you don’t get stuck with a bunch of delays, BUT I think it’s ok to be a little more lenient with them sometimes. At the end of the day, you never want to rush the process. If anything, you should add in some room for error in your timelines because stuff happens. Like, always happens! And it’s better to have plenty of time set aside than be forced to rush through things.
How to communicate with clients – from presenting my work to getting feedback
Phew, this was a big one. The way that you present work to clients is EVERYTHING and I’ve learned that the hard way. I specifically remember a project from school that would have been the perfect teaching moment for this. It was a group project and we did a really good job, but when we sent everything over to the client, they weren’t happy at all. They ended up having us change all of it to something really basic and it was very frustrating. Now looking back, I realize that the client definitely didn’t understand the thought process behind our work or how it would have made their audience’s experience better. We didn’t give them any explanations, we just showed them the design and asked that they thought (very bad move). All of that could have been avoided if we had just presented our work more strategically and I really wish my professor had talked us through that. Now, I’m extremely intentional about how I present things to my clients. I’ve developed specific strategies to make sure that the client understands my thought process, how things would relate to their audience, and that they know how to give me constructive feedback. Seriously, it’s been so impactful, I made an entire course on it. (Which is re-launching next month!)
How to price myself
I’m still figuring this out, but I definitely didn’t know anything about it when I graduated. There are so many factors that go into pricing and finding a perfect solution can feel impossible. The problem with what I learned in college is that I was told the price I should start at (around $30/hour), but I wasn’t taught how to move up from that. Things like knowing when to raise your prices, different strategies for pricing (hourly vs. flat rate vs. value-based), or how to increase your prices by adding more value to your services. SO MANY THINGS that I should have known and would have kept me from having dirt cheap prices for as long as I did.
“The problem with what I learned in college is that I was told the price I should start at, but I wasn’t taught how to move up from that.”
All the legal stuff (contract, taxes, etc.)
If there’s one thing that I was the most clueless about, it was this. There were a few projects early on where I didn’t even use a contract because I had no idea what needed to be in them. And since we’re lived abroad for most of the past 3 years, our taxes have been a total mess. Thankfully, I was smart enough to hire an accountant from the start and not even try to to that stuff myself. When it comes to this legal stuff, it’s so worth the investment to hire experts. There are free resources out there and when you’re just starting out, it’s ok to use those temporarily, but eventually I think that these are the primary areas in business where you really need to invest and outsource.
How to scale my business (and just run a business in general)
Look, design school isn’t business school and I get that. But with so many designers in the world turning to freelancing, you would think that there would be a little more focus on how to do that in classes. I actually did take an entrepreneurship class my senior year which helped a lot, but it wasn’t specifically for design students. Being a good designer will only get you so far. You have to know how to run your business too – marketing yourself, managing all of your projects, dealing with difficult situations, making sure your clients are happy, networking, adding in passive income, niching your services, and so on. There’s so much to learn and it’s a totally different world from design school.
“Being a good designer will only get you so far. You have to know how to run your business too – marketing yourself, managing all of your projects, dealing with difficult situations, making sure your clients are happy, networking, adding in passive income, niching your services, and so on.”
Listen, all in all, going to college for design was great and I’m so glad that I did it. BUT school won’t teach you everything. There are some things that simply need to be learned through experience. However, I do think that we can all do a better job of helping guide design students to the right resources and learn all of this stuff after they’ve graduated. In my case, I just read all the design blogs I could find, reached out to other freelancers, and learned things on my own. I still made it work, but it definitely felt like I was on my own a little bit. And I don’t want that for all the future designers coming up.
If you’re a design student who wants to start freelancing or just any designer wanting to start their own business, I have a free checklist just for you! The steps of starting a business can be really confusing (believe me, I was clueless). So I’ve outlined all of the steps that I took to start Wayfarer, along with lots of tips and lessons that I learned along the way! Just enter your email below and you’ll get the checklist in your email immediately.