What Every Design Student Needs to Know as a Budding Professional

You’ve graduated from design school, you’ve landed your first job, you’ve made it! Congrats! You’re a real live, practicing, money-making designer. And yet, people aren’t treating you like you’ve made it. Why?

You’re trying to make strides, but teammates aren’t valuing your contributions. You constantly have to defend your design decisions, particularly to other designers. Your non-design teammates just don’t “get” good design. And it’s not just that your ideas aren’t prioritized, it’s that they’re not even on the table. You get told what to do with your designs, but there’s not a lot of direction up front.

Yep, you’ve made it … to the next step in your journey.

Oh wait, you thought that four years of design school magically made you a pro? Sorry, grasshopper: that’ll just get you in the door.

Having earned a degree from a design program is an incredible accomplishment. If you have one, frame it (after all, it did probably cost you a fortune), but leave it at home, because a degree does not a professional make.

Hopefully, you walked out of your school’s doors with instilled design principles, software skills, a massive bag of problem-solving process tricks, and a keen sense of craft and execution. But unless you can recognize that this foundation of knowledge is a starting point, and that your current sense of “mastery” is probably not calibrated in a professional sense, you’ll likely end up frustrated and stuck. You’ve learned a lot, but not everything that will equip you in your new career.

Here are five lessons every student-turned-professional should get under their belt:

  1. Get your ego in check
  2. Your process is not enough
  3. Soft skills matter
  4. Stop “defending” your work
  5. It’s not about your needs

Consider this tough love. And I know you can take it, because completing a design program ain’t easy (and I would know; I’ve done two).

1. Get your ego in check

Take a moment and honor your accomplishments. Go ahead, give yourself a pat on the back. Maybe you were top of your class. You managed to get through school without debt. You were published or earned an award. Maybe you just love the work you did, because it was the best.

Whatever your accomplishments are, celebrate them, have your moment, then put them behind you because they don’t matter anymore.

All that stuff is probably what got you an interview, and it might have gotten you the job too.

But you’re in the big leagues now, and your little league trophy doesn’t matter. All of your new colleagues had those accomplishments too.

Some of those colleagues didn’t even go to school and got the same job. So get your ego in check. You’re just getting started. You don’t know everything. In fact, you barely know anything. (And that’s okay … for now.) If you reset your ego, you’ll be able to get into the next stuff, and that’s where you get to not just be a great design student, but a great designer, because you’re able to recognize you still have a lot to learn.

2. Your process is not enough

You learned process in school. You probably had to repeatedly deliver a triple-digit number of sketches in the time span of a week. You might have bound beautiful process books. And all those case studies you painstakingly wrote for your final portfolio? You guessed it: they’re not relevant now.

Process is not an artifact. What matters now that you have your job is the output to which process can take you.

When you’re working as a professional the purpose of sketches and sticky notes is not to show that you can draw nice things and put colored paper on a whiteboard. These are exercises that help generate ideas and organize information. And these sorts of exercises are in service of actual design delivery, that is: working towards a final product.

You have to figure out how to use process—and particularly which pieces to use and when—as a driver to bring not only yourself but also your teammates towards solutions. Process when used well will never be evident because it simply ensures the best final product possible.

3. Soft skills matter

You’re obviously a great designer. You wouldn’t have landed the gig if you weren’t. Your portfolio demonstrates your skills; it’s how the recruiter found you online and how you nailed your interview. You’ve obviously got every skill you could possibly need, right? Nope. There’s always more to learn.

In addition to further developing and refining your actual design skills, the soft skills—things like communication, leadership, and collaboration—are equally essential to build and refine.

How you talk to people, how you listen, how you promote yourself and your ideas, how you solicit feedback: all this stuff is representative of not only who you are as a human being, but who you are as a teammate.

Do you know who actually builds and ships products or publishes and prints and sells things? Teams, and not just design teams. Your software engineers, marketing partners, creative directors and CEOs are all responsible for the thing you’re working on.

Be self-aware. Know where you excel in your soft skills and where you need improvement, the products you build will be better for it, and so will you.

4. Stop “defending” your work

When you were in critique in school, you poked holes in your classmates’ designs and you defended yours relentlessly. Your designs always won. Now, outside of a thesis—and being a linebacker and other sports metaphors—there’s no need to be defensive. Stop arguing about why your design solution works; ask questions about why it doesn’t instead. Consider the possibility that you missed something while coming to your design decision.

Instead of defending your work, show intentionality. You should be able to explain why you did what you did, have a rationale, and know the context.

Don’t assume that what you did was one-hundred-percent-absolutely-for-sure the right decision. If you’re lucky enough to have design critiques at your job, use them as an opportunity to get feedback. Even non-designers give feedback, and it’s usually incredibly valuable.

As the designer, you are charged with synthesizing and applying the notes you receive. If you keep defending, you won’t give yourself a chance to really hear the feedback, which at its most basic nature is geared towards helping you solve the problem. It’s always better that a teammate rips your designs apart than a user. Put down your shield and welcome feedback.

5. It’s not about your needs

Alright, so you got this job, you’ve got one more item on LinkedIn under “experience,” you’re getting projects under your belt… but wait! You can’t publish your work because it’s under non-disclosure? The project you’re working on isn’t demonstrating your skill sets? You were given a “lead” role but you’re really doing all the work yourself? How dare they!

Designers are service providers. You are skilled and you are knowledgable, but you are ultimately getting paid to deliver design work, be it to a client or a team. And you can provide the best darn service out there, but you are not the work, and the work is not in service of your personal needs.

The work is the design output. Your career trajectory is a bi-product of how you conduct yourself at work and the impact you are able to have through deliverables, but your primary job is not about getting what you want.

If you shift your mindset to focus on the people who matter (and tip: it’s not your creative director or CEO; it’s actually the people who use the things you build), the skills you develop from pursuing that “higher good” will get you the things that promote you: the work experience, the soft skills, the problem solving abilities.

Graduating and getting your first job feels like a big deal, but know that it’s one step of many. You will keep learning throughout the course of your career. If you’re able to keep your head up and embrace the progress you make — no matter how small — it’ll be worth it. Being a professional is really just putting yourself in a position where you’re learning and practicing more advanced skills and techniques. Take advantage of the opportunities you have; having a career is just a different kind of school. And you’re good at school, right?!