School, Sucky Jobs & Self-Employment: the Life of a Young Designer

The main goal of design is communication, but a designer’s role changes in different environments. A student working on a portfolio has different goals than a designer working at an agency. I’ve been both a student and an employee, and now as a self-employed designer in a small company I can appreciate what design is like in different stages of a career. I’d like to give a brief overview of my working experience as a designer, and offer some helpful hints for anyone interested.

Design in School

Design in school is both intimidating and fun. Students learn what design actually is while also learning about layout, typography, color, and other technicalities. This is when you’re exposed to different kinds of design like branding, publication, packaging, environmental, and web. You’ll also work on all sorts of projects: logos, posters, abstract typography thingies, ads, and websites, all to give you an idea of what’s out there. Usually you find yourself drawn to a certain kind of design; for me, it was web. Even though my college only offered two web classes, I knew immediately that was what I wanted to do, and tailored my projects accordingly.

My favorite project from my senior portfolio, flashcards to teach kids french

My favorite project from my senior portfolio—flashcards to teach kids French

As a student designer your role is to absorb everything like a sponge in the few short years you have to be as creative as possible without boundaries. There’s a lot of pressure to work your ass off to appease your teachers and compete (nicely) with your peers. But the main goal is to end up with a slammin’ portfolio. This portfolio is what gets you interviews, it shows what sort of work you want to do, and it secures you a job—yay money!—but as soon as you leave the bubble things can change.

Advice:

• Join AIGA. You will meet a bunch of designers and get to attend all sorts of cool events.
 Don’t slack off or procrastinate too much. You (or your parents) are paying to do the work.
 School can be incredibly stressful, but it’s not real-world stress. You will survive.
 When entering the job search apply to ANYTHING that sounds decent. You never know who you’ll meet or what you’ll learn.

Design in an Agency as an Employee

Unless you land your dream job right away, you will probably feel a bit disgruntled at first. In school you’re encouraged to design whatever you want with no regard for budget or serious deadlines. Now, instead of getting critiqued by your peers, your boss calls the shots and you have to listen.

Bottom line: design is now about making money.

The role of design at an agency serves a client’s needs, and some of the work is pretty boring. Of course not all agencies are the same. There are some excellent people running companies; they are choosy about clients and keep their employees happy. These jobs let a designer learn and grow organically. However, there are also some un-excellent people running companies. In my time at an agency I learned everything not to do, which turned out to be just as valuable a lesson.

If you start out as a junior designer or an intern at a large agency you might just be a pair of hands, and you aren’t there to think—yet. Designers have to pay dues just like any other profession. It’s disheartening, but keep plugging away and hopefully you’ll be able to advance your position in a year or two. And if not, think about applying for a new job.

This is a snippet of what my planner looked like at my old job—had to write in pencil because things changed so much.

This is a snippet from my planner at my old job—had to write in pencil because things were changed and added constantly (so annoying)

I was at a small agency with a high employee turnover rate. Projects were continuously handed to me without much forethought from my superiors, and I was responsible for meeting with the client from the get go and seeing the project through—doing what a Project Manager should’ve done, on top of actually designing. I felt unprepared for that much responsibility right out of school, but it taught me a lot about how important leadership is in any type of business (and turned me off to client work, but I’ll get to that later).

In the workforce you’ll quickly realize that actual design is only one part of the equation. Everything becomes a group effort and relationships are incredibly important. Classmates are replaced with coworkers and bosses who are (hopefully) willing to help you out and share their experiences. Worst case scenario is that your boss or clients suck and you hate your life. Best case scenario is that you have new friends or mentors who can help you grow as a designer. Better case scenario is that you work well with a couple coworkers and you all jump ship to start your own company.

Advice:

 Befriend your coworkers. Sometimes it’s the only thing that will keep you sane if your boss or work is a nightmare.
 Some clients are awesome, some clients suck. Appreciate the good, tolerate the bad.
 If you wake up every morning with a pit in your stomach, it’s time to find a different job.

Design in a Small Company as My Own Boss

A lot of designers start to feel restricted working for someone else, or designing for clients. It’s no fun going through rounds of revisions on a website only to have your art director or boss nix it. And if you have to deal directly with clients, you are responsible for selling your ideas. This means you have to explain to someone who potentially knows nothing about design why you’ve solved their problem—and sometimes they don’t pay fairly, or at all! (That’s another topic.)

Which brings me to the biggest change I’ve experienced as a designer: being my own boss and having no client work. Not only did the way I work change, but what I work on changed too. I went from designing fun projects in school that were of direct interest to me, to begrudgingly designing websites for strangers in a small town. Now I focus solely on two products (so far) that I actually care about! It’s all about brand, user experience, and interface design. I answer to my two partners and our customers, who give direct feedback by either using our tools and giving us money, or not.

A screen from the dashboard on one of our tools, PostAcumen

A screen from one of our tools, PostAcumen

My goal now is to easily communicate complicated analytics to a wide-ranging, multicultural audience. Sometimes things need to be done immediately, so I do them. Other times there’s a lag in the amount of work I have, which allows time for blog reading, keeping up to date with the industry (learning), and most importantly, looking at cat pictures. Self-employment isn’t for everyone, but if you have gumption, trustworthy colleagues, a love of freedom, and a certain degree of luck, it could be worth it.

Advice:

 Read Rework (seriously, this book is the best)
 Never stop learning. Read blogs, articles, books, and anything else you can to stay sharp.
 Take full advantage of your free time. Get off the computer and go do things.
 Be grateful. It’s a huge risk to start a company. Never take success for granted.

Conclusion

This essay touched on my experiences and what I’ve heard from fellow designers. Everyone has their own history and stories to tell about their lives as a designer. If you have any questions or want to share your experiences—or tell me I’m full of it—let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

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