Be determined to succeed
When I started out, I worked for a designer who told me that there was a little regret in every job. At the time, I thought this was a negative outlook. But now I realize that if you don't see that there are things that you could do differently or better, you won't keep striving to improve. The designers who aren't afraid to question themselves and their work are the ones who ultimately get better and succeed.
Technical ability brings the idea to life
A creative director I visited in college told us, “Don't lie to me, because I will find out what you can and can't do within one week. And if you can't do what you said you could, I will fire you.” That terrified me at the time, but he was right. An employer needs to know what you're skilled in and what you still need to learn. If you misrepresent yourself, it puts everyone in a bad situation. While you can learn on the job (and will), most firms don't have time to teach you the software you should have learned in school. Bad execution can kill a great idea. But learning how to execute well will make your work sing.
Stay ahead of the curve
You need to know how to design for print and digital media, period. An understanding of both allows you to express ideas in any application and helps you to be a better resource for your clients.
Communicate what you do best
Don't, however, try to be everything to everyone. Know what your strengths are and develop them. If you're a web designer, excel at that. And when you're looking for a job, look at firms that you think fit well with your skills. Don't try to say that you're a great fit for the job if your skills aren't a match for what they're seeking. Neither of you will be happy.
Do design because you love design
It shouldn't be work; it should truly be your passion. Abraham Lincoln said, “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing.”
This essay originally appeared in the 2010AIGA|Aquent Survey of Design Salaries.