In design, we’ve officially moved from a problem of demand to one of supply. Just do a search on LinkedIn and you’ll see there are more than 88,000 job listings for designers. With the influx of design opportunities, it may be hard for designers first starting out to know which direction to take their careers, which jobs to take, and what to look for when evaluating companies.
On a recent panel at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York, I was asked, “How can designers take advantage of today’s demand for their talent?” It’s a great question. I’m a huge believer in taking charge of your career and intentionally planning every step from the start. When I moved to the Bay Area in 2001, I was a graphic designer with no web experience. The dotcom frenzy was over and there were very few open positions in design. After interviewing for months, I was offered a job at eBay to do PowerPoint presentations for their sales team. Was it exciting work? No. Was it a senior position? No. But it was a foot in the door at a company just starting their user experience team. After three months of PowerPoint, I made friends with the UX designers and started to hang around their area any chance I got. I begged for projects and took any and everything they would give me. Again, it wasn’t glamorous work. But it was hands-on experience with a great team and I was learning. Fast-forward three years and I was a senior manager, overseeing a large team of designers.
After seven years at eBay, I made a very intentional decision to leave and run my own design organization. This led me to LinkedIn. I was not the most qualified candidate, but I called the hiring manager constantly, selling myself for the position. I knew this was the next logical step in my career. Each position since then has been a calculated move. Sometimes the opportunities have presented themselves, and other times I’ve had to chase them. Those very first steps in a career are especially critical, as they set the foundation and direction for years to come.
Here are five tips for designers in the first three years of their careers:
CHOOSE YOUR COMPANY CAREFULLY
This choice will determine the products you work on and the people with whom you will spend most of your waking hours. Don’t just go for perks or the lure of working on a hot brand. Choose a position that enables you to do interesting work with people who are better than you. Also consider culture and look for indications that the company values the contribution of design.
Pro tip: While the interview process is positioned as your audition for a role, the company is also auditioning for you. Ask a lot of questions! A personal favorite to ask designers at the company you’re interviewing for is, “What recent work are you most proud of and why?” Ask other staff members (like someone in product management and engineering) for examples of what they value most about working with designers.
CHOOSE YOUR MANAGER CAREFULLY
A manager can make or break your work experience, especially when you’re early in your career. Make sure you’re working for someone who loves managing people (yes, we exist) and has a track record of growing people at the same stage of their career as you. A great manager will provide regular, constructive feedback and put you on projects that simultaneously accentuate your strengths and stretch you to learn new skills.
Pro tip: If you’re not able to find the full package in your manager, make sure there are other senior people invested in your growth–this could be a creative director or more senior designer who reviews your work. When interviewing with your prospective manager, ask them for examples where they have mentored and grown people on their team. Speaking from experience, it takes extra time and effort to effectively manage someone who is early in their career. Your potential manager should acknowledge this, and be up for the job!
IT’S NOT ABOUT TITLES AND PROMOTIONS
At this stage of your career it’s ALL ABOUT THE WORK. If you’re not excited about being head down working and re-working every detail, iterating until your brain hurts, and soaking up feedback from senior designers, then maybe you chose the wrong profession. You are essentially in your design residency, still refining process, taste, and learning good work habits.
Pro tip: In your first year, your very first goal shouldn’t necessarily be, “When will I get promoted?” It should be, “How can I learn and experience as much as possible?” If you work for a great manager, she will notice your progression and increase your scope and responsibility. Right now your reward is the privilege of getting paid to design.
DON’T BE THE FIRST
Be wary of getting seduced into “being the first designer” at a brand-new startup. Unless it’s a company/idea that you started, don’t take the bait. This may be tough for you to hear, but chances are you haven’t built up the right skill set yet, and there isn’t anyone there for you to learn from. My design game was upped the most by working with other fantastic designers. It’s hard to be great when you haven’t seen or worked with greatness. And unfortunately, if you’ve only ever worked at a tiny startup as the lone designer, you are a bigger risk for the next person who might hire you. This is not a hard and fast rule, but something that will certainly be considered as you apply for your next position.
Pro tip: If you’re excited about having complete creative control over something, side projects are an awesome way to experience this. They also look great in your portfolio, and demonstrate initiative, drive, and product thinking.
SAY YES WHEN OTHERS SAY NO
Assuming you’re at a great company working for a supportive boss, try to say yes to new projects whenever possible. If a project comes up that will stretch your skills and give you a new opportunity to work alongside a great team, raise your hand immediately.
Pro tip: Sometimes projects lack support from leadership or have been staffed poorly. Do not say yes to these. You’re still early in your career and likely not the person best suited to fix a disaster project.
When reflecting on my own career, I can unequivocally say that following this advice put me in the best position to learn and advance. Treat your career as a design problem; be intentional with every decision. During these first few years, surround yourself with good people, roll up your sleeves, and get your hands dirty.