Self-taught design fool or design school. Either way, finding a job ain’t too cool.

You’re on the hunt. It’s actually starting to get hard. You’re starting to question if you’re ever going to get a job in the design world. You’re also questioning whether or not you should have just been a bagger at the local market. And for those of you who went to school the worst part is you’ve got those student loans to pay off so you start considering moving to another country to avoid the high monthly payments.

The simple truth is it’s not going to be easy. It never has been. You don’t go to school with the participation prize of a job waiting for you once you graduate. We don’t live in a fantasy world where you lose every game of the season and still go home with a trophy… errr… wait... Dammit. Anyway, the real world doesn’t work like that. You’re not owed anything. You genuinely have to work for it and it’s going to be hard.

Design, with it’s perceived low barrier for entry plus the fact that it’s fun equate to it becoming a very popular career choice. I don’t know if you’ve considered this in your decision making process. Regardless, this means you have to contend with an oversaturated, yet very mediocre talent level market. Thankfully, these mediocre people perceive design to be easy. You, being a designer with real talent know how hard it actually is.

My first—and possibly most important—bit of advice to you is, your biggest advantage is to NOT be mediocre.

Realize this: you’ve chosen an extremely competitive market to get into. However, a fairly large portion of the work force truly isn’t that experienced nor are they very good for that matter. Work harder, do better work, make it a competition, a real one. Never do shit work. Make work that people say “Wow!” about. 80% of life is showing up… show the fuck up. Go all out and be totally outrageous.

Now armed with this information maybe I can help prepare you with some real world advice.

Set your sights high even if your in the basement office.

Your first job may not be your dream job. In fact, it’s likely that it won’t even be a great job. It might be a bit silly even. My first job was for a real estate company. I loved it because the people were amazing. I was also afforded the chance to do really great work that built my portfolio. My boss was also very helpful in getting the best work out of me. The idea here is to keep your sights high. Do incredible work that will get you the attention you need to get the next job that might also be a little way off from your dream job. Again, keep your sights set high, eventually you’ll get to where you want to be.

Don’t be a tool, learn how to use them.

I’m surprised by the amount of graduates who don’t even know how to use photoshop or illustrator. Every design job out there is going to require you to know how to use some software. Some will want you to know how to do some of the traditional things as well… You certainly don’t need to know how to use them all and I would recommend you become proficient in one before you move on to another but here are the ones I see being used on a daily basis. I recommend learning them in this order:

Photoshop — the best choice for websites and high level production work.
Illustrator—great of creating logos, icons, illustrations, branding, etc.
After Effects—if you want to do awesome motion this is the only tool.
Cinema 4D—relatively easy to learn 3D software.
Sketch —I feel obligated to mention it... actually, fuck that. Don’t use it.

Create your own path.

Research the company/clients you want to work with and start building a portfolio that has a similar feel to the work they are doing. Don’t copy them outright, show them you’re capable of following their style guide. Show your ability to iterate on their ideas. Show them you’re own original ideas. It doesn’t really matter that it’s just concept work because you’re still a student or recently graduated or learning on your own.

No one can really expect you to have shipped work. I do, however, recommend you be very proactive and find friends/people to work with and design branding, build apps or sites for them. You’ll then have some real client work to show. The other advantage to finding work on your own is you learn how to find work and could possibly just continue on that path and start your own studio.

Never, ever, work for bad people.

Today there is much talk of equality, diversity, accessibility, racism, sexism etc. If a company you want to work for encourages or simply doesn’t stand up against racism, sexism, etc. trust me, you don’t want to work there. Find companies that value not only your talent but who you are. Work for companies that align with your beliefs and don’t ever, knowingly, work for bad people.

Find your Gandalf.

Find someone older, wiser, with experience in the areas you’d like to work in and get advice from them. Having good relationships with people is key in any industry. Having an experienced designer, developer, etc. guiding you will be invaluable. They may even get you get you your first job.

Know where you want to go and how they hire.

Something to consider is where you want to work. Do you want to go the agency route? (Huzzah!) Or the startup/giant corporate tech company route? (Boring!)

Smaller agencies don’t hire often and when they do they have many extremely talented designers jumping to work for them. You need to have a VERY strong visual portfolio and it helps to be a cool person that everyone can get along with. Be persistent and show them how much you want to work with them.

The bigger agencies hire more often but the process is still tough. They usually expect you to have some experience or you’re going to be an intern. So try to intern while you’re still in school and build a bit of a portfolio while doing it. Again be persistent and show how you can really help them.

Startups are generally smaller, have limited money due to having to get investors money rather than make their own. Despite this they can pay well even though they have limited money. I mention the money because they are going to want their money’s worth out of you. They’ll be looking for very talented people to help them build a new company. Usually inexperienced people don’t do well at this, but show them you’re a self-starter and completely capable and you’re golden.

Big tech corps require more hurdles to jump through. The Google’s, Facebook’s and Apple’s of the world are just not even worth jumping through the hoops in my opinion but if you’re dead set on being a drone go for it… Sorry, I don’t have any advice for you here.

All of these options have their setbacks as far as getting hired. The plain and simple truth is you have to be the best to get the best jobs. Remember, no one is obligated to hire you.

Every career worth doing is hard to get into. You’re young you’ve got time and energy use it to your advantage. Build an outstanding portfolio, network with people that will actually help you. Be aware that business isn’t about getting everything you want. In fact, you rarely will, even if you start your own company!

If “easy” is what you want you really shouldn’t be getting into design it’s the wrong mentality. Design requires long hours and a lot of thought. It’s a detail oriented career. It’s a lot of work and will never get easier. You’ll get faster and have better ideas but it will always push you. Which is great because I believe if you want to be great then you need to push yourself.

Do not be upset or discouraged about finding work. Be creative in how you approach people you’d like to work with. Work hard for it! It really does boggle my mind how designers today want to be so norm-core. Why? Do amazing work that stands out! Push yourselves! Once you land that job it will mean SO much more to you when it happens.

May your way be hard-fought and very fulfilling.