Once you’ve mastered the basic principles of design and have the makings of a stellar portfolio, you may be raring to apply to design jobs. And that’s a great place to start. But during these early stages of your graphic design career, you’re vulnerable to many common mistakes: The wrong habits can affect your process, efficiency, and the final product—not to mention your bottom line. If you can learn to avoid these common pitfalls while you’re still starting out (even if you’ve already landed an entry-level job), you’ll be able to focus more of your energy on advancing in your career. 

Image via Jon Burgerman
Image via Jon Burgerman

Here, we’ll outline the basics that any graphic designer—even one just breaking into the field—should have already grasped. Then, we’ll touch on the common mistakes that can trip up aspiring creatives, from errors in the actual design process itself to the professional slip-ups that can cost you money, time, or clients. You will make mistakes throughout your career—everyone does—but with a greater awareness of the industry’s most common fallacies, you can better equip yourself to tackle any challenge that comes your way. 

The Basics: Lessons from Graphic Design Courses

Whether you attended a four-year art school or took classes online, graphic design courses generally cover building blocks like lines, shapes, and other elements, in addition to fundamental ideas like symmetry, scale, framing, and grids. “Those are principles that you can bring to bear in all kinds of projects,” says Smithsonian Design Museum curator Ellen Lupton, who shares her expertise on those pillars in the Skillshare Original Graphic Design Basics: Core Principles for Visual Design. “They are quick and useful, and they’re in the background of any piece of graphic design.”

Student project by Steve St. Pierre in Aaron Draplin’s Skillshare Original, “Logo Design with Draplin: Secrets of Shape, Type, and Color”
Student project by Steve St. Pierre in Aaron Draplin’s Skillshare Original, “Logo Design with Draplin: Secrets of Shape, Type, and Color”

Most courses also offer a brief look at the field’s history,  too, which itself is no small item: When you know the history of a discipline, you’re more prepared to make informed design choices for the future, predicting trends and avoiding clichés. 

But unfortunately, art and design classes don’t always teach you how to become a professional graphic designer. Many programs understandably focus more on the art than they do on professionalism and students’ future careers. While you may know everything about vector design and color editing, your courses may have skirted the basic question: How do I get a job as a graphic designer? For individuals just beginning their careers, vocational errors can be just as common as design mishaps. To make sure we cover all of our bases—for both self-taught designers and anyone who may have dozed off during college courses—we’ll go over the wide range of mistakes that beginning designers make, from basic design flaws to professional pitfalls.

Common Design Errors

Not all graphic designers take formal courses before choosing a career path. Many are self-taught, especially as it becomes increasingly common to have access to online courses and design software. For those budding artists, early career mistakes may also come in the form of basic color, layout, and typography issues. Here, we’ll touch on flaws in the design process that can trip up new designers. 

Overdoing it On a Single Project

There’s a certain kind of excitement that comes with your first assignment, and it’s natural to want to put your best foot forward. Many new designers want to show off all of their skills immediately: They might load websites that should be clean and simple with multiple animations. Or they’ll mix many different styles into one project, use six fonts when they should only use two, and apply every tool Photoshop has to offer on a single design.

You don’t want to overwhelm a project by packing it with everything you’ve learned about graphic design. After all, clean design is good design, and even a crowded page can be composed in a way that looks sleek and uniform. By showing restraint on your early projects, you can prove to clients and potential employers that you have a professional attitude and a discerning eye.

Living by the Trends

It’s important to pay attention to current design trends. They can inform your work and encourage your style to evolve. But that doesn’t mean that design trends should dominate the bulk of your work.

Consider gradients: For a while, you couldn’t walk past a billboard without seeing one color gradually morph into another. But if new designers began every project by splashing a different gradient on a blank page, their work (and thus, their portfolios) would have eventually appeared cliché or tired. It would be nearly impossible to differentiate their output from that of other artists during that time—and that would have hurt their long-term prospects.

Trends ebb and flow, which is all the more reason not to latch onto one over another. This rule of thumb is especially important if your client is looking for an enduring design, such as a logo or a printed business card. No one wants to invest in a bunch of business cards that utilized the hottest trend of 2017, then end up looking trite by the end of 2018. 

“After 60 years or 70 years of identity designs, so many marks have been created and already registered that for you to create a mark that is original, new, and ownable within your client’s industry is only becoming more and more challenging,” explains designer Sagi Haviv in the Skillshare Original Designing Brand Symbols: The Principles & Process of Making Logos that Last. Bucking trendy design tropes can allow you to create the next generation of enduring design. “The potential to create value is immense,” Saviv says. “If done right, a symbol that lasts for a very long time can become famous.”

Creating Logos That Last

Join designer Sagi Haviv for lessons on timeless symbols, problem-solving, and client presentations in his Skillshare Original.

Prioritizing Style over Function

Beauty and functionality should always overlap in graphic design, for beginners—and even for seasoned professionals—striking that balance can be a challenge. Coming out of art school, designers are often accustomed to working on aesthetic assignments rather than functional client websites or ad campaigns. Those sensibilities may produce eye-catching creations, but they can also cause designers to miss obvious requirements, such as inserting calls to action (CTAs) that stand out against background colors.

You may think that a CTA looks better in a muted shade of blue. But if the bright red text makes users click, then the text needs to be bright red. Color contrast is crucial for both grabbing users’ attention and pointing them in the direction that your clients have selected—even if it’s not the absolute best choice aesthetically. 

For client projects that seek to convey straightforward information, designers also need to use easily readable fonts. Paying attention to font weights (thickness) and uniformly presenting similar information will help viewers better understand the content of your work. An intricate design may look nice, but clients usually don’t want viewers to have to squint to understand information about a product. Over time, the best designers learn how to balance good design with results-driven functionality.

Taking Too Many Shortcuts

Part of being an efficient designer means knowing the shortcuts that will get you through a demanding job. There are quick fixes for duplicating shapes in Photoshop, just as there are shortcuts for making repeat pattern designs. Many shortcuts are smart, but others are just plain lazy.

Relying on too many stock images for a client’s website, for example, would be a huge gaffe.  Never create a project based on designs that are already being used by others in your client’s industry, either. If all dog-walker sites cover their homepages in dog prints, it may seem like a cute, easy solution—but to make your client’s site stand out, you’ll need to try something different.

Other ill-fated shortcuts may be less obvious. Plenty of graphic designers may find a font they love and stick to it. But to produce your best work every time, try not to get too comfortable with just one look. Just because you’ve found your dream font doesn’t mean that it’ll be a fit for every client, too.

And be judicious with software shortcuts. While some of them are worth using regularly, there are also tools like Adobe Illustrator’s “Live Trace,” which lets users trace images they didn’t create and turn them into graphics. If you rely too much on tools like that, you may get into the habit of creating unoriginal work—a mistake that gets you into trouble in the long run.

The Right Way Speed up Your Workflow

Learn shortcuts that will save you time without hurting your design in a Skillshare Original from DKNG Studios.

Lacking Attention to Detail

In graphic design or virtually any other creative field, your work will always be improved by minding the little things. The more time you spend at a job, the more you’ll grow accustomed to which tiny details matter to clients and audiences. But you won’t catch them all right away.

Rookies might fail to adequately proofread their work, or design with settings that are optimized for a digital project when the work is meant for a print product—like using RBG (red, blue, and green—best for web) instead of CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black—a standard for print). The layout also matters when you’re switching from computer screens to printouts. It’s key to make sure that designs don’t bleed into magazines’ centerfolds, and that a website design for a desktop works well on mobile. 

Taking an extra moment to pay attention to the little details, whether you’re checking the copy with fresh eyes or confirming your design settings for print, will save you time in the long run. Your final product—and your client’s results—will always be better for it. 

Student project by Miguel Sanchez in DKNG Studios’ Skillshare Original, “Mastering Illustrator: 10 Tips & Tricks to Speed Up Your Workflow”
Student project by Miguel Sanchez in DKNG Studios’ Skillshare Original, “Mastering Illustrator: 10 Tips & Tricks to Speed Up Your Workflow”

Common Professional Errors

When you’re learning graphic design, you’re usually not focused on navigating the professional world. In design school, professors rarely touch on the ins and outs of working in the industry you’re preparing to enter, and self-taught designers often have more on their plate than mastering best practices for client relationships or cold pitching. For those in need of a crash course in design professionalism, here are some common mistakes. 

Not Understanding Demand

During the early days of job search, many designers narrow in on what they believe clients will want. Beginners often present potential clients with portfolios that look like the ads they see every day, and they focus on gigs at big-name agencies. 

But while landing one of those high-profile jobs will look great on a resume, the companies at the top of every designer’s list rarely newbies. After all, everyone else is going after these clients and jobs, too—not just other beginners. So it’s often more productive to start small in your job search, building up a strong portfolio and securing top references before you go for the big fish. 

With this method, you can also look into industries you might not have previously considered. A corporation may unexpectedly need designers to help with client presentations. Small retailers may need designers to make signs for their stores, and law firms may need to present visual displays in court. Expanding your search beyond the marquee design firms can often yield your best clients or your most promising job prospects—and give you the experience to land a dream job down the road. 

Blindly approaching Negotiations

Stereotypes may lead you to believe that all artists have sensitive souls, so hard-line negotiating isn’t one of their skills (or, likewise, that professionals with business smarts have zero creative capabilities). But those assumptions couldn’t be less true.

“The finance section of a design studio is the backbone,” says designer Melanie Greenwood, who teaches the Skillshare course How to Price Your Design Jobs And Get Paid On Time. “It enables us creatives to continue doing the work we love.” Whether you’re working for a company or yourself, business smarts are essential for graphic designers. You’ll need to know when it’s appropriate to get a deposit in advance for a large project, how to efficiently negotiate rates and deadlines, and how to generally behave professionally. Do your research about average rates in your chosen field, and make sure to understand any expectations before committing to a project or wage. “Don’t undercut yourself,” says Greenwood. “Give yourself the level of respect that you deserve as an artist, and price your art and your time wisely.”

Don’t automatically bend to a client’s requests, either: If you’re given a completely unrealistic deadline, such as finishing a monster project with a two-day turnaround, don’t be afraid to tell your client that the timeline is unrealistic. (If it’s outrageous for you, it probably won’t be realistic for anyone else, either.) Instead of rushing to make something shoddy, negotiate terms that will allow you to produce something that will make you and the client proud. 

How to Price Your Design Work

Get an edge in negotiations with designer Melanie Greenwood, who guides designers of all levels through pricing and negotiation advice.

Forgetting You’re Working for a Client—Not a Professor

You’re not in school anymore, which means that creating your best work is no longer the only priority. It’s also your goal to solve whatever particular problem that your client presents to you: The visual appeal may still be important, but it isn’t the only aspect. Before you focus on making a project look amazing, make sure you’re solving the problem. 

Ask your new clients many questions about their goals for a project upfront so that you can get as close to their vision as possible during your first attempts. Edits are inevitable in this business, but you’ll have a problem if you’re constantly starting from scratch because you and your client failed to communicate.

There are procedures to follow, too, whether you’re working at an agency or as a freelancer. If you forget key workflow steps—such as running your design by a superior at an agency or sending your client a file in a format they can open—you could sour important professional relationships. 

Make Your Career and Portfolio About You

Try to avoid all of these mistakes, but don’t let the fear of failure stop you from carving out your place in the design industry. Even as you’re sidestepping rookie mistakes and adhering to industry norms, your creative personality can still shine through in your work. The key to a successful graphic design career is balancing professionalism and clients’ needs with your unique voice. Yes, you will make mistakes. But preparing for them will help you bounce back quickly, and learning from them when they happen will propel you forward. An incredible design career is just a few risks away.