Tips for a new design grad

Recent design grad, I can’t assure you that I know what I’m doing. I’m only a few years off of a career change into design myself, from a completely unrelated field. I still remember how I felt when I was totally green. But hey, I’m still here and actually being given more responsibilities the longer I do this, so I’d say it’s worked pretty well so far!

Here are some tips I’ve learned, that will hopefully smooth the path for you:


1. Trust is your most valuable currency

How much design work you get to ship is directly related to how much your colleagues & clients trust you. The most direct way to do that is to do your work well, and communicate what’s going on. (Yes, there are also ways to hobnob with your coworkers. But for us introverts, being kickass at your job is pretty straightforward!)

There’s no need to pretend you know everything. If you don’t know, figure out who to ask for guidance, or figure out how to do it yourself. And if it’s still a no-go, figure out a workable alternative.

You know those impossible requirements on job listings you’re looking at right now? That’s because someone in HR doesn’t trust that the new employee can solve their problem unless they’ve got all the skills and degrees. You can bypass that by earning their trust in other ways. Prove that you can solve their problems. Prove to them that they can trust you to do it!

A note about knowing how to code

As a designer, you shouldn’t need to add “full-time developer” to your job title. However, I will say that coming to the rescue by coding up a solution on the spot, earns people’s trust like nothing else! I’ve gotten pretty good at swooping in and saving the day with just HTML, CSS, JQuery, and enough PHP knowledge to customize WordPress.

2. It always depends

So you know all that stuff you learned in school? All those design principles and how-tos?

You’ll throw a bunch of it out the window when you start working. Real life is not a design exercise. It will not sort itself nicely into a process that you can apply straight from your class notes.

It is messy. And it is a glorious challenge. Revel in it!

3. Learn voraciously

If you’ll be using technology as the backdrop for your design work, know that technology changes all the time. When technology changes, people’s use changes, and design changes with it. It’s the nature of the beast. You can’t alter it, and you certainly can’t stop it.

What is less obvious is that people’s reactions to those technology and design shifts also change their behavior, expectations, and workflow. So you’ll need to adjust to that too.

No matter where you sit in the technology ecosystem, adaptation is the name of the game.

4. Give generously

Because people’s expectations of technology are changing all the time, you can’t be at the forefront of design if you learn solely from books. And neither can those who come after you.

What you experience might be useful for someone else. Share what you know. And step up when help is needed. The community that shows up with you will be your greatest ally. There’s so much work to be done, for all designers. Let’s make it easier for everyone, so we can all go farther.

5. Assume nothing

You might think you know what’s best for a design, given your new degree. You’d be wrong.

Prototype and test your ideas. You’re only one person, and your fellow designers are not typical users of technology.

Discovering the ways you were wrong, and then improving your work to achieve real progress, is one of the great joys of design.

6. It’s not about you

Art serves the ego. Design serves the people.

You are now a conduit through which information, experience, and creativity converge into solutions to make people’s lives better. Your value as a designer is defined by how much positive impact you have on people’s lives.

Nobody cares about your degree, where you went to school, how pixel-perfect your mockups are, or how beautifully you animated your prototypes. If it doesn’t have impact, it’s not good design.

Design also doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s more than likely you’ll work on a team. Share the credit. Lift each other up. Positive impact is the goal, not individual awards or accolades.

7. Never stop hating bullshit

A Designer Hangout friend of mine, Louis Elfman, once described a designer as: “Someone who sees bullshit, gets mad, and wants to help fix it!” I think it is the perfect definition of a designer.

We keep improving designs because crappy designs make us seethe. It isn’t acceptable until it’s frictionless, and even then, it’s still probably giving someone else trouble. So we keep on.

The energy generated by hatred of bullshit will see you through months of fighting for user research, evangelizing UX, navigating legacy interactions, overseeing massive content rewrites, and so on. You’ll need that energy, because you’ll never stop fighting in the name of good design.

Often, the messier it is, the more it’s worth doing. The potential impact for even a minor improvement can be staggering, even if it’s won through months of meetings, negotiations, patience, and being extremely resourceful. (I’ve only worked in government as a UXer, so I should know!) I was only able to make the kind of impact I did there, because like I say: “My hatred of bullshit far outweighs my fear of looking dumb.”

If it makes you mad, go fix it!

Motto about bullshit, handlettered

My motto lovingly lettered by Designer Hangout friend G. Lucas Roe. One day I will put this on a shirt.

8. You have more power than you think

Design has stepped out from the confines of Letraset and Photoshop, to improve real-world services in fields like government and healthcare.

Your days as a designer don’t have to be spend agonizing over the color of a button, if you don’t want that. You can dream bigger. I quit cancer research for UX because I wanted to help people faster. I can’t say I’ve been disappointed so far!


Welcome to the wonderfully complex, ever-changing world of design! If you’d like to join our community of amazing UX designers at Designer Hangout, give me a ping!