Ask a Designer #4: How Do I Land that First Breakthrough Design Job?
Designer, speaker and educator Meg Lewis (@yourbuddymeg) is our resident advice columnist for our 6-part Ask a Designer series, where we aim to get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in the creative industries. Today, Meg walks through how to land your first job, the one that seems so hard to get.
I am currently a digital designer and developer who wants to land their first design role without a formal background in design. I have taken courses, read articles, books, you name it, trying to enhance my design skills - and I have a portfolio and Dribble account displaying those side/fun projects. I struggle with working full-time in a role where I’m not utilizing the skills I would like to AND trying to find a new role as a designer with no experience.
Though I feel like I have grown this past year as a self-taught designer, there is still something missing in regards to what I can provide without professional experience, and what companies are looking for. Finding that very first design role is a little daunting, but I want to know how I can fill in this gap! How do I land that first breakthrough design job?
I’m so impressed by your level of sophisticated self-awareness and the ability to assess yourself from an outside perspective! It sounds like you know who you are, know what you have to offer, and are willing to learn and change in order to grow as a working Professional Designer Person. This ability is rare. Props to you for being able to teach yourself and continuing to grow in a field that’s constantly changing and developing new tools—I struggle to keep up with it all! Most of us do.
Your situation is totally unique to you, but similar to what almost all of us struggle with at one point or another. Whether we’re recent grads (not you!), someone who hasn’t gotten an opportunity they want and is just waiting for someone to give them a chance (me!), or a human with a non-traditional design education trying to wedge their way into a new industry (you!)—we’re all fighting for ourselves to shine in an industry we love. Side note: I’m totally the person that scrolls directly to the third paragraph because the first two are typically practically useless set-the-people-up-for-the-real-stuff paragraphs. So heck, let’s get into it!
Megs Tips for Landing Your First Design Role When You Don’t Feel Totally Confident about Yourself and Your Abilities and Maybe Feeling Impostery and a Bit out of Your Element!
Tip #1: Stop getting in your own dang way!
If you’re familiar with this series you know what I’m about to say. Assess the areas where your dang human brain and self-confidence is holding you back (“holdsies backsies”, if you will). It sounds like you’re fixating on your non-traditional education and the fact that you don’t have a background that looks like everyone else. REMEMBER: WE ALL HAVE BACKGROUNDS THAT DON’T LOOK LIKE EVERYONE ELSE. And trust me when I say we’re all busy walking around fixating on our own imperfections and creating our own holdsies backies to even notice yours! It’s not going to be easy as throwing those thoughts in a garbage bin and moving on with your life—I wish! Just being able to acknowledge what your personal holdies backsies are is all I can ask for. Make note of them and constantly assess your actions to see if you’re getting in your own dang way more than you’d like. As you become aware of when this is happening you’ll start to correct yourself and in no time you’ll be as confident and empowered as Meg Lewis plopping down on a barstool that looks like giraffe legs at the Rainforest Cafe bar.
REMEMBER: WE ALL HAVE BACKGROUNDS THAT DON’T LOOK LIKE EVERYONE ELSE. And trust me when I say we’re all busy walking around fixating on our own imperfections and creating our own holdsies backies to even notice yours!
Tip #2: Focus on what makes you a freakin’ catch!
Punch those holdsies backsies in the butt by reframing your brain to focus on the qualities that make you a great candidate, co-worker, and designer. For example, I think it’s absolutely incredible that you’re self-taught. Not only is your education more up-to-date, it also shows a heck of a lot self-perseverance and strength to fight for a career you want. In addition to giving yourself the World’s Largest Pat on the Back, write a list of your other personality traits and qualities that make you really great to work with. Are you incredibly detail-oriented? Do you absolutely love solving the needs of others in a super-empath way? Are you known for hosting award-winningly efficient meetings? Make that dang list and become empowered by the fact that you have a lot to offer! And hey, when you look at the whole list together it makes for a person unlike any other candidate out there. No one else can offer all of the things you can and that’s pretty dang cool! The right employer for you will be excited about that specific list. And, after all, you want to be working for someone who is excited about you. Memorize this list and have it ready for interviews and cover letters because you are a very impressive person!
Are you incredibly detail-oriented? Do you absolutely love solving the needs of others in a super-empath way? Are you known for hosting award-winningly efficient meetings? Make that dang list and become empowered by the fact that you have a lot to offer!
Tip #3: Make friends, not contacts!
Making friends in this industry is so important. I won’t be the first person to tell you it’s nearly impossible to get a job by submitting an application on a website. Nowadays you gotta know someone on the inside who will give you a positive referral or recommendation. That little star next to your name is a huge leap farther than you’d get on your own. I cannot stress the importance of making friends who will vouch for you enough! Get out there and meet people in whatever way you can. I love following people on Twitter and Instagram and interacting with them. Twitter is fun for posting about design thinking, sharing others’ thoughts, and interacting in an upbeat way. Let everyone think of you as a challenging, positive influence on the industry. Help others by retweeting and encouraging them. That way, when the time comes and you need to ask for help, they’re ready to return the favor. Niche slack groups are now available in every city and industry, you just gotta ask around to find ‘em. I’ve found Slack groups to be invaluable for sharing opportunities and referring roles.
Nowadays you gotta know someone on the inside who will give you a positive referral or recommendation. That little star next to your name is a huge leap farther than you’d get on your own. I cannot stress the importance of making friends who will vouch for you enough!
Friends in the design industry definitely don’t have to be IRL, but if you do happen to be in a location where you can meet designers in person, we can probably all agree that transactional relationships are unsettling in the year of 2019. Emailing someone and saying, “I’d like to pick your brain over coffee, I’ll buy!” is one-sided and totally transactional and it sets yourself up looking like you’re Needy McNeederson. Rather, try approaching relationships out of general interest for the other person: who they are, what they love about living in their city, where their favorite plate of nachos is from, and what kind of work they are super excited about doing is where we should be as humans looking to connect. Relationships should be fun and weighted evenly between two parties. Just because they’re Super Fancy Designer Person in your brain does not mean they don’t deserve to know anything about you. Rather than saying, “Let me pick your brain, I’ll buy!” try saying, “You seem like someone I’d get along with and we have a lot in common. Making friends as an adult is hard, want to go grab a beverage with me?”. Who could say no to that—you’re so sweet!
Mutually learning about what kind of work makes the two of you fulfilled is such helpful information. Say we’re getting along great over a hot beverage and you tell me, “I just love designing toilet paper packaging, it’s my passion!” Well guess what? I don’t love designing toilet paper packaging. Maybe next year when someone emails me saying, “Yo Meg! I have a TP co looking for our next hot designer, you in?” I can say, “Nope! But this is right up my bud Definitelynotneedy McNeederson’s alley. Let me intro you!”. And look at that buddy, you got yourself a dream job! This strategy works for me c-c-c-CONSTANTLY. You’ll never get the job you want if you don’t tell the world you want it!
I could write an entire book on this subject but I know you’re on the SuperHi blog for a nice quick break from the monotony of life so I’ll end it right here. My dear friend, please remember that you already have everything you need to land an incredible design job. You just gotta squash those holdies backsies, focus on what makes you a catch, and create a network of friends ready to support you! There’s no one like you in the world and I know the right company is looking for exactly you.
Meg Lewis is a designer making experiences for happy companies and a speaker and educator creating more fulfilling lives for humans of all kinds. Meg empowers individuals to discover their unique selves through books, video series, workshops, and talks titled Full Time You. She also founded Ghostly Ferns, an international collective of designers and commercial artists.