A design graduate’s first year in the professional world can be daunting, especially in the creative industry. For designers starting out, this is a time when crucial decisions must be made, including where to apply, what positions to look for and how to begin building a career path.
RGD asked eight industry professionals to share tips for planning a career in the creative industry. Their responses point to five important takeaways:
1. Start with a goal
2. Be flexible
3. Be strategic
4. Be passionate
5. Never stop learning
Anya Codack RGD, Yfactor Inc.
Matt Coyle RGD, Senior Designer, MLSE
Vanessa Eckstein RGD, Creative Director, Blok Design
David Johnson RGD, Creative Director, Swerve Design Group
Tony Jurgilas RGD, Design Director, 50 Carleton
Brent Long RGD, President, Fusion Design Group
Barry Quinn RGD, Creative Director, Juniper Park
Philip Yan RGD, Creative Director, GenesisXD Inc.
Start with a goal
Our experts agree that having an idea of where you want to end up is a good place to start.
“Knowing where you want to go and what you want to do will help you get there, and people can potentially help you achieve your goals,” says Matt. “Without a plan, you’ll be bouncing from job to job trying to find happiness, when you have never really identified what that is in the first place.”
Brent agrees, emphasizing that early career decisions should be informed by where you want them to lead. “If a designer doesn’t know roughly where they want to be in 5 and 10 years then they may be wasting their initial years in the industry,” he says. “What firms you target for that all-important first job should be based upon long-term goals. The plan will probably get revised as life stages pass, but targets help us focus – otherwise we’re just wandering aimlessly.”
Even if you end up taking a different route, Barry points out that having a general direction for your career can reveal a lot about your character. “It shows you have a desire to move up and grow. Of course things will never happen according to plan, but what does?”
Just as important as having a plan is the ability to ‘roll with the punches’ when presented with unanticipated challenges and opportunities.
“Business is becoming more and more unpredictable, so being ready to jump on new opportunities will serve you well,” says David. “Plus the experience of working with different people, studios and clients is invaluable.”
Based on their knowledge of the industry, respondents agree that flexibility is a necessary trait for designers who want to develop in their careers.
According to Vanessa, a fluid approach is preferable to a rigid plan. “Career paths are organic; they have a flow that happens intuitively and naturally,” she says. “The truly important goal is to choose your first position and make sure it will give you the most opportunity to learn and grow as a designer.”
Philip agrees that recognizing the evolution of the industry is key. “The world is changing so rapidly and recent grads are still trying to understand the marketplace while figuring out more about themselves,” he says. “It’s important to be firm on a career direction, but also to be aware of the professional landscape.”
For Tony, learning to embrace change is the most important consideration when planning for a future career. “We can anticipate changes in roles and responsibilities as technology continues to advance at an exponential rate,” he says. “One certainty you can prepare for is change. Don’t languish in the status quo - recognize the need for change and have the fortitude to embrace it.”
While a designer’s career path may be impacted by a variety of external factors, strategic choices can mean the difference between a meaningful experience and a waste of time, especially when it comes to a first job.
“A first job sets all kinds of precedents about working with other designers, building long-term attitudes about the design process, maintaining quality, integrity, standards and values in your work. A designer will continue to evolve, but the first job sets a lot of benchmarks,” says Anya.
Barry agrees that a designer’s first job can set the tone for what follows. “Always try for the best job possible,” he says. “Design is not just a discipline, it’s a culture, and you need to soak up that culture and work in a place that challenges you.”
Tony advises designers to develop a strong grasp of business as well as design concepts. “Designers are first and foremost in business; an integral and viral component in economic development. Your long-term career goals should align with business principles,” he explains. Tony emphasizes the importance of recognizing the responsibility associated with being a part of the design industry. “You are about to belong to a highly specialized, multi-faceted tribe of experts that have accountability and a quantifiable ability to create positive change on a global scale.”
Strategy and adaptability aside, passion is what drives the careers of most who work in the creative industry, and passion is what experienced designers recommend for keeping new professionals on the right path.
“Select something that you’re passionate about but that pays well enough to support your lifestyle,” says Anya. “Then challenge yourself to make more out of that opportunity: expand your learning and surprise yourself – the next career move will become obvious and may not be anything you could have planned.”
Philip agrees that passion should be a determining factor when considering long-term career goals. “Turn the goal into a clear direction and let your passion drive you toward it,” he says.
Never Stop Learning
Finally, experienced designers emphasize that the learning process doesn’t finish with graduation – it’s an ongoing experience that continues to shape your experience throughout your career. Industry professionals recommend finding a mentor to help identify and take advantage of learning opportunities as they arise.
“A mentor can be a wonderful source of wisdom and guidance,” Vanessa says. “It’s not so much about advancement as it is about having someone there to help you expand your knowledge and grow as a designer.”
Brent agrees that mentors can be extremely beneficial. “They provide insights that it takes years to learn on our own. The lessons are out there, but it’s up to us to find them.”
Anya’s advice to emerging designers is to learn from every experience. “Designers should learn everything they can about the business from the designers they work with and scour the world for as much external learning as possible, expanding their horizons both during work and during free hours.”
Whatever your first job, there are many opportunities to continue developing in the creative industry, and it is up to you to decide how you will advance your career.
For emerging designers with a strong understanding of the industry, some general career goals, a willingness to adapt and the passion to drive them to their goals, the right opportunities shouldn't be too hard to find.
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