What does it take to become a design professional?

Nicole Mason, lecturer at The Design School of Southern Africa (DSSA), a division of the Independent Institute Education (The IIE), which is internationally accredited with the BAC, offers insight into what it takes to be a designer, what a career in design entails and how young designers and students can break through mediocrity to become leaders and influencers in this demanding yet rewarding field.

Before embarking on a career in design, Mason states that it is vital for students to consider whether they have what it takes to succeed. “In design, creativity is far more important than artistry. That means that students must be able to find the intersection between what is innovative, beautiful and original and what is functional and practical,” she says. “People who can manage this balancing act are more suited to design than those who can only solve problems in the tried and tested way or those that are too caught up in being so different that they fail to fulfil the requirements of the brief.”

Students who possess the required creative qualities and who are determined to pursue this career path must banish their illusions of spending their days drawing and designing. Mason warns that design actually forms a relatively small part of the average designer’s day, saying, “Designers spend a lot of time translating designs into drawings that can be used by contractors and solving construction and design challenges on site. This is why designers need to be big picture thinkers who can fit into a professional team of consultants in order to tackle practical problems.”

Another key consideration for designers is that clients are often the greatest limiting factor to creative design. “Ultimately, it is the person with the money who determines the direction of a project, and an unimaginative client with a limited budget can be a real handbrake on the best design intentions. South African clients are also notoriously conservative, so a designer has to have the patience and discipline to work within the limits of the client’s brief and budget.”

In order to create a firm base on which to build a solid career, Mason urges students to gain a recognised tertiary qualification, and then to seek internships and mentorships, as they will need to gain experience before attempting to embark on a solo career. “Design is an experience game, and it is important to either get as much experience as possible. Clients need to trust you and a track record will add weight to your business credentials when you do go it alone,” she says. “Your tertiary education and experience are essential, but it is only the canvas for what will be a lifetime of learning, because design is constantly evolving and you will have to be constantly growing, discovering and shifting in order to remain relevant.

“The firms that are doing work both overseas and at home are the ones bringing new ideas into the country, because they are being exposed to a greater set of influences and new ways of thinking,” she continues. “The French, Spanish and Italian designers are usually in the forefront of design because of the way design innovation forms an integral part of their culture. Students who wish to become a national trailblazer would do well to study their techniques and methodologies or to seek experience on international design projects.”

However, the student’s ability to carve out their own distinctive style and personality is what Mason believes is key to a successful career. “By being unique, it follows that a designer will be innovative, and once you become known for a certain look, clients who are attracted to that particular aesthetic will seek you out, allowing you to express yourself more freely, and pursuing innovation and quality design rather than a generic sameness.”

Ultimately, Mason’s advice for students who aspire to be leaders in the design industry is to fill their minds with as many influences and experiences as they can. “Read and travel, go to museums, theatres and events – broaden your horizons as much as you can, because only then will you have the mental material to make new connections of your own.”

Mason studied and practiced as an architect for 18 years before embarking on an MBA, during which she conducted extensive research into creativity, design and the management of creative people. She currently lectures at DSSA and is compiling a book on Creative Practice Management.

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