Graphic designer informational interview: Q&A for your homework

I get lots of emails from students who need to interview a graphic designer for class. Are you a design student trying to get your assignment done? Below is a list of informational interview questions that students have asked me. You can steal them. If your question isn’t there, send me an email. I’ll answer you and add your questions to this list. Or if I’m in a super busy stretch, I’ll jot you a note saying I’m tied up so you can find someone else for your homework.

Tell me a little about yourself (hometown, college, etc).

I grew up on a farm in southwest Minnesota. I attended the University of Minnesota and graduated with a B.S. in Design Communication. (That was the name of their graphic design program at the time.) I’ve worked at a corporate in-house creative department, a small design agency, and am now self-employed.


Why did you choose your career?

I liked drawing realistic pictures as a kid, and reading art history books. I also liked science. I wavered between chemistry and graphic design when choosing a college major. Fine art never tempted me—those people are weirdos! (I jest. I have huge admiration for fine artists, but my brain is very practical.) Plus I wasn’t sure how to get a job if I went that route. I finally picked graphic design, because it’s about working out a puzzle in a visual way.


What was your first design job?

I worked in Rayovac’s in-house creative department in Madison, WI, where I made a lot of coupons for batteries and flashlights. Also some packaging and store displays for retailers like Sears and Walmart. But mostly coupons.


When you were new to the industry, what did you find most challenging?

Not knowing how to format files properly to send to a printer. (But I learned quickly from coworkers).


Who are your clients?

  • Small businesses and funded start-ups in a broad range of industries: tech, manufacturing, healthcare, education, retail, engineering, architecture, consulting, you name it
  • Larger corporations or universities who need branding for a new initiative
  • Marketing firms looking to partner with a branding or logo design specialist
  • Fabric, dishware, and home goods companies who buy surface patterns


What type of projects have you created?

Logos, brand identities with style guides, icons, business stationery, corporate brochures, sell sheets, ads, websites, trade show displays, packaging, patterns for fabric, ribbon, wallpaper, furniture, and dishes.


What are your favorite and least favorite types of projects?

My favorite projects are logos; I love the challenge of crafting a useful little morsel of design. I dislike websites because I’m a control freak who hates when things can move around. I want words and pictures to stay where I put them. Plus technologies and best practices keep changing, and I don’t have enough interest in this area to develop methodologies and stay up to date. Web design is a specialty in itself.


About how long does it take to complete an average project?

3 weeks to 3 months.


How much involvement do the clients have?

Lots. They give input during the discovery and strategy portion of a project, and at every new revision.


On average, how many hours a week do you work?

40-50, more when there are side projects or pro bono work.


What day-to-day activities are involved in your career?

  • Writing to / speaking / meeting with clients
  • Writing proposals
  • Researching a client’s business
  • Researching a client’s competitors
  • Developing concepts for logos, branding, and print materials
  • Making client revisions
  • Managing print vendors or other collaborators
  • Writing invoices
  • Logging my time, client payments, and expenses
  • Updating my website and portfolio
  • Posting on my blog, social media, and email newsletter


What software are you most comfortable working with?

Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop


What percentage of your work is done with technology?

For me, about 95%. 5% is sketching with a pencil or jotting notes.


Are you a dog or a cat person? (I’m actually going to guess you may be more of a bird person.)

Cats! Dogs are stinky and birds poop on you. I say this from experience.


How do you approach a new client project?

See this page.


Do you set strict timelines for yourself or do you work more spontaneously?

Most projects have a timeline from the get-go. I write it into my proposals to keep both me and the client on track. Deadlines are my friend, since without them I’d probably just read novels all day long. I usually start at 9 or 10 a.m. and work until 6 or 7 p.m.


How do you find your clients or drive your clients to find you?

Most clients search online for a designer and find my website. I’ve tried to optimize it for search engines and do a good job explaining what I do. A few projects come through referrals from previous clients or fellow designers.


How did you convince your first client to choose you? I have a lack of experience and I am afraid that will scare potential clients.

While I was still working at a design firm, a couple people approached me on the side. First friends, and then strangers the friends referred to me. At some point I sent a group email to acquaintances saying I was taking projects if they knew someone in need of design help. With a link directing them to my portfolio online. I can’t remember who my first paying client was! Probably an acquaintance who needed something done cheaply, who already knew me and was willing to give me shot.   

From there, I worked on making my website better. It does some of the convincing for me. With prospective clients today, I guess the only other convincing I do is to ask questions to get at their problem, and then say whether I think I can help them with that or not. You’d be surprised how far asking good questions will get you. People just want to know that you “get” them and care about their problem. And I will tell them if I’m not the right fit for their project.  

Don’t worry about a lack of experience, as long as you show genuine interest in the client, can confidently explain a process for working through their project, and have good portfolio pieces (even if they’re student projects or for fictional organizations. Might be fun to make concept art for Dunder Mifflin, the Rosebud Motel, or Willy Wonka’s candy company if you need a design prompt). Many smaller clients won’t mind your lack of experience if your work looks good.

If you do need more experience and portfolio examples, pick a small non-profit who desperately needs help with branding. (Tons do.) Work with them for free on a project.


What has surprised you most about the design industry?

The number of specialties and niches out there. When I started out, I had no idea there were companies that only make websites for yoga studios, or people that only fine-tune the letterforms in established logos.


What is your career goal?

Working for great organizations, doing smarter, more beautiful branding projects. With a sprinkle of surface design, which is a different exercise altogether and a fun change of pace.


How have you learned to deal with criticism from clients and colleagues?

It has helped to realize design is about meeting objectives, not about self-expression. If a client doesn’t like something I’ve made, it’s not about me. It’s about a mis-alignment between the work and what the stated or unstated needs are. But honestly, it feels vulnerable to put ideas out there. Clients can put you on cloud nine, dunk you into a vat of humiliation, or make you want to smash your mouse with a hammer. Take a walk, vent to a patient friend, or write a funny, bitingly sarcastic letter in a Word file (NOT AN EMAIL) and then immediately trash it. Get a good night’s sleep and you’ll feel better tomorrow, ready to hear the critique and look for the truth in it, because there always is some.


What do you enjoy most about being a graphic designer?

The challenge of using a few images and some text to communicate as clear a message as possible.


What are some of your inspirations?

Mid-century posters, album covers, and textile patterns; modernist corporate logos from WWII through the 80s, Scandinavian furniture and prints.


What do you do to distract yourself or keep your creative juices flowing?

  • Going to antique stores to enjoy the design of old packaging, posters, books, lamps, and chairs
  • Origami
  • Attempts at gardening
  • Decorating my house
  • Visiting museums
  • Watching documentaries about design, or shows like Face-off, Songland, Project Runway, or the Great British Bakeoff—anything where people are making stuff


What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of your job?

Advantages: I love what I do. It’s flexible; I can choose which clients I want to work with and set my own hours. I pick the music and the coffee. I can work directly with the client instead of through intermediaries like account managers. There is the potential to earn more, since I don’t have a fixed salary. I’m the boss!
Disadvantages: I’m the boss! Being self-employed means I have to do ALL the functions of the business, including finding leads, sales, scheduling, project management, estimates, billing, tech trouble-shooting, etc. I am not naturally good at some of those things, and some parts are boring. 


What is the best thing about the design work you do?

Seeing it used in the real world is my favorite part.


In your opinion, would you say your career has a high or low stress level?

It is what you make it. Much of this is within your control based on the practices and boundaries you set. Overall, I’d say medium. There are the stresses of deadlines and having to create on demand. If you’re self-employed, there’s not a steady paycheck so your income might fluctuate. On the other hand, if you love design and feel like it’s a good fit, it’s more likely to feel stimulating than stressful. And as you get more established, there are ways to create a business that has a pretty predictable income.


What are some important qualities a graphic designer should have?

Curiosity, patience to understand a client and their design problem thoroughly, perseverance to keep working until it’s right.


What is the work environment?

I work alone from my home office, a room in my house. But designers could also work at desks or cubicles in agencies, coworking spaces, or in large corporate buildings. Their work could be very collaborative in teams with many others, or solo.


What do you believe to be pre-requisites for the career that you are in? (Skills, attributes, etc.)

Please list 3-4 with brief explanations.

  1. Training in principles of design (color theory, balance, harmony, variety, scale, typography, etc.)
  2. Basic knowledge of art and design history (art movements, notable thought leaders, period styles)
  3. Technical skills (how to use the software)
  4. Curiosity (a drive to understand the client inside and out, so you can arrive at the best solution to their design problem)


Would you say there is a high or low potential for future graduates to get a job in this career field?

High? Every organization can use a graphic designer.


What are some of the classes you’ve taken in college, or what majors do you recommend for getting into design?

For getting into graphic design, major in graphic design or design communication. Some of my classes were: art history (I took 5 different ones— that number was required, I think), drawing, design fundamentals, color, typography, packaging, print making, various software classes like Adobe Illustrator. A double major, minor, or elective area of emphasis that would be helpful would be business, marketing, or writing.


How much of your program was focused on business?

If I’m remembering correctly, I’d say 0%. 


Would a graduate degree help in becoming a graphic designer?

It’s not necessary and would only create debt. I’d recommend a 2- or 4-year undergrad degree, internship, and starting out at someone else’s company.


What would be a good learning experience for a graphic designer?

Work in-house in the creative department of a corporation, or at a design firm where there are other designers. I would absolutely recommend working with others instead of being the only designer in your first job. You need folks to show you the ropes.


Did you create a portfolio starting out?

Yes. Having a student portfolio was required for graduation from my university, and showing a portfolio of past work was needed any time I applied for a job.


What are some ethical issues in design?

  • Giving under-represented people access to education and design jobs
  • Making sure the aesthetics of creators from different cultural backgrounds are valued
  • Choosing to show all kinds of people in designs
  • Accessibility in design for people with disabilities
  • Cultural awareness when choosing symbols, colors, and image content
  • Avoiding copyright infringement and plagiarism
  • Avoiding manipulative images for political or commercial gain (Photoshopping body shapes, skin color, lighting effects, etc.) 
  • Avoiding the business practice of asking for free spec work from designers and not paying them for their labor
  • Choosing work that aligns with personal standards (e.g. whether to work on tobacco projects, etc.)


What is something you wish you had known when you first started your business?

  • Specialize. It will help you market yourself.
  • The more you charge, the better the client is to work with. In general.
  • Trust your gut. If a client seems like they might be difficult, they will be. Factor that in or avoid the project.
  • Only show the work you want more of.


Do you have any advice for a college grad just starting out in the field?

  • If at all possible, get a job working near people whose skills you’d love to have someday.
  • Learn about the business side whenever you get the chance. You probably didn’t learn it in school.
  • Make friends with other designers outside of work whose brains you can pick and whose influence would be good for you (whether that’s their design aesthetic, business ambition, networking prowess, curiosity about life, or just generally good character).
  • Go to conferences and design events even if you don’t want to.
  • Read design blogs to keep abreast of what’s out there—it will serve you well to have references to draw from and examples to use in conversations with colleagues and clients.


Any words for people getting started who aren’t young graduates?

I think anyone coming to design later in life, who isn’t a young grad, is starting with a leg up. Life and work experience of any kind will make you a better designer. You’re more familiar with how people think. You have more life experiences to draw on, and maybe some other work or business knowledge. So you’re better able to get into the mind of the end user of the design, because you’ve seen more. It will help you design better. Super! Take classes and do the same stuff listed above.


Can I send you another question to answer?

Yep. Email me.

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