When it comes to starting your design career, there are a few different paths you can follow. In this post, five professional designers share their unique path into the design industry, what their experience was like, and lend some advice to those building their own careers in design. Let these designers guide the way!
1. Get a formal design education
Designer Gabrielle Widjaja recently graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in Graphic Design. Here’s how she describes her experience getting a formal education.
"I feel incredibly lucky to have had the unique experience of being a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. I think one of the best privileges of going to art school is that you are surrounded by hard-working peers with unique talents and interests.
While you’d think competitiveness would be rife in art school, you’d be happy to know that everyone is very supportive of each other. This workroom is a safe and collaborative space for the growth and development of young designers, and it feels amazing to be a part of this environment."
"One of the best privileges of going to art school is that you are surrounded by hard-working peers with unique talents and interests."
"Since I have classes, I have to work around those hours. If you’ve heard that the RISD workload is intense, it’s true. On top of having five-hour studios around three to four times a week and a few one to three-hour liberal arts classes scattered in-between, I spend upwards of four to five hours at my studio desk working almost every day except some weekends. My schedule has to be fairly regimented due to school in general, and I always have between two to six projects going on concurrently in addition to extracurricular obligations."
Art by Gabrielle Widjaja
2. The self-taught approach
With so many online resources and networking opportunities, you don’t necessarily need to get a formal education in design to get your foot in the door. All you need is a little hard work and persistence. Take it from self-taught designer & Illustrator Spencer Gabor:
"Four years ago, I was a business major in school and heading in the complete opposite direction of where I wanted to be. I continued with my degree, but spent every second outside of class drawing, learning the Adobe Suite, and hopping on any possible project I could. This included reaching out to start-ups at my school and pro-bono projects just so I could get the inklings of a portfolio together.
"This process was long, but some of the most fulfillment I’ve ever felt."
To be honest, at first, I was making loads and loads of bad work, and I would send this to any industry professional that would respond to my emails asking for a critique. Bad portfolio after bad portfolio, I kept putting together collections of work until the feedback finally became positive. This taught me more than I think any art program could have, and I wasn’t feeling any sort of burnout from other people’s assignments, deadlines, etc. Sure there was a lot of self-doubt, frustration, and uncertainty — but these lows were just part of following a passion.
This process was long, but some of the most fulfillment I’ve ever felt. Finally, something started clicking as I began to grow my social media following and receive emails for actual work.
3. Enroll in a certified course or bootcamp
Certified online courses and bootcamps are a great hands-on option for those wanting to learn product design. Whether you want to get hired in web, UI, or UX design, there are plenty of certified design courses to help you earn the necessary credentials. That’s how Spencer Winkelstein built his career:
"The rise of the tech bootcamp has been somewhat of a revolution over the past decade. Bootcamps allow you to take classes in-person, online, or some kind of combination over a short period of time and get your feet wet in the field you’re pursuing. Some of these bootcamps offer scholarships and others allow you to pay after you find a job post-graduation."
"The best way to get the most from your learning experience is through highly practiced people in the industry."
"The best way to get the most from your learning experience is through highly practiced people in the industry. Whether you’re fresh out of undergrad, high school, or already have some work experience and you’re looking for a career shift, I highly recommend a bootcamp to introduce you to product design and fill in any knowledge gaps."
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4. Say yes to creative opportunities
Sometimes, design just finds its way to you without you even trying. For Gustavo Zambelli, staying open to unexpected creative opportunities is what ultimately led to his successful graphic design career. Here’s a snapshot into his story:
In 2007, I went for pizza with my friends at a local pizza place in my hometown. While we were eating, we were playing around with a digital camera. The owner of the restaurant saw us with the camera, came to our table, and assumed that since we had a digital camera, we could design things too. So, he asked us to design the restaurant’s menu, magnets, and other collateral.
We accepted the proposal, but none of us actually had any design experience. Throughout the next few days, I took on the project and I fell in love with design. Obviously, I designed the whole thing in Microsoft Publisher like a real champ, lol.
"We accepted the proposal, but none of us actually had any design experience."
"One of my friends who was at the pizza joint told me about his brother who was a Graphic Designer at the time. The only downside was that he lived in California, but thanks to Messenger and Skype we were able to get in touch with him and ask about how I could translate my Publisher design into Corel. He had no problem helping me and when checking out the design I made he said, “Have you ever thought about studying graphic design? Because you have a good eye for this.”
And that was it! Ever since that day, I just fell in love with design, and I haven’t stopped researching, testing, and creating things."
Art by Gustavo Zambelli
5. Create new opportunities for yourself
If you want to build a creative career, one sure-fire approach is to simply create those opportunities for yourself. Putting your work in front of the people who want to see it can enable you to land the type of projects you want to do. Designer and illustrator Meg Lewis talked about her own experience:
"I do this thing where if I’m interested in getting into a new area, (like podcasting, or textile design), I’ll always create an opportunity for myself. That way, I don’t have to wait for a brand or an employer to believe in me to give me that opportunity—because that’s probably never going to happen, especially if I don’t have any proof that I can do that thing."
"Because I had a single example up, it opened the door for brands and future clients to hire me for that."
"So, that’s what I did with textile design. I ended up creating a Society6 shop where I designed a bunch of textiles. I put them up there and learned about textile design in the process, and I was able to have examples of the fact that I can design textiles, and I can do a great job, and they look really nice.
And because I had a single example up, it opened the door for brands and future clients to hire me for that. Literally, a couple of months later, somebody said, “We love your textile line, we’d like you to apply patterns like that to our product line,” and that’s how I get work in other areas."
Art by Meg Lewis
Which design path will you choose?
Inspired to become a designer? We hope these stories offered some helpful insights into what career path best suits you. Each method has its own unique set of challenges and advantages, but one thing remains true—becoming a designer will take plenty of hard work, dedication, and passion to build a thriving career. Keep at it, we believe in you!
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