7 Lessons Junior Designers Don’t Have to Learn the Hard Way

With graduation around the corner for many designers, it will soon be time to hop into the working world. Getting a full-time job for the first time brings certain anxieties and things to avoid for designers (and professionals of any kind, for that matter). One way to keep this at bay is to look to seasoned designers who have been there and done that. To highlight lessons for designers (that they don’t have to learn the hard way), we tapped into pitfalls to avoid and best practices to work toward. Read on below to learn about all of them.

1. Avoid Working for Free

Just because you’re a new designer doesn’t mean that you don’t deserve to get paid. Your skills are valuable, and any reasonable employer will recognize that. Some unworthy employers might say that you will get “exposure” in return for hours of your time and creativity, so you’ll have to weigh the merit of this. There are many reasons to volunteer your design skills for good causes or to help friends or family. And it can be very tempting to take any opportunity to build your portfolio, but most companies should be able and willing to pay for your services.

2. Talk About Pay

It is not taboo to talk about rates or salary. What you make when you first join a company will be the basis upon which you’ll get raises going forward. If you accept less than what your skills are worth in your first negotiation, then that loss will compound over time. One trick to avoid this is to ask the hiring manager what is budgeted for the salary, instead of offering up a number based on average salaries for the title listed on sites like Glassdoor or PayScale.

If you work for a larger organization with multiple colleagues in your same position, having a candid discussion about pay will ensure that you are all paid equitably. Some regions may have different norms around sharing pay information. If you find that you are underpaid compared to others, tread carefully and support your pay raise request with performance data.

3. Education Doesn’t End with Your Diploma

When you’re fresh out of design school, you are likely to have just learned the latest and greatest tools and techniques. But the design industry changes quickly. Adding certifications to your arsenal or attending training periodically will ensure that you’re keeping up with the in-demand skills your discipline requires. The job description for your position will look very different in a few years, so get ahead of the change to ensure you can excel in your current position and demonstrate readiness for the next level.

Young designers are lucky because there is always something new to learn. Over time, that can become somewhat stressful to keep up with your job duties and make time to learn future skills. That’s why we recommend building it into your workflow. Consider taking an hour each Friday afternoon to learn something new. Spending 52 hours learning fresh skills per year will take you far.

4. Never Underestimate the Add-On Skills

When Adam Hempenstall, founder and CEO at Better Proposals, was starting out in his career, he tells us: “I had no formal education in design, but I had lots of practice and satisfied clients. However, I have worked with and hired junior designers before, and there is one major mistake they make. While most schools teach them design basics, there is no one to teach them how to get new clients and communicate with them to be professionals. I’ve met great designers that I never worked with because they didn’t know how to properly communicate with me as a client, set expectations, or behave professionally. For young designers, I would suggest getting a mentor that can teach you the basics of business development — it will come in handy as your career progresses.”

Beyond communication and business skills, many aspects of emotional intelligence can further a design career. Design school teaches the specifics of the trade, but understanding clients better or picking up on subtle cues from the team at work is the other side of the same coin. So much of professional success hinges upon people skills that can’t be taught in a classroom. Some of it might take trial and error to get right, while other aspects come naturally to most people. No matter where you fall on the emotional intelligence spectrum, you can always boost your skills by listening to others and clearly communicating your thoughts and needs.

5. Learn When and Why to Push Back

Early on in your career, you will be learning the ropes, but that doesn’t mean you don’t already possess a wealth of knowledge. When a client or your employer asks for something that is either impossible or simply a bad idea, you have to muster up the courage to let them know. This will not always make you the most popular team member at first, but it will show that you care about spending company resources most effectively. “I don’t think we should go in that direction” certainly won’t fly, but fully explaining why an idea isn’t feasible based on the timeline or tools at your disposal will. Just be sure to make the discussion constructive with alternative ideas that would work better. One of the key lessons for designers is to understand the team dynamics and speak up when it is appropriate (such as bringing up doubts regarding a project in a 1:1 with your design leader, compared to in an all-hands meeting).

6. Learn Your Boundaries and Stick to Them

This one might seem counterintuitive for an early career designer, but some things have to be sacred. Try to stick to regular working hours to get your work done and enjoy your mornings and evenings. It can be tempting to try to get ahead by working harder than everyone on your team, but this leads to burnout. Even if you learn a ton during your many hours of late-night work, you may reach a breaking point. If you overwork yourself and have to quit your job, all of that diligence will be for nothing. So use your vacation days (this improves your creative process !), turn off Slack notifications on the weekend, and let your team know when you have family time. Communicating properly with your team will help them respect your boundaries and hopefully encourage them to have healthy habits as well.

There are unfortunate cases in which around-the-clock availability is the norm. This might be true in certain industries or positions, so make sure you know what you’re signing up for. If the learning opportunity and prestige of the company make the extra hours worth it, then go for it. You may be able to address this during the interview process by asking your future peers what hours they typically work and how the company handles work-life balance. Time-sensitive projects may require extra hours in the evenings and weekends at times, but if every project seems to be on fire, then you might want to reconsider joining the team. Consistently high-stress levels and inadequate sleep will eventually take an unwanted toll on your health.

7. Networking is About More Than Getting a Job

The people you meet at events and in the kitchen at work can become your best friends and future co-founders. Keep an open mind and keep in touch with people you interact with. People you met several years ago at a fundraiser might end up angel investing in your first startup or introducing a volunteer organization that is especially meaningful to you. When you are new in your design career (and every year after that), be sure to connect with your community and provide as much value as you are seeking to gain. Give recommendations and make connections for others, and they will do the same for you.

Did we miss any lessons for designers? Let us know by tweeting us @Protoio.

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Originally published at https://blog.proto.io on May 12, 2021.

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