8 Tips to Keeping Your First Design Job
John Luu, Designer / Art Director, Axiom

With many design graduates starting their first jobs this summer, it dawned on me recently that many design programs don’t teach students a lot of the soft skills that are more or less required for holding down a real-world job. Having your first bona fide design job at a well respected firm or agency can be both an exhilirating and stressful experience. With that said, setbacks early in your career can be very discouraging and cause many young designers to settle for careers outside of the design profession.

I thought it might be a good opportunity then to share some tips on how to keep your first design job that many had to learn the hard way.

Arrive Early, Stay Late
Work-life balance is a valid concern for many people in the workforce, but for your first 6-12 months as the newbie in the design shop, I would recommend coming in a little bit early and staying a little bit late to get a feel for the ebb and flow of studio life. Main benefits of this are that if you’re at your desk at the start of business hours every day, everyone notices. Also, the quiet time gives you an opportunity to catch up on unread emails, plan your day without interruptions and read up on contemporary design trends and production techniques.

Win Creative Pitches
If you’re working in a design firm or ad agency, chances are, for important projects, multiple designers are developing separate creative solutions and comps. These are then chosen by the creative director or the client. One of your primary goals as a designer would be to make a concerted effort to make sure your design solution is the one that is picked by the client and produced by the firm. These projects, over time, are the ones that define the body of work a firm produces and you want to make sure that your creative ideas are the ones that get propagated.

Finish Everything on Your Plate
The biggest mistake I see young designers make is letting old, unfinished projects linger on their job list and clutter up the job board. Lingering projects is not only bad feng-shui, it’s really bad for business since it gives a distorted view of a firm’s revenue pipeline and impedes new opportunities. Make an effort to wrap up any projects that are still waiting on client feedback or the odd piece of content, and try to get it out the door so that you can check it off your list.

Volunteer for Projects No One Else Wants
To quote architect Michael McDonough; “95 percent of any creative profession is shit work.”

Creatives will always fight over a fun pro bono poster project or a letterpress holiday card but if a project involves learning a new program, language or technology, it’s usually hard to find someone eager to step up. If you’re the person willing to learn motion graphics, mobile app development or a new print production technique, you start to align yourself with future revenue streams for your employer. Also, volunteering for high-risk projects outside of everyone’s comfort zone is a great way to gain experience, new responsibilities and eventually, expertise.

Note: For great on-demand tutorials on how to learn 3D, Motion Graphics, Web and all of the various software tools, check out Lynda.com. AIGA Members qualify for a 20% discount.

Become an Invaluable Asset
This is an expansion of my previous point but over time firms and agencies grow and evolve in order to compete effectively in the market place. The design firm that specialized in stationary and brochures in the 1980′s, expanded to branding in the 1990′s, interactive in the 2000′s and are now retooling for social and mobile in the 2010′s. Design professionals should adapt and evolve with the industry or risk becoming irrelevant as time passes by.

Ask to go on press checks or shadow a web developer to help you better understand the production process. Having a basic understanding of the print production process or how websites on the internet actually function can go a long way in informing your design process, allowing you to take ownership of a project at all stages of the concept, design and production process.

Find a Mentor
To succeed in your career, it is often helpful to have a mentor, whose breadth and depth of experience can provide insights to achieving your goals. This person is someone who can give objective and dispassionate advice that are in your best interest. Ideally this should be someone outside of work, or at least your department, who can keep private conversations confidential and hold you accountable for achieving your personal goals.

Cultivate a Professional Network
Most people only network when they are actively looking for a new job. This tends to be counterproductive for a wide variety of reasons. Ideally, you should have a professional network already in place when you need to take advantage of it.

There are plenty of reasons to network but the main reason is to stay plugged into what’s new in your local professional community and to cultivate a network of contacts that can be of benefit at a future date. Also keep an eye out for the up-and-coming photographer, 3D-Animator or iOS App developer. Good ones are very hard to come by.

Finally, don’t forget to help others if the opportunity presents itself. Heard of a great opening within a corporate in-house design department that isn’t advertised anywhere? Let your professional contacts know about them. Networking is a two-way street and you want to pay it forward.

Ask Your Boss How You Can Do Your Job Better
Seems pretty direct and obvious but most people avoid this conversation, which is a shame because having your employer personally invested in your success at your job can be a determining factor in how well you thrive at work.

Employers think about their employees’ career goals and job satisfaction, on average, maybe 15-30 minutes a year. More often than not, they’re busy trying to run a successful business (hopefully), landing new business, improving client relations or a million other sundry things, so you really have to force the conversation. One key thing to note with this tip; whatever feedback your employer gives you, be sure to meet all of those expectations once they’ve been laid out in the open.

By no means is this list complete, and if you have suggestions or comments, please share them in the comments area. I am curious to know what other agencies and firms think about the subject.

Also I wanted to take this opportunity to share a new initiative with AIGA Houston members. Later this summer, we will be launching a new Personal Branding initiative called Catalyst 360° that will be tailored for designers. This initiative will only be available to AIGA members and you can sign up for the mailing list hereAs a bonus, you’ll receive an exclusive email “10 Signs that Layoffs are Imminent”

By John Luu
Published June 20, 2012
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