You just graduated from design school—now what?

This story was originally published by AIGA Colorado.

Throw your hats in the air!

As I see all of these shiny new grad­u­ates grab­bing their iPads to hit the yel­low brick road, it takes me back to my first days as a designer—May 1990 rid­ing the eleva­tor to the 9th floor on Dearborn Street in the South Loop. Ding! Your career now begins.

In the spirit of cel­e­brat­ing my 25th year in design along with AIGA Colorado’s 25th anniver­sary, I have a few insights to share with stu­dents on that first job, first year, and finally start­ing your bril­liant career.

School of hard knocks

After you grad­u­ate and get your first job, you’ll quickly real­ize that on-the-job train­ing is what’s next. You really aren’t ready to work on your own yet. You may have the basics down on how to approach design and exe­cute a con­cept, but your first year will be intense as you learn there was a lot that school couldn’t cover. Plus it all moves much faster in an agency or stu­dio—it will feel like a whirl­wind at first (You thought school was intense!). You’ll have three hours to design a brochure, not three weeks. This real­iza­tion (of how much you don’t know) might be a bit deflat­ing at first, but remem­ber that you’re start­ing a long and glori­ous career. Watch, learn, and absorb from those around you. Be ready to do anything. You’ll learn some­thing from every expe­ri­ence, even the bor­ing tasks, so be eager and interested.

The first 1-5 years of your career will be heavy on learn­ing with small wins. Celebrate those wins, because you won’t feel really accom­plished until 6-9 years of prac­tice. At 10+ years, design gets really inter­est­ing because it tran­scends the craft and moves into strate­gic think­ing. You’ll love this place in your career. At 20+? It’s all about rela­tion­ships. The work is impor­tant too, but the peo­ple are what make it fun and reward­ing. Be patient get­ting there and soak in all wis­dom from oth­ers and expe­ri­ence at jobs, design func­tions, and through volunteering.

Build a career, not just a port­fo­lio

One key thing an art direc­tor told me at my first job: not all your projects are port­fo­lio pieces, some are just good expe­ri­ence. Don’t put pres­sure on your­self to make every project an amaz­ing expres­sion of your tal­ent. You’ll get frus­trated and so will your boss. If you have 1–3 great projects per year in your book, you’ll be doing well.

Try to avoid a strong feel­ing of own­er­ship of a spe­cific design you’ve cre­ated. When in school, you cre­ated and exe­cuted every part of the project your­self with input from the instruc­tor and the class. You owned it. In your first job, you’ll likely be part of a team and this will con­tinue through­out your career. Who gets the credit for the work will become blurry. Design is not pre­cious. Design is purposeful. You can take pride in the full piece even if you worked on half of it your­self. Be open to the process of col­lab­o­ra­tion know­ing it makes the work stronger rather than water­ing down your thumbprint on it. Interpret requests like “make it big­ger” to be “make it more promi­nent/impor­tant/read­able” and you’ll be a hap­pier, more success­ful designer.

Also, as your skills get bet­ter, you’ll get to the best design faster. You’ll look back at a piece you did just a year ago and groan. All of your pieces are valuable, no mat­ter if your choice of color or type­face makes you wince a lit­tle a few years later. It’s great to keep copies of all your pieces in printed or PDF form. Make sure to gather your work and store it in a safe place. After all, you’ll want to have a good trail of bread­crumbs for when some­one is look­ing back at your career and hon­or­ing you with an AIGA Fellow Award. Right?

One last tip: Keep at least one busi­ness card from every job you’ve worked. It’s cool to see them in your later years. The designs become amus­ingly dated or interest­ingly classic.

Become irre­place­able

At your first job, make a niche for your­self at your com­pany. When I started as a junior designer in Chicago, I real­ized I’d learned noth­ing about paper and there was a whole new deli­ciously tex­tured and col­or­ful world that opened up to me. I took charge of the firm’s paper library, learn­ing about all the paper mills and their lines, col­ors, and fin­ishes. When a mill rep wanted to visit our stu­dio to show new pro­mo­tions, the recep­tion­ist sent the call to me. Senior design­ers asked me for paper rec­om­men­da­tions. I would gather their options and offer to order sam­ples. Find your niche—maybe you have an insane amount of Pinterest boards for inspi­ra­tion or you know “there’s an app for that.” Or maybe you’re the one at your shop who reviews all the new soft­ware updates and demos the best new fea­tures for the team. Create an exper­tise for your­self within your firm. People will remem­ber you for your niche, which could save you dur­ing a lay­off or kickstart your rep­u­ta­tion in the design community.

Stay con­nected to your­self

Life changes. Things zig, you zag. There are incred­i­ble highs and great lows and many in the mid­dle, but all the while, you can con­tin­u­ously learn, be engaged, and improve as a designer (Look at Kit Hinrichs who at 74 is still work­ing and lov­ing it.). AIGA helps with this, but so do your fam­ily, friends, and peers. And down­time. Keep curios­ity close at hand and strong tribe to sup­port you, and you will always be ful­filled in your life—or at least never bored.

Welcome to the most reward­ing, chal­leng­ing, and chang­ing pro­fes­sions you can imag­ine. Welcome to design.

About the Author:

Helen Young founded EnZed Design in 1996, focusing first on her expertise in publication design. Since then, EnZed has become a team of creatives,  producing powerful promotions and captivating printed materials. Most recently and passionately, we’ve developed a knack for designing surface patterns ideal for original gift wrap and packaging, and creatively practical paper products. Helen is currently serving as President Emeritus of AIGA Colorado.