205-223-4415 shawn@shawnwright.net

A fraternity brother reached out, asking me to send his niece some advice. She had recently graduated college and was embarking on a career as a graphic designer. My first thought was that I should have talked to her four years ago to talk her out of her career choice. I was joking, but only a little bit. 

I was trying to come up with a quick bit of unsolicited advice from a stranger that she would enjoy. Then I realized there is so much to unpack from decades of work. Here is what I came up with.

Love what you do.

Becoming a graphic designer was not a stretch for me. My father was a creative director at the regional ad agency Luckie for his entire career. I spent many days hanging out in the art department, and I loved the atmosphere, the smell of the markers, and the rubber cement as designers glued type galleys to illustration boards for production. Compared to the account executives and business office down the hall, this was a playground. When I announced to my father that I planned to attend Auburn University and major in Visual Arts, his only nugget of wisdom was, “You’re not going to make any money.” Dammit if he wasn’t right. But I wasn’t in this for the money. I wanted to make things. 

Learn as much about production as possible.

Production when I started and what it is today are entirely different. I was taught to create my print materials on artboards and get them ready to be sent to an offset printer. I could go on and on about this, but there is no point. Computers completely changed how we created art a short five years or so later. In both cases, having boards or files set up correctly solved many problems when they got to the printer or if someone had to access your files and make changes. It’s a little thing, but it helps in the long run.

Learn as much about the business side as possible.

Do you have any interest in freelancing or maybe starting a small design firm? You won’t believe how much of your time will be spent running the business—keeping up with everyone’s hours, billing, payroll, the flow of work, rent, utilities, and on and on. You will need to constantly look for new business as you continue to do great work for your current clients. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Not really. It can be a lot of fun and elevate your work. I was in a partnership for 13 years with my agency Atticus Communications, and I loved it. I spent a lot of my time on the business side, and it did wear me down. In the end, I had to choose between being on the business side of the business or getting back to what I loved, creative.

Pay your suppliers first.

While we are talking about the business, I want to mention this. Pay your suppliers first. When the check from your client comes in, pay the printer, your copywriter, your photographer, whoever you used on that project. They probably did a great job for you, and they deserve to be paid first. If you have a problem with that, become your own writer, photographer, or whatever.

Learn how to write. There is power in the written word.

You will find out the hard way that copywriters wield more power in an agency than the artist do. You will see more of them elevated to Creative Director roles than artists. My dad was the rare exception. If you enjoy writing, keep exercising the writing muscle and use it to your advantage in your career. 

Always be learning.

Earlier I mentioned that computers, or “desktop publishing” as it was known, completely changed how I did my job. A decade later, the internet and websites completely changed the business, and things are changing faster and faster. Use this to your advantage. Stay on top of all the technologies and be ready to pivot. Many people retired early or changed careers because they couldn’t make the move to creating on computers.

New designers bring energy.

I love new designers! They are full of piss-and-vinegar. They know everything about design and will let you know it. This is not a dig at new designers. I genuinely love the enthusiasm that they bring to the business. They work hard and want to create the most outstanding designs. This enthusiasm keeps the older designers on their toes and inspires them to work hard and stay relevant. When I started my first job at a computer company (yes, computers in 1986!), I had a chip on my shoulder the size of a boulder. I know of what I speak.

Old designers have knowledge to share.

Over the years, the complaint I have heard about old designers from new designers is that they have sold out. They only do what the client wants, and they are not in touch with trends and styles. You may run into a few in your time but don’t mistake experience for being sold out. These designers have a wealth of knowledge and experience, and you can learn a lot from them. Some older designers do feel like they are about to be replaced and may talk down to you and try to minimize what you do. Steer clear of these guys. They will become irrelevant soon enough.

Specialist or jack of all trades?

I read all the time about how you should be a specialist. You should be a UX or UI designer or maybe a web design or branding specialist. The thought is that you set yourself apart from other designers because you are an expert in your field, you will generate more business as that expert. This may be true in some areas of the country or specific companies. In my experience as a freelancer, this has never worked. Most of my clients want a designer who can do more than one thing. The secret to being a jack of all trades is you need to be good at all of it.

Agency or corporate?

Working for an advertising agency is entirely different than working for a corporation. The work can be the same in some ways, but the vibe can be completely different. You will probably find yourself preferring one to the other. Suppose you are not enjoying working in the one you chose, for instance, an advertising agency. Consider going to work in-house at a corporation.

You’re working as a team, or you’re not.

Working with a team is great. I love coming up with ideas and seeing a project go from start to finish and how a team can make an idea so much better. I say this as a man working in his home studio by himself. At some point, I like to run my ideas past other people before it gets to the client. For this reason, I have some trusted advisors who will give me constructive criticism, so I don’t live in the freelance bubble.


Agency or corporate are not the only places you can work. You can freelance. Hopefully, the choice to freelance is yours and was not made by the market.  

There are no Art Directors in their 40s.

I believe my brother told me this when we were discussing older art directors. He noticed that designers would work a couple of decades and burn out or just disappear when they got into their 40s. This quote is from a man who is currently an art director in his 50s. Do you love design enough to keep it fresh in the second half of your career? Maybe designing with one agency your whole career, as my dad did, is not your path. 

I still enjoy designing for my clients, but I am also branching out. I have created two podcasts, written a book, and started designing for products that I sell through stores such as RedBubble, TeePublic, and Amazon Merch.  

Awards are great, and they suck.

Go out and get you some awards! It’s a great feeling to be recognized for your work. One day you will realize that you are spending a lot of money to enter some of these contests, and the thrill has diminished. The tipping point for me was a logo I entered into a contest decades ago, and the winning design in that category was horrible. And by that point, the chip on my shoulder I mentioned earlier had been long gone.

Don’t redesign a client’s logo.

Logo design is my favorite thing to do. I would just do this all day if there were a market for it. But I have learned to stay away from a client’s logo. Let’s say you have been called in to produce a new ad or corporate brochure. Maybe it’s an updated website or social media campaign, and the one thing stinking up the design is the client’s logo. If you could just redesign the logo, it would look great. 

Be careful when you approach the client because that turd on your design may be the greatest logo ever in your client’s eye. Why? Here are a few reasons:

  • The client’s spouse designed it
  • The client’s child designed it
  • They designed it 
  • They had a company contest, and this was the winner
  • The secretary designed it, and you don’t want to upset that person because they may become your marketing contact soon. For real.

Am I telling you not to try? No, get in there and help elevate their work. Just don’t tell them it sucks. Ask them how they feel about it. Have they considered updating their logo? I will usually ask where the logo came from or the story behind it. These questions will usually give me all the information I need.

Everyone’s a designer.

You will find out that everyone is a designer. At least they think they are. When you present your project, be ready to explain your design decisions and show them why they hired you instead of doing it themselves.

Earlier I mentioned the phrase “desktop publishing.” Business owners would go out and buy a copy of Pagemaker or Quark Xpress and expect their secretaries to be the new designer. That sounds like a great idea, but the secretaries were mad. You know how long it took to get really comfortable with InDesign. Imagine having it dropped in your lap on top of your existing job responsibilities.

Make stuff

You can track my career as a circle. I started as a lowly graphic designer. I worked hard and then called myself an art director. I started an agency and called myself a business owner, partner, and creative director. I also had the account executive, and office manager roles tacked onto that. That was my dream, and I got there only to realize that was not what I wanted. I searched for my design identity for the next couple of years, and now I am a graphic designer again. 

It took a long time, but I finally realized what I wanted to do. I wanted to make stuff. 


Career Advice From a Graphic Designer

by Shawn Wright | From Paste-Up To Pixels