Just starting out in a creative career? You’re gonna want to read this one.
We get questions all the time from designers just starting out who want to launch a successful career. Which is awesome — we love being a resource and sharing all that we’ve learned with our community.
So this week, we decided to sit down with our ace design team — Creative Director Chaun Osburn and Lead Designer Andrew Saxon — to get their best advice for designers and creatives who are new to the field and want to kick things off with a bang.
If you want to know how to get your design career going, read on for their tips.
At Urban Influence, we have some pretty awesome clients. But when you’re just starting out, that’s rarely the case. As a young designer, how can you build your portfolio to attract bigger, more awesome clients?
Chaun: When you’re in school, it’s easy to build a really interesting portfolio. You can do whatever you want. You won’t get the chance to choose what you’re going to work on at work, but when you’re in school, you get more control and you can take something like Nike and re-do them because it’s a school project and you’re allowed to.
You can build a lot of things from scratch too, so even if you made fake brands, you can build anything as long as you tell the right story. You can make things up. The sky’s the limit; if you’re not doing the most exciting work, you can make brands up and make a portfolio that way.
Early on at work, though, you’re at the whim of your company — you get the less glamorous projects early on that other people don’t want to work on.
So you have to make them exciting in a way. Find the challenge that’s in the less exciting jobs.
Andrew: This completely depends on what you want to work on in the future. You definitely want to take on projects that you’d like more of – obviously, you need to find a balance, especially if you’re starting a shop or working freelance, but then it just comes down to really promoting those projects that you’d like more of in the future.
Right now, there is always high demand for web/UI designers, and if you learn to do front end development, then you’re pretty much made. Going after these sort of clients will be your best bet for money, and will also allow you to branch off into more desired fields in the future.
Always be ready to make some sacrifice as well – say you get an opportunity to do a big name, or recognizable projects that will get a lot of recognition, but they just don’t have the budget. If you have the time (and enough income to support yourself), take it on for whatever you can get – just make sure you set clear boundaries so you’re not stuck working for little or nothing forever…
Do you share your work online? Do you have a blog? A portfolio? How important is your online presence for your career?
Chaun: I don’t have a personal site just because I’ve been working at Urban for so long; anyone who wants to see my work, I just point them to the Urban portfolio.
But I think it’s super important to have an online presence. Especially now, especially if you’re looking for work. It’s one of the most important things you can do nowadays.
You can give people a taste of your personality through the visuals that you choose to put up there. You can get people in tune with who you are before they even met you.
Andrew: I think it is imperative to have an online presence right now, otherwise who will see your work? And I don’t just mean when you’re looking for work – you should strive to always have your own personal space, where you can share personal projects perhaps not related to a studio (if that’s how you’re working.)
As far as a blog, I think it’s important to have something. I personally don’t like talking on a blog, though I understand it is very important. Again, I don’t just mean if you’re working freelance – if you are working in a studio, this allows you a platform to give your own personal opinions that perhaps you don’t want coming from the studio persona.
How did you end up working at Urban Influence? What’s your advice for designers who want to break into a city’s scene early in their career?
Chaun: I started as a contract designer at Urban Influence. They were getting bombarded during the holidays and they were running out of designers. I had always really admired them when I first moved here, so I just kept bothering Pete and coming around to see if he had any extra work.
I moved on after my contract was up, but I kept in contact with them.
They called me back because I had that personal relationship with them, and then I worked myself up through the ranks. Not enough people value working hard like that over time.
Even if what you’re given to do early on is not that exciting, don’t let people know you think it’s just some stupid project. Try to take any boring touchpoint and make it important to somebody. Find new challenges, even if it’s in something that might not be the most exciting.
If you’re new to an area, find a designer or an agency you like. Traditionally, designers are kind of cliquey and they don’t reach out. Just take a chance. I’ll always talk to somebody. I don’t play that game where if you’re not well known I’m not going to talk to you. The worst thing they can say is no. Just keep your best foot forward.
Andrew: I started a little over six years ago as an intern, right out of school. I had to work hard, because even though I thought I knew (close to) everything, I quickly realized I didn’t know much of anything!
The key to starting out, and how I think I was able to do it, was work your ass off! I was here just after 8 and usually made sure I was the last or second to last person to leave in the evenings. At the time, I didn’t know if my internship was over after the original 3 month time frame, or even if there was a possibility of being hired on. I figured, even if there wasn’t an opportunity to be hired on, I wanted to absorb as much as I possibly could and make myself valuable.
This boils down to, if you’re told you should be here from 9-5, get here at 8:30 (at least) and stay until 6 or 7! Luckily, the hard work paid off! Though…this doesn’t just mean work real hard for the first 3-6 months and call it good…
When you’re interviewing for a design role, what other qualities besides great design skills (of course) do you think you need to portray? And how do you show them off?
Chaun: Be yourself, and listen, and don’t think that you’re too good for anything. I guarantee you’ll have to work on crappy things in any job; it’s not always going to be awesome. You’ll have to deal with different clients and their personalities, so just be flexible. And a positive attitude will get you a long way.
That’s one of the reasons why I’ve stuck around here for almost 10 years. I’m just this way all the time. I don’t change. As long as you can remain positive, you’ll make it.
Be human. Listen and ask a lot of questions. Insert things that are relevant, like a couple conversations back — loop it back around, and the interviewer will notice that you were listening to them.
Andrew: This is easier than you think – just be yourself! When we hire, obviously the first qualifier is the work. Is it great? Are they coming up with some unique ideas? But the second most important thing is: do we think you’ll fit in?
When working in a creative environment where emotions tend to play a part, whether you want them to or not, and having to work in such close quarters for 5 days of the week (at least in a small studio like ours), it is incredibly important that everyone is respectful, friendly, eager to learn, ego-free (mostly), and can just get along.
Outside of that, anything else is great, but not a necessity. Develop? Know some motion skills? Those are great! But we also like hearing what instrument you play, or if you’re into building things or figuring out ways to create delicious, sugar-free, gluten-free, fruit pies!
What should you do when you’re presented with a direction or project you don’t agree with? How can you influence decision-makers when you’re just the little guy on the team?
Chaun: It’s about picking and choosing your battles. Some things that you view as really important may not be, and it’s okay to let them go. If you don’t win some of those battles, it’s okay.
Make sure you have valid reasons why you think things should be a certain way. Don’t be upset if they still don’t want it. The clients are the ones that are putting their money into the project, and it’s important to them just as much as it’s important to you.
Work at the best you can, but know that you might not get your way, especially if you’re working with clients. With clients it’s always a hit or miss. Clients don’t always know what they want, but they always know what they don’t want. So guide them down that path, and at the right times, pull back. Even if you feel like you don’t have that much influence, speak up.
When you’re young, it’s hard. But some of the interns that we’ve had here just chime right in (whether it’s welcome or not) and I appreciate that. But just be respectful. Help people understand what you’re thinking.
Have a plan of the key things you want to tackle. Then you can free-flow the conversation in the middle of that, and then check your notes and make sure you talked about everything you wanted to talk about. There’s nothing wrong with checking your notes. People appreciate that because it lets them know you actually care about the project. It’s a delicate game to play, but it’s a fun one.
Andrew: Be vocal, and understand that people are coming to your company to better their own company. If you’re having a serious moral dilemma with a client, let your higher-ups know and be clear why you don’t think it would be a good idea to take them on, or if they do why you don’t want to work on it. Just don’t whine, or not give a real valid reason – we have personal opinions, and if you want to be able to make those decisions on which clients to bring on, then working freelance or starting your own place might be a better idea.
When it comes to the less heavy, visual directions or concepts, the first thing is BE RESPECTFUL. If you say something like “I just don’t like it, it seems dumb..”, you’ll start making enemies quickly, and likewise people will stop respecting your opinions. If you think there’s a problem with a direction being taken, again, COMMUNICATE. Let people know why, and be prepared to explain why you think that – and if people decide to continue on the path that’s been chosen, respect this, whether it was your team or your boss.
However, don’t be afraid to say these things – it says a lot about you, and strong feelings and opinions are a valuable trait, and shows that you really care about what you do.
Early on in your career, you might not be doing your dream work. How can you stay focused on the big picture and your goals without getting bogged down?
Chaun: Even now, ten years into working at Urban, there are still things I have to do that I don’t want to do. Just today, I had to save a bunch of mechanicals of logos — it never ends. Especially if you’re part of a small team, you have to do a lot of things even if you don’t want to do them.
But you have to do the work. You have to keep yourself going somehow. Find the challenge in the little stuff.
And if you don’t like what you’re doing in your day job, it could be finding freelance or personal projects. It could be cheesy stuff, but it does help. You’ve got to find the challenge.
Andrew: This is a very common thing to happen with new designers! Being a professional designer isn’t just about always working on the fun parts – our job is to solve problems! They might not always be fun, but the key is to not necessarily look at the subject matter, but at the problem.
Find joy in finding a solution or working with others, and take pride in that work.
However, if you really only want to do something like making posters, go after that; say you’re a poster designer, and if you don’t have the clients yet, just make some posters of your own.
Just remember, this IS a job, and people are often coming to you for help, and spending money they’ve worked hard for – you should always be willing to put forth your greatest effort. Realizing this should help, especially in the beginning, and also build pride in what you do, which is really what is most important.