Tips for junior designers: how to start your design career

You aspire to have a portfolio filled with ambitious projects, renowned clients, and industry recognition. You want to turn your passion into reality and see your app embraced by millions. However...

You may aspire to have a portfolio filled with ambitious projects, renowned clients, and industry recognition. You might dream of turning your passion into reality and seeing your app embraced by millions.

I was once like you, standing disoriented at the starting line. Design agencies wanted to see my work, but I had nothing to display. My beginnings were tough, filled with uninspiring logos and apps in unremarkable sectors. I toiled over my portfolio, yet dissatisfaction lingered. It took time to grow beyond this phase and become the designer I wanted to be.

With 15 years of experience under my belt, I hope to share advice to help you launch your career in design. If you're a beginner, this piece is crafted especially for you.

Don't pause your Design Process

In my early days, I would often halt my design process to spend hours observing and critiquing the works of others. While studying the industry and examining portfolios of renowned designers and famous design studios enhanced my taste, I soon realized that mastery demanded practice.

To excel, my advice is to design, then design some more. So, open Figma or any tool you prefer and start creating. That's the essence of it.

Aim to be constantly in a state of design. Design isn't just about artistic expression; it's about solving problems. Push yourself to find better solutions with each project, aiming to outdo your previous creations. To better myself, I studied and replicated the works of industry leaders, practicing relentlessly.

Saying "I can do it" often falls short. Critiquing a finished design is easy. Instead, immerse yourself in design. It was through continuous creation that I truly matured as a designer.

Preserve Your Progress

The thought of deleting designs makes me cringe. Once gone, they vanish for good. While the allure of starting fresh by removing old versions is tempting, I've learned this can trap you in a cycle.

There were times when, after weeks of dedication, I needed to showcase my evolution to a client or mentor. Although I could present only the pieces I was wholly proud of, experience taught me this wasn't the best route. Instead, I've come to value a "wall of inspiration" that displays various designs, trials, and efforts. This provides insightful direction for future endeavors.

I've found that archiving, rather than deleting, is more beneficial. By keeping a record of my works, I can revisit and learn from past designs. I started treating each design as a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), crafting a basic version that serves its purpose. This strategy fosters continuous iteration and growth, instead of total discard.

For me, my archived designs represent a chronicle of my creative journey. They mark my evolution, style transitions, and skill enhancement. It's a mix of success stories, trials, mistakes, and experiments – all essential landmarks in my growth journey.

Connect with Design Community

Networking can make all the difference in a design career. While it's tempting to stay within a comfortable circle, broadening your network on platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, Dribbble, and Behance can be rewarding. Moreover, attending global design events can expose you to fresh ideas and connections.

Consistency in creating is as important as appreciating others' designs. I've seen many admire top-notch designs but falter when creating their own. The key is to remain proactive.

Joining specific communities, like Figma, has provided a wealth of insights for me. But always ensure your environment pushes you forward constructively.

Twitter, in particular, has become a hotspot for designers. It's not just about showcasing work, but also exchanging innovative ideas. By actively participating on platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, and sharing my portfolio on sites like Behance and Dribbble, I've improved my job prospects. Remember, genuine connections in the design realm can lead to some of the best work opportunities.

Befriend Deadlines

I've learned that adhering to deadlines is of utmost importance. When I allocate a specific timeframe for a project, I make sure to stick to it, regardless of whether the outcome is groundbreaking or not. Completing tasks is paramount. Leaving projects unfinished and remaining stagnant at the starting line is the worst thing I can do.

For instance, when I have a short deadline, I've found that a good strategy to reach my goal is to break down the available time and use it to sketch something, then simply duplicate it and refine it further. Lingering in front of a blank page without filling it will lead to nothing. I always remind myself not to stay stagnant because the deadline is approaching.

Don't get stuck with your Portfolio

As a designer, perfection is often the enemy of progress, especially when it comes to your portfolio. While it's natural to want to showcase your best projects, waiting for the "perfect" ones can delay your progress.

Instead, set a firm deadline for yourself. Commit to it and work diligently towards showcasing your skills. It's a common secret in the design world: no portfolio ever feels 'perfect' to its creator.

Don't spend endless hours on overthinking and nitpicking. Dedicate specific time to curate each section, and once that's done, move to the next.

Think of your first release as version 1.0; it's an evolving document. Over time, as you gather more experience and projects, you can refine and update, advancing to versions 1.1, 2.0, and so on. The beauty of having an existing portfolio is that it gives you a foundation.

As you grow, it becomes easier to build upon that foundation, enhancing your presentation and reflecting your journey in the design world.

Showcase your Work

How do you start taking on projects when you have nothing to showcase? Working for free solely for visibility or to fill your portfolio isn't worth it and can lead to conflicts.

As I mentioned before, having a portfolio is crucial, even if it doesn't include client work. Here are some steps you can personally take to develop a portfolio without prior projects:

Personal Projects

Pursue designs that spark your passion, such as apps for hobbies or local business websites. They show off your skill and enthusiasm, even without real clients.

Redesign Existing Products

Refresh a popular product's design. Detail your choices and the issues you're tackling, showcasing your analytical and innovative flair.

Explore New Concepts

Conceive and design a novel product or service, be it futuristic transport or a unique social platform. It underlines your visionary capabilities.

Design Challenges

Engage in online design prompts. They highlight your adaptability and fast problem-solving in diverse scenarios.

Collaborate and Connect

Team up with peers on projects. This boosts your portfolio and underscores team dynamics, vital in design roles.

Volunteer Work

Offer your design services to non-profits or charities. It's a win-win: they get expert design, and you enhance your portfolio. Just ensure a clear project boundary to prevent undue demands

Your personal touch and unique experiences will make your portfolio stand out. By following these personalized steps, you can create a portfolio that showcases your true potential and opens doors to exciting design opportunities.

The Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome, that nagging feeling of self-doubt and not being "good enough," isn't unique to you. Many, even seasoned designers, wrestle with it, especially in a field like design where creativity is subjective and evaluations can vary.

If you find yourself constantly critiquing your work or feeling like a fraud despite your accomplishments, remember: the design world is vast, and every creator's journey is individual. More often than not, those esteemed designers you look up to will recognize and value your efforts more than you'd imagine.

Seeking guidance from peers and mentors can shed light on these feelings. They've likely faced similar doubts and can offer insights and reassurance. As you grow in the industry, the unease might not disappear completely, but your confidence will grow, backed by your evolving portfolio and experiences.

If you feel like everyone is constantly watching and mocking you, it's just a feeling, not reality.

Know When to Call It Quits

Every designer hits a creative block now and then.

Instead of staring blankly at the same project, it's beneficial to switch tasks. Working on something different can clear your mind and prevent stagnation.

It's not about avoiding the main project but ensuring you don't get stuck in a rut. When you circle back to your primary task, you'll often find fresh perspectives and renewed energy. Small shifts can pave the way for significant progress

I'm not a proponent of procrastination, as I believe it leads to overall failure. There is a difference between taking some time off and perpetually putting off a task. Feel free to take a day off without any guilt if necessary. Engage in something different or temporarily set aside your design work.

Specialise in a a Design Role

When you're starting out in design, you might find yourself doing a bit of everything. One day you're a graphic designer, the next you're dabbling in web creation or even some basic development tasks. It's a great way to see the whole picture and understand the diverse fields of design.

But as time goes on, there's value in finding your niche. This isn't about boxing yourself into a corner; it's about carving out a space where you truly shine. Maybe it's UI/UX design, perhaps it's visual storytelling, or it could be front-end coding. Every area of design has its depths and complexities.

By choosing a specific path, you can really dig deep into its details, master the required tools, and stand out as an expert in that particular field. Employers often look for specialists, people who know one area inside out. So, while it's great to have a broad knowledge base, finding a specialty can make you a go-to person in that domain.