10 Ways Waitressing Made Me a Better Designer

I truly believe that every person should be required to spend one year working in some sort of service industry: food, retail, a call center — anywhere they have to deal daily with customers. I think if we all had that experience, it would make us better at our jobs, better at our lives, and just plain nicer to one another. Trust me, you’re not so quick to chew out the girl behind the McDonalds counter when you’ve had a taste of what it’s like to be in her shoes.

My own customer service experience came from waitressing. Thinking back, I realize that my time in an apron carrying a tray actually taught me some important life lessons and skills that have made me a better designer.

1) An Informed Customer Is a Happy Customer

Most of the time, as a waitress, the most important part of the customer experience (the food) was out of my hands. But, I quickly found out that, if I knew the kitchen was backed up, a sincere heads-up was much appreciated. As long as I let customers know up-front that the food was coming out slowly, and as long as I was honest about the reason, people tended to be very forgiving of a longer wait time.

As designers, we find ourselves juggling to find a balance between what the client wants, and what is humanly possible.

We run into time limitations (I’m only one person!), budget limitations (you can’t afford to purchase a legal photo of Marilyn Monroe), and technical limitations (Flash will never work on an iPad). So, there will be times when we have to disappoint a client. I’ve learned that the best thing to do is be upfront and be honest.

Don’t be one of those designers who stops answering the phone just because you’ve fallen a bit behind on your original deadlines.

The more you keep an open line of communication, and the more your client knows what to expect, the better your working relationship is going to be.

2) Simmer Down, Now

Working with hundreds of people every day can and will drive you nuts. As a waitress, I was grabbed, snapped at, yelled at, talked down to, and lectured. And, more than once, I was called names or scolded for things beyond my control.

In those situations, your first instinct is to toss a drink in somebody’s lap or tell them to start eating somewhere else.

But, you learn, over time, that these people are only in your life for a short time. You can’t let their bad attitudes rub off on you, hinder your job performance, or seep into your thoughts after you go home. You have to step back, assess the situation, and act professionally.

I’d like to tell you that once you break away from customer service and start working as a designer that you will no longer have to deal with crazy people.

But that just isn’t true.

You will get emails and voicemails that will frustrate you, confuse you, and infuriate you. You will have client meetings that leave you pulling your hair out. But you have to step back. Take a timeout. Simmer down. And think.

Under the sharp words, do they have a point?

Is there something you can do to make them happy?

Is there a compromise that might work?

Once you back away and stop taking the comments personally, you may find that there is some merit to their griping.

And, even if after thinking about it, you can’t find a reason for their anger, remain professional.

They may have something going on in their lives that they are projecting onto you. Try to be cordial, and if they continue to treat you badly, finish the job as best you can and make a note to avoid working with them in the future.

You want to make sure that you are always the professional, sane one — as hard as it may sometimes be.

3) Show Me the Menu!

Consumers are pretty consistent in what they want. It’s usually something they’ve already seen. The dress in the window, the car from the commercial, and in the restaurant, the menu item in the photo or the food they saw delivered to an adjacent table.

Many customers don’t know what they want until they see it.

As a designer, it’s up to you to SHOW people what you can do. How are they supposed to trust your skills if they haven’t seen what you have done?

I talk to a lot of design graduates who don’t have jobs. Their first question is always, why? And my first question is, where is your portfolio?

It’s shocking how many designers try to get work without a solid portfolio.

It doesn’t have to be filled with professional work from paying clients — just show people what you can do!

Nobody asked me if the chef at Applebee’s had ever flipped burgers professionally — once they saw the food, they knew he had the skills, and they ordered without question.

4) Upsell

More than anything else, food servers are lectured on the “upsell.” Filet? It’s even better with grilled onions and mushrooms. Apple pie? So delicious with a scoop of ice cream on top — for only 99 cents!

Make suggestions. Gently push people in the direction you want them to go.

You might have some clients that know exactly what they want, and you might have some clients who THINK they know what they want. And, many times, you will disagree.

Maybe their color choices are off, maybe they aren’t setting up a solid visual hierarchy, maybe their focus is on the wrong thing.

There is nothing wrong with giving them suggestions.

You like pink? Maybe instead of making the ENTIRE homepage pink, you could use pink accents — it will look fresher and be less in-your-face.

You’d like the logo bigger? If you’re goal is to sell Product X, maybe we need to work on getting the user to focus on Product X and the “BUY” button instead of the logo.

Most clients are reasonable. They don’t design for a living. You are the expert. As long as you give them the reasons why one solution would be more successful than another, there is a good chance they will take your advice.

Don’t just settle for a pink website in comic sans. Upsell.

5) Have a Specialty

Have you ever been to one of those restaurants with 150 menu items? Everything from fish to spaghetti to stirfry? Is the food there ever good? Is there ever a wait, or an evening booked with reservations?

Designers are no different.

As much as you would like to think that it’s possible for you to be good at everything, the truth is that our industry moves so fast that it’s a full-time job just to keep up with one aspect of design.

Figure out what you’re best at and concentrate on becoming an expert in that area.

Then form relationships with other experts: copywriters, illustrators, programmers, etc. so that you can provide your clients the very best service — no matter what they need.

6) Awareness, Young Grasshopper

I saw a lot of people as a restaurant server. A lot. And, over time, I started to learn to read them. I could figure out who wanted to chat, who would enjoy a joke, and who just wanted to order and sit in silence. The more I learned to read people, the easier it became to keep the customers happy.

This skill is invaluable when dealing with design clients.

Pay close attention when speaking with new clients.

Ask a lot of questions and try to get a sense for the type of client they will be. Do they want to be super involved with all aspects of the project? Or are they the type that feel you need to do your job unassisted and deliver the final project without too much input? Are they set in their ways and ideas? Or will you be able to make suggestions? Can they make a decision, or do they change their minds a lot?

Taking the time to read your clients will save you money, save you time, and make the entire experience more enjoyable for you and the client.

As much as you can, you’ll want to cater to each client as an individual — maybe changing your workflow a bit to make them more comfortable.

And, if it’s obvious that your working style and the client’s working style just aren’t going to mesh, you can save time for both of you by recommending a more appropriate designer for the job.

7) Like a Well-Oiled Machine

Like waitresses, designers find themselves multi-tasking on a daily basis — especially the freelancers.

A designer’s day is split between fielding emails and phone calls, sending estimates and invoices, sketching, scanning, searching for stock photography, managing printers, illustrators, and photographers, and actual design work. Most of us will also try to fit in some time for research and learning. And, on top of all of that, there is real life — eating, sleeping, exercising, spending time with loved ones, etc.

It’s a lot to manage!

I learned early on in my waitressing days that I had to get a system in place and stick to it. I couldn’t just take things as they come — it was too easy to forget about a guest.

So, for every table, I followed the same routine: drop coasters and greet, take drink order, deliver drinks and take food order, place food order with kitchen, check on guests, deliver food, check back after 5 min on food quality, check periodically for drink refills or other requests, offer desert, drop check, run credit card, clean table.

It seems like a long list, but once I had the routine set, it was easy to stick to it. And, this solid routine assured that I would never forget to enter an order or bring a refill.

You’ll have to set up something similar for yourself in the design world.

Set aside time each day to return calls or emails.

Schedule time for exercise and learning.

Perhaps you like to start the week with a review of projects and a priority list. Maybe you like to get the invoicing out of the way first. Everybody is different, but it’s important to take the time to plan a system that will work for you and stick to it.

Of course there will be surprises that pop up, but having a plan in place will make those urgent projects more manageable.

At the end of the day, you’ll see that a consistent scheduled will keep you better organized and help to maintain balance in your work and home life.

8) Go Team!

Nobody can run a restaurant alone. Maybe a hotdog truck — but not a restaurant.

No matter how solid your system is, there will be times when you need help. As a waitress, I learned to count on my fellow servers, rather than let a customer down. And I learned to help out my co-workers whenever I could. It was a wonderful balance — we all knew that we could count on one another.

As a designer, there will be times when you need help too.

Maybe you’ve hit a creative block, maybe you need help with an updated programming language, or maybe you just don’t have time to Photoshop 30lbs off of a CEO. Regardless, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help — whether it be in your office, or in the form of a consultant or freelancer.

It is unfortunate that somehow the design field has become a place where everyone is expected to be an expert at everything.

But that’s rarely the case.

If you are a stellar designer, but not such a good programmer, there is nothing wrong with hiring a programmer to help you with a web project.

If you’re an experienced programmer and have found yourself working on a website that requires original art, there is no shame in hiring an illustrator.

Just remember, whether you decide to work out a trade of services or pay in cash, these creatives deserve to get paid just as much as you do. Taking time out of their busy schedules to add one more job to their list is the favor — they should be paid fairly for their work.

9) Hard Work Pays Off

I know it sounds like something your mom would say, but it’s the truth. At the end of the day, working hard — giving it your all — pays off.

As a server, it was easy to spot the hard-working among us. They seemed to be everywhere at once — doing all of the work that has to be done but nobody likes. Always smiling, always offering to help, and taking care of their own guests at the same time.

These are the people that stand out in a restaurant.

They make the big tips, they get promoted more quickly, and always have a huge pool of people willing to give them outstanding recommendations whenever they decide to move on to bigger and better things.

And, they deserve it.

This clichéd lesson from childhood doesn’t stop in the restaurant.

I see the same thing as a designer and instructor.

I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a LOT of wonderful, talented people. People who had talent that was far superior to mine. But, those aren’t always the students that landed the best jobs.

It was those who worked hardest.

It was those students with the drive to send out more resumes, write individualized cover letters, and create targeted portfolio pieces for each job opening.

It was the kids who took my instructor notes and revised their projects to make their portfolios stronger.

Those who went the extra mile by learning more software, expanding their knowledge of the industry, and never turning down a meeting with a potential employer or client.

There is always something good to be said about someone who busts ass on a daily basis.

He’s the guy you want to hire, he’s the guy you want to work with, and someday, he’ll be the guy you want to work for.

10) Word of Mouth Is the Best Advertising

Never underestimate the power of word-of-mouth.

Restaurants live and die by reviews. The very best places never have to advertise. Everyone knows they are great, and everyone will tell you so.

Not only can good or bad reviews make or break a business, they can just as easily pump up an individual. There’s no better feeling as a server than having the best tipper in town request your section.

As a freelancer, I will embarrassingly admit that my business website has had a “coming soon” page displayed for the last 5–10 years.


Because I have received all of my freelance work via word of mouth.

And, my client recommendations have kept me busy enough that I haven’t had time to design my own website.

I’ve been blessed with wonderful clients who tell their friends about me, and I’ve yet to work with a complete stranger.

No matter how small the job — whether it’s a simple business card, some marketing advice, or a full-blown rebrand — remember that every client has the potential to bring in additional clients and work.

And, if you do your job well, you could end up living the dream — too busy to finish your own website.

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