The High Wall of the Design Industry

A call to action for Senior Designers and Creative Agencies

For over 30 years, my father has been a member of the Virginia State Police. He’s done everything from serving speeding tickets to undercover drug deals. Now, he didn’t start his career by doing homicide work, or busting drug operations — he started as a State Trooper, sitting in passenger seat of a cruiser, learning the ropes from a senior officer.

It’s sorta hard to prepare for a job like law enforcement. Apart from academic knowledge pertaining to criminal law and theoretical knowledge of how to approach different scenarios, the only way to really become a great police officer is through experience. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do on your own to really develop that experience before getting the job. You can’t really practice arresting people (sorry citizen arrests). You can go to a firing range and practice firing a gun, although paper targets that don’t shoot back can’t equate to the adrenaline-pumping, heart-pounding stress of busting down the doors of a meth lab. I suppose you can practice aggressive driving tactics — seems everyone already does that when rush hour hits. Point I’m trying to make is, only through real experience can someone truly develop the skills and acumen to become a great police officer.

My dad recently spoke to me about how things have changed in recent years regarding hiring new state troopers. Nowadays, the requirements to become a state trooper have risen to the point of needing prior experience to have a shot at getting hired. My dad explained it to me over the phone: “If I were in my 20’s and looking to become a police officer now…I don’t think I could get hired. They want you to know how to do your job before you get hired for it — it’s crazy!” He admitted that without that on-the-job mentorship he received from senior officers, he might not have become the trusted, well-rounded officer his task force sees him as. At risk of sounding melodramatic, that mentorship may have even kept him from getting killed on-duty.

Regarding design, I know enough to be dangerous. I can prototype with the best of em. I can whiteboard till the ink smell gives me headaches. I can quote Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things till I’m blue in the face. I can post dope Dribbbles of Nike concept ads just like…well, the rest of the Dribbble community. Unfortunately, none of this matters.

You can’t expect new designers to have the acumen and skills necessary to become great designers without real industry experience to reinforce it.

This is the uncomfortable truth that is realized by every young designer looking to grow their career. They lack buzzword companies on their resume, dazzling portfolio pieces from actual work (read: not personal projects), and a person on the inside to prop the door open for them. The Design Industry has placed a wall between those who already have the knowledge and experience, and those who are struggling to get their career off the ground, offering no path forward. We need on-the-job mentorship from senior designers, not online tutorials, UX Bootcamps that costs thousands of dollars, or shallow advice like “just make some more cool stuff and pad out your portfolio.” That doesn’t work anymore. Sure, you can receive some low hanging fruit from these endeavors, but just like with becoming a capable police officer, raw skill development and theoretical knowledge doesn’t translate to the real thing.

This is a call to action for all you design agencies and senior designers. Give us more junior design positions and mentor us. The industry will continue to stagnate so long as you all refuse to help the next generation of designers forward. Companies, invest your time and money in us, and I guarantee that you will not only produce great designers, but designers that are loyal to your firm. For senior designers, you’ll have the opportunity to shepherd new designers and develop strong bonds with these people, which will ultimately magnify the power of your design teams.

I’ve been referred to as a “Millennial” on several occasions, which comes with the wonderful stereotype of being “someone who feels entitled to everything great and amazing in the world.” I’ve always resented that sentiment, as well as how easy it seems for people to apply it to myself and others in my age bracket. I’ve certainly met a few that would fit the bill, and it’s regrettable they hold that sort of attitude, but it’s certainly not all-encompassing. I don’t believe in a “free lunch.” I was taught that the best kind of success is one that comes from hard work. I’ve never held my hand out, expecting the Design Industry to give me that sweet gig at a posh agency, that serves lunches in the office kitchen and has a fully stocked beer fridge. From the moment I knew I wanted to become a UX Designer, I knew I’d have to fight for it. I’ve fought for five years, and I’ll continue to do so. Unfortunately, this a fight myself and the thousands of others in my situation will lose, if the industry doesn’t meet us halfway. Stop walling us off from our careers and passions, and open the door for us. We’ve been knocking for long enough.

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