What Graphic Design Can Teach Us About Software Development

At 30, I’ve spent more of my life as a student than as a “real person”. After a 9 year break from academia, I decided it was time to try being both, enrolling in a Graphic Design course at Portland Community College this spring. While I don’t foresee myself breaking out the T-square in my professional life any time soon, there are plenty of learnings from the world of graphic design that can be applied in the digital era. Here are a few.

Doing your homework still matters

Graphic designers are taught that the initial client meeting is the most important moment in a project’s lifecycle. Who’s writing the copy? Am I sourcing photographs, or do you have some in mind? Is this going on a billboard or a business card? Setting aside the details of medium, the lessons for software development are there for the taking. Want to reduce the likelihood that work is rejected? Getting on the same page with a client from the start is essential. Do they already have a rough idea of what solution looks like? Sketching it out or whiteboarding prevents us from having to guess, or getting it wrong and working through endless revisions. Carefully previewing early work can allow us to get a feel for whether we’re on the right track before crucial time and resources have been sunk into a solution that “just isn’t what they’re looking for”.

Live-sharing is the new flapping


In a time of wordy decks, spreadsheets, and bone-dry requirements documentation, the theatricality of a “Mad Men”-style reveal has largely gone the way of three-martini lunches– but when the client watches an idea evolve in real time, they see only incremental improvement. Context matters too: we’ve all opened up an attachment at some point and asked, “what the heck is this?”. While there are plenty of 50’s traditions better off left in the 50’s, presenting new work live provides an opportunity to talk through your thought process behind the work, read your audience, and get feedback in real time– that’s as valuable today was it was in the 1958.

Engineers are the new printers

Veteran graphic designers know that understanding the ins-and-outs of paper making and the printing process is essential to bring an idea into reality, and that having a close working relationship with a printer (who does this for a living, after all) can save money and rework by suggesting implementation strategies that allow a concept to be fully realized. Sound familiar? Whether we’re Project Managers, Business Analysts, or CTOs, it behooves us to learn as much about the technology involved as we reasonably can, and to seek out and respect input from engineers during a project’s conception. They do this for a living, after all.

Professionalism is timeless

Over the last 30 years, the lines dividing professional and personal have become increasingly blurred, enabled by technology and its accompanying cultural shifts. It goes beyond ditching the suit and tie (or heels): startups tout their “flat” organizational structures, turning everyone into a colleague, checking work email on your phone implies you’re always available, and we construct our “personal brands” online as comfortably as we handle any marketing campaign. Even while celebrating the positive aspects of this newfound informality and openness in the workplace, there’s something to be said for the rigor of old-school professionalism that, due to its dependency on client relationships, is still readily embraced in the graphic design profession. Some core maxims: bring discipline to what you do. Take yourself and your work seriously. Make your deadlines, always. Be responsive to feedback, but make your case if the work is strong. Present only your strongest work; after all, it’s a reflection of who you are. 

One doesn’t have to read between the lines to see how widely these lessons can be applied.