Craig Oldham’s advice to design students and fresh grads

Last week we invited our Twitter followers to send in any questions they may have about a career in design. Here are some of the questions that came in, and Oldham’s advice.

Fresh graduates and design students from all over the world sent us their questions for Craig Oldham, which the designer responded to drawing from his own experience working as a designer and creative consultant.

Here we’ve picked a few of the questions and Oldham’s answers to them. Though in response to personal queries, his answers offer an insight on what it’s like to work as a designer and will resonate with many in the industry.

Jonathan Rowland @JonSRowland: Although I’m told my work is ok, my low self-esteem is hindering my progression. What would be the best method to get past this and get myself out of there? 

Craig Oldham: Confidence is tricky as it’s highly personal. I don’t know what might be affecting your confidence, but you need to understand what and why comprehensively before acting on it. If it’s confidence in your ability, then lots of things can help that. Be reflective about what you’ve achieved, what you’ve done and what you’re doing. Remember the things you’re proud of and hold them tight.

Always keep your work and role as a designer in perspective. No one is any better than you because they may be more experienced. The only difference is that they have been doing it longer and you haven’t had the opportunities they had yet. YET.

Kiloran Rose @Kiloran_Rose: If you are the sole designer in your office, how do you continue to develop and improve your skills without someone to guide you? 

CO: [When I was a sole designer] I tried to always meet and talk with other designers, see other things, go to talks and the likes. But more than anything, universally, the thing that always improves, inspires and helps me, is teaching.

I think all designers, or creatives for that matter, should do some form of teaching as from a selfish point of view alone it makes you better at your work. You have to find new ways of working and dealing with things. That you just don’t get working in a studio.

Steve Allen @officialdesign_: How do you learn the financial side of design? Is there a specific approach to take to know what to charge a client? 

CO: I always tried to be around the people in agencies that worked with the money and the management. They are creative too and costing, sourcing, producing, managing and the likes are vital skills, so need to be gained.

In terms of charging, that’s not an exact science either. It’s always a to-and-fro tennis match to get a figure everyone is happy with. Most of the time I try and cost based on a mix of time, resource needed to make it what I think it could be.

On the other side you have to be honest about what you get from a project and why you are doing it. You have to have at least one answer – even if the answer is just money, know why.

If it’s a project you really want to do for, say, to learn something new, or that you’e really interested in, or many be a way into other opportunities, that should be considered when costing too. I’m not saying to do it cheaper. But I am saying it’s always a balance.

Don’t be afraid to stick to your guns too. Everyone tried their luck when it comes to money. Designers moan about clients doing it, but to be honest, we do it with suppliers too. Everyone does it. But don’t take the piss, nor let anyone else take it either.

Bergþóra Jónsdóttir‏ : How do you deal with proposal rejection from a client? 

CO: Poorly, ha! In fairness I always seek a measured response from clients on feedback. I feel it makes work better if you take into account (seriously) the clients opinions and reasoning. Often, I find, their reasoning to be solid and therefore you can make informed decisions.

If they come back with arbitrary reasoning (I just don’t like red etc.) then try to give it another, measured, push. I think designers don’t help themselves in these situations. When fighting for work they tend to talk about the design and not their reasoning.

Which means, in a sense, they are quick to talk about how clever they are rather than what the work could achieve. That always helps gain a client’s confidence as I feel that means you’re doing the work for the right reasons.

Jakk @jakk_design: When reaching the final stages of a project, how do you know when the piece is complete and when to stop editing or experimenting if at all? 

CO: Deadlines are good for this. A project never really feels finished. You always look back on work and think to meddle or improve it, but ultimately you have to make decisions to move forward. To make these decisions it helps me to firmly know what I’m trying to achieve, then I hold every creative call up to that to see if it achieves it or not, and which then achieves it best.

Fen @FenHippo: What are the qualities of a designer that can get themselves ready to become a creative director in the future? 

CO: Being a designer is so much more than just designing. You have to be competent at managing projects, people, suppliers, processes, time, money, planning, communicating, delegating and more. My advice would be to learn from the people who do these things.

When I was at agencies I made sure I spent time with the ‘client’ side of the team. Whether they are account managers or whatever, their skills are just as important to being a good designer, as being around more senior creatives was. They are creative too and offer a lot.

Harshmelo @Hashmelo: How important is drawing ability when going into graphic design? 

CO: Well Milton Glaser will tell you it’s imperative! It allows you another dimension in which to articulate your ideas. I’ve never been the best drawer, and more frequently write out my thoughts, but I think as long as you can articulate what your thinking well, that’s what matters.

Maura Rowell @maura_rowell: In a world so heavily focussed on digital design and user experience, how do you see the future of the print-focused designer evolving? Is it necessary to be well versed in the skills of digital if your main desire is to work in print design? 

CO: It’s tricky. I think print will have a bit of a half-life as digital increases. But I don’t see it eradicated, just evolving to the market. It will always have a role to play as humans have more senses available to them than digital tends to.

Both print and digital are technologies, not skills. You do have to command certain technical abilities respective to each, but your skill as a designer should translate. Communication is communication, and ideas are ideas. Get them right first and foremost, for me away.

Rhiannon Marie Wood @RhiMarieDesign: Do you have any advice on combating fear as an inexperienced designer? I’m afraid of established designers seeing my word and thinking it’s crap, but I don’t want to let that hold me back

CO: I’m still scared all the time. I feel inferior to a lot of my peers and still see other’s work and compare it to mine and think it’s shit. But I deal with that by understanding more about what I do and important why I do it.

My work is based on my ideas, my beliefs and I take solace in that. Don’t ever be afraid or ashamed of standing by what you produce. Experience comes, you can’t rush it, and trust me you will get better. Good designers will understand where you are and the level you’re at and won’t be judgemental about that. the ones who do aren’t worth your time as they will have forgotten the crucial truth they too were once in your position.

(Thank you to everyone who participated and sent us questions. For her question Wood will get a studio tour and a portfolio crit with Craig Oldham)

Read all of the questions and Oldham’s answers here

Designer, creative consultant and writer, Oldham’s latest book Oh Sh*t… What Now? sets out to help those starting a design career, and offers some honest advice on working in the industry, published by Laurence King £17.99