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15 Things Every Young Designer Needs to Know

Let’s welcome the class of 2015 to the design marketplace. It’s a bright, big, new and scary world out there for the thousands of design grads grasping their diplomas wondering what to do next. (Get a job!)

As we look forward to the new talent entering the marketplace, we also have a few bits of advice for every young designer looking to make his or her mark. It’s a tough and wonderful world out there; welcome to the adventure.

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1. Your First Job Won’t be a Dream

young designer

You can apply to every big agency in the world, but chances are you will start small. Most designers don’t have a prestigious title at a four-star firm right out of college. You are going to need to prove yourself to get there.

But you can have a great experience at a smaller business. A startup or company with only a handful of designers can help you build a portfolio and get a lot of experience across a wide range of topics and design areas. Look for an employer that has other designers on staff, so that you can find a mentor early on to help you navigate your first years in the business.

2. Details Matter More than Anything

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Everything you publish will be looked at under a microscope from this point forward. This includes professional projects and work, but also elements such as your resume, email communication, portfolio and public social media profiles.

Be meticulous in the details. This extends past design. Learn to write and communicate professionally – no text shorthand please – and learn the basics of style. Pick of a copy of the “Chicago Manual of Style;” it’s the writing guide for much of the business world.

3. Learn to Use Typography

young designer

The biggest little thing that can make or break any project is typography. It will be one of – if not the – most important single element in design projects across the board. Type theory is something that you can use and is universal in scope across mediums.

Make sure you understand how to pair typefaces, how to use different style and what mood or message specific typefaces can convey. Think about readability versus art and of course kerning and spacing with every letter you add to a design project.

4. Listen to the Client

young designer

From this point forward, listening should be one of your best attributes. It takes listening to and communicating with clients to produce design work that everyone can agree on.

More than just listening, you need to learn to work within the scope of a client’s desire. There are going to be projects where you don’t like the direction or know something will look better, but when you are doing work for hire, the client is right.

5. Curate Good Design

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Not only should you create great design, curate it. Social media is a great place to share and showcase great design with your peer group. Show off work that you have done as well and work that you like and appreciate from other places.

Participate in chats or groups that share similar design interests. Follow other designers on social media and engage with them about trends, projects and the industry in general. This network will be there for you through job changes and to brainstorm projects.

6. Be on the Lookout for Trends

young designer

Be cautious when it comes to trends. Be on the lookout for trends in design so that you stay fresh and up-to-date, but be wary of jumping on the trend train unless it is something that really works for your project.

It can be fun to do something that is making waves, but it may not always be the best for a live design. Consider playing with trends on the side or as Dribbble shots to entertain your curiosities.

7. Master Basic Copywriting and Editing

young designer

Just because you are the designer, does not mean that you can’t touch the copy. You should have a decent grasp on basic copywriting and editing so that you can help and join in on the content conversation. No design is complete without a great backbone of content.

These skills will also help when it comes to the design itself. You’ll want to correct misspelled words or grammar in the copy as you design (hopefully this won’t be an issue) because it will make your life easier in the end. And your design should make everyone involved in the project look good. (A typo makes everyone look bad.)

8. Defend Your Work

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Know why and how to articulate why a design works for a non-design audience. The ability to explain and define why something works (or does not) can help you sway clients or bosses to think about the project in the same way you are.

Remember when defending a project, stay calm and explain from a theory, logistics or design perspective. “Because it looks good” won’t get you very far; you need to explain why it looks good.

9. Work With Paper

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No matter what you may hear, print is not dead. You need to know how to translate projects to paper. Almost every business you work for will ask you to create a business card or flier at some point. It will be printed and you will need to know how to do it.

In your city, find a print shop. Make a friend and learn how to get your designs to translate across mediums.

10. Understand Your Style is Irrelevant

young designer

We all have a design style. For some, it may be classic and simple and for others it may be more funky and modern. When it comes to working with clients, your style is mostly irrelevant. You will have to design projects that match the style of the client, employer or specific brand or project.

That’s not to say your style won’t factor in, but it is not likely that it will be the dominant look either. And while we are talking about style, it is ok if your style changes over time. It happens t o almost every designer as we continue to learn and grow.

11. Participate Locally

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Get involved in your community. For many young designers, the first job may be in an unfamiliar city away from friends and family. Get out and start networking immediately.

You’ll create contacts and find other designers to engage with. Consider doing pro-bono or volunteer work for a charity or nonprofit. Groups like Design for Dignity or offer resources and ideas for how to participate.

12. Join Professional Organizations

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Join professional design organizations as well. Depending on the type of work you do, these professional memberships may vary.

Here are a few ideas:

13. Be Nice, Play Nice

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Building a strong reputation as a designer is important, especially in your first few years on the job. You want to be known for your portfolio and quality of work, but also for your standard of ethics and ability to work with others.

The latter traits will help you navigate and move through the market to different jobs and give you the ability to work with others. How you present yourself, treat others and function in the office and at professional events can set the tone for your career for years to come.

14. Keep a Sketchbook

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Seldom do you meet a designer that does not sketch. Carry a sketchbook (or sketching app if that is more of your style) and keep track of your inspiration. You don’t need to be a stellar artist to sketch.

Sketching is a great brainstorming tool and can help you keep track of creative thoughts. The best idea for a project may not come while you are at your desk, but rather while you are out to dinner with friends or taking a hike. If you are still not sold, check out “Why You Should Be Sketching (Even if You Can’t Draw).”

15. Be Yourself

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Finally, you should be you. There are so many bits of advice out there – for before you get a job, after you get a job, for keeping or changing jobs – and at the end of each day, you need to be true to yourself.

Look for work that is engaging and challenges you. There are going to be days at any job that are unpleasant, but they should not outnumber the good days. Look for a workplace where you fit in with people that value the same work and life principles that you do.


What are the best pieces of advice you have gotten along the path to a successful design career? What things do you look back at and wish someone had told you (or that you had learned) earlier? Share your tips and advice with us in the comments or on Facebook or Twitter.

And to all the new designers out there: you already have a leg up on the competition by seeking out and reading information from sites such as Design Shack. We are here to help you navigate through the industry, the trends and everything you need to know to be a successful designer. Welcome.

Image Source: Juhan Sonin