Starting Your Design Career

By July 1, 2015 August 4th, 2020 Company Culture & Teambuilding


Breaking into the design field is no easy task. It requires experience, a degree,* and a keen understanding of client and company needs. On top of all these requirements, a career in design is often seen as a hobby or a fun, easy job for the unambitious artist. It can be daunting to find an open door into this community — much less an open door that pays enough to cover student loans. That being said, no career is easy (especially in the beginning stages) and with some patience and determination, the serious designer can begin and maintain a flourishing career. Here are 5 steps that we recommend to keep you focused as you enter the world of professional design.

*Degrees are debatably necessary in our field. Many employers prefer candidates to have a BFA in design; however, this is a portfolio-driven industry, and with the right amount of skill and dedication, no extended schooling is demanded.

Never Work for Free
One of the hardest lessons for a young designer is to learn the value of their work. You probably wouldn’t ask your plumber friend to come over and unclog your toilet off the clock, but designers are asked to donate their skills “for fun” constantly. Steer clear of job posts that offer no pay, but brag about offering you experience and introductions to future clients. This applies to internships as well — unless an internship meets certain Department of Labor criteria, it can actually be illegal for organizations not to offer compensation to interns. The agencies you want to work for are the ones that offer monetary compensation to interns.

All of this said, every rule has its exceptions, and in this case, working for free can benefit you when in the form of trades, collaboration, and selfish work.

If you’re trading roughly equally valued services and both partners feel benefitted, go to town — we just recommend drawing up a contract for each trade to ensure that both parties remain satisfied with the agreement.

Collaboration with other designers and creatives can create both valuable friendships and networking opportunities. Collaboration also demonstrates your ability to work on a team and execute a group vision — traits that will get you hired over a lone wolf any day.

Selfish work is done for your own personal gain, but you shouldn’t feel guilty about it — it’s intended to expand your skills and further your career. If your portfolio is lacking illustration, set up some illustration projects just for you. If your typography skills are falling behind the competition, analyze what’s working for successful designers and what could be improved, then spend some time on your own work.

Your design degree doesn’t mean you’re automatically ready to conquer the design world; it simply means you’ve acquired the tools to start the real learning process.

Network Until You Can’t Stand It, Then Network Some More
The beauty of networking is that eventually someone will know someone that could use your talents — but you have to use communication to get there. In a 2013 survey of employers with at least ¼ of their employees holding a degree, 93% of respondents actually said that critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills are more important than a candidate’s undergrad major.

Remember that any professional contact can be beneficial, so collect business cards, keep in touch, and be genuine. Networking isn’t solely for your own benefit; it’s a mutual connection to aid each other in business ventures. As your career matures, you’ll feel inclined to pass along some wisdom and help to younger versions of yourself, just as people you respect passed along to you.

Exercise “Less is More” for Your Portfolio, But Don’t Wipe Your Resume Clean
You are only as good as your worst portfolio item.

Let that sink in. Even if it means you have just 5 items, include only your best — then get to work making even better pieces.

Student work is fine, but be honest that it’s student work. For any given portfolio piece, employers will be far more impressed if it’s exceptional student work than they will if it’s presented as client work. With a solid foundation of student work, your professional work can improve at an astounding rate — and that excites potential employers.

As for your resume, don’t underestimate the power of all work experience. For example, cashier experience can show that you’re trustworthy and efficient. Bartending proves you have experience with difficult customer service scenarios and handling intense situations under pressure. These seemingly unrelated job experiences could actually put your resume at the top of the pile.

Lastly, pay careful attention to the impression your resume makes. Opt for a well-designed grid, not a trendy art piece. Use legible and clean typography. Follow rules of hierarchy. Avoid getting carried away with script fonts, jazzy flash touches, or illustrations of your face. Make sure the resume prints well in black and white on 8.5”x11” paper, since that’s how your potential employers will most likely be viewing it. When you think you’re done, you’re not — have your resume proofread for spelling, grammar, and layout by multiple people.

In Interviews, Be Honest With Where You Are and Where You Want to Be
Before you head out the door, remember to grab printed copies of your resume. Don’t forget your portfolio — whether printed or digital. Be ready to talk about, and defend, the choices made in your portfolio. Employers want to know that you thought about the details. Interviewers have been known to challenge choices, even if they agree with them, just to see how you react to critique.

During the interview, exaggerating your prowess can actually make things harder — especially if you’re hired on those false pretenses. Take a more honest approach: tell your interviewer that you still have much to learn. Talk about your passion to grow as a designer and the specific areas you want to grow in, as well as what initiatives you’re taking right now to assist that growth. It’s definitely okay to play to your strengths, but keep your desire to learn among them.

It’s also a great idea to research the company and tell them how they fit into your 5-year plan. This always comes across better than asking questions you could have learned from the employer’s website.

Don’t Give Up: Be Patient and Stay on Track
In 2015 you’re pretty lucky, at least compared to those that graduated college in the height of the recession. Jobs were hard to come by — especially design jobs. Today, we’re back to more of an employee’s market and there are more opportunities to begin a career. With that comes the ability to be more selective, but finding the right fit can still be an extended process. Be prepared to put in some time before you land that perfect full-time job, and be honest about assessing its value to your growth. While excessive job-hopping doesn’t look great on a resume, switching jobs is arguably better than staying at a job that’s not helping you meet your career goals.

Our last tidbit of wisdom is to remind each designer the importance of remembering their own mortality in the field. Talent pools grow and shift; they never stop changing. Never lose sight of where you began and where you want to travel in your career journey. Don’t let your ego grow so large that is pushes you out of work. Stay confident but remain realistic about the value of what you provide. With the right amount of hard work, networking, and portfolio revisions, you’re set up to create a name for yourself in the design scene.


Savy Bergeron

Author Savy Bergeron

Savy is a Senior Graphic and Interactive Designer hailing from the deep woods of the Cascades. When she's not illustrating at work she's busy cooking allergy-friendly food and having hiking, camping and snowboarding adventures with her husband.

More posts by Savy Bergeron

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