Originally published on 20 April, 2006.
Edit 1: Updated 25 Aug 2007
Edit 2: Updated 16 Nov 2008.
This has to be one of the “classics” here at Design Sojourn, and a post that got me noticed in the blogosphere! Here it is updated again for 2008! Actually this post was way overdue for an update as the original was badly written with poor grammar and sentence construction. Obviously, time and practice has made me a lot better at writing!
In my 3 years of blogging, this has to be one of the biggest topics I get asked advice for, especially from graduating designers. So I have decided to compile the 10 things they don’t really tell you in school or anywhere else for that matter! These tips are based on my own personal experience and from other design professionals or HR professionals that I have worked or and spoken to.
1. The 10% reality
I think this has to be the biggest tip in this deck, so it’s right at number 1. Sadly it is not positive, but a “reality check” that nobody likes to talk about. Here we go, only about 10% of any graduating cohort will find a job right out of school as an industrial designer. Many fresh graduates need to come to terms with this first before they can move on in life. How to move on? We’ll see below.
Many design graduates still do become successful but in other design or non-design related professions that better suit their skill set. I have designer friends who become owners of their own Interior Design firms or CAD businesses, or some even get into marketing. I also have ex-designers who are successful bankers, writers and even a musician somewhere. As you can see, you may not end up doing design; you still can be successful in whatever you do. An ID degree arms you with problem solving analytical skills vital in any organization or business situation.
These days, design management and creative thinking is in itself a very fast growing sub-set of our design profession. Something you might be interested to explore.
For the record, I was not in this 10% graduating cohort. I ended up just outside of it.
2. Be true to yourself and know what you want to do
This leads me to my next point. You now need to look deep inside and be true to yourself and your dreams. Do you really want to be a designer? If you do, you have to realize that the career path in design is a long and hard one. You will need to put in really a lot of work to be a successful designer.
Determination, passion, persistence and drive are the keys to success. Notice I have left out creativity and the ability to design? Creativity is important, but the difference between the great designers and the so-so ones don’t all have to do with creativity. I have seen many designers complain about how they cannot find a job, but don’t do much in helping themselves by improving their own skills or design work first.
3. Be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses
This ties back in to the point above. You need to appraise your design skills or ability honestly. It is basically eating humble pie, and a good start to an all around self improvement exercise. What a budding designer needs to do is literally sit down and write out his strengths and weakness. And you need to be totally honest and frank about it. You may also want to talk to people who know you well, like your fellow design peers or school lecturers. Also look at samples of the best portfolios at core77 or at IDAsia.org to see how people react to good design work. By noting these finer points, you will improve your own design sensitivity and you can learn to do good design work too!
If you suck in sketching (as I was), why not buy or borrow sketching books and practice? Suck in presentation and speaking skills? Go look for self-help books or attend speaking classes! Before I started work for the first time, I was in bookstores 3-4 times a week, with the rest of the time working on my portfolio and improving my skills.
Since we are talking about portfolios, I have interviewed candidates who are totally oblivious of their own abilities or lack of! They go on bragging about their work and how good it is when in reality they are nowhere close. Perhaps its confidence or bravado, but you will need substance to back it up, and if you don’t, you are totally off track. Learn your strengths and when you go for an interview as you can tell your prospective employer what you can do best.
4. Portfolio presentation and improvement
I won’t go too much into portfolio and resume design because there are lots of articles on this easily available online. But what I wanted to say about this is no one can be more excited about your portfolio than you! Your portfolio is and has to be your crowning glory. You must always be proud of it and thus only show work you are proud to show. If you have to apologize for a piece of work, take it out!
You will be surprised to know that I have experienced designers droning on and on about their work with little enthusiasm, or portfolios full of white fungus with bits falling out. Worst still, designers happily clicking on folders on their computer searching for rendering images as they are being interviewed. If you don’t take time and effort to prepare you work, how can an employer feel confident you will take the same effort for them?
Another thing, always look to improve or update your portfolio at least once a year (or 6 months even!) This way you will have the opportunity to collect the images and data required, without have a last minute portfolio crunch. This way you would be prepared and ready when that juicy job opportunity arises.
5. Cold call, attend as many interviews as possible and always ask for feedback
Many great job opportunities in the creative field are passed by word of mouth only. So pluck up the courage and cold call design organizations directly. At the very least, ask to put your resume/portfolio on file so that when something comes up to call you. If you are lucky, they may call you up for a chat, and you will have your foot in the door! Another possibility is that you could be referred to other organizations that are looking for people. I have been asked for recommendations and even in the receiving end of resume/portfolios passed to me. The trick is to get into the thick of things by being known to your design community.
This leads me to the next thing about interviews. Attend as many interviews as you can manage and be fearless about it! It is nerve wrecking at first, but the more you interviews you attend the better you get at selling yourself and answering questions. Soon you will learn of important keywords employers like to hear and you can use this skill over and over again in anything that you do.
Also interviews are a great place to get feedback from professional designers. One of the most important things a budding designer can get starting out. However you will need to ask, as most people will actually not tell you. It’s also a nice way to end the interview, as it shows your keenness to improve.
6. Network, Network and NETWORK!
This is an extension of the last point, but it can spawn a life of its own. If you seem to be getting along with an interviewer, do take that person to lunch and have a chat in a social environment. Once outside of the job environment, take the opportunity to get as much soft information as possible. For example what the design culture in that organization is like or how is the design scene like in that area/country etc.
Also attend talks and activities for an opportunity to interact with other designers whom already have a job to get their opinion of things. However you need to manage this a little and don’t go overboard. Otherwise people start to think the only thing you do is network instead of actual work!
7. Look for a mentor
I have been blessed with someone that really took the time to look over my work and gave me fantastic feedback. I had met him when I interviewed for a job in his organization. He has somehow been quietly in the background all these years, giving me feedback or advice on and off. A few years ago we got back in touch and now I talk to him maybe once or twice a month. Unknowingly he was my unofficial mentor, and of everything of significance I have learnt was from him.
So I do encourage you to look for a mentor or someone that will take the time to guide you. Don’t ask anybody that comes along, make sure that person likes you and has your best interests at heart. The great thing is that they can come from anywhere; just keep your eyes open.
8. Do any job you can find, but make sure it is ID related
That’s right people. If you have to pick a job, make sure it is at least related in some way to design. The product development process is a very long one and an ID graduate can actually find work anywhere up or down stream in the process.
I spent the first 3-4 years of my life doing all kinds of things that has really given me a strong foundation in my career as a designer. I was designing ethnic Asian furniture, bending metal and acrylic for kiosks, sanding/painting rapid prototype parts, and even just project management.
The only thing is to make sure you communicate your job scope and how it is related to design carefully in your portfolio.
9. Freelance work and going it on your own.
A lot of people go “well I can’t find a job so I might as well start my own business”. Yes that’s a good plan to have but, personally I feel it should be a medium term one. Unlike the other design professions, industrial design is an extremely complex and rigorous profession. Thus my advice is spend a few years on the job to learn the finer details while doing freelance work at night to build your portfolio.
Just as a small note, to date I have not heard of any successful designer or founders of design organizations that started straight out of school. Most worked for a few years before going out on their own.
One warning about freelance work is that most companies do not like it. If you plan to do any freelance work, make sure it’s not related to the work your company does. Basically if you are designing taps and bathroom fittings, make sure you don’t do the same for someone else. Use freelance work instead as a means of exposure to other fields and for broadening your portfolio. Also keep the work out of the office? It’s just bad karma not do so. While it is tempting to combine your day job and freelancing, it’s a “firing” offence in most organizations.
Freelancing or sub-contracting work for companies you want to work for is also another means of getting your foot in the door. But I do caution, if you are already employed it’s considered as working for a competitor. However if you are currently un-employed, it is a good opportunity for a prospective employer to see how you perform in a work situation. I was once offered a job after a freelance project!
10. Keep in touch
Last but not least, always keep a “little black book” of contacts so that you can keep in-touch with your prospective employers.
Design companies constantly get tons of resumes and people looking for a job. Because of that you don’t want your resume to fall to the bottom of the pile. By calling up once or twice a year, you keep mobbing yours’ to the top of the pile, and when a job opportunity does arise, you could be the first they call. Furthermore many companies like a enthusiastic employees.
I hope you enjoyed these 10 tips and I look forward to hearing your story in your adventures of looking for a design job!
Brian is the Founder and Design Director at Design Sojourn, a Design Led Innovation Consultancy. He is a multi-award winning design leader, and specialises in strategic design and innovation programs that drive successful organisations. Brian’s 20-year career in design, driven through a deep understanding of human behavior, spans over multiple domains such as consumer electronics, government, healthcare, non-profit agencies, hospitality, F&B, retail, online solutions and best in class service experiences.