You graduated and got your diploma. Now what? Is your portfolio good enough? How do you apply for a job? How do you know when and where to pick up freelance work? What IS freelance work? Keep reading if you want to be successful.
The transition from design student to design professional
Most design schools teach general practice, typography fundamentals, and fundamental design principles. Different media have different requirements. Editorial design is not the same as advertising: advertising is not the same as book design. Each has a unique focus and target. In most cases, the tools are similar but the methodologies and application are not.
Professional designers perform a broad range of tasks, switching media as clients and jobs demand. A designer cannot always afford to specialize because the volume of work in a specialty may not warrant it or competition may be too high.
Therefore, it’s important, at the outset of a design career, to learn and gain internship experience (practice) in all the disciplines that interest you as well as those offering opportunities in future employment. Be fluent in as many forms as possible, rather than looking for a career niche—you can develop that later down the road.
Ask the professionals: How I got started
Carving my path
What was your first job in the design industry?
“I had a bunch of temp office jobs where I ended up designing all the presentations, flyers, and other miscellaneous things because people recognized I was good at it. I cobbled together a website portfolio of my work and landed at a small boutique agency as an Art Director, my first official design title! The focus was on digital, so I did a ton of website design.” Lara McCormick, Freelance Creative Director, San Francisco, California
“Designer, WYD Design, 2 years, Westport, CT. My first job was at a small design studio called WYD design. They were doing award winning work and winning clients from some of the better known studios in the city. I worked there for a couple years doing print work, branding and annual reports. The art of annual reports was a great place to begin my career. The front part of the books were highly conceptual design which told the story of the company’s year and future vision. The back part of the book was all about precision and good design systems with a nice dose of charts and infographics. They were the best of simple storytelling and design systems in service of a brand.
I find these broad skills translated easily for me as the landscape of design changed rapidly over the years. I learned to contribute through the full design process from concepts to mechanical setup, production and press proofing. This work taught me to juggle the different aspects of delivery of a complete book on time and without error. There was significant value placed on the details and perfection of craft. It set the standards and a way of working that I carry with me today.” Kris Kiger, Executive Vice President, Executive Creative Director, Design, R/GA, New York, New York
“Something I’ve realized only after decades of working is that I was designing long before I had design in my title. In college, I worked for the school newspaper. While I thought of myself as a writer and editor, I actually designed those pages every week and learned a lot of my initial understanding of layout, print and information design from that.
But my first ‘real’ design job came much later as an interaction designer at Digitas NY, where I worked for 3.5 years. I mainly focused on wireframes, flows, and specs at first but by the end of my tenure, creatively led projects day to day.” Emily Wengert, Group Vice President, User Experience, Huge, Brooklyn, New York
Vintage Books (Random House)
I worked for the trade paperback imprint, Vintage Books, for a little over a year after graduating from SVA in 1984. I designed the backs of book covers, trafficked other designers covers, and got to design a few covers myself. I learned to do reasonably good mechanicals, to spec type, and I got to go on press to approve covers quite a few times.” Gail Anderson, Chair, BFA Design and BFA Advertising, Creative Director, Visual Arts Press, School of Visual Arts, New York, New York
“Junior Graphic Designer
I designed everything under the sun: advertisements, annuals, identities, and more.” Ida Woldemichael, Associate Creative Director, Wide Eye, Washington D.C.
“Copywriter, Young & Rubicam (Y&R) Lisbon, 4 years, developing conceptual work for local and international (in 1991).” Fred Saldanha, Global Chief Creative Officer, VMLY&R, New York, New York
“Visual Designer, Quokka Sports 1998–2000, San Francisco
Visual designer for immersive sports media company focused on delivering realtime news, data, audio, video and telemetry. Was responsible for designing near-real-time interactive content for race viewers for motorsports, sailing races, and other dynamic content for events.” Ryan Scott Tandy, Product Design Manager, Instagram, San Francisco, California
What was your favorite and least favorite part of your first job, and what was the most important thing you learned in that job?
“I loved the challenge of getting a creative brief with a design problem, going away for a day, and coming back with a design solution(s). I hated having to incorporate
client changes that I didn’t believe in, but quickly learned to let things go and not to take anything personal.” Lara McCormick, Freelance Creative Director, San Francisco, California
“My favorite part of that first job was learning to collaborate and deliver a body of work with a tight group of super talented people. I also really loved the process of creating. It was early days of adding computers into the flow and I adored the more analog hands on creation process.
I have very little complaints, but looking back, I hated how rudimentary the early digital tools were. It was a lot of unnecessary waiting and patience needed with them. I see what’s possible now and I am astounded. The rate of change has been amazing and the reach that is possible to connect up, inspire, be inspired, share and collaborate is exponential.
I also learned how much better I became through my ability to work with others and collaborate. I think my first job taught me how to really work well and set my standards. It was that first experience that I recognized what kind of work I wanted to stand for and what kind of leader and director I wanted to be.” Kris Kiger, Executive Vice President, Executive Creative Director, Design, R/GA, New York, New York
“I loved sitting next to the best designers and watching them work, trying to study all the quick keys and asking them why they were exploring certain paths. From that, I learned that I needed my on-screen design speed to match how fast I thought about the problem. I’d also create a million variations (or maybe just 20), and then only show my top 3. Learning how to cull down and what makes work strong or not is in many ways the true challenge of design.
The hardest part of my first job was the career reset and being at the bottom of the food chain again. I’d worked as a journalist and in book publishing for 5 years. When I switched, I was back to the beginning. That meant getting all the worst assignments: like 120-page design specs naming every cut graphic and every line of copy. I still shudder!” Emily Wengert, Group Vice President, User Experience, Huge, Brooklyn, New York
“The art director I worked for never had a design assistant before and she didn’t give me much direction. But I shared my office with her office manager and we had a lot of fun, and listened to a lot of cassettes (that’s how long ago it was). The best part of the job was swapping stories with the other design assistants from Knopf and Pantheon, and to get to know the fabulous Louise Fili, who was the art director at Pantheon at the time.” Gail Anderson, Chair, BFA Design and BFA Advertising, Creative Director, Visual Arts Press, School of Visual Arts, New York, New York
“Favorite: The variety of work, from the client type to deliverable type.
Least favorite: Getting files production ready. Most important thing I learned: talk to your peers about your work and be open to feedback” Ida Woldemichael, Associate Creative Director, Wide Eye, Washington D.C.
“I loved the amount of new problems I had to solve every day. But I suffered from the fear of failure. What you learn is that failure is part of the process, and makes us better professionals.” Fred Saldanha, Global Chief Creative Officer, VMLY&R, New York, New York
“I was surrounded by designers infinitely more talented and experienced than I was. I learned so much every day. The hardest part was the fact that the websites we created operated in near-real time 24-hours a day documenting these epic sport experiences. This mean working insane hours producing interactive content, sleeping under our desks during production, and working with some pretty demanding sponsors who always wanted more prominent branding.” Ryan Scott Tandy, Product Design Manager, Instagram, San Francisco, California
What advice would you give on transitioning from a design student to an entry-level professional?
“When you’re fresh out of school it can be daunting and feel very competitive. It’s easy to compare yourself to other designers when you first start out (compare and despair!). Instead, be yourself, stay positive, and know that you’ll land exactly where you are supposed to. And if that first job doesn’t match the ideal you have in your head, know that it’s not permanent and just a stepping stone to your next role. Learn as much as you can before you move on.” Lara McCormick, Freelance Creative Director, San Francisco, California
“Keep your eyes wide open.
Learn everything you can about the work and culture you’re in. You will become part of it and help shape it by being present.
Learn from the best and the worst of your experiences.
Your career will be long. It’s a pursuit and a life-long love affair.
Know what you don’t know and be excited to find out. Be truly curious and unafraid to ask questions. Become good at li...