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Design mentors share 11 tips for excelling at your first job as a designer

4 min read
Harish Venkatesan  •  Aug 8, 2019
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Landing your first design job is a great success—but kicking off your career still isn’t an easy feat. So we asked some of our top mentors here at Designlab, where we teach UX/UI design, for their tips for junior designers starting their first role! 

From managing imposter syndrome to embracing collaboration, this advice can help keep you grounded in those first few months and also allow you to focus on how you can keep learning and growing.

1. Ignore your inner saboteur

Kurt Yalcin, Senior UX Researcher, FutureFuel

Learning to manage the dreaded imposter syndrome is one of the best things you can do for your career—and your mental health. “Ignore your inner saboteur,” says Kurt Yalcin, Senior UX Researcher at FutureFuel. “Imposter syndrome can be healthy, but there’s a time and a place for it. Don’t let negative self-talk impede your progress.”

Keep in mind that professionals at every level and in every field experience imposter syndrome—it’s completely normal. For more resources on keeping your negative self-talk under control, check out Julie Zhou’s reflections on her own experience with imposter syndrome, and the five types of imposter syndrome (and how to beat them) from Fast Company.

2. Question assumptions daily

Erika Harano, Freelance designer and mentor

A big part of working as a user-centered designer is ensuring that every product decision made is based on solid research. This can sometimes mean going head-to-head with stakeholders who’ve got their own ideas of what a product should do or how it should work—without having consulted with users. In these instances, it’s the designer’s job to advocate for users.

“Ask questions fiercely and consistently,” says Erika Harano, a freelance designer and mentor. “Assumptions and biases are everywhere, and as designers we have to be mindful of the assumptions and biases we—individually and collectively—hold, so that we know how to work with them or actively address them as we design.” 

It can feel intimidating standing up to stakeholders, but remember that advocating for your users is one of the most foundational aspects of being a UX designer. And like any skill, it can be practiced to build confidence. Question the design of the app you use to order dinner, or whether the touchscreen kiosk you use to buy movie tickets is accessible. How else could it be designed? How might you improve it?

Erika also emphasizes that assumptions don’t only arise at the product level:

“Designers shape problem-solving and decision-making processes, and their impact extends beyond the design of a single product or service. Because of this, they not only have to make sure that they’re constantly centering the needs of people impacted by their designs, but they must also critically examine how individual and systemic power dynamics shape their designs and their work.”

For more on building the habit of questioning assumptions, check out this article on the art of questioning as a UX skill.

3. Collect knowledge

Sebas Ribas, Senior Product Designer at Squarespace

As a designer, you’re never done learning. Sebas Ribas, Senior Product Designer at Squarespace, explains that there are many places you can go to find inspiration, learn interesting insights, and see what other designers have done. 

“Early in my career, I made it a habit to start finding and reading books by authors who inspired me. Luckily, there are myriad authors and thinkers who were writing about design well before we even thought about becoming designers.”

“Munari, the Vignellis, Müller-Brockmann, Ray and Charles Eames, and Kenya Hara are just a few examples. By broadening your knowledge, you’ll assemble much more versatile toolkit to tackle any design problem. By reading how others communicate and explain design, you will become a better communicator yourself.”

“Additionally, you should have a digital equivalent to reading books. Use one of the many tools available to pin and catalog interesting things you find online. Over time, you’ll be able to see how your taste has gotten refined, and how resourceful it is to have a library to refer to.”

4. Trust the process—and yourself

Michelle Lin, Product Designer, 15Five

If you look back on your first days of school—in kindergarten, in high school, in college—you’re likely to be hit with those first day jitters. No matter how thorough your own education has been, you might well spend the first couple days of your new design job in a state of semi-panic: I don’t know how to do this, your inner saboteur might say. What if I can’t keep up?

Michelle Lin, formerly a product designer at Reddit, reminds you to trust the learning process that got you here. “Be humble but know that you will grow drastically as a designer and learn immensely,” she says. “Your confidence will grow as time goes on. Trust the process.” 

Just as you’ve learned to trust your design process, you need to learn to trust your own ability to grow and learn as a designer. Remember you won’t figure out everything on your first day, or even in your first 90 days. It’s okay not to know everything right away. But believe in your ability to do the work, and everything will flow.

5. Show up and do the work

Jess Nelson, Senior Product Designer, Eventbrite

It may sound overly simplistic, but perhaps the best thing you can do for your career is just to show up.

Jess Nelson, Senior Product Designer at Eventbrite, says the best advice she has for junior designers comes directly from This American Life producer and host Ira Glass. “It’s long,” she said, “but it’s worth the read.” Check out the full Ira Glass quote below:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first few years, you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. 

A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. 

Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Know that you’ll inevitably look back on your first designs and cringe later. But also know that that’s how you’ll know that you’ve grown and progressed.

6. Treat your portfolio like a design project

Robbin Arcega, Product Designer at Yelp

Remember that your portfolio should do a lot more than just display shiny images of your final wireframes—it’s a design project like any other. You want to craft a narrative of each project you feature, and as with any new design project, it should be user tested before launching.

“It’s a good idea to have someone do a 30-60 second scan of a case study and give first impressions,” advises Robbin Arcega, Product Designer at Yelp. “This can give you an idea of how easy it is to scan through, and what stands out.” 

Portfolios are deeply personal projects, so it’s hard to be objective when studying your own. A new set of eyes can identify insights you hadn’t considered, and give you a sense of how strangers—like hiring managers—might engage with it.

To refine how you craft a narrative in your case studies, check out this chapter from the book UX Matters by Tom Greever. And to better understand the user base of your portfolio and who you should be designing for, check out the 3 users of your UX portfolio from Sarah Doody.

7. Do the things you can’t do

Andrew Wilshere, Designer and Content Lead, Designlab

“Take two musicians: one an amateur, the other a professional. They’ve each been learning the same piece, and they’ve each learned the first half of it, but not the second.” Andrew Wilshere, Designer and Content Lead at Designlab, explains that how you approach the improvement of your craft as a designer is the mark of the professional.

“They both practice daily, but they practice differently. The amateur practices the first half of the piece, which they can already play because they enjoy hearing themselves produce good music. But the professional practices what they can’t play, because they want to improve.”

Vincent van Gogh wrote in a letter in 1885, “I keep on doing what I can’t yet do, in order to learn to be able to do it.” Put like that, it seems obvious that we should work on the things we can’t do rather than the things we can. Andrew continues,

“As designers, the temptation is often to stay within our comfort zone and rely on our current set of skills. So whatever you’re afraid of—whether it’s learning a new design tool, trying a new technique, or even networking—try to do a little of it each day. It’s ultimately the mark of a professional, and in the long term it will help you significantly elevate your skills.”

8. Kill your darlings

Patty Castaneda, freelance Senior UX/UI designer and artist

American writer William Faulkner once said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings”—and the same is true in design. Freelancer Patty Castaneda shares the following advice:

“Often, people think design is finite. People think design is set in stone. However, design is malleable. Design should be iterated on. At any stage of the design process, you can get feedback via data, or from users, that there are issues in a design—so you should go back through and rethink things. There may also be new opportunities, goals or resources within the company that will lead to an effective redesign.”

“Being attached to your design is probably one of the worst, most counterproductive feelings a designer can have. And junior designers are especially susceptible to this, because it’s natural to be proud of your work. Junior designers often don’t realize that several of your personal best designs may need to be killed because there are other opportunities worth exploring.”

“Design is ultimately about serving a purpose, and if the way we do that can be improved, then iterating and changing a design is part of our role as designers.”

9. Leave your desk

Chris Django, Senior Product Designer at Tundra.com

We cannot be on top of our design game every single day. Chris Django, Senior Product Designer at Tundra.com, emphasizes the importance of stepping away from your workspace and giving your mind the chance to wander.

“Some days just don’t give us any inspiration, and even the twentieth iteration of a screen design just doesn’t feel right. Slowly, you start to think that maybe you’re just not a good designer.”

“It has probably happened to all of us several times. Learning to get unstuck can be crucial when a deadline is creeping up or you just want to get rid of the shallow feeling when nothing works.”

“For me, the solution is fairly simple but powerful: I force myself to leave the desk. I go for a walk, the gym, grocery shopping, or even have a nap. Whatever you’re doing, taking your eyes and mind of that silly screen can give you the needed reset and change in mood to get back on track. If you’ve got no time pressure, wait until the next day and see what your brain cooked up during the night.”

“Experiment, and learn when it’s better for you to push through the next iteration, and when it’s better to hit the reset button.”

10. Collaborate generously

Starting a new job is an exciting time. Patrick Multani, Design Lead at Designlab, emphasizes the importance of establishing generous, collaborative relationships with your new colleagues.

“In a new job, you’re faced with new people and new surroundings, and you’re probably feeling nervous. Break the ice by asking coworkers what they are working on, and let them know how you can help them. This will help you get to know people, and show people you are proactive.”

“Even making one person’s life better each day is a huge success. Treat your work projects as ongoing conversations, and avoid getting attached to your designs. Put them out in the open so that co-workers and users can help improve them—design is a team sport!”

11. Experiment

Alex Fefegha, design+code at Comuzi

Our final tip comes from award-winning designer Alex Fefegha, co-founder of Comuzi. His advice is to keep experimenting.

“Experimental thinking helps when you need to solve a problem. Always be open to trying something different.”

“I may be heavily biased, but I encourage new designers to have a balance of rigor and experimentation. Design has the power and agency to be both a creative and expressive medium.”

“We are creatures of habit, as much in our creative work as anything else. It is very easy to fall into a similar, familiar way of working, using the same tools and methods in every project. It makes sense, to be honest. Our patterns and routines allow us to be efficient, especially with meeting deadlines. We have to make fewer decisions, which means less thinking.”

“But it’s important to always have an experimental cap on. Don’t be scared to get scrappy, get your hands dirty, experiment, learn from your experiments, and iterate from there. Depending on the project, experimenting might be hard. So develop a personal interest in technology, and always push creative boundaries in your side projects.”

* * *

If you’re starting your first design job soon, we hope you’ve found this advice from some of Designlab’s top mentors helpful! The last word goes to Sandy Chen, our Director of Product. 

“If I were to add anything to this advice, it would be for the new designer to never stop learning and evolving their professional practice. They are designing the future.”