5 Crucial Principles No Design School Will Teach You

Design school is a fantastic opportunity to develop your craft as a web designer, make great connections with others in the field, and learn awesome new design trends and techniques. Yet there are many more practical and business-related skills that freelance web designers need to have that are often not a part of the design school curriculum. In this article we share five things it would have been nice to learn in design school.

5 things they didn't teach in design school

How to Build Relationships With Clients

Being able to build good working relationships with clients is often just as important as the knowledge, skills, and services you offer them. You can be the best web designer in town, but if you don’t have the right attitude or lack the skills to build trust, you will have a difficult time finding clientele.


Listen, Listen, and Listen More

While you’re the one who will be creating the website, your client is the one who is responsible for its direction. Listening to your client’s needs and wants serves two purposes: First, it validates their wishes and demonstrates your ability to collaborate with them, thus building a quality working relationship. Second, it gives you the guidance you need to complete the project to their specifications and their liking.

The last place a client wants you to be is on a high horse, telling them how things should or shouldn’t be. Remember that in the end, the success of the project is determined by how satisfied your client is, not by how in tune the project is with your personal style or sensibilities. Listen to what your client wants and provide well-informed guidance so the end product is a reflection of your client’s needs and is something you can also be proud of.


Get Personal

Sometimes clients won’t be able to communicate exactly what it is they’re looking for in terms of design, features, or aesthetic. A great way to zero in on a client’s likes and dislikes is to ask appropriate personal information. Inquire about their favorite colors or patterns, favorite websites, or even favorite commercials, ads, or style of architecture to develop a picture of who your client is and what they are about.

If possible, also visit their place of business to get a feel for their personality and sense of style. If an in-person meeting isn’t possible, try using Skype or another online video chat platform to get some face-to-face time. Just having a quick one-on-one conversation can give you valuable clues about the kind of person you’re working for. Getting even a little bit of personal information is also a nice way to build your relationship.


How to Conduct Business

signing a contract

It may seem simple enough to build yourself a website, develop your portfolio, have some business cards printed up, and start your career as a web designer. But how do you handle the business end of being self-employed? Things like writing contracts and negotiating prices are often not a part of what you learn in design school, yet are essential components of operating a successful business.


Writing Contracts

Being a creative type, dealing with the boring details of business likely may not appeal to you. However, being in business for yourself means that you don’t have an accounting department to handle the behind-the-scenes paperwork like creating contracts. If you’re to protect yourself from being taken advantage of or being sued by a dissatisfied client, you must be able to write a basic contract.

Although your contracts will differ slightly from client to client, they should always include the following information:


  • An outline of your obligations and the obligations of your client
  • A specific and comprehensive list of what you will produce, including the number and scope of any revisions that will be included in the initial cost of the project
  • A timeline for deliverables
  • Costs, as well as terms of payment
  • Signatures of both parties


Fortunately, there are an abundance of online resources to help with creating effective contracts, including a great article by Smashing Magazine on the Do’s and Don’ts of freelance contracts. Business of Design Online offers some basic business-related forms free for download, and Sessions College has an expansive set of free-to-use templates, including contracts, invoices, and client questionnaires. There’s no need for you to reinvent the wheel. Just like with design work, take the freebies that other people offer and use them for inspiration or customize them to suit your needs.


The Art of Negotiation

Working well with clients takes a lot of business savvy and common sense, particularly if your client wants to negotiate the price of the project. Even if you aren’t a seasoned veteran when it comes to negotiating, there are a few strategies you can use to ensure you protect your interests while offering your clients good value:


  • Ask for your client’s budget, but do so without using the ‘b’ word. “How much do you plan to spend?” is a good way to inquire about how much money you have to work with, without sounding greedy.
  • Whether you work on an hourly basis or for a per-project fee, provide information about your pricing up front. Doing so gives your client an idea of what your costs are and can help you establish a good position to negotiate.
  • Educate your client about your expenses so he or she better understands why you’ve set your prices where you have. Helping them have a better understanding of your costs will often settle negotiations more quickly.
  • Be willing to negotiate, but make it clear that reducing your price reduces the number of features or services you offer. For example, perhaps you’re willing to reduce your bid by $100, but that means your client gets one less revision before they have to pay extra.


Some clients will say they want to negotiate and then demand that you do all the same work for a reduced fee. In this situation, stick to your guns and be willing to walk away from the project. The kind of client that demands everything but is unwilling to pay what you’re due isn’t the kind of client you’ll enjoy working with anyway!


How to Market Yourself

i'm web design - hire me

Learning to market yourself as a designer takes some time and a number of considerations, not the least of which is the type of designer you want to be. In design school you took a variety of classes, some which interested you and others that likely didn’t. The same will ring true for design jobs you undertake. Some will be right in your area of interest, while others are just a means to pay the bills. Taking on different jobs will help you develop your identity as a designer and will inform you as to how you should market yourself.


Develop Your Identity

Developing an identity will involve striking a balance between finding your niche while also offering a wide enough scope of services to get the business you need to stay profitable. But this can be easier said than done, especially when you’re just starting out. Having a certain type of work you’re known for is great for building credibility, honing your skills, and can be advantageous when devising your marketing strategy, yet it may take you several months to figure out exactly what that niche is.

Offering a broader scope of services allows you to cast a wider net and get more clients, which is especially helpful as you’re just starting out and in need of clients. Yet, you can’t be all things to all clients, so developing some areas of specialty while having some additional tricks in your bag may be the best way to go. Taking this hybrid approach will allow you to market yourself as a niche designer, but one that also has the knowledge and skills to work on projects of varying types.


How to Transition from School to Work

A common criticism of design schools is that there aren’t enough support services to help students transition from being in college to being gainfully employed. As a new web designer seeking a freelance career, the transition can be even more difficult because you’re tasked with doing everything from continuing to build your skills, putting together a portfolio, working on client projects, seeking more clients, and so on. Yet this transition can be made easier by taking small steps into the freelance world and reaching out for guidance when you need it.

wondering desinger

Take On Small Projects

When you’re just starting out it can be overwhelming to think about the sheer amount of non-design related work you have to do for a project. If you’re concerned about the timing of your projects or are unsure of how to work directly with a client, try to find some small projects to begin with so you can get your feet wet. If your first freelance gig is to design a banner for an acquaintance’s website, you can much more easily work out the kinks with the design process, communicating with the client, billing, invoicing, and the like, all without having the laundry list of tasks you’d have in undertaking a full site design. Taking a few small projects to start out can help set you up for success by easing you into the “real world” of being a freelance designer.


Get Pointers from Others

As someone that has just recently begun their career, you’re going to have all kinds of questions about how to conduct your business. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other designers and ask for pointers, whether that’s for guidance with developing a pricing plan or recommendations for the best software. The great thing about the design community is that it really is a community. Designers are always willing to help one another, so grab your phone and Tweet your design idol for some advice. Ask for a quick tour of a local design studio to get a feel for how they give their clients a positive experience. Go back to your design school and talk with a professor. Just don’t be afraid to ask for help! It’s better to ask questions and get a feel for things up front than finding out on your own in a trial by fire.



Your Skills, Not Your Diploma, Will Get You Jobs

While getting a college degree is an important step in becoming the best designer you can be, at the end of the day, potential clients will be far more concerned with the kind of work you are capable of doing than they will be with where you went to school. Web design is a results-based industry, and demonstrating your ability to give people results is the most important thing you can do. To keep your skills fresh, you’ll need to commit yourself to continuously learning and finding effective ways to manage your time.


Keep Learning

always learn

Web design, like all creative careers, is constantly evolving and changing. To stay current, you’ll need to take some time to continue your learning process. Even just spending a few minutes each day to look at new trends in web design or mastering a new skill in Photoshop will keep you on top of your game and inspired.

Five years ago no one had heard of flat design, yet it’s now all the rage. Five years from now you could very well be designing a web site using methods that are only in their infancy today. Stay at the leading edge of web design by engaging in continuing education.

The best ways to keep up with the trends is following the right website designers on twitter, or subscribing to the best design blogs.


Use Shortcuts

It may not seem like using shortcuts is a skill, but it most certainly is. Time is money, and the more efficient you can be with your time the more money you can make. You can improve your workflow by using the many shortcuts in Photoshop or with ready-made PSD kits. As discussed above, there are an abundance of online business tools you can use to save time on the non-design elements of your business like invoicing and billing. Website builders are another great shortcut that you can use to get the most out of your time and provide more bang for your client’s buck.



Building a career as a web designer is a tough undertaking. But with a little time, perseverance, and smart choices, you can build a successful brand that you can be proud of. Leave a comment below and let us know what you’ve learned since graduating from design school. And be sure to share this post with your web design colleagues to help them get off on the right foot.

We also welcome you to join our newsletter and learn more on how to grow your web design business and make the transition from school to work much easier and more profitable.



Photo Credits:
Signature by avicinamedicalacademy via Flickr Creative Commons 
Gamestorming Workshop by Sebastiaan ter Burg via Flickr Creative Commons
NYC #9 by Thomas Leuthard via Flickr Creative Commons


Erez is the online marketing director of IM Creator. Erez writes about web design as a business, online marketing, and website building tips.

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