Design

What Leading Designers Learned from their First Design Jobs

Tips for New Designers

August 14, 2019

When you’re fresh out of design school, the possibilities can seem endless. At the same time, there are a number of traps new designers can get caught in, if they aren’t careful. Since a fresh batch of creatives have recently finished up their design degrees, we thought it was a good time to survey designers from around the world to see what they learned in their first design jobs. To be sure, everyone’s experience is a bit different, but learning from experienced designers helps the next generation avoid pitfalls and start their design journey with a solid foundation. 

Here’s what designers told us about what they learned and what advice they have for junior designers. 

Consider Your First Design Job with Care

When you’ve just completed school it’s easy to jump at the first job offer your receive. After all, you are eager to get started in your career and the salary is most likely much more than you’ve ever made before. But is it the right role for you? Many companies (especially ones that are technology oriented) will tell you about their “culture.” This might mean Thursday happy hours or quarterly team outings. While this might seem fun, you will still need to ask the right questions to learn what the team dynamics are and what you can expect in terms of workload. If you are drowning in projects or have a boss that micromanages you, those perks the company touted might not carry as much weight. 

In addition, transitioning from school to working full time can be tough. It takes time to get acclimated to your new schedule, roles, and responsibilities. Alexa Westerfield, Founder of Swell Creative Media tell us, “College doesn’t prepare you for the same kind of work you do at your first job, so you have to have a willingness to learn and a lot of times do the grunt work that comes from starting at the bottom.” 

A person rock climbing and another helping them from below.
It might be a long way up, but you’ll have some help as you grow in your design journey.

Chad Brittian, CEO of NVS Design, echoes Westerfield’s experience, and explains that in his first design job “I learned how demanding and honestly crazy being in the real world was compared to the classroom. I also learned that design is absolutely subjective and that I needed to learn to take criticism, even if I disagreed with it. It would ultimately help me grow and become a better designer. I just didn’t know how much at the time.” Growth is key for new designers, and lessons don’t always come easy. 

You Won’t Be Good at Everything

Starting out in any new field or job will have a significant learning curve. As Westerfield explained above, school can only teach you so much. You will need to try your hand at new styles and tasks before you learn where your skills lie. And along the way you will also learn what you aren’t so good at—which is a completely natural part of the process. 

In Westerfield’s first design job, she tells us, “I realized that I had some strengths and weaknesses in designing and that it takes some time to figure those out; for example production work and typesetting are not what I was good at, but creative logos and layout was.” Your first design job will have upsides and downsides, but it’s all a part of the learning process. Starting your new design journey with your eyes wide open will help you along the way. 

Take a Step Back to Gain Perspective

While your first design job can seem incredibly important, it is key to remember that it is just the first job of many you will have over the course of your career. Westerfield admits, “Be patient knowing that this is a first stepping stone; keep yourself fulfilled with other design work, even if it [is] personal projects you do to enhance your portfolio.” Not every design job you have, especially the first, will perfectly align with your ultimate aspirations (and they are likely to change over time anyway). So make a list of what you’re looking to get out of your first design job and be sure that you accept a role that fulfills the most important ones. Your hobbies and even freelance work can fill in any gaps (these apps are a must for freelance designers), if you choose a role that will hone your skills, but not necessarily feed your soul. 

A person holding two coffee cups with several more coffees in the frame.
Sometimes getting the team coffee is a part of paying your dues.

Stay Humble and Always Be Learning

Whether you subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that expertise requires 10,000 hours of work and focus or not, all designers agree that it takes a significant amount of time to hone design chops. And the first job should provide plenty of opportunities to learn. 

Fetching coffee for your boss might be a cliche responsibility for interns and junior designers, but it might just be part of your job at first. However, be sure that you are being included in the design side of things as well. Even if your boss doesn’t ask for your help, offer an extra set of hands when projects come up that interest you. And, more formally, communicate to your boss the skills and programs you want to learn. When they are aware of your aspirations and interests, they can loop you in on projects and calls that will help you advance in your career. 

Your first design job is a time for learning. It is a new world compared to what your experience was like while studying. Diana Wilson, CEO of ProFile Sports LLC and ProFile Sports.TV, wants new designers to “Get real, and be willing to put the time and effort in to learning your craft. Because you graduated from art school or design school means nothing. You are not prepared. Your real education begins when you are working for real clients in the real world. Go to design award shows, learn who in your town has talent and which agencies have the best clients. Be helpful and be humble.” 

Brittian admits that in his first design role he sometimes “felt boxed in and that I was not as challenged as I needed to be, but in hindsight I think I was just wanting to focus on the more exciting projects in front of me which became a hindrance to my growth. I have grown immensely in my career—having some of those key skills initially—but learning as I matured in my career that even projects that are not glamorous or exciting can still really teach you to become a better designer. The better you get, the more selective you can be on projects in the future!” Brittian brings up a solid point that projects don’t have to be your first choice to help you gain the skills you need most. New design graduates want to make a big impact from day one, but learning the foundational skills to set them up for success down the line is an important place to start.

Four people meeting in an office with tablets in hand.
Nothing will get your skills up to speed like having a strong team routing for you.

Learn from Other Designers

You might get lucky in your first design job and land a boss that has serious mentor potential. If not, there are a number of associations (like AIGA, the professional association for design) and groups that can help you find someone to guide you. And beyond seeking mentorship, your peers can also be a support system, and have a fountain of knowledge as well. Westerfield finds this especially important for young designers, as she tells us, “Find a support system of other designers whether it be in person or online that you can talk to to share experiences with. And if you can, find a mentor!”

Closing Thoughts

Starting out in your first design job can be a nerve wracking experience, but as we’ve learned from these seasoned design professionals, that’s all part of the process. Lean into the unknown and take in as much as you can. Build a tribe of designers both at work and at home to learn from and bounce ideas off of. Together, you can weather the storm of your first design job and be off to a great start in your new career. 

What did you learn from your first design job? Let know your tips for new designers by tweeting us @Protoio.

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