Welcome to the Real World

Throw your hats in the air!
As I see all of these shiny new graduates grabbing their iPads to hit the yellow brick road, it takes me back to my first days as a designer—May 1990 riding the elevator to the 9th floor on Dearborn Street in the South Loop. Ding! Your career now begins.

In the spirit of celebrating my 25th year in design along with AIGA Colorado’s 25th anniversary, I have a few insights to share with students on that first job, first year, and finally starting your brilliant career.

School of hard knocks
After you graduate and get your first job, you’ll quickly realize that on-the-job training is what’s next. You really aren’t ready to work on your own yet. You may have the basics down on how to approach design and execute a concept, but your first year will be intense as you learn there was a lot that school couldn’t cover. Plus it all moves much faster in an agency or studio—it will feel like a whirlwind at first (You thought school was intense!). You’ll have 3 hours to design a brochure, not 3 weeks. This realization (of how much you don’t know) might be a bit deflating at first, but remember that you’re starting a long and glorious career. Watch, learn and absorb from those around you. Be ready to do anything. You’ll learn something from every experience, even the boring tasks, so be eager and interested.

The first 1-5 years of your career will be heavy on learning with small wins. Celebrate those wins, because you won’t feel really accomplished until 6-9 years of practice. At 10+ years, design gets really interesting because it transcends the craft and moves into strategic thinking. You’ll love this place in your career. 20+? It’s all about relationships. The work is important too, but the people are what make it fun and rewarding. Be patient getting there and soak in all wisdom from others and experience at jobs, design functions, and through volunteering.

Build a career, not just a portfolio
One key thing an art director told me at my first job: not all your projects are portfolio pieces, some are just good experience. Don’t put pressure on yourself to make every project an amazing expression of your talent. You’ll get frustrated and so will your boss. If you have 1-3 great projects per year in your book, you’ll be doing well.

Try to avoid a strong feeling of ownership of a specific design you’ve created. When in school, you created and executed every part of the project yourself with input from the instructor and the class. You owned it. In your first job, you’ll likely be part of a team and this will continue throughout your career. Who gets the credit for the work will become blurry. Design is not precious. Design is purposeful. You can take pride in the full piece even if you worked on half of it yourself. Be open to the process of collaboration knowing it makes the work stronger rather than watering down your thumbprint on it. Interpret requests like “make it bigger” to be “make it more prominent / important / readable” and you’ll be a happier, more successful designer.

Also, as your skills get better, you’ll get to the best design faster. You’ll look back at a piece you did just a year ago and groan. All of your pieces are valuable, no matter if your choice of color or typeface makes you wince a little a few years later. It’s great to keep copies of all your pieces in printed or PDF form. Make sure to gather your work and store it in a safe place. After all, you’ll want to have a good trail of breadcrumbs for when someone is looking back at your career and honoring you with an AIGA Fellow Award. Right?

One last tip: Keep at least one business card from every job you’ve worked. It’s cool to see them in your later years. The designs become amusingly dated or interestingly classic.

Become irreplaceable
At your first job, make a niche for yourself at your company. When I started as a junior designer in Chicago, I realized I’d learned nothing about paper and there was a whole new deliciously textured and colorful world that opened up to me. I took charge of the firm’s paper library, learning about all the paper mills and their lines, colors and finishes. When a mill rep wanted to visit our studio to show new promotions, the receptionist sent the call to me. Senior designers asked me for paper recommendations. I would gather their options and offer to order samples. Find your niche—maybe you have an insane amount of Pinterest boards for inspiration or you know “there’s an app for that.” Or maybe you’re the one at your shop who reviews all the new software updates and demos the best new features for the team. Create an expertise for yourself within your firm. People will remember you for your niche, which could save you during a layoff or kick start your reputation in the design community.

Stay connected to yourself
Life changes. Things zig, you zag. There are incredible highs and great lows and many in the middle, but all the while, you can continuously learn, be engaged and improve as a designer (Look at Kit Hinrichs who at 74 is still working and loving it.). AIGA helps with this, but so do your family, friends, and peers. And downtime. Keep curiosity close at hand and strong tribe to support you, and you will always be fulfilled in your life—or at least never bored.


Welcome to the most rewarding, challenging, and changing professions you can imagine. Welcome to design.

Helen Young | EnZed Design
AIGA Colorado President 2013-15
Now serving as President Emeritus

By Helen Young
Published June 1, 2015
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