Mission impossible: get a design job right after training
Three bitter truths and recommendations for beginners
Let’s be honest: the life of a newbie designer right after university or courses is no fun. You are confused and repeatedly rejected. No one warned you about it while advertising the fantastic design world, but here you are. Of course, all the nice things will come. Later.
I was a junior myself, so I know how it sucks. But this was also an amazing time when I learned stuff I’m still using today. This article has two parts: a pessimistic one and an optimistic one. I’ll hurt you first in order to make you feel much better afterward.
Three bitter truths
1. Training doesn’t guarantee a job
Training is essential, but a paid job rarely follows it. Even the best courses — with real clients and realistic end-to-end projects — don’t include implementation by software engineers and further iterating. That’s why a student cannot feel the burden of conflicting priorities and collaborate in a cross-functional, not just design, team.
Only a few best students get a job right after training. Usually, they are already overqualified for the course and come rather for networking and to get an official certificate proving their skills. Such students are often featured on the design school’s “Reviews” page but don’t represent the average beginner’s path.
- If you are one of the best students, you’ll know that for sure. Trainers are probably considering you as a new hire to their company or are going to recommend you to their network.
- If you are a normal student who came for initial knowledge, there is a high probability you’ll get into a vacuum after training and will have to take care of yourself. But don’t worry — it’s okay. I’ll dwell on this case further in the article.
2. Many companies don’t hire juniors
Let this sink in: hiring a junior is a long-term investment, and only some find it beneficial and reasonable. Design teams with juniors first put a lot of time and effort into their training and only later benefit from their high-quality work.
Any investment needs a starting capital. In our case, the team should have enough experienced designers who have time to spend with juniors. Otherwise, it won’t work. Either a junior will feel lost, or the team will tire of tolerating shitty work and get rid of this junior. So, who has the resources to invest in juniors? From my experience, there are two main company types:
- No-name local studios and agencies. They aren’t too picky about hiring because they don’t have a strong brand attracting top designers. So, they search for promising newbies and offer them skill development and real experience in exchange for cheap working hands.
- Companies with big design teams and a constant need for designers. They usually offer in-house training or internship and hire top-performing students/interns. Since it is free of charge for participants, companies exercise their right to weed out slow-learners. It feels a little bit like a reality show.
And there are companies where one might dream of working but which have no conditions for juniors. I used to work in an all-senior team where everyone was 100% busy with work. Of course, people chatted, “Oh, how fun it would be to launch an internship!” — but it never came true because the business didn’t really need it. We never had trouble hiring strong designers due to the strong company brand.
To sum up, hiring juniors is not charity. A company should have a strategy of why they involve juniors and what they do with them later. And if you find such a company, it will be an exciting adventure. Working with junior designers is wonderful — I’ve always loved it. But it was possible because it aligned with the company’s strategy.
3. You have to improve too many things
As one joke says, “A junior designer is someone who brings 50% value and does 50% harm.” Juniors make many mistakes at the beginning, and it’s not that they don’t remember usability heuristics or user research methods. Such knowledge is usually in place. They lack professional wisdom — a deep understanding of what to do in a given situation and why they do it this way and not the other.
So, if a junior designer’s skill set is so flawed by definition, how are some of the newbies getting hired? If they cannot fix all the gaps, what do they choose to focus on and showcase during the job search?
Two-thirds of design training programs aren’t something a junior will use during the first months of working. No one expects an aspiring designer to do research, create design systems from scratch, or, let’s say, write product documentation, although a junior is expected to know about it all. Hiring managers will check two critical things:
- Robust interface skills. A junior designer should demonstrate several decent interfaces: well-composed, with realistic content and relevant patterns. Ideally, these are full flows, for example, registration in an app or customizing an order. A junior should be able to justify each decision: why they used radio buttons here and checkboxes there, why the error message sounds like this, and so on. If a newbie demonstrates such skills, it means they can be entrusted with the first real tasks and generate certain business value.
- Soft skills help you compensate for the lack of hard skills. If there is a choice of two aspiring designers with decent-quality work examples and the same number of knowledge gaps, guess who’ll get the job? Obviously, the one who communicates better and shows more passion for learning. Soft skills don’t depend on specialized design training and are powerful cheat codes.
Training can play a cruel joke on you: you learn a lot of things, but only a couple of core competencies really matter at the start of your career. That’s why aspiring designers who know design methods and rules well but craft hasty, poorly crafted interfaces struggle to get their first job.
1. Your portfolio is your most valuable resource
Designers with several famous logos on their resumes often don’t bother to update portfolios — their experience is an excellent door opener. But juniors don’t have a reputation yet; that’s why they are evaluated by design examples and the justification of their design decisions. While knowledge is essential, you should also gain tangible proof of your ability to apply it in real-life situations.
Here are several tips about creating a competitive portfolio:
- Focus on interfaces because this is the basis of a digital designer’s work. As I mentioned, your first tasks at your first job will be to complete a draft mockup with existing UI components, to create a different language version of a screen, or, let’s say, to add intermediate steps in a half-ready screen flow. Consequently, you must prove that you are able to do this, and a mentor won’t need to explain to you how to draw rectangles in Figma or what an input field is. (Note: copying someone’s interface is a good exercise to learn the graphic editor functionality, but showing copies on your portfolio is unwise.)
- Check if your training will help you build a portfolio. When you are about to buy fundamental design training, consider this as one of the choice criteria: how many different designs do students create while learning? is an end-to-end design project part of the program? Because if you won’t produce anything worth adding to the portfolio, you might regret it afterward.
- Demonstrate your learnability. One of the key virtues of junior designers is the speed they learn new things. Apart from fancy final designs, prepare “Before/After” versions of the same screen flow, in other words, how the design evolved based on the mentor’s feedback, usability testing with users, or sophisticated business logic. Such things are a sign for a hiring manager that you’ll quickly fill knowledge gaps and increase your work quality.
- Collect all artifacts you create: interfaces, screen flows, journey maps, user insights, information architecture diagrams, etc. You never know when you’ll need them. Add annotations about what each artifact means, why it was created, and how it helped you to come up with a good solution and make the users’ life easier. This habit will serve you well during your whole design career.
- Don’t decorate your work — hiring managers immediately see where it’s an interface for real users, and where you’ve added unnecessary effects and information that has no connection with the subject.
2. Don’t be too picky about the first job
Don’t try to get the best job — try to get the job as soon as possible. My design career started at small studios including a web design startup with a questionable reputation where one of the co-founders embezzled money and then ghosted us. But now I realize it was a great time when I practiced a lot. I had to earn money for me and my girlfriend to afford a separate living from our parents, so I accepted any available job. If I had been too choosy, I would’ve lost time.
By getting a job quickly I do not necessarily mean a normally paid designer position; you are very lucky if you manage to get one immediately. By the way, I wasn’t lucky enough; my first design earnings were miserable, but I gathered a decent portfolio. The idea is to get access to real projects for real users. It can be an internship or a social initiative.
I believe a 100% comfortable and gradual path from a newbie to a self-sufficient designer doesn’t exist. No one is waiting for you with open arms, but if you make an effort in the right direction, you’ll make it through. Here are several successful scenarios I frequently observed:
Example scenario 1
- Pass a basic training course on design with an average result. You aren’t immediately offered a job.
- Ask for detailed feedback from the trainer about your major skill gaps and, if needed, pass short training to address them (for example, a workshop on UI components or a lecture about presenting designs).
- Compose a portfolio with a focus on good enough interfaces organized in logical flows with meaningful annotations: who the user are, what they want to achieve, and how this interaction helps them. Ask a more experienced designer to review it and adjust accordingly.
- Apply for an in-house advanced design course or internship at a digital company in your city. You are accepted because their minimal requirements are basic design knowledge and the ability to use any graphic editor (like Figma or Adobe XD).
- Work with your mentor. Be curious, ask for feedback, and try to iterate on what you do and improve something with each step.
- Show progress and be invited to join the company as a junior designer.
- After a year or two, when you become more confident and proficient, think of the desired career direction and either stay where you are or, if needed, consider changing the company.
Example scenario 2
- Pass a basic training course on design with an average result. You aren’t immediately offered a job.
- Ask your trainer to name several local studios that hire or might soon start hiring newbies. Alternatively, do your own research in local UX communities via social media.
- Create a compelling cover letter and an easy-to-view portfolio (for example, a Notion page or cloud-based PDF — not a ZIP archive with JPGs). Ask someone experienced to review it and adjust accordingly.
- Connect with design leads from the local studios via Linkedin or email and send the aforementioned materials with a polite suggestion to join their team as a junior designer or design intern.
- While you are waiting for the answer, find a social initiative in your city and try to get involved as a volunteer designer, ideally not alone but with a more experienced colleague. Work on this initiative and add artifacts from this project to your portfolio.
- Get contacted by one of the studios and pleasantly surprise them that you have one more project on top of what you sent them earlier.
- Work with your mentor. Be curious, ask for feedback, and try to iterate on what you do. If the mentor doesn’t spend enough time with you, give them feedback and try to fix an issue constructively.
- If the problem persists, start searching for another company with an open junior position or internship program.
These are just two possible ways to switch from a design graduate to a design practitioner. As you can see, in both cases, you move forward owing to a decent portfolio and above-average soft skills (proactivity, politeness, and ability to negotiate and explain things).
3. Collaborate with a mentor
Learning digital design works in the following way:
- At first, it’s quite theoretical and more or less standardized. That’s why group training and self-education work well here. You can choose one of many good basic courses and obtain foundational knowledge and skills online or offline without any trouble.
- Then your training should become more practical and contextual so that you practice within real business limitations. At this stage, you need a mentor — someone experienced by your side who will give you project-specific guidance and serve as a role model.
Collaboration with a mentor is indispensable. Either you are assigned a mentor when you join an internship program or are employed as a junior, or you should consider finding a mentor yourself and improving your skills with them until you reach the level sufficient for getting an intern/junior position at some company.
There are various mentoring styles, and I don’t want to create an image of a perfect mentor, whom you won’t find in reality. Don’t search for the best mentor — seek a good enough mentor who has time to work with you. Time is the most precious resource, and experienced designers act as better mentors when they aren’t pressured by urgent tasks and don’t have to find a spare minute for you on top of project work.
Remember: the worst mentors are the ones who don’t have time for you. It doesn’t matter if they are “rock stars” who work at famous companies and speak at conferences if you cannot get their attention and care. Thousands of designers worldwide came into being thanks to ordinary hard-working “good enough” mentors.
Some people think design (alongside QA and project management) is an easy way to enter the fantastic world of digital technology because you don’t have to write code. But this is a lie. Aspiring designers struggle a lot before they reach professional confidence and can finally relax assured that life won’t cut ’em down.
Fortunately, if you apply your effort correctly, you can overcome all the obstacles and enjoy being a designer.
What to do in a nutshell
- Focus on creating a robust portfolio with decent-quality interfaces. Ask more experienced colleagues to review it. They’ll spend 10 minutes which can save you months of fruitless efforts.
- Apply for an internship or practical in-house training at a good enough digital company in your location. Choose access to real projects and real business — not office perks.
- Make sure you have sufficient attention from a mentor who will teach you and supervise your work. Avoid working alone.
- Create a plan of how you get from the current stage to a normal paid designer position. What variants are available in your city? Who can you contact and ask for advice? Where can you apply?
Beware of the following
- Don’t try to learn all the aspects of design by attending more than 1–2 fundamental design courses. You won’t use most of it at the start of your career, although general awareness is required.
- Don’t decorate your portfolio or add questionable artifacts — the ones you have no idea about or abstract exercises (like copies of someone else’s interfaces).
- Don’t overthink — act. Trying things is more efficient than searching for perfect opportunities. The sooner you get involved in real design projects (under a mentor’s supervision, of course), the sooner you’ll grow professionally.
And the last point: You’ll cope with all the problems. Just keep on doing your thing. As your professional value grows, you’ll finally get what you deserve and desire. Good luck!
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