“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” 1 Corinthians 13:11

It’s not that I see my work as a righteous duty, with Biblical implications, not to the very least. I am paid by individuals and businesses to create commercially usable art and messages, plain and simple. The passage more or less reflects my view on maturing as a graphic designer, not only in skill set, but also in my ability to reason with clients, rationalize my design choices and explain them to the client whom, at times, does not agree with my choices. This is the correct path to getting paid for providing design services. But when you’re starting out as a young designer there are a few lessons to be learned.


When I was a young graphic designer, I talked like a young graphic designer. Having just graduated with an advertising degree and absolutely no portfolio to show for it, let’s just say I would do almost anything to fill up my old black Mead three-ring binder. And it all came down to swallowing my pride and doing a ton of free work.

First of all, we aren’t talking about doing some spec work for Pepsi or Apple; we’re talking about setting up graduation cards for my cousin, bathroom ads for my uncle’s ski resort and the occasional logo for a recently opened lawn care company. In my eagerness to attain professional growth, the words sputtered more often than not were “free,” “pro-bono” or “for spec.” And more often than not, never resulted in anything that paid more than $50. However, my portfolio started to grow and gain momentum, one “spec job” at a time. And as I did more and more low to no pay work, my professional skills grew as well and my work samples started to stand on their own two feet. But had I learned a lesson?

One Leg at a Time

As a young graphic designer, with an entry-level portfolio, I got an entry-level job. Although I started to attain a bit of skill in illustration, layout and Photoshop work, I was still inexperienced and doing work on the side to build my portfolio. I’m not going to lie; it was hard to showcase my skills to big ad agencies with weekly Larson Supervalu newspaper inserts. Trust me I tried.

In thinking like a young graphic designer, I was still doing work “for spec” and with very little thought behind it. Getting to know the client was little more than a half-hour meeting at a local coffee shop and hoping that the big payoff may happen down the road.

But a good design is an educated design and this only happens through collaboration with the client and clearly knowing what their goals and aspirations are. The client should know their business best. Now, this process takes time and thought, and for a designer, time is money – it’s a labor-based service.

However, because I was working on the cheap, and was not putting much thought into the projects, I was still thinking like a young graphic designer. The pieces looked nice, but they were created without being educated on the client, and honestly, at best, were just pretty pictures. The art provided no graphical or messaging longevity for branding and, in-turn, provided no long-term relationship with me as their graphic designer. Lesson learned: both parties involved just wasted each other’s time.

Pick Your Battles

Because I reasoned like a young graphic designer – lacking real or rational substance to the design choices I made – more often than not, the client assumed the role as the art director or art critic. Now, this is an ugly situation for a young designer to be in, not only are you attempting to expand your portfolio and build your reputation, but now you’re also doing the job as a favor and getting criticized for your efforts. Again, being hired or tasked a job by a client who doesn’t see any value (by doing it for spec) in professional graphic design services isn’t an ideal situation.

This is probably the most frustrating situation with any young creative. You think your work is good, but you can’t fight to maintain it. Lesson learned: I’ll admit it still happens to me, but I’ve been able to rationalize that some clients just want to maintain ultimate control, and I save the fight for another day.

The Buck Stops Here

“When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me….” At one point in my professional career I decided that spec wasn’t worth the time or effort we put into it. Not saying that it still doesn’t happen, but it’s a rare beast in the office. I think it started to phase out about three or four years ago with our company – by that time we weren’t the new kids in town attempting to build our portfolio and reputation. We’d learned our lessons and earned it through hard work, successful campaigns and getting paid. The electrical company isn’t showing us how good their lights work on spec. And neither are we.

As our agency has grown, we’ve put forth more concentrated efforts toward gaining intimate knowledge about each client, researched their industry, studied their competition and created strategic solutions for them, before we even begin the design process. At least that’s a best practice we are pursuing. However, every once and awhile, we get excited and do childish things and do a little spec work. And it still rarely works out in the end. It’s a hard lesson to learn but working “on spec” runs the risk of designing unappealing work based on the client’s personal opinion.

 Lesson learned: Perhaps this is all just a reminder from the above saying to get out there, “put your big boy pants on” and start getting to know your clients.