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Advice to Young Designers

May 10, 2012


Every now and again we get an email from a graphic designer seeking advice who just graduated from college. I always reply with a few thoughts and have to quickly get back to work. After doing this a few times, it got me thinking… I should make a blog post about this and get it all down in pixels. So here it is. A few random thoughts and things both Kyle and I have learned along the way. Hate it, love it, share it or save it. My intent is to help any young designers who are looking for a bit of guidance.

1. Sell yourself without selling yourself.

If you’re a graphic designer trying to get a job or freelance work, it’s extremely important that you have a website. Your website is your marketing tool. Before you start designing it, ask yourself some questions. What do you want them to know in the 2-5 seconds you have their attention? What project do you want to make sure they see? What’s the one thing you want them to take away from your site? What path do you want people to take as they click around? Think about the way you’re talking about yourself and your work. If you want to narrow in on a specific niche, then make those projects the most prominent and write your profile in such a way that speaks to it.

One of the biggest downfalls I’ve noticed with portfolio sites is that designers will post their work and say nothing about it. Or just give it a title. Employers and clients want to know the details. What was the assignment or goal of the project? What was the idea behind it? What inspired it? If these details are missing, then it’s just a pretty picture that may or may not be remembered. Showing that you had a strategy and solved a problem makes everything better.

Do you want a portfolio site, but don’t know how to code? No worries. Build your website with a service like WixCargo Collective, ProSite or Squarespace. What’s great about these services is that you can customize the design with endless options, use your own domain name and make edits to your site whenever you want. All for $12 a month (or less).

It doesn’t have to be fancy either. A designer and friend of mine, Drew Rios, has one of the smartest approaches to his portfolio site that I’ve seen. Here’s what it looks like:

Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 11.31.38 AM

He only has this landing page that he designed and built. He clearly shows his name, what he does and how to see his work. The brilliant part is that he links out to different apps that do all the heavy lifting for him so he can easily make updates AND get his work on more public platforms. His design work links out to his Behance portfolio and his photography work links out to his Tumblr blog. He also links to his Dribbble, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram accounts, as well as his email address. It’s so simple, so incredibly smart and a great use of technology.

2. Put yourself out there.

Even if you have a website and have cold emailed all the studios you know and love, that may not be enough. What has helped me in the past is getting my portfolio on some of the job hunting websites like Behance, AIGA or Krop. These sites offer job postings for people looking and people hiring… which is great because you can search for jobs and be searched for by employers. A lot of employers go to these talent pool sites looking for the right fit. This makes it much easier on you because employers will have seen your work, read about you and liked both so much that they will contact you. All you have to do is be nice and show up for the interview.

If you’re looking to find good creative workplaces in Chicago, Agency Pimp is a great list of Chicago Creative Agencies.

One thing that I don’t suggest doing that a lot of people recommend is to email your hopeful future boss and invite them to grab coffee and get to know each other. This has become the thing to do in the last year, and everyone is doing it. The people in those positions don’t have the time to do this with everyone who asks, and to be honest it puts them in a weird situation to say no. It’s become the norm so much that the invitation doesn’t have the same power that it used to.

Instead, try to meet that person in other ways. Maybe email them and ask if they have studio tours available or if they’ll be giving a talk locally anytime soon. Or if you see them at a design event, don’t be shy. Introduce yourself. Any of these avenues will make a much better first impression.

3. Find the right fit.

Interview the employer just as much as they’re interviewing you. We all want the person on the other side of that conference room table to like us and our portfolio, but it’s just as important that you like them and what their company stands for. Work for a company that you respect. If it’s a design firm or an ad agency, really look at their portfolio and ask yourself if that’s the kind of work you want to be doing. If it’s a company with their own products or services, ask yourself if this is a product/service that you are excited about and want to see succeed. If the answer to these questions is no, then you will most likely not be happy working there. Find a company that inspires you, whether that’s through their design work, product, service, philosophy or outreach efforts. If you’re excited about the company and feel nervous to get the job, then it will be a great fit.

When I landed my first design job, I was just happy to be designing. I wasn’t too fond of the design work in their portfolio, but I thought I could go in and make a change. I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to change anything and we just had a different design aesthetic. The art direction given to me resulted in producing the same kind of work that I didn’t want to be doing.

4. Know what you’re worth.

Sometimes knowing what salary to ask for is a stressful guessing game… and employers can sometimes leave the ball in your court. Thankfully, the AIGA puts together a Salary Survey once a year where they gather data from other creatives in the industry, and more specifically, in your same role and area of expertise. It’s a good guide to reference for what the average salary is for your role.

Salaries and paid time off can usually be negotiated, but it’s different for all positions and companies. Positions are sometimes slotted with a pre-determined budget, but sometimes there’s a salary range. In my experience, I’ve been able to negotiate starting out at a certain salary, with the stipulation that after 60 days, my salary will go up X dollars. Another time, a position I interviewed for was offered to me at X dollars and I asked for $1,000 more. After getting the job, my manager said that if an employer really wants someone, they’re not going to lose them over $1,000. I’ve also had friends who were able to negotiate their number of vacation days if they felt the salary was slightly lacking. If you’re not sure what to do, your best bet is to use common sense. Feel the situation out and see if there’s some wiggle room. Just remember to do your homework and know what you’re worth.

5. Do more.

It’s easy to fall into the auto pilot trap and just do what you’re told. Sometimes we don’t feel like it’s our job to do more than this and if we did, we’d be stepping on toes. But employers usually like hearing ideas. If you’re given a project and you think there’s a better solution, say something. If you have a better idea, suggest it. This not only makes your employer feel like you’re really caring and thinking about the project, but more importantly that you care about seeing your company succeed. I’m not suggesting that you approach your employer as if your idea is better than theirs. Or to challenge their ideas with every project. But if you see something that can be improved, don’t be shy.

In order to be good at what you do, you have to work hard. Put in the extra hours and make it as good as it can be. Do the effort and you will benefit from it. Constantly improve your craft and challenge yourself to do something that makes you uncomfortable. Trying something new and pushing yourself is what makes us grow as designers. Some of our best work comes out of it.

6. Make friends.

Get to know people in your design community. Get off the computer and connect with people in person. Go to AIGA events, STA events,CreativeMornings talks or become a volunteer for the Chicago Design Museum or anything local to you that’s centered around design. Immerse yourself in the culture and learn from people who have been in your shoes. Don’t go to things just to network because it’s obvious and no one wants to be around that. If you go because you want to really learn something and you genuinely want to be there, I guarantee you will get something out of it. Surround yourself with like-minded people who have a similar passion, who you respect and look up to, who challenge you, who help you and who push you. Make something with a group of designers that you love and respect. Share it with the world. See what happens.

Look up the people you admire on your social networks and follow them. Look up the people they follow. These sites are all about sharing, whether it’s news, events, new work, job postings, thoughts, etc. It’s a great way to learn something new, get involved and meet people.

7. Stay positive.

Having a positive attitude is so important. Your personality and attitude is just as important as your portfolio. The way you react to a situation or critique is just as memorable as your work. There will always be good and bad projects, good and bad creative directors and good and bad clients. People will love your work and others won’t. You’ll write a heart felt email to a potential employer and they won’t respond. We all go through it. You have to not let it get you down.

I think a lot of us want to have the best title at the best job and we want both right out of school. At least I know I was this way. But, I quickly learned that there are about 40 years in the average person’s career and you can’t get everything you want in the first 5. Or even 10. And what if you did? Life would just get boring. What matters is that you do what makes you happy. It doesn’t matter who you work for or what kind of projects you work on. As long as you’re happy. If you aren’t, then it’s time for a change.


Written by Kim Knoll, Co-Founder and Designer at Knoed Creative in Chicago.
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Related articles:
5 Ways to Attract Your Own Clients by Knoed Creative
Expert Advice by Young Designer’s Guide
Advice for Emerging Designers via AIGA


  1. Joyce

    This was very insightful, thank you for taking the time to write this!

  2. Steven

    I have read numerous articles/posts about advice for designers, and I can honestly say that this is the best one that I have ever read. Your words were easy to understand, yet so meaningful at the same time.

  3. Andy Whorehall™

    Very good read lacking 4 pieces of important advice for designers of any experience level, and they are: 1) Trust no one else with your time, efforts & creative spirit. 2) Be on guard for poor business ethics that You’ll be dealt with from clients & coworkers. 3) Learn how to value & take care of yourself, talents, time and efforts – be your own boss after 7-10 years unless you realize you are 1 of the lucky professional creatives with a decent ethical employer. 4) Fire bad clients & quit from unhealthy work environments before it affects your personal life.

  4. Emily

    At a time of learning, where I’m feeling pretty vulnerable & uncomfortable at my new summer design internship, this was JUST what I needed to hear this morning.

    Thank you! It’s nice when the wise remember what they felt like when they weren’t so wise. It gives me hope!

  5. Claudia

    Thank you so much! You put a lot of tender thought and research into this. Definitely one of my favorite lists of advice for young designers. Seriously, thank you.

  6. Thorsten

    Thank You for this article. It inspired me to make some action.

  7. Ashlee

    This is great insight! Thank you for writing this and I will definitely be sharing to my designer friends.

  8. Rose

    Agreed – and “Do more” should be pounded in every young person’s head! I have seen so many people just stop “doing more” once they’ve had the in-house position for a couple months. They’re salary but don’t work a minute over 40 hours. Never a thought of how to spin their work to make it, them, or the company look better – it just is what it is. Frustrating. Excellent advice overall, too.

  9. Andreas Kopp

    Very good article. Made me go back an rewrite some of my portfolio descriptions.

  10. Michelle Kwolek

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’m just starting out and, of course, always looking for advice. Also, I am so inspired by your portfolio. I really admire your work! Thanks again!

  11. Michelle Berki

    Really insightful and inspirational. Thanks, Kim!

  12. Alice

    Really inspiring article. Thank you for taking the time to write this. I’m thinking about working as a freelance and this article will help me.

  13. Sandra

    Hi Kim,

    First of all, I wanted to say that I am a huge admirer of your studio’s work, and have come to follow you guys religiously (not in a creepy way).

    I’m curious to know how you were able to start a business and gain all of these small businesses as clients. I have been working for three years, ever since University and I have done work for big named clients, but they’re not the kind of work I would want to do down the line.

    Do you have any insights on how I could achieve what you have already accomplished?


  14. Adamandia K

    I have this article bookmarked and will go back to read it though when I feel I have gotten off track.

    Thank you,
    Adamandia K

  15. Valeria @ Grafitive

    Agreed – and “Do more” should be pounded in every young person’s head! I have seen so many people just stop “doing more” once they’ve had the in-house position for a couple months. They’re salary but don’t work a minute over 40 hours. Never a thought of how to spin their work to make it, them, or the company look better – it just is what it is. Frustrating. Excellent advice overall, too.

  16. Victor

    Me gusto mucho la información muy buena motivación para iniciar uno mismo no solo en lo eficaz si no también para que uno se desarrolle junto a la sociedad.Incluso se me hace muy buena para poner en practica en diferentes casos.

  17. Nakisa

    Thank you so much.I really needed this advice.It helped me a lot.Thanks!

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