You've Graduated... Part One

I did a talk at Bitmaker in Toronto a few weeks ago to aspiring Designers about what to do when starting out. I receive a lot of the same type of questions through Twitter and e-mail so I thought I’d expand on the topic. This is part one of four.

There are four things any particular junior should be concerned about: getting better at their craft, deciding what to do with the job market, preparing themselves and their portfolio, and understanding the environment once you have a position.

Graduating from formal education, a bootcamp, or even apprenticeship based programs puts you in the same position as others with the same skill-set. While there is enough demand in some markets, there are not enough positions that can support the mentorship of a Junior Designer. Even if you manage to find one, you may find yourself in a less than desirable place in terms of growth.

All Designers must adopt a growth mindset from graduation, and hopefully, much before that. You’ve joined an industry in which learning new skill-sets is a constant. Picking up new skills and absorbing them quickly will be something you do for the rest of your career. Tech moves fast.

Passion is not followed or found, but cultivated. To ensure longevity in your career, you must find satisfaction in learning things, or, deliberate practice.[1] If you manage to fine-tune this skill of yours, you’ll find that competition will melt away fairly quickly. One of my favourite books says this about it,

The good news about deliberate practice is that it will push you past this plateau and into a realm where you have little competition.
–Cal Newport, "So Good They Can't Ignore You"

The Basics

Design is a service-based cultured job. You must pay attention to what’s going on around you. Creativity is about connecting dots but you cannot do that if you have no dots to connect. Invest time in understanding new ideas in different industries and society. An uncultured Designer is one whose creativity is restricted by choice.

While you’re doing this, find a mentor who can guide you. Mentorship doesn’t have to be a formal relationship. I have mentors whom I’ve never met. There is a very strong Design community on Twitter which you can follow and learn from. Use that to surround yourself with those you admire.

These Design books should be on your bookshelf if your visual skills are weak:

While you’re going through those, be sure to check out the articles on A List Apart↗︎ and A Book Apart↗︎. These resources are always relevant, well researched, and high value in exchange for the time invested.


Your portfolio is never done. You must always be constantly building your portfolio and you shouldn’t be waiting for a job position in order to get better. Here are things you can do, by your lonesome:

  • Attend meet-ups to find like-minded folk. Do not just attend Design meet-ups: finding a developer is easier at a developer meet-up than it is at a Dribbble meet-up. Listings are available on↗︎, announced on Designer News↗︎, or talked about on the Twitterverse.
  • Attend hack-a-thons to open up the possibility of working with a motivated team. There are tons of hack-a-thon listings online, or again, find them on the Twitterverse.
  • Design a product and hire someone to bring your Design to life. While this option isn’t available for those who do not have the resources, it can be a route for those who do. You can find developers on↗︎.
  • Build it yourself. This will take the longest and is probably out of the question for those who are juggling real-life problems. If it is an option for you: Codeschool↗︎, Team Teamhouse↗︎, and Udemy↗︎ are great places to start.


You may get to a point in which you feel like you have the basics down (unlikely, but let’s say you’re especially confident). In that case, it may make some sense to pick a specialization to focus on.

There are many topics Designers can become specialists in and I detail them in a previous post of mine. You can pick anything, learn everything you can about it, and use your blog to track what you’re learning.[2]

Using blog posts to share what you’ve learned helps interviewers like me judge your ability to take on complex topics, and it helps those who are interested in the same topic as you.

Tracking Progress

Speed is an excellent barometer for a Junior Designer to focus on. Production skills are the foundation for the rest of your career and your ability to get your timing under control as well as your ability to correctly guess how long it’ll take you to do something will serve you for the rest of your career.

Time-tracking your projects, even when you’re not billing anyone hourly, is a good way to understand how long you take to solve a problem. This will help you if you ever freelance, and help your future leads understand how long it’ll take you to complete projects.

An alternative technique to try is timeboxing projects. For example, I redesign my website every so often, but I never give myself more than two weeks from start to finish. If you give yourself too much time, you will take it, and procrastinating decision-making is dangerous. In the real world, you don’t have the luxury of endless time.

Do not confuse speed with low quality. As you become comfortable with the software you’re using, you should become faster at the repetitive tasks. This gives you a fair amount of space to invest the rest of your time in better research or developing critical thinking skills. A not-so-great position to be in is to be able to come up with an idea but be unable to produce it in a time that makes you valuable to the rest of your team.

You can definitely define success or getting better another way, but I personally find that speed and foundational production skills are a great focus for the first couple of years.

What next?

Next, you’ll have to understand what type of Designer you are so you can understand what type of job you’re looking for. I tackle this in my next post.

↩︎ [1] Check out the first blog post I wrote about Deliberate Practice

↩︎ [2] For more check out Verne Ho's↗︎ post about The Design Thesis↗︎

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