I’ve been invited to speak on a graphic design panel for a high school career day. Most high schoolers are not sure what they want to do with the rest of their lives—I wasn’t then, and I’m still not. I’ll be there to answer specific questions about the design field but I’m hoping to offer insight that can be applied to any career, because as we all come to find out, things change. We can't possibly be prepared for every situation. I hope these vignettes from my own experiences will serve those that are just starting out.
Find a job, any job,* no matter what.
If you go on to higher learning, search for job opportunities before classes start–*preferably a position on campus. I accepted a university job which was offered during registration. With two options to choose between, food service and maintenance, I decided to go with the latter. It wasn’t glamorous, but it set me up from the get-go. I was allowed to arrive before general move-in day which helped me get acquainted with my surroundings (and I met one of my best college friends!). Most importantly, I was able to select shifts that fit between my class schedule, keeping my days reasonably full but not long. And I had a stream of income—measly for sure, but above minimum wage with quarterly raises! I cleaned my dorm building for the first two years of college, even after I had moved off campus by sophomore year. This job had nothing to do with design or art but it taught me discipline, time management, and prioritization of schoolwork. Come summertime, I was already on the short list for maintenance jobs on campus and I didn't have to scramble for the short-supply of retail positions that the entire student body was applying for after final exams. And I had a school-affiliated job on my resume.
Don’t pigeonhole yourself.
As you build experience, be open to opportunities that deviate from the job descriptions you’re familiar with and avoid making assumptions about your field of interest. I was on track for a graphic design BFA, with a Business Minor. I continuously sought "Graphic Design" positions posted in the art department to no avail and often disregarded the postings at the business school. However, I came across an internship at the business school looking for skills beyond the usual scope–one of which was graphic design. On a whim, and with little expectation, I interviewed for a Product Development job. I got it! I moved to Chicago for a summer, toned my graphic design muscles and learned about an entirely new facet of the industry.
Work for someone else before you start on your own.
No matter how talented and resourceful you are in your craft, there's always more to a job than you think. In the graphic design field, many professionals decide to start their own small firm, or as some solopreneurs call it, freelance. When I first moved to LA, I worked at a publishing firm in Santa Monica for close to 4 years. I advanced from a part-time junior designer to art director. "Climbing the ladder" helped me lead the designers who were now fulfilling my earlier responsibilities. As department head, I was thrown into a lot of situations where I was the decision maker so I had to learn as I went. Even with all my formal training, 80% of my job was new to me. At an agency, I had the support of real-world professionals and insider access to invaluable industry processes. I was propelled forward in my career. Priceless information, a solid list of contacts, and indispensable mentors help me successfully run Ivy & Ink today.
Don't let others define your success.
I left my well-paying, steady paycheck as an art director because that decision was right for me. I could have climbed my career ladder higher—advancing to a bigger company with added responsibility and a higher salary—but I found that the fast-paced agency environment was burning me out. Seventy-hour weeks and giving up weekends to push through deadlines was no longer exhilarating. In my late 20s, I wanted to be cultivating friendships and fulfilling my own artistic needs. I wanted all my career decisions and priorities to be up to me…and get ALL the credit when I achieved something great. My superiors and mentors were now my peers and the only person left to prove my talents to was myself. Going out on your own is hard, and even alien at first, but it can be immensely fulfilling. It’s been 2 years since I founded Ivy & Ink and I’m a happier, way healthier, yoga practicing, book reading, award-winning illustrator, and more successful designer for it. An employer no longer matches my 401k, I don't feel like a hot-shot who flies to Las Vegas on the company dime for press-checks, and I miss flipping through a freshly printed sample surrounded by my colleagues. Being a business owner is hard work and it's not always glamorous. The reassurance that you're happy with what you've created should be reward enough, no matter what fellow designers think success should look like.
I’ve made a lot of pivotal decisions, good and bad, but looking back, these stand out to me as some of the good ones that brought me to where I am today. My resume now reflects what always seemed unattainable, the status of a seasoned designer with enough “experience points” to stand out.
I’d love to hear some of the best decisions you’ve made for your career in the comments below!