So you went to design school. You have a badass portfolio filled with projects that you got an "A" on. You know the software like the back of your hand. You even have recommendations from your professors.
I see this question asked on a daily basis by students who have recently, or are about to — graduate from design school. I'd like to share with you some useful advice that I have either learned by way of mentors and through my own experiences.
Since everyone carves their own career path, the advice here may not apply to you in particular. It can be applied to self-taught designers as well as new graduates, or even experienced designers. My hope is that even one piece of advice below will help you have a more successful start to your career in the design industry.
Work with people who are better than you
You may have heard this one before, and for good reason. When applying for a position you should make an effort to land at a company in which you will be working with other designers that are more experienced and more skilled than yourself. When people say, "Don't be the best in the room", you should take it literally. In doing so, you will be given an opportunity to learn from your fellow co-workers things that design school most likely never taught you.
When surrounding yourself with experienced and skilled designers you should become a sponge. Soak up every single ounce of knowledge that you can. You should be ready and willing to help out in any way possible. Ask a lot of questions, then ask some more. You can even go as far as considering your co-workers as college professors that you don't have to pay for — in fact, you are getting paid while learning. How awesome is that?
Landing a job where you will be surrounded by talented designers may require some research on your part but it can most definitely supercharge your career growth.
Do personal projects
Ask nearly any successful designer how they got where they are today and chances are the first thing they will tell you is by spending countless hours working on personal projects. The term "personal project" can mean several things — it could mean that you take on an unsolicited redesign of your favorite iOS app. It could mean that you design your own typeface. It could mean that you develop your own scripts for After Effects. It could also mean that you do a collaboration with a peer.
When I first started designing professionally, I was doing website and banner ads for local small businesses. While that type of work paid the bills, the work was never "fun" nor "cool”. At the time, it may have been considered "good work" by my employers but it was never what I had wanted to do deep down inside. I had always wanted to do work that I enjoyed — so I made a strong effort to do personal projects when I wasn't working.
This came in the form of playing "Photoshop Tennis" — a game that was popular in the early 2000's. I'd do 3-4 matches a week in which I'd compete against my peers on design forums. Although at the time I never really looked at it this way, these were essentially personal projects. Looking back, I realize how much those Photoshop Tennis matches helped me grow as a designer by learning and experimenting.
A prime example of how personal projects can benefit your career is shown by prolific Illustrator and Designer, James White of Signalnoise Studios. James has experienced success thanks to his awesome pop-culture illustrations and movie posters, almost all of them, you guessed it — personal projects. These personal projects allowed James to discover, develop and refine his personal design style which ultimately led to him landing projects for huge clients such as Toyota, Nike, Wired, MTV and Google.
Another well known advocate of personal projects is letterer Jessica Hische, who's personal project, The Daily Drop Cap, allowed her to explore new techniques and styles in her lettering. Probably one of the most impressive examples of designers who practice personal projects is Beeple. By doing his "Everydays" for the past 2800+ consecutive days, he has clearly honed his skills in Cinema 4D to the point that he has become one of the most prolific 3D Artists today.
Personal projects allow you to not only develop a your own style, but also allow you to learn new techniques through experimentation, bolster your portfolio with work in an area that interests you and practice and improve existing skills, all at your own pace and with no fear of failure.
By doing personal projects on a regular basis, I can promise you — you will see positive results in one form or another.
Related: Jessica Hische: Procrastiworking
Do not get taken advantage of
The fact that I have to write this saddens me greatly, but there are horrible people out there, and chances are — you will meet them and as sure as the sun rises in the morning, they will do their best to take advantage of you as an employee by underpaying you. Don't take it personal. It's business after all, but as a recent graduate you should do everything in your power not to be taken advantage of.
I've met designers who were being paid less than a cashier at Target makes. Do not let yourself be lowballed just because you need a job to pay off those massive student loans. Do not accept a job where you are expected to work nights and weekends without any form of compensation. Do not work for a company that refuses to give their employees even the most basic of benefits — it all adds up.
Yes, you do need to pay those loans but at the same time, with your first job out of design school, you are laying a foundation for the rest of your career. By accepting a job that pays you less than entry-level salary, you are setting yourself up for a future of being behind. Sure, you can catch up by working hard, impressing your boss and getting a raise to put you closer to what you're worth, but by doing so you are simply selling yourself short.
You can avoid this by doing your research and knowing what you are worth. There are several salary websites out there such as Glassdoor.com in which you can look up your region, field and experience level to get a good idea of what you should be getting paid. AIGA and Coroflot.com also conduct yearly salary surveys that are worth taking a look at. If you can't find the information you seek online — ask someone who is already established in the field. Just because you are inexperienced, it does not mean you should be taken advantage of.
Never get tired
A few years ago I attended a lecture at the Wolfenstein Museum with Steven Heller and his wife Louise Fili. Mr. Heller answered questions from the audience at the end of his lecture. One question stuck out in particular — "What is the one thing you can suggest for a young designer to be successful?" Mr. Heller's response really stuck with me. He simply said; "Never get tired." I immediately knew that he didn't mean not to get tired in the sense that you will probably be working your ass off thanks to the long hours, tight deadlines and all of the other wonderful joys of you will experience as a designer but rather that you should never get tired of improving yourself as a designer.
You may get tired of putting in 110% effort in your work. You may get tired of reading design books. You may get tired of doing tutorials and teaching yourself new techniques. I assure you, I get tired all the time. There are stretches of time where part of me just wants to just go on cruise control and collect a paycheck — but thanks to Mr. Heller, I realized that it is the ability to push past being tired that helps to separate an average designer from a good one.
Do not take on any work without a signed contract
Regardless of where you are at in your career, it is of the upmost importance that you do not take on any work without a signed contract in place. All too often designers get burnt by clients for non-payment. Having a contract protects you and your client by setting expectations and in a sense, rules for the project. In your contract you should include a form of payment agreement. You can also include other agreements such as cancellation fees, payment schedule, transfer of rights, reproduction and display of work as well as project timelines.
By having a signed contract, this provides you with a sort of legal safety net. Should you ever come across a deadbeat client that refuses to pay you — you now have the proof needed for your claim to stand up in the case of a lawsuit.
It should also be noted that if you intend on bringing in a lot of freelance work it may be of value for you to hire a lawyer to handle your contract needs. Whether you handle your contracts yourself or hire a lawyer to draft up your contracts, it is an often overlooked yet incredibly crucial step to protecting yourself as a designer.
Related: You can download a free contract from Ash Thorp's website that you can customize to suit your needs. He also speaks with guests on his podcast, The Collective Podcast at length about protecting yourself with a contract.
Sign up for Behance, Dribbble, Coroflot and other gallery sites
When I first started in the industry, gallery sites like Behance did not exist. At most, there were forums. Nowadays, having a profile on sites like Behance, Dribbble and Coroflot among many others is necessary.
I urge you to upload your best work and use these communities to promote yourself by linking up with other designers and sharing your work. You can also see passive results from having a profile on these sites since many recruiters and agencies search for talent here. I have received a handful of job opportunities from Dribbble (while paying for the "Pro" account, which allows you be listed as a designer for hire), Behance and Coroflot.
Connecting with other designers on these sites is another benefit of having a profile, so long as you contribute to the community in a meaningful manner. This means that you should not spam a link to your work in the comments of other member's work. It means you should leave meaningful and helpful comments and build relationships with other members naturally.
Most of these gallery sites are free to use and are a surefire way to increase your exposure and network with other designers.
I hope that you have found the advice I've given to be helpful. Going out into the workforce can be a scary thing but we've all gone through it. Again, the advice I've given may not be for everyone, in fact some people may even disagree with what I’ve said. Over the course of your career, you will probably get advice from multitudes of different people. It is up to you to take bits and pieces of that advice and combine it to create your own path to success.