The Grass on the Other Side: Advice for Soon-To-Be Design Graduates

I recently attended an event aimed at giving soon-to-be graduated design students a glimpse into what life is like on the other side of graduation. I want to chime in with my graduation experience and 10 pieces of useful advice that I have learned over the past two years.

I graduated from Emily Carr two years ago (2013) with a major in communication design. To my surprise, my grad project actually helped me get my first job. About a week after the grad show ended I got a phone call from a Vancouver design studio called Signals. They saw my project in the grad show and wanted me to come in for an interview. I got offered a position that afternoon and spent nearly two years there, learning all that I could about the business of design and working on a professional team.

In February of 2015, I became an independent designer. I had learned so much at my studio job, but felt ready to tackle the challenges of working on my own. Since then I have been able to explore a greater variety of design experiences like branding, hand-lettering commissions, and book design in addition to my specialty of web design.

To top it all off, I found out that I was pregnant at the end of January and wanted some time before baby to build up a bit of a client base. The ability to control my own hours and workload as an independent designer had always appealed to me as something that went well with becoming a parent.

I’ll let you know how that goes. [Edit, October 2020: It was a wild ride and there are pros and cons to being an independent designer and a mother.]

So what would I tell my graduating self two years ago? Here are my 10 pieces of useful advice:

One—Screw “Paying Your Dues”

Don’t settle for the “paying your dues” bullshit. There are many people who will value your professional skills right out of school, especially if you act confident about your awesomeness (it’s totally possible to start at 40k a year at your first job). You might be a little bit slower, and less polished than some of your more experienced co-workers, but your ideas are probably just as good. Don’t work for free, and don’t take lame jobs because you think you can’t get the good ones — you are the only one putting up barriers to your success.

[Edit, October 2020: I want to acknowledge the part that privilege played in my experience. I recognize that this advise may not apply to everyone, especially those who are underprivileged, but I believe that it should apply to everyone. One day, this industry will not require young, and underprivileged designers to work for less than they are worth and will pay them a livable wage right out of school. We just have a lot of work to do to make that true.]

Two—Learn How To Learn

Learning happens a little differently outside an institution, instead of being “provided” information and skills, you need to know how to find them yourself. Getting a handle on this style of learning will ensure that you are always aware of the latest trends and technologies, and will help you either use them or avoid them appropriately. Knowing how to look up tutorials, connect with other designers you respect (there are many of us on twitter and instagram), and spending some time reading about other professional designer’s thoughts and methods are all part of this.

Three—Get A Job

Money is a thing you will probably need after you graduate (time to start paying back those student loans). I never wanted to participate in the 9–5 crawl, but I found it really useful to achieve a sense of stability for a while. The stability allowed me to make more clear and confident decisions about what step in my career I wanted to take next.

You’ll probably want to go after that dream job at that studio that you’ve been drooling over for the past three years — definitely go for it, but if you don’t land it right away, don’t get discouraged. Any job can be valuable if you choose to view it as a learning opportunity.

Chances are you won’t be ready to go independent right away (if you are, awesome). But even if you can (and you really want to) I would recommend spending some time in a studio. It’s like a reconnoissance mission to find out how everyone else in the industry is doing things.

Four—Start Building Connections

Whether you love studio life or you want to go independent eventually, the most useful thing you can do is start building a network of people around you that are awesome. These people will be your collaborators, so make acquaintances with printers, developers, suppliers, and other designers. If you want to go independent, start stalking the businesses you want to be working with, build relationships with them too.

Five—Find Your “Thing”

In your spare time (yes you should have some of this, if you don’t, something is wrong), continue to explore and figure out what you’re truly excited about (for example, I got really interested in type design). When you know what it is, immerse yourself in it! Join Meetup groups, find like-minded people, and nerd out with them on a regular basis.

This will help you with #3, as you’ll be creating a network of people that share your interests.

Six—Read Mike Monteiro’s Book

Design is a Job. This guy seriously knows what’s up. His book covers everything from how to get a project, how to get paid, to how to work with other people. Seriously, this book will change your life, read it.

[Edit, October 2020: He also now writes a series of medium posts called Dear Design Student]

Seven—Get A Life

On the topic of life, it’s important to have one. I mentioned above that there’s a problem if you don’t have any spare time. Careers and work are a significant part of living, but the other parts help us stay creative and productive in the work parts. So go out on some dates, travel, get a dog, have some kids, or find some friends to play board games with — whatever brings you happiness and gives you a break from designing. There’s a long road ahead, make sure you make time to discover all of the things you love doing.

Eight—Start The Timer

You should know how long it takes you to do something. Get some kind of time keeping app and keep track of your tasks (I highly recommend Harvest, but if you want something free Toggl is a great alternative). Pay attention to how much time you spend in the different phases of your design process, and how much time you spend aimlessly roaming the internet. You’ll start to know how long it takes you to make a website, a brand, or a chair.

Nine—Do Side Projects

Use some of your spare time to work on something you are passionate about. Get the full benefits by promoting and sharing it, you might even become known for it, and getting known as an expert in something can only help you. Jessica Hische’s Daily Drop Cap is a perfect example of how a personal project can become successful enough to jump start your career.

Ten—Stop Reading Advice And Make Your Own Story

You can read as much advice as you want and you still won’t be prepared for the opportunities that life throws you. Take lots of time to reflect on where you are and where you want to end up. Your path will be your own, and as long as you approach it with confidence and a sense of adventure, you will be successful.

Now get out there and start filling our world with your great ideas! (but read Mike Monteiro’s book first, I’m serious!)