5 Things I Wish I Learned in Design School

Author: Amanda Altman,

I am an entrepreneur that owns a package design and branding agency with my husband. We have worked together for 17 years, and started our business right out of college. Starting your own business is tough and not for everyone. When we started, it was amazing. We had no obligations, responsibilities and nothing to lose. Our naiveté was helpful. We put in long nights, hard work, and looking back on it all – I wouldn’t change a thing.

My husband and I were both trained under incredible instruction at SUNY Fredonia by Paul Bowers and Jan Conradi in the BFA program. It was an incredible time to be a student, and our education in all things design was phenomenal. As an entrepreneur, almost everything I learned outside of actual graphic design was done on the job – to meet business challenges.

Here are 5 things I wish I knew out of design school. Things I know are useful to any designer leaving a 4-year program, whether you are doing freelance work or starting at an agency.



In college, we took a tour of a printing press. We saw the press lay down the colors, and the finished piece. We saw the plates on press, the size of the web sheet, and smelled the ink. I thought I knew how the process worked, but this wasn’t exactly the case. I didn’t really understand what PMS colors were and how they were different from CMYK, or what that meant in my digital file. I had no clue about color trapping, knockout type, or what would happen when you layered transparent inks on top of one another.

One of the first jobs my husband and I had was to design beer cans for a local brewery. We were asked to provide color separated files. I was stumped!! But I was confident I could figure it out, and that was what I did. I worked diligently to provide a flawlessly separated and properly layered Illustrator file.

Now, many printers have a pre-press department that does this work for you. But I am grateful for the lesson that this challenge afforded me. It has been a very useful skill, and one I use today in my position advising clients on print production. It also helps direct artwork, keep designers on budget, and improve the relationship with print suppliers.

Rear view of Audience listening Speakers on the stage in the con


Whew! This one is a doozy. Copyright law can be a very expensive lesson to learn in a few ways. If you are using anything without permission, whether you know it or not, you can be sued for copyright infringement. Or if you don’t know your rights as a creative, you can easily get taken advantage of and have people steal your work right from under your nose.

I’ve had a client get sued for an image he used on a blog post buried deep in his site because he simply googled it and attached it! After some legal counsel and a call from our attorney, he was only out $850, but it could have been much worse.

I also had a client threaten to extract all of the art concepts that were presented in a PDF if the native files weren’t provided. I had to remind the client that he only contracted us for one finished logo, and that was all he was going to get. The other concepts remained our property to do with as we please. While he was not happy, the client knew that I would fight and he would lose.

There is no way that you can know all of the ins and outs of copyright law, but having an attorney on your side that can review boilerplate terms and conditions to your proposals is a step in the right direction.

developing and communicating


We’ve been burned. Who hasn’t in business? But if we were trained on industry pricing structures and models and how to properly negotiate these to our benefit, it would have kept us from undercutting competitors and selling ourselves short just to get work through the door in our early years. I do agree that this is a skill that is honed in the field, but the basic psychology and social construct of negotiating a contract is extremely useful for anyone working as a freelancer or at an agency.


Closely related to negotiation is service pricing. We spent a great deal of time after graduation understanding what the market expects for different services, and how competitors were pricing their services. This allowed us to start our business on a solid footing, confident on how we should be charging and structuring agreements.

We were encouraged to buy the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines. As much as I referred to that book in our early years, I was always surprised at why it separated services in the way they did and the extremely wide range of prices it listed for each service.


Not everyone likes public speaking; it’s a skill that can take time. But it’s a skill that more people need to embrace, and it’s essential for any entrepreneur. Whether it’s a presentation to two or 200 people, there is a finesse to reading and working a crowd. You need to be comfortable standing up, addressing and engaging the audience.

While public speaking, debate or rhetoric classes are often elective classes during college, I believe they should be required; taking one will help anyone going into business (or any career). Trust me, any practice you can get public speaking will serve you well in life. And it gets easier each time!

I could go on to write a much longer list, but I’ll stop here at five. Life as a designer and entrepreneur (and parent and wife) has me constantly learning, questioning and refining my skills.

What are some of the things you wished you learned in college?

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