6 tips for surviving your first design job

Your first design job will probably be one of the toughest and most rewarding jobs you’ll ever have in your career. These are a few tips I’ve put together, based on my own personal experiences from when I started out as a graphic designer.


Ask questions

I’ve always been pretty shy when starting a new job, so I sometimes find that I need force myself to step outside my comfort zone. This was especially true of my first jobs in retail, and my first job as a graphic design graduate. Even if you have an outgoing personality, you might feel hesitant to ask a lot of questions when you start in your role because you don’t want to seem like you don’t know what you’re doing, or you feel like you’re being annoying. But the reality is that your employer knows that you are still learning, and they would rather that you ask questions than make mistakes because you were too afraid say anything. Having said that, you should also be trying your best to show initiative and solve problems yourself if you can – just don’t be afraid to ask questions when you need to.

Be proactive

While you shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions, you should also be proactive about seeking answers yourself when you can. This is especially true if you are the only in-house designer in an organisation, or in a small studio team. My first graphic design job was at a small printer where it was me and one other design (and then eventually just me for a while). I was already used to working on my own, having worked in retail for a number of years in between study. So when I had to take on jobs that required skills I was lacking in, I basically turned to Google.

No one expects you to know everything when you start out, so there’s definitely no shame in searching online for tutorials, forums and other websites that might help you learn some extra skills or short-cuts to improve your workflow. For example, I didn’t really know much about working with tables in InDesign until I had to work on a big job with about 20 forms that had to be redesigned. I had no choice but to learn very quickly so I could get the job done, and I ended up learning a valuable new skill in the process.

Another thing that I have found helpful is to recognise what types of files you are creating most often, and then design some templates for yourself. For example if you are doing a lot of web design mockups in Photoshop then you’ll want to create a folder with assets that you can reuse eg. layered PSD file with grid set up already, social icons etc. Same goes for print – you can create InDesign templates, or in InDesign you can also save presets for page size etc. So you might want to create a template for a 2 sided DL with 5mm bleed, and basic paragraph styles set up already if that’s something you’re using often. You can also find heaps of useful template resources online.

Close-up of young professional female graphic designer using dig

Be professional

‘Well yeh that’s pretty obvious’ you might say, but here’s what I mean… Each workplace is different, some are more laid-back, some more corporate. You need to work out work what’s appropriate behaviour for your workplace, but I think there is still some professional etiquette that you should follow in any design job.

When you sign your contract, make sure to read it carefully because there will usually be some terms and conditions regarding the sharing of files that you’ve created at work. So before you excitedly start uploading your designs to Behance or Dribble, you should probably double check first. Also because sometimes a project could be partially incomplete or have confidentiality issues around it.

Be polite and considerate to your colleagues and clients. Sounds simple, but often is easier said than done. Sooner or later you are going to find yourself working with someone who is a total jerk. I think the key is to listen carefully and genuinely, and don’t let yourself get too emotional. It’s good to be passionate, but at the end of the day your main goal is to meet the needs of the client. So if they want Comic Sans, but you don’t think it looks good, then you need to explain why using design terms that they will understand – eg. it doesn’t align with their branding because XYZ. Of course that’s a pretty simplified scenario, but what I’m getting at is that it’s important to be professional and work through issues using effective communication.

Be ethical. Make sure you understand at least the basics of copyright law. Don’t steal other people’s work – and when in doubt, if it doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t. Same goes for images and fonts. If the client can’t afford stock images or commercial fonts, then you need to work with them to come up with a (legal) solution. If you need to download free resources, then check the terms of use to make sure they are going to be used in the right way (eg. for commercial use). Unsplash and Font Squirrel are two of my go-to sites.

Keep learning

I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times but it really is true – learning doesn’t (shouldn’t) stop when you finish your degree. There are many ways to keep your creative juices flowing: watching Youtube tutorials, drawing, design talks (eg Creative Mornings, The Design Kids), and other types of professional development. I don’t want to sound too pessimistic here, but chances are you’ll find that working as a graphic designer day-to-day might not offer as many opportunities to be creative as you thought it would, but it all depends on your expectations too. I’m the kind of person who loves to draw but I also enjoy typesetting long documents (weird hey?). So if you find that your job doesn’t provide you will all the creative challenges you want, then you need to work on some personal projects as well. Even just an hour on the weekend each week, reading a design magazine or blog can be enough. Or you might want to set yourself some goals for your portfolio eg. pick a company you love and redesign their logo for fun. Sometimes it can feel like there’s no time left in the week by the time you get home from work, wash clothes, exercise etc, but trust me it does pay off in the long run. Another important aspect of learning is to seek feedback on your work – ask your colleagues, your boss and your friends what they think (keep and open mind and be ready to take criticism).


Look after yourself

You’re going to be working hard, but remember to look after yourself. Make sure one of the first things you do when you start your job is ensure that your work station is set up properly to avoid injury or strain. If you need a footrest to get your body sitting at the right height then don’t hesitate to ask. It’s in your employer’s interest to ensure your health and safety at work anyway, and they want you to be working at your best.

We all end up working through our break or eating at our desk once in a while, but trust me – you don’t want that to become a habit. For starters it’s not good for your mental health, and secondly I’m sure you’ll find that if you have a break and eat then you’ll be better because you’ll have more energy to get through the afternoon. To be honest, if you find yourself working through your break often, then you should probably talk to your boss to let them know so you can work out how to better manage your workload. You might even find that they didn’t realise you were skipping your break. Same goes for working back late – it’s always best to communicate with your boss or colleagues to see if they can help. Otherwise you might end up staying back to work on a task only to realise that it wasn’t even that urgent after all.

Now here’s perhaps the trickiest one… getting paid properly. My personal view is that you shouldn’t work for free, even internships unless it’s as part of your studies and actually counts toward your qualification. Always read any contract before you sign it, and if you feel the need to, you could get a friend or family member to read it with you. If there’s any parts you don’t understand then don’t hesitate to ask your employer before you sign it. I’m not sure about other countries, but in Australia we have award rates as well as minimum wage. Your contract will usually specify an award, so just double check that the award is relevant to the work you’ll be doing and if you’re not sure you can visit the Fairwork website. I know when you graduate it can be tempting to just take whatever design job you can get, and I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take a low paying job, just make sure you understand your rights. You might also want to consider joining a union so you can ask for confidential advice if you have any queries about these sorts of things (not trying to push an agenda here but I am a union member).

And last but not least, don’t take bull-shit. I know I just said be polite, but you also need to be assertive. If some-one says something sexist, racist, or homophobic then call them on it. There have been a lot of times that colleagues have said awful things at work and I didn’t say anything. I guess sometimes you have to pick your battles but at the same time, don’t feel like you need to put up with poor behaviour just to fit in.

Unposed group of creative business people in an open concept office brainstorming their next project.

Celebrate wins

Let’s end on a positive note. Celebrate your wins. Big wins, or little wins, just remember to take a moment to enjoy your achievements and recognise that you are always getting better as a designer. Your hard work will continue to pay off, and even if no-one else in the world apart from the client cares about that flyer you made, at least you know you did an awesome job. Even if a job doesn’t go ahead or get used, it wasn’t for nothing – you might be able to use part of that idea on another project. Also, there are a bunch of design awards specifically targeted at young designers and graduates so don’t forget to submit your work to some of those. That can be a great motivator to polish some of your portfolio pieces too.

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