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How to choose your first design job

4 min read
Sierre Wolfkostin  •  Aug 7, 2019
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Whether you’re a recent graduate or looking to switch careers, choosing your first design job can be a daunting task. The digital design field is growing and evolving so fast that it can be difficult to know what to look for or where to begin.

Should you choose a large and established company with a mature design team or a startup with a small team? What kind of mentorship should you be looking for? What kind of projects do you want to work on? 

The most important consideration, though, is learning opportunities. Are there designers who can mentor you? Will you be sent to conferences and seminars? Will someone be giving you regular feedback and critiques?

Taking the time to investigate these questions is well worth the effort. At a good design gig, you’ll feel engaged and interested at work. You’ll wake up most mornings with a genuine desire to start your projects. And, most importantly, you’ll feel challenged and satisfied—like you’re constantly growing, and your skills and knowledge are making a real impact. 

I’m Sierre, a full-time product designer who went through an extensive search and discovery process after graduating with a UX degree from the University of Michigan. Along the way, I scoured the internet for insights and sought advice from experienced designers at a variety of workplaces, from Fortune 500 giants like Apple and Microsoft to emerging startups in San Francisco and New York City. By the end of the process, I had a good idea of what to look for when considering a design job.

Let’s go into the four most important steps in finding your first job:

  • Determine your priorities 
  • Explore different roles
  • Find the right projects 
  • Choose good teammates

1. Lay out priorities and goals

Before you dive into job ads on Dribbble or AuthenticJobs, take the time to fully understand—and articulate—exactly what you want.

  • Are you looking to settle into a long-term position and earn a steady income, or are you willing to take a riskier position (for example, at a seed-funded startup?)
  • Is anyone else dependent on this income?
  • Are you hunting in a specific region, or are you location-agnostic?
  • Is there a particular industry that appeals to you?
  • What size company are you looking for?
  • What type of work (full-time, part-time, contractor, etc.) are you interested in?
  • What are your main goals for the next two years? Next five years? Ten years?

Before starting your search, take some time to jot down your answers to those questions. You’ll be able to more easily filter through the jumble of job listings once you have clear search criteria. 

Tip: Identify mentoring opportunities

As a first-time designer, your priority should be growth. Using your first few years to develop different skills, like UX research and animation, will pay off magnificently when you start qualifying for bigger roles and better projects. This doesn’t mean you should work for free but it does mean that, so long as you’re earning a living wage, you should be looking for more learning and maybe less earning.

“Using your first few years to develop different skills, like UX research and animation, will pay off magnificently when you start qualifying for bigger roles and better projects.”

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Tip: Ask specific questions about learning opportunities

In interviews, ask how much the company budgets for employee training and development. You want to land in a place where you can learn new skills, attend design conferences, or even take university courses—anything that helps you evolve your craft. 

What’s the learning culture of the company like? Do people there have a growth mindset and actively seek feedback on every aspect of the business, or do they cling to a set of well-documented, “tried and true” practices? 

The ideal culture for a young designer is one that encourages candid feedback—which enables constant learning and growth. To figure out if that’s the case where you’re interviewing, ask your interviewer about a few key points that will help encourage your growth. Some of these include:

  • 1:1 mentorship 
  • Regular design critiques
  • Guest speakers 
  • User workshops 
  • Team retrospectives 
  • Goal reviews
  • Feedback cards 

If your recruiter can give you enthusiastic yes-es to most, or even all (!), of these opportunities, then you know that you’re looking at a design-forward organization. If the organization doesn’t support these opportunities, however, then this might not be the right place for a young designer to start.

“You want to join a team that values your education and will invest time and resources in helping you get better.”

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If a company’s culture values growth, they will likely have practices already installed to reflect that. You want to join a team that values your education and will invest time and resources in helping you get better.

2. Explore different job titles

At larger, more design-mature companies, you’ll find that there are design jobs so specialized that they only demand one specific skill. But these aren’t the best fit for junior designers.

Finding a passion and specialization is the dream for those who have explored the field and know what they love—but you’re not there yet. Instead, now’s the time to focus on developing a variety of experiences. 

By trying out different roles, you can discover what you like and eventually choose a few areas to dive deep and really explore, like:

  • UX research 
  • Interaction design
  • Visual design
  • UX writing
  • Illustration
  • Motion 

Tip: Check the job descriptions

Subfields can vary a bit between companies, but comparing 5-6 job descriptions from different companies in the same fields will give you a holistic picture of what to expect. Explore the listings at several companies to see how the fields are described (you’ll find lengthy posts at Apple, Google, Amazon, or Airbnb). 

(Want to read more about the UX careers of the future? Check out this guide to up-and-coming UX roles.

Tip: Tailor your portfolio

Once you pick a few roles of interest, tailor your online portfolio accordingly. Use case studies, or examples of projects you have completed, to highlight your interest and experience in specific areas (UI, UX, Research, etc.). Browse a few examples of effective case studies for inspiration. When creating your own, remember to clearly label the projects so visitors can quickly pinpoint what you’re focusing on. 

(Get started with Sarah Doody’s guide to choosing projects for your portfolio.)

Since you’re starting a first design job, don’t worry about not having professional projects to showcase in your portfolio. Those will come with time. For now, feel free to use school or personal projects (like redesigning your favorite landing page or wireframing a new app) to show a demonstrated interest in design. 

3. Don’t shop brand-name

When starting out, it can be tempting to only consider working for big-name companies. These names carry social and professional cachet, and joining them comes with a certain status in the professional community. 

“Especially at an entry-level job, you’ll need to see measurable progress to stay motivated and get ahead.”

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But while it might sound nice to join a company whose name your mom knows, remember: impact > status. Your first job is an opportunity for learning, growth, and discovery—don’t sacrifice that for a fancy name.

Measure the “impactfulness” of offers and positions by how hands-on your product work will be. Even—maybe especially—at an entry-level job, you’ll need to see measurable progress to stay motivated and get ahead.

Tip: Look beyond the big cities 

Cities like New York and San Francisco are known for being design hubs, but other cities like Seattle, Boston, and Chicago offer a wealth of opportunities as well. Check out large college towns as well—places like College Park (University of Maryland) or Berkeley (University of California Berkeley) are often full of new companies looking for fresh design hires. These will be smaller companies though, so look for existing mentors or ask about university partnerships and other forms of available education. 

“While it might sound nice to join a company whose name your mom knows, remember: impact > status.”

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Tip: Follow the venture capital 

Sometimes the best way to spot work opportunities is by following the cash flow. Every year, well-known incubators like Y-Combinator, TechStars, and 500 Startups post their cohorts of funded companies. Browse these lists to see if anything stands out—chances are, they’ll be looking for talented people to join their growing teams.

Can’t spot an open listing? Many startups rely on recruiting agencies and personal networks to find team members (it’s hard to maintain an HR department if your company only has 20 employees). If you have a strong interest in a specific company, try searching for key design partners and employees on LinkedIn. Offer to buy them coffee and get to know their work and the organization’s design culture.

Do they value collaboration? What role does design play in product decisions? How big is the design team? These are all important questions that should impact your career choice.

With enough dedication, you might find a great connection and even a new design gig. 

Tip: Seek big change

To find work with high impact, look for projects with a large “delta”—or anticipated change from present to future state. These projects will have clearly-defined goals, teams, and metrics; they’ll be well strategized and in line with the company’s main goals. To find them, ask about what your potential team would be working on. 

  • What’s the overall goal of the project? 
  • How many people will be involved? 
  • How many potential end users will it reach? 
  • How will success be measured? 

4. Find yourself a good team 

Make sure you have nice teammates. You’ll be spending every day with these people and giving them lots of creative energy. Make sure they are open-minded, collaborative, and respectful—the kind of people you’ll be able to thrive and grow with. If your goal is to grow and learn, then you’ll need to be with people who facilitate that.

While team harmony can take weeks of on-the-job experience to fully evaluate, there are a few preliminary ways to measure it.

During the interview process, for example, ask to meet your potential team members and managers. Ask:

  • What they’re excited about, 
  • How they collaborate 
  • How they resolve disagreements

Understanding how the team functions—especially during times of conflict—will help you understand whether it’s a good fit for you and your style of work. 

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Choosing any job, especially your first design job, can be an extremely daunting task. But by fully understanding your goals, prioritizing growth, and looking for high impact and great people to work with, you’ll be off to a promising start. And you don’t have to stay forever! But if you take the time to make a wise decision now, you’ll be setting yourself up for great success in the future. Best of luck!