As a young graphic designer, it's tempting to imagine there's a single set of rules to follow that will enable you to achieve gratification, recognition and success.
Other designers' life stories (especially when told with the benefit of hindsight and some judicious biographical editing) often seem to suggest this is how things work. And we all want to emulate our design heroes and see our names and images appear in bookshelves and blogs like theirs.
Truth is, though, that life has a habit of not following neat narratives, and what worked for one person doesn't always work for another. However, that doesn't mean there aren't broad lessons to be learned. Some pieces of advice will almost always come in handy - whether you're a design student, recent graduate or simply starting out to get into the field.
In this article, I'll look at some common ways to turn your dream of a successful career in graphic design into reality. These aren't mutally exclusive: quite the opposite, in fact. Pursue as many of these avenues as possible, with vigour, passion and determination, and you stand a far greater chance of getting to where you want to be.
- Looking for a job in graphic design? Check the Creative Bloq jobs board
01. Join design organisations and/or volunteer to their events
Take advantage of the discounts you get while still a student to join design organisations such as AIGA. The benefits of interacting with like-minded people and networking are extremely valuable. Participating in design organisations will provide a rich understanding of the field, who's who in our industry, and give you the chance to speak to inspiring people.
The opportunities for learning and growth are tremendous. It's important to soak up all the possible knowledge and advice on offer; to get noticed and respected by colleagues.
02. Work for charities
One way to start a network base, add solid work to your portfolio and get noticed is to offer your design skills to charities in your community (not to mention the great cause that you support, of course!). These projects could potentially lead to both non-for-profit and for-profits paid work. Approach a local gallery or business, an animal shelter... do good work for a really good cause close to your heart.
03. Get internships
An internship with a good design studio or at an in-house department can offer invaluable experience that you will draw on throughout your design career. You'll become seasoned in how design organisations are run; have a better understanding about client requests and how work load works. With luck (and bear in mind you need to make most of your own luck), you'll get to show your skills and commitment to the company and land a full-time position, gain some skills and start your own network.
04. Nurture a network of peers
This tip may seem obvious, but in practice we tend to see our peers as competition instead of supporters or collaborators. Instead, actively nurture our network of peers: it really does pay off. The project that someone passes on due to a busy schedule or a short budget can be a project that is a good fit for you - and a great piece to add to your portfolio that eventually opens doors to bigger opportunities and new ventures.
- You'll find more tips on networking for designers here.
05. Send fan mail
We all like getting notes from admirers: it lifts the spirits and strengths us as an industry. So why not let your design heroes let them know that you respect them and their work?
Sending genuine short emails (either notes or a good-looking promo mailer) to people who you admire can lead to many opportunities. One of them may be just what they are looking for - when firms are hiring, for example, or needing someone to commission for a project that matches your skillset.
Of course, that won't always happen, so don't get discouraged if the phone doesn't ring immediately. It's always good to send a follow-up material showing your newest work; this keeps recipients interested and reminded of your availability.
06. Create an online presence
This might seem obvious, but these days you simply have to have an online platform to express yourself and maintain a constant dialogue with other people interested in you work. And we're not just talking about a Twitter account or Facebook page. Prospective employers will expect you to have either your own bespoke blog or website, or to use an online portfolio service like Behance.
07. Exploit your other skills
If you have illustration or photography skills to add to your graphic design skillset, this can also lead to significant work under the art direction of very talented people. Put together your best pieces in a simple yet elegant PDF, or in print format, and get ready to mail it to all those agencies that you're interested in.
08. Submit work to competitions
Having some accolades under your belt certainly helps building a reputation and getting under the radar art directors and editors. It will also help a hesitant creative director to make a decision on choosing you over another talented designer.
09. Be nice, be bold, be humble
We're in a business where making human connections is vital to our growth, regardless of whether we're doing on or off-line work. So being genuinely friendly and interested will hands-down help you to make prospect and repeating clients. Quite simply, building relationships and communication is at the core of our profession, so you can't shy away from it.
10. Start your own projects
"You're creative." You can do so many things as a creative person, so if no doors are yet opening then make your own projects.
Divide your day between looking for traditional ways to get your work out while also creating your own projects. These could be ebooks, postcards, great pack icons for free distribution, CMS themes, anything you can think off to get you started.
Doing things on your own is risky but worthwhile. There is certainly merit on creating your own opportunities. The tools to connect with friends, colleagues and like-minded people are available, and you can freely explore your creativity and skills using them. This new online culture we observe today is changing the rules of the game, so get on board and make it work for you.
11. Keep going
One final piece of advice: keep moving forward. Keep up your task of calling, emailing or whatever you do on a constant basis. Don't take rejection personally and discard envy. A rejection today could land you a job tomorrow or a new client further on.
12. Further reading
- How to get into art college
- The pro's guide to design internships
- How to become a junior designer
- How to become an art director
- How to be a creative director
Words and main image: Larry Mayorga
Larry Mayorga is a graphic designer and art director based in New York City. He has more than 13 years of experience working in the field and is currently senior designer at Terry Koppel Design.
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Have any of these tips helped? Do you have any to pass on? Join in the discussion in our comments.