8 Tips for Keeping Your First Design Job

By John Luu

July 05, 2012

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.

Arrive Early, Stay Late

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.

Win Creative Pitches

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.

Finish Everything on Your Plate

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.

Volunteer for Projects No One Else Wants

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.

Become an Invaluable Asset

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 process.

Find a Mentor

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.

Cultivate a Professional Network

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.

Ask Your Boss How You Can Do Your Job Better

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 the open.

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.

This post was submitted by an individual AIGA member and may have been published without review. It does not necessarily reflect the views of AIGA as an organization. Please notify an editor if you notice information that is incorrect or in violation of any copyright or trademark.