What they don’t teach you at design school

Following his recent Design Business Association talk, Dew Gibbons’s Steve Gibbons outlines the lessons he has learned in his career.

Steve Gibbons

I was recently invited to speak at a DBA seminar for junior agency employees on what I have learned through my career. I’m no Einstein, but I do share his observation – the more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know. From what I do know, here are nine things I’ve learned – and that you’re rarely taught.

1. Learn how to ask questions

You can’t get to the right answer without asking the right question. Starting with detail makes it hard to climb back to the bigger picture. Use the GROW acronym to guide you. G is for Goals – ask about the vision. R is for Reality – ask what’s happening now. O is for Options – ask what they are. And W is for Will – ask about the barriers. 

2. Learn how to listen

We can be so pleased by posing a clever question that we forget to listen to the answer. Don’t be over-assiduous in note-taking – concentrating on writing down the words means you don’t listen. Get someone else to take notes. Alternatively, jot down some key aide memoires and write up notes immediately afterwards.

3. Build trust

It’s simple ­– say you’re going to do things and make sure you do them when you say you will. If you can’t, ask permission to extend the time available. In asking the question, you’ve acknowledged that you’d made a promise but may now need to reset expectations.

4. Learn how to say no

Not being able to say no is a problem. If you don’t learn to do this, other people’s priorities will take precedence. Sometimes saying yes isn’t to anyone’s advantage – it’s your responsibility to point that out. Find a way to articulate it by keeping the client’s perspective in mind. In trying to solve your client’s immediate problem you might not keep anyone happy.  

5. Don’t take it personally

Clients are people, just like you and me. It’s too easy to see them as a separate species. Normally a client is being difficult because someone else is making life difficult for them. Empathy is really important – do your best to understand their problem. Then that problem is both shared and halved. In return they’ll be much nicer to you.

6. Become indispensable

Your role is to make your client look good. It’s a very useful mindset to adopt. Become their wingman, know their business and brand better than they do. Send articles and tidbits of interest. Offer opinions and be the devil’s advocate. Also become indispensible to your own company, be the go-to person for as much as possible (point number 4 notwithstanding).

7. Be self-aware

Have a sense of who you are as a person. There are a lot of online guides that allow you to do your own psychometric assessments. Self-awareness allows you to understand why you react as you do to certain people and visa versa, and learn to change your behaviours accordingly.

8. Celebrate your successes

Enjoy the good times because inevitably there will be tougher times. Don’t be too hard on yourself, there will probably be others to do that for you. Celebrate all your successes – winning a pitch or an award, or when someone new joins. Celebrating success makes it easier to share failure. Come clean about bad news as quickly as you share success. Keep a file of all the nice emails you get and re-read them if you need a boost.

9. Be broad in your interests

This is important for everyone, and especially for designers. Great ideas are about finding links between otherwise unconnected things. Everything you learn through life is grist to the mill. Broaden your interests as much as possible.

Steve Gibbons is managing director at Dew Gibbons + Partners.

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  • Steven Nicholson November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Great article… Leads me to ask if such things can be taught. And, if most of the points are important for a creative starting out in their field at the beginning?

  • emma davenport November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Interesting article but slightly fed up with the emphasis on what design school doesn’t do rather than what it does do. As someone who teaches critical and contextual studies within a design school, we are always encouraging our students to ask questions, listen, be self-aware and have a curiosity about the world. Be nice to see an article on how design schools leave a positive impression on current designers thus challenging the common stereotype of schools as unimaginative and impractical places.

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