Don’t become another unhireable designer

There is a huge pool of new designers who are completely unhireable. And you might be in danger of becoming one of them.

If you ask a design student, “What are you designing right now?” The answer is frequently: “I’m just a student, I’m not designing anything right now.”

This is a major red flag that these design students are not learning what they need, and will struggle to find work in the real world after graduating.

Design education is failing new designers. Design learners follow the common paths laid out for them in design education, learning high-level strategies instead of the practical, everyday skills required to actually create design.

And the poor quality of many new designers’ work is proof that this kind of design education has failed them. Their work neglects basic visual principles like alignment, hierarchy, and contrast. They are unable to explain their reasoning. Their portfolios do nothing to prove they are capable of real client work.

And the sad thing is that every senior-level designer in the world already knows this. We see the terrible portfolios from new designers every day.

We don’t hire them because mentoring and training new designers is too difficult and costly. Agencies won’t hire them, and clients won’t either.

And so there is an incredible number of new designers who struggle to find work.

They buy book after book about UX design and other high-level topics which they are not ready to understand, hoping this knowledge will help them get hired. (Many of the people who want to learn design are not trying to become user researchers, but visual, interaction, and digital designers.)

They flock to low-paying crowdsourcing sites and bottom-of-the barrel freelancing megasites hoping to get experience. And they end up stuck there.

All of this starts when new designers learn design the wrong way.

Design education teaches the wrong things. New designers aren’t ready for topics like UX, atomic design, and responsive design. It’s wrong to teach them these high-level strategies when they haven’t mastered the basics. Designing a living style guide is impossible for a student who can’t even use color or space correctly within a single composition. But our industry dispenses best practices as if they apply to every experience level.

Further, when did design education become so frivolous?

Many design grads have no actual design work to show — their portfolios are filled with things that don’t demonstrate they are capable of completing real client work. Students sit around and have fun, creative brainstorming sessions. They put sticky notes on walls. They talk about big ideas and innovation. But they spend a surprisingly small amount of time making real design.

Here’s what we should be teaching them:

Having someone come talk to you about UX for an hour doesn’t make you a designer. Putting sticky notes on a wall, talking about human-computer interaction and ideation, and hearing design platitudes doesn’t make you a designer. Reading about design or getting a university design degree doesn’t make you a designer.

Creating design is the only thing that makes you a designer.

Design education should focus on training students about the day-to-day work of making design. Students should master over the fundamental principles of design, because those fundamentals make or break design careers.

Then, students should use those fundamentals and go spend a ton of time making numerous designs that mirror real-world projects.

Because as a practicing designer, no one will hire you to have big ideas or make fun art projects. Especially as a new designer, clients will not trust you to direct a complex UX strategy. No one will hire you to only think about design, plan design, and have creative brainstorming sessions. Clients don’t care about your process.

Clients will only hire you to make the finished product. They want to hire you to bring their ideas to life (not your own), to manage the details, and to turn mundane business problems into incredible, exciting, and functional design.

So if you are one of those designers who feels stuck, is struggling to find work, or doesn’t know what to learn next, here’s my advice. Make sure you know the fundamentals of visual design, and then go practice them by making real design.

Stop worrying about strategy and advanced techniques, because you aren’t ready for that stuff yet.

Just make design. Get to the point where you can make a design all on your own that someone will want to buy.

That’s how you will get hired.


More by Jarrod Drysdale

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