I scored my first design job when I was about 14 years old. A local T-shirt shop owner got tired of me hanging out at his place and taught me to cut color separations. Before long, I was handling layout for his customers and even doing design work on the side. I loved it. Little did I know then that I’d still be doing it, and still loving it nearly 30 years later.

I feel that I have a somewhat unique perspective on design, being that I learned good design and layout principles and techniques way before the age of desktop publishing. It used to take us weeks to do something that today takes a few hours. Still, some of the old camera tricks, color layering, overprinting and spot varnish techniques are still used in the work I do today, and it’s always fun to get a “How in the hell did you do that…” from designers in the younger, post-digital-design camp. Yeah… That’s old school, baby. 🙂

Here’s a few tidbits that I’d like to pass along to those who may not remember Amberlith, Zip-A-Tone, Exacto knives, burnishers and airbrushes that actually clogged. Some technical, some practical, some just common sense.

1. Unplug from time to time.
Get away from the computer and draw, paint, make something or take some photos. Do this often. It will keep you sharp. The computer is arguably the most useful tool to designers nowadays, but in contrast, we’ve managed to design beautiful things for thousands of years without them. I’ve noticed a recent surge in the “lo-fi” approach to many international campaigns as of late and less dependence on beveled edges and literally everything throwing a drop shadow. If you sit in front of a monitor and design, try a sketchbook instead. Trust me on this. Good stuff happens.

2. Play with Ink.
I believe that spot color has been sold short by the design community as a whole. Maybe it’s just easier to go 4-color on every print job, but it takes a bit of understanding of how inks work before you can really be bold and start breaking the rules a bit and try something different. Try talking your client into a 2-color plus metallic and a spot varnish. Printers live for this kind of stuff.

3. Turn Down Some Work. It’s ok.
Every job you accept for each client you have sets precedence for the next job they might offer you. Really… there are clients that you might should send to your competitor. You’re thinking of them right now, aren’t you? When I first started freelancing, I took everything that came in. Today, I’m somewhat selective and I enjoy my work more. Turning down work that may be “not-so-appealing” is quite refreshing. Especially if it’s a rush-job.

4. Keep Learning.
Set aside some time to just learn. Maybe new software, new techniques, watch some tutorials, or read some industry publications. Take the day off and just soak it all in. Try your hand at an art form that you’ve never considered. It’s all about expanding your horizons and sharpening your skills. So turn off the phone and re-read that manual. You just might learn something new.

5. Be cool to work with.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Most of my clients are stuck in corporate offices or a cubicle somewhere and although it’s good to keep a professional attitude, designing should be fun. I learned at an early age that artists are generally expected to be a bit weird, and it doesn’t hurt to oblige this notion from time to time. If you can make a simple project exciting for someone stuck in a cubicle, your number will be on their speed-dial.

6. Educate your clients.
I always get a kick out of reading “stupid client” stories. We’ve all had them. But don’t forget that it only takes a minute or two to explain what’s what to someone who may not completely understand. Your clients should know enough about the processes we go through to make their work look good so that when the bill arrives, they understand what they are paying for. Many times, clients make stupid assumptions because they simply don’t understand. This doesn’t make them stupid, just uneducated. So try and explain things. If they won’t listen, then you can call them stupid with assurance.

7. Fail Forward.
Try something new and screw it up with grace. Most everything that we have today is a direct-result of miserable failure and new attempts. From the electric light, to open-source software, it’s all been trial and error. So don’t be intimidated to try something different just because you might fail. Chances are that you will, and if so, try again.

8. Handle your business.
We creative types tend to let the business aspect of what we do slide a bit more than we should. Speaking for myself, I’d much rather be slinging ink or splitting pixels than composing invoices and paying bills. Today, much of my business practices are automated simply because I hate doing that stuff. But I would encourage you to take time daily to check on the books, your schedule, and keep your business in order. Benjamin Franklin, who also had a passion for slinging ink, once said, “Drive thy business; let it not drive thee.” Enough said.

9. Go out in the “Big Room.”
You know… The one with the trees and clouds and other people in it. I admit, I’m bad about this one. I’ve gone for days without leaving the studio and weeks on-end without interacting with strangers. Let’s face it. Most design work is a solitary task, but it does the spirit good to get out and see if anything has changed since the last time you went out.

10. Pass it on.
Ten years from now, you’ll (hopefully) be wiser than you are right now. And if this is the case, pass it on. I have no idea where that old screen printer from my youth is, but I shudder to think where I’d be today if he hadn’t taken the time to teach me what he knew. He sparked a lifetime career in less than 30 minutes, and who knows? Maybe you can do the same.

So remember as you tear into your new copy of Creative Suite 3… One day, all of this will be old-school. And that’s not so bad after all.

Terrell Thornhill

e-zign Design Group


Creative Bits is a popular blog about Creativity, Graphic Design, Adobe, Apple and other related subjects.

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