Matt Lehman
What difficulties did you face at the beginning of your career?
I remember being frustrated that I couldn’t create the kind of work that I saw in graphic design magazines. I was frustrated with some of the projects I was given at my first job. I was frustrated that I wasn’t better with production skills. I was frustrated that I wasn’t in New York. I was frustrated that I didn’t know more about laying out large volumes of type.
Despite these difficulties, my first job out of school was also so valuable. I’d recommend working for an agency and making mistakes on someone else’s dime before jumping into the world of freelance. Plus, my first job taught me that you have to pay your dues, work well with others, ask for help, take criticism, own your mistakes, share the credit, etc. Not getting everything you think you want immediately is what fosters perseverance, humility and patience.
What should a young designer do in order not to get hired by anybody?
1. Lack professionalism.
2. Lack polish.
Meaning... if you’re late, sloppy (both you AND your work), overly confident, not confident enough, overly apologetic, never apologetic, obsessively tweet, obsessively text, constantly post online, lack type skills, lack logo/identity skills, lack general design sensibilities, use poor grammar, have spelling errors, don’t have a solid handshake, don’t keep your word, don’t write thank you notes, talk bad about other designers/agencies, and having work feels like student work... these things will all hurt you. So many of these are still really good reminders for me.
Are there any things you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?
Be intentional and purposeful with your time, talent, career, money, relationships and trajectory. Here are two specific ways:
1. Make the work you want to be doing. Matt Stevens has mentioned this before in talks and I think in his answers on this site. Don’t wait for your boss to notice you or assign you the coveted project. Volunteer to do it. I used to work at an in-house design firm for one of the smaller networks in the Viacom/MTV family. They’d always outsource the best work to amazing agencies. We had a huge branding project for a TV awards show coming up. They didn’t ask me to work on it, and hired a number of firms to present logos. I asked if I could work on the project, and my boss said sure but only after hours because they needed me on some boring production projects. I spent that next weekend working on three different logo options, and my boss and his bosses picked one of mine. From that point forward, I was almost always asked to work on new branding initiatives for the network.
2. Don’t make graphic design / your career everything. Find things away from the computer. Spend time with your family and friends. Embrace rejection and learn from it. Getting away from your desk will give you perspective and fresh ideas — especially in the face of rejection. Having non-design interests will also give you more knowledge about the various subjects you’ll be designing for whether that’s science, history, food, travel, sports, etc.
Are there any rules or habits that help you do your job more efficiently?
1. I try to avoid internet and social media distractions during the day. I like to get in early before my inbox starts filling up and my phone starts ringing. I try hard to direct my time throughout the day instead of letting whatever comes through my inbox sway me to and fro. It’s hard to be proactive instead of reactionary!
2. Make one thing you’re proud of that day. Sometimes it’s even something as simple as a little piece within a larger project.
3. Stick to your process. I need to sketch pretty much every idea before I reach for my mouse.
Would you recommend some books that young designers might find useful?
1. Both How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer  by Debbie Millman and Seventy-nine Short Essays on Design  by Michael Bierut are fantastic. I love that they’re compilations of essays and thoughts from creative leaders far smarter than me.
2. A Whole New Mind  by Daniel Pink changed the way I saw the value of design in today’s culture.
3. Designers Don’t Read  by Austin Howe. Loads of digestible anecdotes, observations and thoughts from a career in graphic design.
4. I’ve referenced Logo, Font & Lettering Bible  so many times when trying to understand and create custom type (which I still don’t fully understand).
Matt answered the questions on August 2, 2014.
The answers were published on August 13, 2014.