Reflections after ten years in the industry
What have I learned over the years that I wish I’d known when I was first starting out as a young designer?
The result: A growing list of learnings that I’ve experienced through trial and error, each of which has served me well during my design career.
Note: You won’t really be able to tell if I’m a good designer, but hey…they don’t give Medium accounts to just anyone! Right?!
Don’t ditch your cover letter. Rethink it.
I recently had a great conversation with a student who asked if cover letters were still necessary. Since I’m young and hip and listen to Bon Iver, I quickly responded, “No, of course not. Those are antiquated!”
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that while the medium itself has changed, the spirit of the cover letter has not.
A cover letter enables you to:
- Show your personality
- Prove that you understand the business
Since the only place you can find actual paper nowadays is at a crafty printshop or in the printer at the university library (where, let’s be real, no one ever goes), there are new ways to show your charisma and acuity. Shoot an email, reach out via LinkedIn, or you create a PDF and attach to your resume you upload. What you don’t want to do is ignore it completely.
As a hiring manager who’s seen somewhere in the ballpark of 754,921 designer resumés, take my word for it that you’ll stick out immediately if I see that you understand what my company does, even if you’re completely wrong (in your defense, marketing material for a lot of companies serves as a poor indication of what they actually do…so just do your best).
Stop worrying so much about your portfolio.
Students love to ask alumni, professionals, parents, and anyone who will listen to “just take a quick look at my portfolio and give me your thoughts.”
My thoughts are always the same: Less is more.
Cut down on the text, stop waxing poetic about your process (it’s all the same), and remove all but your top three projects.
I have this particular area covered in more detail in another Medium article, but it’s still worth pointing out that your portfolio is simply one touch point and one way to make an impression. To be honest, I don’t really expect a world-class portfolio from a student—they usually all tend to start looking the same. I’m mainly looking for a deeper understanding of design and a capacity to grow, rather than something you’d want to hang in the MOMA.
Some of you reading this are probably savants and can just skip right over this one. You rare gem, you. But for the rest of us, it’s not a rush to the top.
One trend that continues to bug the hell out of me is when designers jump ship and leave their company after only 12–18 months. It’s bizarre because I find that designers can never reach their full potential after only a year.
You need time to learn the business, understand how your team works, discover what the market needs, optimize your process, etc. But most of all, you need time to see your work out in the wild. If you think designers can be critical of your work, just wait and see what paying customers can do — they can be brutal.
If you want to get good, and I mean really good — not just Dribbble-good — you need to hang around for these tough parts. There is so much to learn in this field and there isn’t a great way to rush through it.
You need time to see your work out in the wild.
I stayed at my first job for three-and-a-half years and my second for just over three. I went through massive layoffs and a massive exodus after acquisition. It’s hard. But I learned things I never could have learned had I avoided that struggle. I also made sure that I always ran toward something, never away.
In 2007, I watched all-stars around me leveling up at their companies. I still remember hearing about the first in my cohort to make six figures. It was hard to process, I won’t lie. For young designers who are inherently insecure and vulnerable, they start panicking, thinking that if they’re not looking for a job now, then they’ll miss their opportunity and be stuck in a junior role for the rest of their career.
A certain amount of insecurity is great fuel to improve as a designer, but letting that drive your career is hazardous.
Here’s the harsh reality: Most of us will not produce something phenomenal in our first several years as a professional designer. The problem is this is how we think we should measure ourselves when we leave school. When you spend 18 months at a company and don’t have an amazing feature or product to show for it, it can be hard convincing yourself to stay. But there are other ways to grow.
In my first job, I wasn’t happy with my design opportunities for a couple years. But I was surrounded by senior-level colleagues who had grown products from zero dollars to tens of millions in revenue a year. I learned how to be a professional. I learned how teamwork actually works, and how to integrate feedback from QA and localization into my designs. I learned from serious mistakes that less-trusting companies may not have tolerated.
A design career is much bigger than design itself. Every company you work for has something to offer. If you approach your career with that mindset, your patience will help you grow more than you ever could than if you carelessly job-hop when things start to get difficult.
Full disclosure: I’m an introvert. I’d risk life and limb crossing a busy street to avoid seeing someone I recognize for fear that I’d be forced to engage in small talk. “Hey Christian, how have you been doing lately? Uhhh, brb.”
But I have no shame asking for advice.
I’m a pretty good judge of character, and when I do meet someone I respect and admire, I never hold back with questions. I extend this to the big scary Internet world, too. I JUST got done emailing a designer I’ve never met asking him what his process was for writing compelling branding articles. It’s something I want to do at Innovatemap, so I just…asked. The worst that’ll happen is they say no or just ignore you. No sweat!
To get good advice you have to ask great questions.
I still ask for advice today but I get asked for advice a lot as well. And while I can’t speak for everyone, I know I’m among many experienced designers who are more than happy to help.
Learning never stops
Books are great because authors typically spend lots of time researching and constructing arguments. Sometimes years, YEARS, AND MORE YEARS. While I’m not averse to Medium (it’s one of highest quality blogging platforms ever created), I still challenge myself to read books because they provide a deeper insight that you normally don’t get from blogs.
A devotion to reading will also open you up to expanding your knowledge. Around my seventh year in the professional design world, I suddenly realized most design articles and books felt simplistic. I wondered if I was just being cynical, but soon realized that I’d simply matured as a designer, and that my knowledge was expanding into other areas.
I’d started learning more about marketing, which fueled my curiosity for business (I took zero business courses in school). In parallel, I was building design teams which encouraged me to become a better leader.
Reading helps your brain find connections you wouldn’t otherwise create. My college roommate found inspiration in sci-fi novels. For me, I discover new ideas and make imaginative connections by reading non-fiction books outside of the design field.
Never think too much of yourself
This one sounds harsh. And frankly, it kind of is. We designers suffer from an inflated sense of self-importance — most design schools encourage this.
But in the real world, you’re just another brick in the wall of an amazing house. You may hold a degree that some don’t have, or have special methods that seem like magic to others, but you’re just one variable in a much larger equation. Play on the team.
Great design requires more than a great designer — it requires a team.
Whether it’s a teammate giving you a tough critique, or a QA engineer questioning a design decision, you must be confident in your work, but humble enough to listen and learn. In the end you’ll grow, and be that much more respected for it.