Co.Design

4 Career Lessons From A Former Design Intern

Amateurs and established professionals alike can benefit from the pearls of wisdom Geoff Ledford learned the hard way.

The U.S. armed forces have a practice of formally recording the stuff they’ve learned in the course of any conflict. In military parlance, it’s called making an “after-actions” or “lessons learned” report. When you consider that much of the armed forces’ time is spent dealing with people who want to kill them, passing experience on to the next group of men and women coming in seems like a pretty good idea.

In September 2012, I began a deployment of sorts. But instead of going to Iraq or Afghanistan, I headed for an internship at Soulcake Creative, a boutique design consultancy in San Clemente, California, to test my hard-earned Art Center College of Design stripes. What follows is my own “lessons learned report” from the experience. Hopefully, my takeaways can help other young designers minimize bloodshed as they transition into new posts.

1. Kill Your Ego

One afternoon my boss and I were working on a big presentation for one of Soulcake’s larger clients. Somewhere in our discussion, I said something about how badly our client was missing the mark in one particular area of the company’s brand. The conversation screeched to a halt. My boss, a former Microsoft design manager, had a few strong words for me. Over the course of his career, he had worked with almost every major studio I could imagine. And in his experience, nothing turned him off to a studio quite like having a designer talk down to him--as if the designer was going to teach him something about his own business.

A tinge of hubris can quickly contaminate an otherwise good relationship. And with so many capable design consultancies all ready to do the same job, it’s important to stay humble.

“Don’t ever say anything that suggests that you understand their business better than them; you don’t,” my boss chided me. ‘It’s their skin in the game, not yours.”

2. Bring Some Passion Into The Presentation

After my first presentation of work at Soulcake, one of the partners pulled me aside to discuss how it went. While he credited me for hitting the nail on the head with the information I presented, he dinged me for ignoring the tone and feeling of my subject matter.

“A good presentation shouldn’t just give me information--it should evoke emotion.”

My design training has made me intensely analytical about my work--thanks to value propositions, visual brand languages, and defending my work to teachers who are pushing me to be better. And none of those tools or ways of thinking about design is bad. But unless you’re presenting exclusively to a group of hardcore geeks, purely analytical justification for a design probably won’t resonate with a real person. Analytical justification for a design works best when it’s combined with a story or metaphor that hits an emotional chord.

3. Find Your Own Voice

I’m a trumpet player (so forgive me if this is self-indulgent), but my next point will be made by way of analogy:

Through the 1960s and ’70s, Freddie Hubbard was one of the hottest jazz musicians in the world. His trumpet playing possessed a kind of bravado and ferocity that few have ever been able to duplicate. But that didn’t stop the great Miles Davis for calling Hubbard for his lack of originality one night at Birdland, theseminal New York jazz club.. “Miles Davis was already a legend, so I used to try to play like him,” remembered Hubbard in an interview. One night in the middle of a set, Hubbard looked down to find Davis sitting in the front of the stage. Afterward, Davis told Hubbard in no uncertain terms to “play his own stuff.” (I imagine the advice likely a bit more colorful, but no matter. ) In the years that followed, Hubbard found his own voice, a brazen style that I can only describe as wonderfully cocky. Today, both Davis and Hubbard, each with his own distinct style, are unarguably legends.

Fast-forward several years. When I arrived at Soulcake, one of my first presentations was an absolute disaster. I thought I’d had some rough crits during my time at Art Center, but this made them seem like a pillow fight by comparison. Halfway through my presentation, I distinctly remember wanting to hide under a desk. As it worked out, the disaster happened on a Friday afternoon. After an agonizing weekend of reflection, I came to an inescapable conclusion: I’d been trying to design what I thought my boss would want to see using techniques that I’d seen the other designers using, instead of just being myself. The result was a bunch of concepts that lacked my voice and, consequently, weren’t authentic. I’d been trying to play like Miles instead of just infusing my work with myself.

4. Work will always be there

One of SoulCake’s owners also happens to be a surfer. He surfs nearly every morning before work, most of the time walking into the office with sand on his flip-flops. One night during a particularly busy week at the studio, I got a text from him asking me if I was going to surf in the morning.

With lots of work on my plate and wanting to make a good impression, I texted back that I was going to pass. I wanted to get to the office early so I could finish the concepts I was working on and proceed to the next phase of the project.

His reply: “I think you should surf. There is always work and the waves aren’t always this good.”

After three grueling years at school (where little matters beyond the next crit and the quality of your work), his response was an absolute revelation to me. Contrary to what many designerds (not a typo) constantly profess, life outside of design should exist. Design schools love to talk about how “design is something that should encompass every part of your life” and how “design is a calling to something greater.” I’ve even seen a bumper sticker in the parking lot at Art Center that proclaims “Design can save the world.” It’s almost like design has become a god thing that we must serve with the entirety of our lives, like bowing down to a ziggurat or something.

I come from a place where one or two all-nighters a week isn’t extraordinary. Art Center trains you to work your fingers to the bone--and then wear out the bone too. And for good reason: There are times in any design project when you’re required to bear down, pour yourself another cup of coffee, and put the pedal to the metal into the wee hours of the morning. When these situations arose, I thanked my lucky stars for everything that Art Center did to prepare me.

But my internship gave me another point of view. At the end of the day, designers are simply problem solvers. And there are always going to be problems to solve. There’s no reason to forfeit your entire life by working to death, be it massaging a character line to perfection or slogging around in the Silicon Valley soup en route to the next iWhatever launch. There are times to work hard, but there are also times to play, and relax, and refill your creative gas tank.
You can resume those army-like design drills in tomorrow.

[Illustration: Web Icons via Shutterstock]

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20 Comments

  • Deepak

    Nice article. The business has to find more effective and simpler ways of communicating than just trying to make fancy presentations, which at times becomes an end in itself rather than being means to an end. Simplicity and retention of individuality are the key. This is not to say that we don't need to improve our communication skills and style. There is always room for improvement, but that improvement has to be more of a evolutionary process rather than unleashing a revolution at a business presentation.

  • Dane_Storrusten

    Sweet article. Followup on #1 and the comments below. It's easy to be defensive about a client destroying your utopian design approach. If you're going to do it, be tactful and don't forget to put yourself in the shoes of someone with millions on the line. Ah the big question, "Maybe being stern with my client and throwing my opinions at them will make them understand my genius and ultimately respect me & my recommendations more." 

    Well, sure. All you have to do is back it up with a boatload of tangible experience, business success stories you've spearheaded that relate directly to their problem, and actionable data that contributes to their bottom line.If you can't do that. Keep quiet, listen, and learn something.If you can, well have all the "ego" you want. Pick your battles and make sure you have the armory to back it up. You're gonna need it.12 years in the biz, and I haven't once been able to rattle off a specific business success story for every industry covered in my current client base in which my design work has been 100% responsible. I'll sentence myself to another 10 years in the "listening" phase ; )

  • Eric Devericks

    Great article.  In my opinion "ego" has nothing to do with being honest, straightforward, sharing criticism or solid advice with your client.  "Ego" is an attitude, it's a lazy method of communication where a designer feels that he/she does not need to justify their ideas, designs, advice and recommendations to the client.  Kill your ego, be honest, straightforward and share your advice and recommendations with confidence because they are communicated effectively from a solid foundation with just a touch of humility.

  • Designo78

    Good article. As for #1, tone your ego rather than kill it. Don't care to much for the bosses reaction. His ego was certainly not in check nor was he open to a new idea. Maybe that's more the reason he worked for so many design studios. As was said in another comment, we can all learn something from each other. One more thing. If the client is lacking in one area, go ahead and fix it. He will either like it or hate it, blindly keep his mistake, or accept a new idea. You are not showing you know more than he about his business, you are just doing the job he asked for in the beginning. You stated the obvious correctly, we are problem solvers.

    Oh, and in school we referred to ourselves as "designos".

  • FluxAppeal

    All agreed but #1, tho' I do tread lightly and phrase suggestions to clients carefully. But this wasn't a client, it was your boss, different story! Thank you for your insight and also for bringing back those all-nighters at Art Center (terrible vending machines for a starving artist needing late night fuel ;)

  • Marion

    Thank you very much for this. I'm a graphic design student and you just transphorm my past interships : I thought I was lame but it apear that I was just learning important stuffs. 

    forgive me about my spelling (I'm french ...) and my cheesiness :)

  • E Menatejeda

    I would add along with killing your ego, that it's important not to give so much weight to criticism at the beginning of your career. You're just starting and you're just giving your first steps, in time you'll start walking and then running.

  • Matt Hryhorsky

    I'd caution against #1 as well. There's a difference between what's perceived as ego and offering up advice or criticism based on experience and an outside perspective. In many cases, the client is hiring you for that perspective. Some of our best clients are the ones who appreciate that we challenge them and help them identify those shortcomings. 

  • Chris Kelly

    Great article. It sounds like you have had a chance to work with some amazing people. Lesson one is a bit strange. I agree with killing your ego to a point: I've had to work alongside people who sometimes could not see the wood for the trees. I stood back, kept quiet because i was 'just a designer, not a businessman'. On many many occasions it turned out to be right, again i kept my ego in and didnt say 'i told you so' when it all fell apart. Since then I have spoken up to express my concern with choices with varying success. But someones other people are wrong about their own business that they know inside out. I think theres a balance to be had. Very difficult if you're a designer just starting out though. 

  • Felipe Edoardo

    Exactly what I came here to say. The first point is like telling a doctor to check his ego because the patient knows his own body better than he does.
    Designers are hired for a reason: they have a certain kind of expertise that the client lacks. If you just make yourself an expensive executor instead of a specialist, the results will be just as disastrous as if you didn't listen to the client at all.

  • HBJ DESIGN

    Excellent insights - especially the last one. When your life revolves around doing design, it can be hard to create inspired work. We live in a society where people work too hard as it is, making the need to recharge even more crucial. I find that when I take more time to gain inspiration from nature, recreation, music, reading, etc. I become more efficient when I return to my desk. Also, being a fellow brass man (trombone), I love the Freddie Hubbard analogy.

  • Fabdesigns

    Geoff, This is a terrific article and you should think of going back to AC occasionally to talk to current students.  As a director of product development who loves to hire AC grads, I can not stress enough the need to "fill the well"    Without even looking at your portfolio I know you have amazing skills and a sincere work ethic.  Filling the well - giving yourself space to breath and think, be inspired by nature, museums, magazines, tradeshows or even a sunny afternoon, gives your work time to rest, so that when you go back to it, you have fresh eyes and a bit of objectivity.  The ego trip is normal to any creative, just don't lose your spine and become a yes person.  The only thing clients hate more than telling them you know their business better, is yessing them to death.  Be honest and tactful.  Just lose the sharp edges, keep the sincerity and filter the passion. You will be fine.

  • Global Jobs Network

    It's a perfect article for four my own reasons. 1. it's collection of few important point not a lengthy list. 2. I can relate all four reasons with me. 3. It's based on experience and last one 4. I am a designer myself [though it was not important to mention :-)]