Why a Less Experienced Designer Might be the Better Designer (Part 3)
Not all experience is created equal. Here's why you shouldn't hire a designer based on their years of experience alone. This is part 3 in the 4-part series How to Confidently Pick the Right Graphic Designer.
Many people think it's the tools and a creative eye that make someone a graphic designer. But Canva or Photoshop and a love of art can't teach someone the necessary skills to serve clients and succeed as a designer. There's a lot more that goes into creating a graphic designer—things like professionally guided training, practice, and real-world experience. Without those things, self-proclaimed "designers" can unknowingly make a lot of expensive mistakes for their clients.
With so many people calling themselves "professional graphic designers" and no professional or regulatory oversight, how can non-designers distinguish between the legitimate pros and the hobbyists and confidently pick a designer with the right skillset and experience?
As an experienced (and legit, professional) graphic designer myself, I’m here to give you some clarity!
If you've been following along in my series, you'll know that when it comes to picking a designer, their education tells you how much formal training they've had (read part 1 here), and their portfolio tells you about the quality of their work (read part 2 here). But knowing about their experience is a third criterion that you can crosscheck against. While you definitely want someone who is proficient and talented, a designer's experience often proves invaluable. Good quality experience not only helps a designer refine their craft, but it gives them insights and understanding into the design process and outcome. Sometimes this can be the difference between a headache and thousands and thousands of moolah. So, without further ado, here's my third tip (from my series of 4):
Tip #3: Ask questions about a designer's experience (rather than taking it at face value)
When it comes to hiring a graphic designer, you should pick the one with the most experience, right? Well, not exactly. With so many different ways of determining how much experience one has, it's important to look at what a designer counts as experience, as well as the quality and relevancy of it; not all design experience is equal after all. Let me explain what I mean with a story I call A Tale of Two Bosses...
⚠️ This story is served with a heavy side of sarcasm. Please proceed with caution and consider yourself forewarned... ⚠️
A Tale of Two Bosses
In the early years of my career I had a job that was going downhill. My boss (who I liked) had suddenly quit, leaving my coworker "Sam" and I in charge of the entire creative department for months. We were both overwhelmed, overworked, and miserable. When I was offered a better job much closer to home, I put in my 2 weeks, but was surprised by an enticing counteroffer—if I stayed, I'd get a 30% raise, a promotion, and the opportunity to work under one of the top designers in the industry. Yes, I was finally getting a new boss to lighten the load! Contractually they had to keep his identity secret until the transition was finalized, but they assured me he had decades of experience and it would be an honor and great privilege to work under this talented man. So I generously passed the better job offer to Sam, and I stayed behind.
With an introduction like that I kind of assumed they had hired away a top creative from Nike, Apple, Adobe, or even Pentagram (which is like the ultimate of graphic design agencies). But if you read my previous post you've already been introduced to my new boss—the guy with 40 years of experience. We'll call him "Keith."
When I first met Keith, he confidently told me all about his 4 decades-long career and how he'd worked his way up from the bottom. But as I got to know him better, the story of his extensive experience and prestige quickly unraveled. Turns out Keith forgot to mention he was only 41. (To each their own, I guess, but I don't count the scribbles I made as a baby toward my professional experience.) Keith went to college, but didn't graduate for this-or-that reason. It was totally fine though because being taught by experienced, professional designers is actually pointless (and he would know, because the only design training he needed came from the process of installing billboards as a teenager). My formal training and years of practice couldn't hold a candle to the design skills he developed while gluing someone else's work 30 feet in the air.
Everything was grand and vague with Keith. He said he'd done all these amazing things (but never mentioned specifics, so just trust him because they were uh-maze-ing!) and he'd worked with huge brands (the identities of whom remain a mystery to this day). Keith had his own way of designing and insisted all the designers follow his methods, techniques, procedures, and preferences. Having independently developed these, his methods were contrary to established industry standards, and typically added several extra days of work to projects. That didn't matter though because Keith always touted his decades of experience and cut the conversation short with "That's just the way it's done in this industry" in lieu of any sort of explanation. Plus, if a project took too long, he could always blame it on me for not being up to speed on design these days. In addition to strict adherence to the Keith Method of Graphic Design, we also did not collaborate on projects. Collaboration may be essential for other creatives, but Keith was actually the standard for graphic design. He didn't need the opinions of lowly peasant designers, and I and the other peasants couldn't collaborate amongst ourselves (we really didn't need to though, because we'd been blessed with Keith's ideas). You can also imagine how it went when I started pushing back and telling him straight-up that he was wrong. (And yes, I maintain my position, Keith, that resolution and dimensions do matter, and as a former billboard installer, you should know that.)
It's no surprise that I didn't last much longer at that job, or that I considered working under Keith neither an honor nor a great privilege. But as a happy ending, although the original position at that better company had been filled by Sam, the same company created a new role for me, which I accepted a few weeks later.
Like Keith, my new boss (who we'll call "Lars"), did not have a degree in graphic design (although he did have a degree in a semi-related creative field). Lars was younger than Keith and had a paltry 10–15 years of design experience compared to Keith's impressive 40, yet Lars was a significantly better designer. Major differences in personality, humility, and integrity aside, Lars's better skill level came down to his experience: it was more relevant and higher quality. While Keith was off being a fabulous designer all by himself, Lars was working as a graphic designer in an agency, surrounding himself with more experienced and talented designers (with whom regular collaboration was encouraged), attending professional conferences for additional training, and always willing to learn and accept feedback from others.
I learned a lot from Lars and had the privilege of working with other talented designers and industry professionals. I also had the opportunity to work with some impressive, international clients and be part of an award-winning design team. The company Keith led couldn't attract bigger or better clients because they didn't value talent, skills, experience, or people, and they positioned graphic design as their loss leader.
Determining the quality of experience
Okay, I know—that story was a dramatic example. But it illustrates how important the right kind of experience is and why you can't just take a number of years at face value. Using Keith's logic, I have 3 decades of design experience (because I used to design dresses and houses in crayon as a toddler). But I could also say I have 17 years of experience (that's when I joined the junior high yearbook staff and was introduced to graphic design), 15 years (when I took my first college design course), 12 years (when I got my first design job while in school), or 10 years (when I graduated and started working as a full-time, professional designer). I typically say I have over a decade of experience, explaining that I have 10 years of professional experience, but I've been working as a designer for longer than that.
This is exactly why it's so important to interview designers and ask about their experience. Not only will you learn if their experience is good quality, you can also determine if they have the required skills for your needs. Some good questions to ask might include:
How did you calculate your [x number] years of experience?
Where did you receive your design training?
From what sources do you seek continuing design education?
How long have you been a professional, full-time designer?
What kind of design jobs have you had?
Do you have close working relationships with other industry professionals (like photographers, web developers, print shops, other designers, etc.)?
What types of projects and clients do you typically work with?
How has your design experience shaped your current process/approach to design?
If you're looking for a specialty designer that exclusively works in a particular niche (like UX/UI or web design), you could follow-up with questions about the relevancy of their experience, such as:
Do you have experience with [xyz specialty]?
How long have you been designing [xyz specialty projects]?
While the "right" answers might vary depending on your needs, you want to see a trend toward these 4 things:
Willingness to learn from people who are more talented, skilled, or experienced. This could look like seeking formal training from experienced professionals, pursuing continuing education from reliable design authorities, and/or surrounding themselves with a network of other professionals.
Someone who values and seeks out others' feedback and collaboration.
Someone who is forthcoming and honest about their abilities, limitations, skill level, experience, background, clientele, etc. No one designer is good at or experienced with every type of design, so a designer who is upfront about their discomfort designing certain types of projects, using particular software, or working within certain client industries helps clients make informed decisions and get good design results.
Someone who is not offended by a client asking questions.
Conversely, you want to steer clear of any experience red flags, such as an attitude that they know better than everyone else, isolated or self-directed design training, no network of other creatives, "grand and vague" descriptions of their experience, and reluctance to share important information.
When you find a designer with experience that is both good quality and relevant (plus the proper training and a strong portfolio that you love), snag that designer quick! You've found a true gem and a partner you can rely on.
Now that you have three objective criteria to help you distinguish between the legitimate pros and everyone else, the final post in this series will explain where to find designers, and whether agencies, freelancers, or online marketplaces are better. Stay tuned...