I think it is important for me to clarify upfront— this is NOT a How-To. My path is different than yours, and I don’t know what I am doing half the time. But, here is how I got where I am, somewhat untraditionally, and very ungracefully.
My story begins just as college was ending. The summer before senior year, I had an internship at an event planning company, what I thought would be a dream job. It wasn’t, and a little too late, I realized what was. I majored in Marketing, and minored in Studio Art, up until my senior year, when I realized that Graphic Design was what I actually wanted to pursue.
People always told me, when I struggled with deciding on a major, that your major doesn’t matter that much. I am here to tell you that they are right, but this advice is shit. It is 100% possible to pursue a career outside of your major, but it is not easy. If there are college students reading this — I encourage you to start truly looking into career choices, talk to people, shadow them, invest in yourself and your career as early as possible. As much as I appreciate my path and believe that it was the right one for me, I know that some things would have been easier if I had majored in design.
PHASE 1: Ask a lot of questions.
Take your ego and put it in a deep dark hole. It can stay there for a long while.
Design is a complicated, inspiring, frustrating, ambiguous, nuanced thing. This is exciting! You have so much to learn and should waste no time getting to it.
Build a network:
Tell all your friends and family that you are now pursuing design. See if they know anyone in the industry, or anyone in a similar industry, you could meet with. No connection is too random—I met with my mom’s friend’s coworker’s old coworker’s friend, and still keep in touch with her! Your network is what you make it. Every person was just starting out at some point, so most will be willing to share their advice and do what they can to help you (and, probably will feel honored that you asked!). Come to the meeting (or phone call) prepared, with well thought out questions, that you genuinely want to know the answer to. Ask them open-ended questions about their path, and listen. Always ask if they have other connections that might be willing to meet with you. Pay for their coffee, write them a hand-written thank you note, and follow up via email as well. Keep track of all these people, and follow up every so often — the point of networking is to create a network, so maintain it! Another note: Use social media to network. I have shamelessly messaged many designers that I do not know or have any connection to and this has led to many clients AND more importantly friendships!
Go down internet rabbit holes. Research designers and best practices, read lots of blogs, watch even more Photoshop tutorials. There are so many resources available, you just have to be diligent enough to take advantage. When you hit a wall and don’t know how to do something, look it up! Now you know a new Illustrator trick.
Connect with designers:
Use Instagram/Dribbble/Behance to find designers that you admire. Some of them may be more well-known and established, some may be just starting out as well. Reach out to them with a question, or just with a compliment of their work, 9 times out of 10, they will answer, which links back to building a network. A lot of creatives will do Instagram lives or stories that show behind the scenes, which is a fun + free way to learn from and be inspired by aspirational people.
Take online classes:
Design requires a very wide range of different skill sets, and there will always be something to learn. There are lots of online courses available that allow you to learn for free, or at least for MUCH cheaper than the cost of tuition. See a gap in your skills? Find a course for it. Skillshare is a great, cheap resource with hundreds of small courses. I have also taken some more expensive (but so worth it) online courses — SuperHI to learn the basics of coding (I have now taken 2 of their courses and can’t recommend enough!), Rowanmade branding course, and Cocorrina web design course to name a few.
Create A LOT of work and share it:
Maybe more important than all of these tips, is to just design. Your work will probably be bad (if it isn’t, you probably are some magical prodigy that is not reading this blog)! When I started, I thought my work was good, now I look back on it with disgust — probably the same way I will look back on what I am doing now in 5 years. The whole point is that this is a process. Just keep practicing and learning as much as possible.
When you are new to the programs, it is easy to think in terms of things you already know how to do. Some of the best advice I was given was to never start the creative process by thinking about how you would execute something. First, visualize what you want the end goal to be, and then try to create that. Remember, you always have Google to help.
Another good way to practice is to try to replicate work that designers you admire have made. NEVER show this to anyone or post it anywhere!! It cannot go in your portfolio, but it is an effective way to learn. It will help with technical program knowledge, but also you are forced to put yourself in that designer’s head, which will be even more useful.
One of my favorite designers, Timothy Goodman, has a quote “You have to create a lot of work before you make work that looks like yourself.” This is so true! Do not try to define your style right away. Experiment, create without limits. Style comes with time, and can’t be forced.
SHARE! For a job I was applying to early on, I had to create an instagram account to show my creative work. While I did not get the job, this platform has been one of my biggest blessings. It by no means has gone viral or gotten a lot of attention, but I have gotten clients and built SO many professional and personal relationships from it! And it is a great way to showcase more work and behind the scenes without having to stay completely up to date on your website, so it serves as a mini portfolio. AND if you want to DM a designer or connect with them via Instagram, it leaves the opportunity for them to look at your work!
Phase 2: Fake it til you make it, sort of.
Fake it til you make it:
When I got my first internship doing design, I did not sleep the night before. I felt unqualified, and honestly probably was unqualified. I was stressed that my new boss would be watching over my shoulder as I worked. And, at this point, I was still using Google as my partner in crime any time I did not know how to do something (which was often). Fake it til you make it — You have to have enough confidence in your ability to learn and adapt as you go, which means you do not have to tell everyone all of your weaknesses or places that you still want to improve. BUT, back to phase 1, this does not mean blind confidence. Always stay humble, always be willing to ask questions and learn.
Do the dirty work:
Eventually, you will need to make some money. This probably means that you will have to do quite a bit of work that is not so glamorous. Coming off of student projects / personal projects and going into a flyer for your uncle’s new car wash business is, honestly, not fun. Whether it be freelance or a full-time job, as you are just getting started, there will be some dirty work. At this point, if it could be used for your portfolio in the end and/or you are being paid fairly to do it, you should do it — your default should be to say YES to everything at this stage. The goal, obviously, is to get work that is both good for portfolio AND pays well, and as you improve, you will be able to become more and more choiceful about the jobs you are taking. To make the not-so-glamorous jobs less painful, I have two tips. 1) Be optimistic. Think about how you can use some design magic to make this work something you are proud of. Use it as an opportunity to learn something new or try out a new technique (without sacrificing quality for your client). 2) If time and financial situation allow, continue to do personal projects in your spare time, this will help you to stay inspired and avoid creative burnout. The side hustle lifestyle is a great thing.
The actual ‘hard part’:
Another unexpected learning once you start working with clients and bosses, is that learning the technicalities of design is actually the easy part. Illustrator can seem complicated when you first start, but people are much more confusing. Working with others, especially on creative work, can be very difficult. You need to learn how to deal with competitive coworkers, unorganized clients, insensitive bosses, the list goes on. Learning how to deal with negative feedback, how and when to stand up for your work, how to work with clients, the list goes on — is hard and can be painful. My best advice is to be kind, be humble, listen, and always learn from your experiences (and mistakes).
PHASE 3: Just keep swimming
Combat the Imposter Syndrome:
I continue to have insecurities that I am a sham, when I get extremely negative feedback, or when I don’t get a job, or when I spend too much time on Instagram playing the comparison game. Being a self-taught designer means that I constantly feel like I am still playing catchup, but ALL CREATIVES struggle with this at ALL STAGES of their career. I combat this by continuing to learn and practice, continuing to succeed and fail. Also, it is so important to remember that EVERY creative (and non-creative) has doubts, failures, and insecurities. There are many designers that share candidly about their experiences, which can help put things into perspective. Building creative community whether it be through creative facebook groups, coworkers, Instagram networking, events, etc. can also really help.
Learn to say NO:
While being in “Yes” mode is super important when first starting out, there is eventually a hump you go over where this is no longer possible. I learned this (and am still learning this) the hard way and it led to many sleepless nights, burnout, compromised mental health, and ultimately work that could have been better. So now my criteria for saying yes to a project (from GirlBoss Radio’s In Progress How to Have Better Boundaries that legitimately changed my life) is that it must fulfill 3 out of 5 of these criteria:
Will I enjoy it?
Does it pay my fee?
Is this something different that will challenge or grow me in some way?
Does this elevate my profile?
Does this put me in front of a larger audience/Will it get me more clients?
Having specific criteria makes the decision of when to say yes actually formulaic and so much easier and takes some of the emotion out of it. I use these criteria all the time to evaluate opportunities!
Keep learning & growing & creating & collaborating!
The thing about these ‘phases’ is that they never end. Every tip along the way is something to carry along throughout your career. Being a self-taught designer has make me so eager to learn, which can at times be overwhelming. There is so much to learn, and every time I achieve a goal, it is sometimes hard to celebrate successes without immediately looking to the next goal. 5, 10, 25+ years down the line I hope to still be learning, growing, and improving as much as I have in the past 3 years.