Hi there. The name’s Lil, and I just left my first design job out of school at TED after working there for three and a half years. As a young designer who started her first design job at 21 years old, I spent quite some time flailing around aimlessly before fully understanding the ropes. Luckily, I learned quite a bit and wanted to share with you some of my insight! Here’s to hoping that it spares you from some of the obstacles I faced at my first design job.
By the way, a lot of the concepts I discuss in this are on the broader end of the spectrum because specific details are circumstantial based on where you work! Make what you will of it.
Getting non-designers to comprehend and give a shit about design is integral to a designer’s career. You will inevitably need to communicate to non-designers, like clients (duh), about your work and your design decisions. If they fail to understand a design concept, it will be painfully tempting to immediately rant to your designer posse. Trust me, I know how frustrating it can be. These mortals just don’t get white space and the need for responsive design, smh (yet they seem to know about the fold all too well).
We’ve all done this before, so hypothetically speaking, we should know how unproductive this is. You leave annoyed. The client leaves no less uninformed. The less-than-ideal design remains less-than-ideal. Here’s what you have to realize: It is not only a designer’s job to create good design, it’s also our responsibility to try and ensure that good design gets implemented. This is why the ability to talk to non-designers is such a critical skill.
So how do you practice this foreign form of communication without making an idiot out of yourself at your first few client pitches? My suggestion: Talk to your friends about design and get them to genuinely care about what you have to say. Make ‘em realize that at the core of strong design lies functionality, not aesthetic. Being able to do this means that you can explain the rationale behind your design decisions. If you can get your friends to listen and understand this, you’ll be leagues ahead of a younger me when it comes time to interact with a non-designer.
Remember the art school days when you knew everyone and who they were dating? As a result, we all knew which design classmates were more inclined towards photography, illustration, or HTML/CSS. If a project required someone who could code and that someone happened to be you, your classmates or teacher instinctively knew to flock to you for help.
The work world is not like this. Nobody is going to know every quirk about you at the start of a new job. They will have little to no idea what you are capable of, nor should they be expected to! It’s not their duty to unearth what hidden talents you possess. It’s your responsibility to inform others. Simply verbalizing this is usually not enough, you need to let your skills shine through your work.
The best way to showcase these abilities is to find the right opportunities to utilize them. If you’re lucky enough, chances will sprout up in your day to day tasks. Oftentimes the reality is that you need to proactively seek out those moments outside of your normal role. Lend another team a hand or kickstart your own mini-initiative. You’d be surprised how many positive things can come your way because of an adorbz side project you did in your free time.
First impressions are critical at the office. If you paint yourself as soft-spoken from the start, brace yourself to be perceived that way. Remember that pushover friend? Recall when you stopped asking what they wanted for dinner because you knew they wouldn’t care? Yep. Dinner may be whatever, but your career is not (okay, we all love food but just play along here).
It makes sense why you may be initially nervous to express your opinion, especially if you’re a new graduate at your first design job. What if you blurt out a barbaric idea in front designers with years of experience over you? Typesetting your resume in Comic Sans might just be more tolerable than suffering the potential humiliation. Better yet, how about Papyrus?
Let’s play this situation out. You’re nervous but you have feedback to contribute. Now what? The trick here is to learn when it is appropriate to interject your thoughts and how to go about doing so. Once you find that sweet spot (which will vary based on your company), make sure to always speak up if you have insightful thoughts. I can assure you that the correct approach will never be to suppress your opinions. Ever.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that as a new hire that you chime in at every given moment in a meeting full of CEOs. Know your place. Simultaneously, when you do have a strong opinion, you must find a way to express it. If you fail to speak up, people will do the only logical thing remaining and assume that you don’t have any opinions to contribute. This is an unnecessary uphill battle that can easily be avoided if you just use your voice!
Unlike a college design rubric, the parameters of your original job listing are more flexible than you might expect. An employee’s role in a company can be fairly amorphous and evolves in the direction you nudge it toward. Just because the job description online said your main role would be creating banner ads, does not necessarily damn you to a life in pixel-pushing hell.
To keep this process moving, it is key to establish your career goals and growth path with your manager. Whether that means infrequent conversations or weekly checkins, you need to ensure that both of your visions align with the direction you want to move toward. Having clashing visions with your manager will slow down your growth. Speak your needs otherwise they will not be heard.
In addition to vocalizing your desire for change, you will need to prove that you’re actually improving as a designer. Just because you woke up one day believing that you could redesign your entire company website doesn’t mean you actually can. Let’s say under the 0.01% chance that you are actually equipped to do this (you won’t be), you still have no way of proving this to your manager until the quality of your work speaks to your claims. So get to it!
Wow, you made it to the bottom of my post! Spectacular. If you didn’t notice yet, there are two motifs that consistently repeat themselves throughout this post:
One of the characteristics I love most about design is that despite many not being aware of its presence, it still carries out its intended function. This parallels the life of a designer a little too coincidentally. We churn out projects, we make ~*things work*~, but nobody seems to fully understand what it is we exactly do. Designers work from behind-the-scenes and often, our work represents us more than our first and last names do. Sometimes the unfortunate byproduct is that we don’t get enough credit for our trade.
As a young designer, your work can carry you far, but it will be nothing compared to what the power of your voice and work combined can do. Create work that you’re proud of, talk about it, and lastly, take ownership of it. It might be challenging if much of your initial work is supplementary to a lead designer’s project, but don’t let that hinder your spirit! Practice makes perfect, so keep at it.
And there you have it, design advice from a young designer to even younger designers. Let me know your thoughts and if this was helpful at all. Spread the love if you think there was any actual coherency in what I had to say <3.
Follow me on Twitter at @_lilchen to stay in touch!