Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I Started as a Designer

Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I Started as a Designer

I was 22 and at my first real design job. I got to take the subway downtown to a cubicle in a high rise. I had finally made it! Except I wasn’t even close to making it. I’d graduated and thought I knew what was best. Surely I’d leave my mark on the world and have creative directors begging to hire me after looking through my portfolio. Looking back, it’s really embarrassing how much smarter than everyone else I thought I was. If I could, I’d go back in time and drop some harsh truths on myself. But since I don’t have access to a time machine, the best I can do is to give these truths to those of you who are in the position to take advantage of them earlier in your careers.

Drop the Ego

I know, I know. You want to work on projects that look cool and will make your portfolio catch people’s eye. I did too. What I found though, was that while I was turning out stuff that I thought looked cool and made my portfolio nice and shiny, it was at the expense of the client and their needs. I’m not proud of some of the work I did early in my career simply because I know I did a disservice to my clients and their users. While it’s a hard thing to do, especially early on in your career, always keep in mind that the client’s needs come first, not your portfolio.

I have good news though! Companies aren’t just looking for work that looks good on a Dribbble page (at least the ones you should want to work with). They’re looking for designers that know how to talk to clients and their users to discover what their actual needs are and provide great solutions. To make it clear to potential employers that you know what you’re doing, document your process as you work through projects. Write down WHY you made the decisions you made and how you came to those conclusions. I promise you’ll forget quicker than you think you will and not being able to articulate your reasoning is never a good look for a designer.

Pick Your Battles

It will happen to you. A client, co-worker, or boss will give you a directive that you think is the wrong choice to make. You’re going to have the urge to push back hard every single time. In my early career I developed a reputation for following emails down the hall to do this. I’d get a directive from an internal client and I’d immediately reply with why it was a bad idea AND I’d go to their office to push back for what I thought was the right choice. You may be right. It might be the wrong decision but if you push back every single time people are going to stop listening to you and won’t want to work with you.

You need to learn when and where to push back against changes to a design. When you’re given a directive that you disagree with, ask why. It might not be clear to you right away how the change in the design could benefit the client and the user. At the very least, you need to hear out WHY the change is being requested. If it’s a benefit to the business and the client, you have to accept that the change is needed.

Sometimes though, you just have to grin and bear it. There will be times that a design change is requested for strictly business reasons or a higher up wants to see the change.  When that happens, give your reasons for why you think it’s the wrong direction constructively. You could even go as far as mocking up both your ideal design and a version of the requested change to help bolster your argument. But if that doesn’t move the needle, then you just have to accept it and move on.

Other times, however, a requested change will be a detriment to the user’s experience. This is when fully pushing back is warranted. There are some caveats though. Pushing back takes time and energy. Before pushing back, consider everything we talked about above and decide if you have the time and energy for it or if it would be better spent elsewhere. Pushing back can also take political capital. Sometimes you’ll just be too junior to have the cache for the person to listen. In this case, take it up the chain to your creative director and let them decide on if and how to push back. And finally, pushing back can cause friction. Be ready to deal with some awkwardness in the near future if you push back.

Learn to Listen and Ask Questions

Right out of school I thought I knew everything about design and how to give clients what they wanted. I’d walk into a kickoff meeting with a solution already in mind despite the fact that the only information I had about the project was the maybe 20 minute conversation I’d had with my creative director and I hadn’t spoken to the client or their users even once. Sure, I was right sometimes but you can’t build a career on making a lucky guess on every project.

You should walk (or dial) into early meetings during a project expecting to listen about 80% of the time and talk 20% of the time. That time you DO spend talking still shouldn’t be offering solutions, it should be spent asking questions to try to understand your client’s needs. I promise you, there’s a good chance they won’t be able to articulate all of their needs and you’ll have to go digging to unearth them all. If you don’t ask these questions and actually listen to your client’s answers, you’re going to just be guessing at what needs to be done and will most likely turn out subpar work. That’s not going to help anyone.

Understand How Much You Have To Learn

You’ve graduated. Great, but what you learned in school is only going to take you so far. A huge part of this job is constantly learning. In your first year on the job, you’re going to learn far more than you did in the last four years you spent at school. In school you only really needed to worry about getting your assignments done on time and making your professor happy. Once you’re in your first real design job you’ll need to learn to deal with demanding clients, the normal bureaucracy of working at a company, moving deadlines, and shifting priorities. On top of that, you have to keep up with the constantly changing landscape of tools, technologies, and even best practices as everything continues to evolve.

That might sound daunting but keep in mind that the more you learn, the more versatile and valuable your work will become. Take every opportunity to learn new skills no matter where they become available or even if they aren’t directly in line with your work. This will open up more opportunities as your career progresses and your work will keep getting better.

Ask for Help

One of my biggest regrets in my early career was not asking for help. I was under the impression that I needed to just know how to do everything and that if I asked my creative director or my co-workers for help then I’d look less capable. This led to a lot of burnout and general anxiety about my work that was unhealthy. That idea is completely asinine. If you’re unsure about how to do something, or you aren’t clear on what is expected of you on a project, or really just need to ask any kind of question, do it. Asking for help won’t make your co-workers or creative director think any less of you. No one knows everything there is to know about this field and your mental health will be all the better for it.

Appreciate Criticism

I thought I had developed a thick skin from all of the critique I got in school. I was very wrong.

I reacted hostilely to criticism behind closed doors and didn’t take it for what it truly was, a chance to grow.

Criticism can be difficult to take, especially when it comes from someone outside of the design profession (read clients). Accepting that criticism, though, can provide you with lessons that can help you in your career. Taking criticism well requires you to develop the ability to communicate effectively, can show you bad habits you may have developed, and if nothing else, can provide motivation to be better at your craft. It never gets easier to hear that you missed the mark but take it in stride and it will pay off in the long run.

Get Good at Writing

Who knew that part of the job would be writing documentation, tons of written correspondence, and blog posts? Me. I should have known, but since I didn’t I had to go through all of the struggles of learning how to write well at work. Sure, I did a lot of writing in school but I didn’t take it seriously and it showed.

Take a writing class, write short stories, do anything, just please learn how to write well.

Find Your Confidence

Nothing is harder than selling an idea when you aren’t confident in yourself or your skills. Coming out of school, I thought I was ready but the harsh reality of actually having a design job made me lose my confidence in my abilities not long after jumping in. It made talking to my co-workers, creative director, and clients so much more difficult simply because I wasn’t confident enough in myself.

Part of that lack of confidence came from not knowing all of the things we’ve talked about above. But knowing that you don’t know everything, that you have a lot to learn, and that both of those things are ok helps you build that confidence.

Conclusion: Save the Best for Last

I saved the best for last: take advice from a seasoned designer. I know it takes a few of your own bumps and bruises to really grow as a designer, but if there is one thing you take away from this post, it is to be a little more humble. If you can skip past all of the ego and jump headfirst into learning and absorbing knowledge from your peers, you’ll have a much easier time progressing in your career (and producing great work). Take this one step and you’ll go far.

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