Letter to a Junior Designer

Advice I wish I had received earlier in my career.

By Elliot Dahl

Originally published Aug 14, 2017, at Medium

I moved to San Francisco in 2013 as a junior designer with only a few years of experience and a desire to dive into the deep end of design. While I have experienced a lot over the past 4 years — and I still have even more to learn as a designer and a professional — I decided to take note of some of the biggest lessons that I wish I could have told my younger self when I first moved to SF.

Find mentors for everything

The ultimate mentor to teach you everything you need for a successful career is pretty rare. When I finally let go of that mental image of a perfect mentor I started to see the teachers I had all around me. Look for people that are happy and confident in what they do. Every person you meet has something to teach you. Some of my greatest career mentors don’t know a thing about design but have helped me improve the way I communicate, present myself, and lead. The marketing director at one of my first jobs was a great mentor. He wasn’t a designer by any stretch but he taught me a lot about communication by example and direct feedback. Mark taught me the value of asking more questions and seeking to understand.

Getting a mentor isn’t about getting a short cut. It should be a two-way street.

Approach your friends, coworkers, and family members and be open to what they have to tell you. Initiating these conversations and having open conversations is something I still practice all the time. Getting a mentor isn’t about getting a short cut. It should be a two-way street. You have something to give even if it is just a willing ear.

Go to meetups and conferences

Design events are a great way to find community and make connections. Not all meetups/conferences/events are the same. Shuffle through them until you find the ones that have a community you can connect with. But be mindful of how you present yourself — as designers there is a tendency to tie up a lot of ego in our work. Share what you’re working on and what you’re passionate about, but be open to what others find interesting. One of the first meetups I went to in the Bay Area was for enterprise UX designers. I thought these people were crazy, Why wouldn’t you want to connect directly with consumers?”. Four years later and I’m standing in the enterprise software camp and loving it.

Making sound decisions and quick judgements are what we do for a living but we all know that making judgements without all the facts is a bad look. Don’t jump to judgement of other people’s career choices. Listen and learn.

Reach out to people via Twitter (Use Twitter like a tool)

Twitter is a powerful tool and I have found it just as (if not more) helpful as LinkedIn has been for my design career. I’ve used Twitter as a calling card and a method to connect with people I respect, like other designers in SF. I’d say about a quarter of them actually respond to my questions or requests to connect. At first this upset me. But it’s totally normal. People get busy and miss the items in their feed, especially when they have a large audience. Seek out genuine connections and do what feels right. But Twitter isn’t for everyone, so don’t feel bad if it doesn’t click for you.

Find an established team

Starting out I did a lot of jobs as a solo designer. This is sometimes what you have to do to build up your portfolio and prove yourself. However, the first chance you get to work with an experienced team — take it. I passed up pay and title changes to work with an experienced team and I can confidently say it has paid off in the long run.

Learn about other people’s jobs

Find out what the people sitting around you do. They might be the ones writing the code to bring your designs to life, selling to customers with the experience you created, or supporting the customers that are disgruntled about your design decisions. They have something for you to learn that will make you a better professional and in turn, a better designer.

I used to sit across from the customer support team at an e-commerce company I was working for a few years ago. The stories they would tell me, while sometimes comical, were a clear indicator of poor communication in the final checkout flow. That feedback helped inform a better checkout experience that benefited our customers and made the jobs of the support team easier.

Stay inspired, not intimidated

It’s easy to skim through your Instagram or Dribbble feed and feel overwhelmed. I know I do from time to time. Watch out for things that drain your energy and leave you saying I’m not good enough”. I feel inspired by talking with other designs on a friendly peer to peer level. Sometimes I get this from meeting new people at meetups and other times chatting with a good friend over a beer. Vent your frustrations but don’t dwell on them; seek to engage other designer’s passion in your conversations. It’s extremely contagious.

Teach to learn

You can grasp a concept on a much deeper level after attempting to teach it to others. It expands your awareness to account for all of the ins and outs of a problem. This is a great thing to practice even if it’s not design to start with. If you know something useful about cooking, photography, traveling, or even daily tasks chances are you know something that others don’t. Writing blog posts or sitting with a friend/coworker is a great place to start.

Understand business

Learn how the numbers come together to make your company successful. It’s easy to get swept away with making pixel perfect icons or buffing out the ultimate user journey map but those won’t mean much if you’re not getting paid for it. My business degree has helped me a lot in this arena. If you’re not as business savvy, asking some simple questions about revenues, customer retention, and company growth can be extremely illuminating. I try not to do work for a company I don’t believe in because their success/failure reflects on me. Starting out you won’t always have the luxury to choose but it’s important to ask questions and be aware of the company’s health for your own job security and career growth.

Respect the process (visual, UX, team)

Learning and practicing good process is a skill set in and of itself. A good designer can sit in a corner and muscle their way into an impressive design. A great designer can bring a whole team with them. Process is always going to change so don’t be afraid to iterate. Adapt your process to fit new challenges. This is a great area to gather feedback for improvement and or inquire about other perspectives.

Fake it till you make it

Everyone in the industry says this. Plenty of them are still faking it. You’d be surprised how many people you look up to today are still learning new things. Chances are you probably have something to teach them.

Be patient with yourself

Being a great designer doesn’t happen overnight. You’re already ahead of the game because you read this entire article. Find balance in your life. Design is what you do, it’s not who you are.