What they didn’t teach you in design school

John Spencer reviews Professor Phil Cleaver’s ‘in-your-face, down-to-earth’ guide to design.

What They Didn’t Teach You in Design School by Professor Phil Cleaver is a timely new book that bridges the gap between what students are taught and what they really need to know to survive in the design industry. It’s jam-packed with invaluable information. There are chapters on things like putting together a portfolio; interview technique; good design practice; software skills; basic marketing; and the nitty-gritty of proposal writing, invoicing and email etiquette.

Phil describes himself as ‘a barrow-boy, a working-class lad’. He’s a real old Londoner and proud if it. He’s also Professor in the Creative Industries at Middlesex University. He’s been around the block. He worked at Pentagram, Total Design in The Netherlands, Wolff Olins and Allied International Designers (where we first met). He later founded CleaverLandor (where I joined him as creative partner) and et al design consultants.

What They didn’t Teach you in Design School is dedicated to two great designers – Anthony Froshaug and Alan Fletcher. Froshaug taught Phil and Fletcher employed him at Pentagram. It’s a stylish, beautifully printed book that draws inspiration from Froshaug’s typography and Fletcher’s wit. It manages to be both serious-minded and entertaining. Phil’s trademark words-within-words and quirky typographic faces give his book rhythm and pace.

Phil offers no-frills advice on dressing for an interview. ‘What you wear and how you wear it communicates a lot about you to the person or people interviewing you. Look smart. Think smart’. On basic marketing he says, ‘You have to get out and meet people; if you have great work and never leave your studio, you are not going to succeed.’

Most of Phil’s work comes from referrals and that’s got a lot to do with the way he treats his clients. He says, ‘…our job is to be of service to a client, so treat clients with the respect they deserve. If you go through life treating everyone the way you like to be treated, you can’t go far wrong’.

Phil is just as forthright about studio relationships. ‘And by the way,’ he says, ‘whatever you do, don’t have an affair with someone in the studio. It only leads to trouble. As my old mum used to say, “Don’t shit on your own doorstep”. If you fall in love, change jobs. It is much simpler in the long run.’

The book is sprinkled with anecdotes and advice from Phil’s design industry friends; Wim Crouwel, Alan Fletcher, Stefan Sagmeister, Mervyn Kurlansky, Quentin Newark, Michael Wolff, Seymour Chwast and Derek Birdsall – to namedrop a few. He was flattered to get this endorsement from George Lois, the original Mad Man: ‘Read, study and absorb the information in this no-bullshit guide by Professor Cleaver on what you must learn as a student to persuasively present your skills, and most importantly, your talent, to the design industry.’

I love Phil’s in-your-face, no-messin’, down-to-earth writing style. He writes like he speaks and he says what he thinks. What They didn’t Teach you in Design School is honest – it’s written from the heart. Phil makes no secret of his severe dyslexia (actually, he makes fun of it). In the acknowledgements he thanks Rosanna Bianchini, his wife, for translating ‘Phil scribble’ into readable and understandable English, and for her ‘invaluable assisantance over twenty-eight years of unflinching dedicated sevice, often in the face of very stubben resistance.’

What They didn’t Teach you in Design School is a real gem. If you’re a student, buy it. Come to think of it, if you’re an experienced designer, buy it – you’ll learn things. I have.

What They Didn’t Teach you in Design School, by Professor Phil Cleaver, is published by Ilex priced at £14.99.


John Spencer is founder and creative director of Off the Top of My Head.

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