Around 9 years ago I started my professional career as a designer. We’ll call this period the early years - circa 2007 to 2008. I was a bright eyed student who didn’t really know too much about the workplace or design for that matter. I started as an intern with about as much knowledge as a kid with a milk moustache. Even so I thought I was ‘the shit' because of how well I was doing at university, and the multiple intern offers I got based on my folio. As soon I joined a small but renowned design agency here in Melbourne I quickly realised I wasn’t ‘the shit’ I was just ‘shit’. For designers out there here are some key lessons that I'd learnt.
No matter how good you think you are, be humble and keep pushing as there is always more to learn.
Out of the last 9 years I probably learnt the most in that first year. Starting out I couldn’t believe how fast and talented some of the designers around me were, and the best part was how friendly and accommodating everyone was. In a sense it was why I love to give back and help out young designers today.
At the studio it was really a sink or swim situation - whilst everyone was very nice there wasn’t too much hand holding. And for me personally that was the perfect environment. I got assigned on to projects straight away and I was immediately thrown into the deep end. It would take me a long time to do things: layouts, banners and icons you name it. What would take me a whole day would take some of the designers less than an hour. The turn around time was 10x faster than university where I had months to work on projects. Because of this I was dissatisfied, when I finished work I went home and continued working in flash (you read right - a true sign of the times!) and photoshop. Trying to get better at my craft because the quality and speed of my work was not up to scratch.
If you want to make it in this industry be prepared to put in the work. There are no shortcuts, it’s all about dedicating time your craft. You’re not going to get better watching Netflix.
I’m not gonna lie the first few months were really tough - I wasn’t used to having my work criticised and be told so bluntly that my work was shit. I would then get excited about my next iteration only to get told it looks even worse. In hindsight this was very invaluable. Looking back my Creative Director was right it was average work. Don’t be afraid of these set backs, they are going to suck majorly when it happens to you but it is a stepping stone to something better. Around this period I was probably at the peak of my stress levels, I wasn’t sure if I was cut out to be a designer at that point. I really doubted my capabilities and my deadlines were flying by. When the tram pulled up to the studio on an otherwise regular Monday morning I wondered if I really needed to get off. Maybe I could've stayed on it and never returned. In the end I’m glad I persevered and walked through the front door that day, because it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.
Embrace feedback and if something is hard then it is probably worth doing. You will become a better person and designer for it.
Everyone set the bar so high that just being around them and working to those standards lifted my work drastically.
HOW TO IMPROVE
After this period I started transitioning to doing a lot of coding in flash using actionscript. Suddenly I was doing more and more development work and I was good at it. I was getting great feedback in the office for my work and this encouraged me to design and build these little ideas that I had when I got home. Unbeknownst to me at the time but this skill set lead me to visualise and think about interaction design more effectively down the track. Eventually I found myself in this positive feedback loop, the positive feedback I was receiving fueled me to become better. And because of this I worked harder, and the harder I worked the better my work got and with it would be more positive feedback. I was loving it and every once in a while I would be so focused that I would get in the zone, otherwise know by positive psychologists as flow.
I can’t say enough good things about the people with whom I worked with, I am very indebted to them. From the Creative Director who gave me the necessary push I needed to create better work. The Art Director teaching me that design wasn’t all about making flashy cool shit, there were goals and intent with the work we were creating. To the accounts person who taught me how to deal with people. And the myriad of designers and developers who I looked up to and helped me along the way with their advice and inspiring me with the work they were doing. It also carved my appreciation for typography which I carry with me today. Everyone set the bar so high so that just being around them and working to those standards lifted my work drastically.
Find great mentors and try to learn as much as you can from them.
For the second half of the year I was on auto-pilot. I was doing predominantly flash development, which I really enjoyed at the time. It was a mixture of animations (for the seasoned designers who remembers tween classes?), interaction design and integrating with a custom CMS. I was learning a lot of new things. What I really enjoyed about development at that point was unlike design it wasn’t so subjective, there were definitive answers to the problems I had and were trying to solve. Before I knew it my 1 year tenure was up. After the completion of this year I went back to complete my uni degree and began freelancing on the side as I worked at various places such as ad agencies, brand agencies and digital design studios thanks to the connections I had made. At that point in my career I thought I was making great money freelancing, it was around $40-$50 per hour and I thought it was rockstar money (in hindsight it wasn't haha) but from being a poor student to having all this extra income it sure felt like it. I did a few design gigs but the bulk of my work was flash development. Whilst I really enjoyed it - I knew deep down that I wanted to focus more on the design side of things. So upon graduating and having 2 years of experience I boldly applied for mid-weight design positions. From memory I had about 5 job offers however only 2 were for design and the other 3 were for flash development.
Take chances and trust your gut, do what you truly love and not only what you are good at. Complacency is a road to mediocrity.
I ended up taking a mid weight design position. To be continued….