I get these kinds of questions through on LinkedIn quite a lot.
This is a very common one. People want to know how to start in design and don’t know where to turn. There’s the problem also of having no work experience, and not being able to find work experience either.
They get turned down because they don’t have experience, but can’t gain experience because they don’t have any experience.
Let me tell you how I did it.
My way was one way out of a thousand ways. It’s the creative industries. You can be creative with how you get a job.
I see a lot of boring applications from people who then go on to try and convince me they’re creative. They’ll send me a standard cookie cutter CV and follow it up with a standard cookie cutter website.
They tell me they’re creative but don’t show me they’re creative. You don’t need to tell me, you need to prove it.
You are now in a highly competitive marketplace. You’re trying to turn professional in an industry where anybody can pretend to be what you want to be. You’ll need to fight for that job, not limp up with a half-sodden cardboard sign that says “please give me a job”.
The way I started out as a creative was pretty simple: I didn’t want to be one.
I never wanted to be a creative
I never wanted to be a designer, and I never even knew the job existed. All of my life I wanted to be a policeman. For my entire first 17 years of my life I’d had it mapped out that I’d join the police. Nothing else was an option.
You know that kid who knows exactly what they want to be when the grow up? That annoying kid that seems to have his shit together at 12 years old? Yeah, that was me.
Looking back now though it was obvious I was into design even before I knew it was a thing. As a kid, I used to love getting new music albums and looking at the covers. I used to love reading the inner sleeves and looking at the designs.
I still miss this about music, that tactile feel. Now I realise an artist I’ve liked has released a new album on my Discover Weekly Spotify playlist. It isn’t the same as getting up early on a Saturday morning with your mate to buy the new Slipknot album.
Other than Slipknot, I also used to love pro wrestling, and I liked to draw my own covers on the videos I recorded of every pay-per-view. I painstakingly recreated the WWF logo by hand with a permanent marker and tried and replicate the typography they used to use for their branding.
When we got our first computer I used to—rather bizarrely I’ll admit—enjoy making fictional signs and posters in Microsoft Publisher. When I wrote my first serious English assignment at school I also mocked it up in a newspaper layout in Publisher, making fictional adverts and designing them.
When I got a bit older and I made my first website with Macromedia Dreamweaver (yes that was before Adobe bought it) and I became hooked on building websites. I messed about with building websites in my spare time as well.
So yeah, it would seem I had a passion for design long before I even realised it.
You’ve got to be 18.5 to ride this
When I got to 18 years old I was still too young to join the police. In the UK you’ve got to be 18.5, and even then that’s really young to be a police officer in the UK. As I did well in my A Levels at college I figured I’d see how far I could take my educational pursuits.
At this point I’d been “into computers” for quite a few years, I saw and advert for an “Interactive Media” course and decided that would be for me.
All I knew was that the course was about building websites. I didn’t understand much else because I’d never had any formal training in anything to do with the creative industries. I didn’t even realise it was a thing.
Within weeks of me starting the course I realised that design was my true calling. Once I’d been introduced to the hidden secrets of design I became hooked.
The hidden rules that surrounded me of design became a genuine obsession of mine. I started buying loads of design books, following every design blog I could find, subscribed to Creative Review. I went all in and became obsessed with learning about design.
Within that first year of my course I did almost nothing else but design. When I came home from college after learning about design I sat at my computer and did more design work. When I got tired of doing that I’d sit down on my bed and read the latest Creative Review. When I got bored of that I’d go read some design blogs.
Within that first 12 months I was obsessed. I’d made more design portfolios than I could shake a stick at, even though I didn’t have much work to put in them.
Starting out 101: Become obsessed
It’s too easy to become a designer. You don’t need a qualification, there’s no entry barriers at all and there’s no such thing as a certified designer. This presents opportunities but also problems, with the main problem being that you’re going to have some serious competition when it comes to getting your first job.
You can’t change the job market but you can change your attitude. Your attitude needs to be obsessive. Just like I did, you need to be working day and night to learn everything you possibly can about your craft. You need to really want to be a designer.
When you get in that first interview for your first job as a graphic designer you need to be confident that you’ve done everything you possibly can to deserve that seat. You need to be confident in your abilities and confident that you can talk the talk as much as walk the walk.
The only way you can do that is by becoming obsessed and passionate about this weird graphic design thing.
Most good designers are geeky to the point of obsession about graphic design. They have favourite designers and favourite design studios. They’ll wince when they see misplaced apostrophes out in the wild. It’s just the kind of job where you need to be obsessive because everybody else is like that.
Yeah, it isn’t as easy as just becoming obsessed then you’ll automatically get a job, but it makes the likelihood of you getting your first job as a creative much higher.
There’s other things like practicing (a lot), networking (a lot) and learning (a lot), but they all stem from being obsessed. All of those things become easy when you become obsessed with the idea of becoming a creative. Everybody will spot your lack of enthusiasm from a mile away.
The industry is changing so quickly that you can’t afford to be left behind. The only way everybody keeps up is by being obsessed by doing the very best work they can possibly do.
That has to be you.