If I could write a letter to my 23-year-old self, the naive fresh-faced version of me who had just finished art school and was looking for his first job in graphic design, these are a few of the things I would tell myself.

1. Good design starts with a good idea. Not with style or hype. You need a concept, an angle of approach, a different way of thinking about the problem — not a new way of presenting it visually. Also, good design doesn't usually start directly on a computer, it starts as a scribble, in a sketch or in the shower. If your blank canvas is Photoshop's then your creative possibilities will be Photoshop's also. And if you can't verbalise the idea before you visualise it, it's probably not strong enough yet. Unless of course you are a convincing liar, in which case you can post-rationalise the shit out of whatever it is you want to present...

2. You are not your work. Thus any criticism of your graphic design should never be taken too personally. I'm not saying that you should relinquish pride in your work. But I do think the expression "You are only as good as your last job" is an unhealthy one. Be the best graphic designer that you can be, but don't let that be all you are. Cultivate other interests and avenues of expression. You'll know if you've gone too deep into the profession because you'll spend your weekends noticing things that no-one outside it cares about, like double spaces on restaurant menus.

3. The client is always right, except when they are wrong. Oh Lordy, need I say any more than this? A massive part of the art of graphic design is selling your idea to the client. But sometimes the brief itself can be wrong, which makes your job even more difficult. And when it's the client who is wrong, you have to put them right without making them feel stupid or hurting their pride. You can also end up with the wrong client completely, which makes it almost impossible to put anything right. (Unless you fire them. Which you should).

4. Competitions which you have to pay money to enter are usually bullshit. I'm talking about the kind of competitions where if you win, you also have to pay money to attend the award ceremony and collect the prize which you already paid to stand a chance to win in the first place. I went to a few of these things when I worked up in Scotland, but luckily I didn't have to pay for them myself. Maybe I'm just bitter because I've never won any of the big ones. I don't know. 

5. When a client gets mad at you, they're usually not mad at you... in the same way that anyone in a service industry can be emotionally beaten up by a customer who is having a shitty day. It's hard I know, but try to let their anger wash over you. No-one is going to die because of a typo or a missed deadline. (On a sidenote, there was an infamous print job at my first studio in which a spelling mistake on the cover of something went unnoticed until it rolled off the press. In the end they had to hire a calligrapher to correct each one by hand... see no. 9 below).


 6. Save your work. Then back it up. Then back up your back up. (Or just use Dropbox). When I'm sitting at a computer, hitting Ctrl + S is basically a reflex action for me, something I'll do every couple of minutes without thinking. I'll also save multiple versions of my file starting from v00 so that I can trace back through variations in a design should I ever change my mind. Don't worry about filling up your hard drive, you can always go back later and delete the earlier files. 

7. Make the logo a little smaller than you think it should be. Then when the client (almost inevitably) asks you to make it bigger, you'll be able to do it without hesitation. Compliment the client on his prescience whilst simultaneously hoping he didn't read this article. 

8. Be as specific as you can about everything in your process *except* when the client is going to receive the next set of designs. Explain the thinking behind your choice of colour palette, typefaces, photography, paper stock. But with regards to deadlines say "next week" instead of "on Monday" or "later today" instead of "right after lunch". The more jobs you are juggling the more valuable this nonspecificity will become because you won't be tied down to exact timings. Also: a job will always take longer than you think it will, so take your time estimate and double it to be on the safe side.

9. Everything will work out just fine in the end. I was once working on a website build which was way off track to finish on time. Things kept going wrong and we had no idea what we were going to tell the client. As the evening wore on and the deadline loomed, things began to look bleak. Then we realised their hosting had gone down and we had no way to put the site live. These days I would have been honest from the start and admitted that we couldn't meet the deadline. Whatever you do, remember to keep breathing. Sometimes I forget. You can take this to the next level by learning to meditate — I've only just started this process but can already feel the difference. 

10. No list of ten of anything design related is ever going to better Dieter Rams' timeless "Ten Principles for Good Design".  His last tip is perhaps my favourite: "Good design is as little design as possible. Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials."

What tips would you add to my list? 

Posted to life in 2013.

Join 1,997 readers receiving my thoughts on life, design and making stuff happen each Sunday