Dear future designer,
So you're considering a career in web design, and looking for some advice. I'd love to help you out, but I'm not quite sure what to tell you. Do I tell you about myself? How I'm an art school graduate and I can actually pay my bills? How I have a fantastic job where I get to do what I love all day long? Or should I tell you about the many times I practically starved to death to add a new line to my resume?
When I decided I wanted to pursue a career in web design, I knew it wasn’t going to be glamourous. The industry can be over-saturated and highly competitive. Many successful designers live and breathe their work (weekends and evenings included). Design is more than a full time job; it’s a way of life. But if you’re okay with that, what a sweet, sweet life it is.
I don't want to tell you what to do, future designer, but I would like to share the most important piece of advice I've acquired in the short time I've been on this earth:
Start working to get a job before you even start university.
Why I would suggest something so extreme? It might seem like putting the cart before the horse, but this mindset will help you focus on a goal that’s more important than GPA or grades. Think of your school projects as job assignments. Look at your professors as bosses or future connections for that job you can’t stop thinking about.
Here’s how it’s done:
Step one: Get into a university with a reputable design program
This may sound like an obvious one, but it's just as important as any of the other steps. What's the point of focusing on something for four years, only to step out into the real world holding a piece of paper that's only worth the thousands of dollars you spent buying it?
The best career decision I ever made was driving my '92 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera from Dallas to Vancouver to attend Emily Carr University. It was the only school I wanted (not to mention the only school I applied to). Why? Reputation.
Step two: Work at working
University is an excellent place to learn the theories and practice the techniques of design. But there’s nothing like a good old fashioned unpaid internship to learn how it works in the real world. I know unpaid internships don’t have a great reputation (these days they have the same moral implications that child labour did in the 19th century) but believe me: I was happy to have them.
This is my advice: do your summer internships. If you get paid, awesome. If you don't, enjoy your free tuition. You’ll learn just as much as (if not more than) you did in school.
Step three: Once you have the internship, force yourself to learn something!
Here’s how my first internship went:
“Oh, you can't code?”
“You mean you're not expert level at Photoshop and Illustrator yet?”
“You don't have Keynote?”
“Not a problem! Can you file these for me please?“
You might have to fight to get yourself some experience. I would sit behind designers and just watch them work (looking back, that must have been a little frustrating for them – sorry guys!). The knowledge I gained from just seeing how the professionals did things changed my work ethic for the better.
Step four: If you don’t have work experience or portfolio pieces, make your own
It’s hard to get that first job out of university when you don’t have any “real” experience. Luckily for designers, we can create our own experience! It’s not work if you enjoy doing it – get out there and make something for the fun of it.
When I had my first design internship interview, I struggled to figure out what to actually show them. I knew I could do the job, but I didn’t have anything in my portfolio (yet) that proved it.
So I showed them a student project I’d finished the previous semester. Because I’d started school with the goal of getting a job, I tried to treat my school assignments like real projects. My student work showed the design style and process that I wanted when I graduated.
Step five: Make a portfolio that shows your process
I got my first internship because my work showed thought and process, not because it showed “professional experience”. This taught me something important: always show your process.
It’s been two years since I've had to make a physical process book in school, but I still wake up in the middle of the night dreaming of glue sticks and pulling paper clippings from my hair. The truth about the sometimes mind numbing task of process books is they are relevant. Like solving a maze, it’s not enough to just draw an “x” at the beginning and end. How you got from point A to point B is what matters. What were your mistakes? What did you solve? What the hell were you thinking?! Showing your thought process will tell your future employer what you’re really like as a designer.
Step six: Get yourself out there.
So now what you do have? Awesomeness, that’s what. You have experience from university, a portfolio, and you know how to work with clients from your internship experience. You’re ready.
Before you’re even close to graduation, make sure you go out to meetups, design talks, and even gallery openings. Networking (in the real world, not on Facebook) can help you become a familiar fixture in your local design community.
Most of the work I’ve been lucky enough to have usually comes from word of mouth. You have no idea how important that one person that one time can be.
Now go get yo'self hired!
That’s what I’ve learned over the past 5+ years, but I’d love to hear your story. How did you get your first job? What did you do in school that made the difference? Drop me an email!