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The Real Story Of How To Become A Designer.

This article was originally published through my personal email list.

One of the questions I get the most is how you become a designer. Most people then expect some sort of romantic answer from my side, but let me tell you a little personal story I rarely told anyone.

At 15 I dropped out of high school. I was a troublemaker in school and constantly at the edge of repeating the class due to bad grades.

At the time I didn’t really know what to do. My main interest was skateboarding and being outside. I grew up in a family with very little money & my single mother was mostly busy with feeding us 4 kids. We even struggled to pay for the books we needed for school, so you can imagine going to a more fancy school wasn’t an option for me.

A couple of friends of mine went to a college highly recommended by my high school teachers, otherwise “I wouldn’t be able to make it in life” they said.

Since my grades were too bad I had to do a test, which I failed at and of course got declined from that particular school.

My only alternative was to join a special school made for the so called “trouble maker kids”. The school seemed promising with the hope to find a job after just a year or two — At least that’s what I thought.

After about 4 weeks at this school I just stopped going, it was horrible and I felt like a criminal for just being there. The teacher told me that if I drop out now, I will never be able to make it and won’t find a job in the future.

At the time I had a high interest in everything technical, I loved taking computers or other devices apart or repairing them.

My new goal: Find a job as a technician, some sort of apprenticeship maybe? At the time there were only about 2–3 companies in my country who hired apprentices for these kind of positions. I sent an application to each company.

I never heard back from any of them, or got instantly declined. I was devastated.

After I did some research, I found out that there is a program by the government that hires you as a “fake apprentice”. It pays you about $150 a month and basically bridges the time while you’re looking for a job.

Most of the people who end up there come from troubled backgrounds, kids on drugs or with really serious family issues. I was certainly not one of them, and I didn’t understand why I ended up there. My plan was to get out as soon as possible.

After about a year in the program I found a company that would “transfer” me, and take me on as a real apprentice in the field of computer science & engineering.

After two years I was almost at the end of finishing my apprenticeship. To successfully finish your apprenticeship you have to do one final test, otherwise it’s not official. I failed the test and decided to not repeat it. (you had to pay for the test, and I simply couldn’t afford it)

My old boss told me that if I don’t repeat the test, everything is for nothing and I won’t be able to find a new job.

At the time the company I worked for threatened to let me go because I was such a horrible engineer. (it was the truth) But because I was already teaching myself on the side how to design, they agreed to find a role in Marketing for me. (my interest was mostly print & web design)

Fast Forward 3–4 months, I decided to take a huge risk and quit the job anyway. I had this feeling that I don’t want to work there anymore and pursue my new interest: Design. What a stupid kid, who the fuck would do that?

I had very little savings left and needed to apply to welfare for the time being. If you would have asked some of my non-existent friends, they would have told you that I’m crazy for quitting my job and going on welfare.

Because everyone told me I won’t be able to make it as a designer without proper education, I tried to apply at a university to study design. As you can already guess, I got declined because my work wasn’t good enough and my portfolio was lacking traditional drawings. Phew.

So I started to apply at some more companies, no one got back to me. It was a hard time for me, I essentially had zero education on paper, no portfolio and just quit my job.

Then I found an educational program provided by the government which would cost me about $2000 but promise to train me as a designer.

I took all my savings and joined the program. Everyone around me told me that I NEED to do this for my CV, otherwise I can not prove that I’m a certified designer.

The program lasted 10 months, I barely showed up 3 months which was the minimum required to receive a “Participated” confirmation. When I was there I felt like I was back in school, with arrogant teachers telling me how much I suck and that I will never make it as a designer.

So far everyone always told me what I cant do, but never what I can — I don’t blame anyone, I didn’t know better at the time.

During the 10 months where I was supposed to be at the program I started to work on a lot of side projects to build up a little portfolio. Deep in my gut there was this feeling that I CAN do it, even though everyone else was telling me the opposite.

The moment the program ended I took a big risk and opened up my own little design studio out of my apartment. In reality, this was the only option I had but it turned out to be the beginning of a new chapter in my life.

The reason why I wanted to tell you this story is to show you how I really became a designer. At least for me, there was no perfect way and my path couldn’t be more unromantic.

In the end, everything that counted was that I trusted myself. Or let’s say I was too stupid to know what is right or wrong anyway. For me the obstacle became the way and the art of not knowing how to do things “the right way” helped me think differently.

Thank you for reading.

PS: I share stories like these and other things usually first through my personal email list. Thanks so much for everyone who encouraged me to share it here on Medium.

Tobias is a Product Design Lead at Spotify NYC. Founder of Authentic Weather & Semplice, Advisor & UX at

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