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6 Things I Wish I Learned From New Media Design at R.I.T.

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Design students often graduate without some of the most vitally important “real world” skills necessary to thrive in their creative field. Yet, many of them feel prepared to totally dominate the industry on graduation day.

I was no exception.

The truth is that I unknowingly lacked many of the fundamental non-design skills I now find myself using on a daily basis. It was up to me to learn them on my own as I began my full-time career as a web and interface designer. My major (New Media Design & Imaging) was primarily focused on the skill of design and not the broader meaning, purpose, and intent of it. Looking back, I wish there was a better balance.

Here I’ll share with you a few things I wasn’t taught in school that might help you become more prepared for the career you’ll have outside the classroom:

1. How to Effectively Present My Work

Presenting your design work to a professor is just not the same as resenting it to your boss or client. Most of the time, the professor would put my work up on the screen and ask the class what they thought about it. The problem with this method is I never learned how to present my thinking and reasoning. My work got displayed and there was no basis for feedback.

Think about it, if I had the chance to explain what problem I solved and how this particular design solved it effectively, the feedback that followed would be much different. And that’s exactly how you want to present your work to your boss and your clients. You should never just attach your design work to an email and send it off without any explanation and expect to get good results.

2. How to Effectively Manage Feedback

How you present your work will determine how relevant and effective the feedback is. Too often, students think if they don’t implement every piece of feedback they get from a professor, they will get a lower grade. Sometimes that’s true, but sometimes it’s ok to take the lower grade.

Not all feedback is good feedback and it’s up to you as the designer to decide what to implement and what to respectfully push back on.

When seeking feedback from a client or superior, it’s ok to push back on revisions and change requests, but be sure to hear them out first and then defend your work with reasoning based on your expertise.

3. How to Negotiate Rates & Salaries

In my opinion, we should have had an entire course dedicated solely to this topic. When the time finally came to show my work to employers and hope someone offered me a job, I was clueless as to how to present myself and navigate the conversation that followed. Somehow I ended up doing pretty well, but I’d like to take some of the guess work out for you.

Almost every company that offered me a job asked me some version of the same question: “What kind of compensation are you looking for?” That, my friends, is a tactic. Employers know that students are often going to respond conservatively out of fear of losing the opportunity or because they aren’t confident in their own worth and value. Therefore, they can often hire them for a lower price.

Most importantly, remember that you can’t negotiate up, but an employer can negotiate down. If you say $50k and they agree, you can no longer ask for more than that. You should also take that job or it could reflect poorly on you. However, if you ask for $60k and they only budgeted $55k, you are now negotiating above what you otherwise would have been.

Don’t ever negotiate a salary for a job you don’t plan on taking. That’s unprofessional and will earn you a bad reputation.

If an employer is serious about making you an offer, they already have a budget (or a budget range) in mind. That’s why I recommend you insist that they make you an offer first.

4. The True Purpose of Design

Throughout college, I considered design to be subjective and trendy. Very rarely, if ever, was I taught that design always intends to solve a problem and that the target user’s opinion matters much more than my professor’s opinion or the opinion of my peers. I suppose it was implied, but it was never made very clear.

When asked, “why did you choose that button style?” or “why did you select that icon?” many students will answer “because I like that icon and button style.” Instead, you should be able to give reasons for why that style and that icon make the interface better for the user.

Design is all about finding solutions within constraints. If there are no constraints, it’s not design, it’s art. – Matias Duarte

The true purpose of design is to solve a problem and is rarely subjective in any way. It’s hard to deny the quality of a design backed by intelligent reasoning and a focus on the target audience. With that said, make sure you still pay attention in Photoshop class.

5. How to Prioritize My Classes

It never made much sense to me why Art History was worth more credits than Intro to Web Design. Classes related to my core curriculum seemed to be worth less than the required ones I took just to be a “well-rounded” student. Thankfully, I noticed this early on and made a conscious effort to focus the majority of my attention on the classes that mattered; the ones that were going to help me get a job even if that meant my GPA suffered a bit.

Yes – I intentionally did worse in some classes to make sure I did better in others. This risky maneuver may not work for everyone as each person has a different work capacity, priorities, and goals, but this is what worked for me and I know it helped position me for a better job after college.

Maybe this isn’t a strategy that would be encouraged by professors, but I still have not used a single thing I learned in Art History class in my design career.

6. How to Focus on a Niche Skill

My professors didn’t start telling me this until way too late in my college career, but it is really important to have a primary skill that you are best at. You can still be a multidisciplinary designer, but you must also have a focus. At least in New Media, we learned so many different skills that we would often become really good at more than just one of them. When it came time to build our portfolio websites, you would often see titles and taglines such as “Matt Olpinski – Interface Designer, Front-End Guru, and Motion Graphics Artist”.

Who on earth did I think was going to hire me for all of those things?

Sadly, I really did have a tagline like that at some point before I graduated. So did many of my peers. Not surprisingly, employers prefer designers who are experts in one or two skills, not a jack of all trades. They hire them for one or two. For example, a web design company might have strategists, designers, developers, and marketers. They probably only need you to do one of those things and they need you to do it really well.

While you are still in school, focus on finding your niche skill and refine it in some way on every single project, even the ones that don’t seem relevant. For example, if you love web design, but you are stuck in a illustration class, design icons that could be used in a web interface or design a website using only illustrator.

And there you have it: most of the things I wish I had learned from my design major in college. I know these are intricate topics and students reading this may have more questions. If that’s you, please feel free to send me a personal email at mattolpinski@gmail.com and I would be happy to continue this conversation with you and expand on some of these topics.

I also still live in Rochester so if you are currently a New Media student, I would love to stop by the campus again and grab a coffee with you.

About Matt Olpinski
Matt runs his own web design and development company Matthew’s Design Co. and teachers thousands of freelancers how to succeed through his personal blog and newsletter.
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