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The leap from graduating and landing that first design job can be daunting. There are individuals who have figured out their game plan early for school, portfolio, and interviews. The most talented, focused, hardworking (and lucky) of that group will land that dream job out of school. If you are not in that group, that is ok. Welcome to the majority. Most college students graduate without a clear idea of where they are going next.

I was one of you. After years of traveling and experimenting with different paths, I went back to school to study design at a small community college. Not having come from a well-known design school, I entered the job market with a lot of anxieties about what kind of job I would be able to get or if I would even be able to get a job. That latter kept me applying to nearly every job post and company I could find. I do not usually recommend this method of job hunting; but, eventually, my efforts resulted in my first design job.

Design Inspiration and Motivation to Do More

Your first job is going to suck, but you don’t have to. Actually, my first few jobs were not glamorous. I did all of the things you hate on the internet: Web banners, flash sites, HTML emails promotions, sites for small businesses and associations. I knew that this was not ideal, but I felt that I had to prove myself. If I couldn’t show that I could do these things, who would trust me to do more high level work for better clients? I have learned a lot from those experiences, and I boiled them down to the following four lessons.

Lesson 1: Side Hustle and Lifelong Learning

An early mentor of mine encouraged me to do side work. He said that I should do freelance work or side projects. I did both. The idea was to get me to think of the bigger picture. The design community is doing more than my current 9 to 5. Get out there and stretch your design brain. First I started with freelance. I did sites for artists who couldn’t afford more than a few hundred dollars. Then, I did organized hack-a-thons for not-for-profits to help them with a much-needed site upgrade. Eventually, I partnered with a couple of developers, and we did our own side projects for sites and mobile apps.

Lesson 2: Get out, Meet People, and Help

The daily grind of work and home can be isolating. If you do not force yourself out of that cycle, your circle can be small. I joined the local chapter of AIGA when I was a student. I stayed with the chapter and volunteered on the board for the next four years. Getting on the board helped me connect with a larger community of more established designers.

Your first job is going to suck, but you don’t have to.

I have since branched out to attend other local chapter meetups for groups such as IxDA and UXPA. My position on the AIGA Austin board has helped me partner with these groups for organizing and facilitating workshops and panels. I am now in the position for creating content that I feel the community needs.

The direct benefits from volunteering and building relationships have been 1). two job opportunities and 2). putting my name, work, and reputation out in a growing design and tech community.

Lesson 3: Find a Mentor

My first mentor took a chance on me. He hired me on what he saw from a student portfolio with almost no professional work. His philosophy as a design manager is to find the talent and grow the designer. I was lucky that my first boss was a designer. More importantly, I was fortunate that he cared about my growth. Ever since that experience, I have look for managers from whom I could learn. When I knew they could challenge me and they cared about my growth, I stayed loyal to them.

Looking for this kind of relationship from your boss is a different mindset. It takes caring and passion for the work from both parties.

Lesson 4: Polish the Poop

Remember that you still have that job to go back to. Now, you have all of these outside experiences influencing your work. After about six months at my first job, I started to look at the work a little differently. I was no longer narrow-mindedly reacting to what clients, project managers, and my boss wanted. I was able to digest all of the communication and create the best Web banner possible. While the work was still the same, I approached it in a way that ensured the clients were getting the best work out of me, the company looked good, and I was feeding my passion.

Your first job will mostly likely suck, but there are opportunities out there to help you grow.

Here are a couple of articles on lifelong learning and inspiring creativity that helped me write this post.

Interested in feeding your need to learn? Check out my post on essential UX books for designers.

Matt Eng

Matt Eng

DesignOps Manager. Based in Austin,TX. Worked with clients such as Alcatel-Lucent, Ogilvy, RBC, Deloitte, Whirlpool, Polycom, Symantec, and Pebble. Matt teaches, mentors, and speaks about design, creativity, and fostering stronger connections within teams.