With many design graduates starting their first jobs this summer, it dawned on me recently that many
design programs don’t teach students a lot of the soft skills that are more or
less required for holding down a real-world job. Having your first bona fide
design job at a well-respected firm or agency can be both an
exhilarating and stressful experience. That said, setbacks early in
your career can be very discouraging, causing many young designers to settle
for careers outside of the design profession. I thought this might be a
good opportunity to share some tips on how to keep your first design job—tips
that many young designers had to learn the hard way.
Work/life balance is a valid concern for many people in the workforce, but for
your first six to twelve months as the newbie in the design shop, I would
recommend coming in a little bit early and staying a little bit late to get a
feel for the ebb and flow of studio life. The main benefit: if you’re at your
desk at the start of business hours every day, everyone notices. Also, the quiet time gives you an
opportunity to catch up on unread emails, plan out your day and read up on
contemporary design trends and production techniques.
If you’re working in a design firm or ad agency, for important projects chances
are that multiple designers are developing separate creative solutions and
comps that are then chosen by the creative director or the client. As a
designer, one of your primary goals is to make a concerted effort to ensure
your design solution is the one that is picked by the client and produced by
the firm. These are the projects that, over time, define the body of work a
firm produces, and you want to be sure that your creative ideas are the ones
that get propagated.
The biggest mistake I see young designers make is letting old, unfinished
projects linger on their job list and clutter up the job board. Lingering projects
are not only bad feng shui, they’re also really bad for business, giving a
distorted view of a firm’s revenue pipeline and impeding new opportunities.
Make an effort to wrap up any projects that are still waiting on client
feedback or the odd piece of content, and try to get them out the door so that
you can check them off your list.
To quote architect Michael McDonough, “95 percent of any creative profession is shit work.” Creatives will always fight over a fun
pro bono poster project or a letterpress holiday card, but if a project
involves learning a new program, language or technology, it’s usually hard to
find someone eager to step up. If you’re the person willing to learn
motion graphics, mobile app development or a new print production technique,
you start to align yourself with future revenue streams for your employer. Also,
volunteering for high-risk projects that are outside of everyone’s comfort zone
is a great way to gain new experience, responsibilities and—eventually—expertise.
This is an expansion of my
previous point but over time firms and agencies grow and evolve in order to
compete effectively in the market place. The design firm that specialized
in stationary and brochures in the 1980s expanded to branding in the 1990s and
interactive in the 2000s, and they are now retooling for social and mobile in
the 2010s. Design professionals must adapt and evolve with the industry or they
risk becoming irrelevant as time passes. Ask to go on press checks or
shadow a web developer to help you better understand the production process.
Having a basic understanding of the print production process or how websites on the internet actually
function can go a long way in informing your design process, allowing you to
take ownership of a project at all stages of the concept, design and production
To succeed in your career it is often helpful to have a mentor—someone with a
breadth and depth of experience who can provide insights into how to achieve
your goals and give objective and dispassionate advice that is in your best
interest. Ideally, your mentor should be someone outside of work, or at least outside
of your department, who can keep private conversations confidential and will hold
you accountable for achieving your personal goals.
Most people only network when they are actively looking for a new job. This approach
tends to be counterproductive for a wide variety of reasons. Ideally, you
should have a professional network in place before you need to take advantage
of it. Although there are plenty of reasons to network, the main reasons are as
follows: to stay plugged in to what’s new in your local professional community
and to cultivate a network of contacts that can be of benefit at a future
date. Also, keep an eye out for the up-and-coming photographer, 3D
animator or iOS app developer. Good ones are very hard to come by.
Finally, don’t forget to
help others if the opportunity presents itself. Heard of a great opening within
a corporate in-house design department that isn’t advertised anywhere? Let your
professional contacts know about it. Networking is a two-way street, and you
want to pay it forward.
Seems pretty direct and
obvious, but most people avoid this conversation. This is a shame because
having your employer personally invested in your success on the job can be a
determining factor in how much you thrive at work. Employers think about their
employees’ career goals and job satisfaction, on average, maybe 15 to 30
minutes a year. More often than not, they’re busy trying to run a successful
business (hopefully), landing new business, improving client relations or taking
care of a million other sundry things, so you really have to force the
conversation. One key thing to remember: whatever feedback your employer gives
you, be sure to meet all of those expectations once they’ve been laid out in
By no means is this list of tips complete. If you have suggestions or
comments, please share them in the comments area. I am curious to know what
other agencies and firms think about the subject.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on
the AIGA Houston Blog, which was awarded Best Arts Blog in 2011 by the Houston
Press Web Awards.
At Axiom, John works with clients to develop product branding, advertising and integrated screen and print communication programs with an emphasis on creative solutions for energy-focused companies.
Utilizing a multidisciplinary approach, he fuses marketing strategy with compelling creative to solve business problems and drive opportunities for clients worldwide. John graduated from the University of Houston with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Communications.
As AIGA Houston Communications Director, John oversees all communications of AIGA programs/events/issues relevant to our profession and works closely with the chapter President & Programming Director to manage communication of the Chapter’s calendar.
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