Design career without going to design school.


Eric Nord, mad social scientist

Like Karen, I also started my design career without going to design school. Karen’s excellent answer covers 90% of the important stuff. But I have a few additional comments.

Talent. Regardless of whether you go to school, being a good designer takes a bit of talent. That doesn’t mean someone with modest talents can’t work hard and make a living as a designer. But one’s ability to thrive at it and constantly elevate and progress… is at least partly a function of talent. This isn’t just advice for the design field… it’s advice for any competitive field, but especially for “creative” fields.

Competition. Each year, thousands of designers enter the field. But job growth does not match this increase. Not even close. The same is true for all arts and entertainment. There is definitely job growth in the design field, but this growth centers around specific areas (primarily interaction design). Most aspiring designers simply won’t fit into the mold of what employers are looking for. But, more importantly, most designers simply cannot sell their work because no one wants to buy it.

Getting Paid. Design competitions and pro bono work can be beneficial, but only if it is either a) just like paid work, or b) it will lead to getting paid work. Being a designer involves a lot of entrepreneurial skill. There are endless types of design out there, but only a few of them pay well on a consistent basis. Again, this is where knowing your talents will pay off. It is critical to line up your talents with what people are willing to pay for.

Clients. If you don’t understand your clients (or employers), and if you don’t have a good relationship with your clients, you will find design work to be endlessly frustrating. Design work is almost always collaborative. This is something even great designers struggle with. “People Skills” loom large in design work. This is another misconception people have about design work. A lot of people see design work as a way to escape people work. Yes, it is true that the bulk of design work is done “alone”, but the success of most design work is a function of what takes place during collaboration with clients and collaborators. Remember, you don’t get paid until they agree to pay you.

Specialization. To know what you’re good at means knowing your strengths and talents. The easiest example is illustration. If you’re 30 years old and you never doodled as a kid (or adult)… character illustration is probably not your path. On the other hand, if you have a big OCD room filled with shrines to your favorite interests, your organizational mind could be a good fit for publishing design. If you are a scrapbooker, Photoshop or InDesign could be a natural fit. The point here is simple: focus on what you’re good at (or what is a natural fit) and branch out from there. If you’re self-educating to save money and time, focus on things you’re good at. There will be plenty of time to learn how to draw Bugs Bunny.

Taste. I think this was a good point that Karen brought up, but the Ira Glass quote only applies to those who have the requisite talent. It is possible to have great taste in design, yet STILL not have the other requisite talents to be a good designer. To be a good designer, you have to be “a maker”, as my friend Gilbert calls it. You need a natural inclination toward creating stuff, not just observing and analyzing. Yes, observation and analysis are essential to design. But at a certain point, most designers internalize all that, and the balance between input and output shifts heavily into output. As a designer, you will be paid based on your output, not on your taste.

Pace and Iteration. The final stage of the design evolution for most designers is to be able to work quickly (or at least efficiently). This means not just working fast in a literal sense, but also being able to quickly evolve a project in its conceptual development. This is something one should practice from the very beginning. Don’t let anything become “precious”. Fight the precious!

Self-Promotion. Take Karen as an example. I’m sure she is helping all you aspiring designers out of the goodness of her heart. But, more practically speaking, her writing is helping to assert her brand (and her product) into the world. Answering your own questions on Quora can be a good self-promotion strategy (if you have answers as good as Karen’s). As a designer, you will need to promote yourself. You need to know what people want to see… and you need to cater to it.

If you undertake Karen’s multi-year self-education program, you will have a good chance at getting some work. But to thrive in the design field, one needs to be able to step up their game in a specific area in which they have some talent. One of the reasons why there is always a demand for good designers, is that the design field is full mediocre designers. People hire bad designers all the time because they can’t distinguish between a good designer and a bad designer (many designers themselves can’t tell the difference!). Most professional designers are not great designers. As an aspiring designer, you can choose to see this as a good thing or a bad thing. On the good side, it means marginally talented designers can eke out a living. But, on the bad side, it also shows how difficult it is to become a great designer.

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3 thoughts on “Design career without going to design school.

  1. Thanks for sharing! very inspiring! Agree, there are lots of web designers in the world, but only few has the real talent and love on their work. So glad I found this post.. : )

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