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Group Interview: Expert Advice For Students and Young Web Designers

Our readers have requested that Smashing Magazine conduct an interview with industry leaders on issues that are relevant to students and those just starting off in their design career. With the help of our panel of 16 designers, we’ll dispense advice that should help new designers get their career off to a promising start. We’ve asked a few different questions to each of the designers; you’ll see all of their responses below. First, here is a list of the designers who participated.

You may be interested in the following related posts:

1. For students who aspire to work in design, what would you recommend they study? Link


David Leggett Link

Finding a good university-level design program that interests you will greatly increase your chance of finding awesome opportunities down the road, but it’s very beneficial to get experience before and outside of the education system. Find projects to help with, start your own, read up and apply as much as you can as you’re learning on the side. The extra experience will never hurt, and at the very least you’ll get to see if design is something you really enjoy.

Just to clarify, I have never taken any higher education courses in design, but I know the knowledge you get in that environment is valuable, as I’m sure others will suggest.

Wolfgang Bartelme Link

Well, I guess the most important thing is “practice, practice, practice.” To improve the quality of your work, you have to keep pushing yourself further and further. By the way, many great artists are self-taught. But I’m also convinced that a profound education will sharpen your skills and help you be able to judge why and how certain designs work. Personally, I studied “Information Design” at the University of Applied Science in Graz, focusing on all different aspects of design: print and advertising, exhibitions, Web design, usability, photography and film — thus giving students a wide range of knowledge, and making them more generalists than specialists.

2. How does a student determine whether design is for them or they should pursue another career? Link


Jacob Gube Link

This is a question you have to ask yourself. There aren’t any set rules or algorithms to determine whether you should be a designer. The important thing is to have passion for the work. Even mediocre designers will be able to sustain themselves, but they’ll have to work extra hard to compete with more talented and experienced designers. So, it all boils down to how much you want to be a designer and how much you’re willing to work at it and push forward. I won’t sugar-coat the current situation: the truth is that the industry is saturated, and there are a lot more designers than jobs, so you have to be sure that this is the profession you want to invest your time in.

Henry Jones Link

I think it’s all about passion. If you find yourself up late at night working on design projects just for the fun of it, then that’s a good sign that design is right for you. I think one of the worst situations in life is hating what you do. Loving what you do means you’ll probably be doing it and thinking about it even outside of class or when you’re not being paid to do it. You’ll constantly be honing your skills and staying on top of the latest technologies, which is very important for designers.

David Leggett Link

Everyone has a unique situation, and I don’t mean to suggest the following is always true: if you’re already a student at a university and have no outside experience, it may be difficult to really pursue a career in design. I say this only because personal friends of mine have struggled to find jobs in this current economic climate. Experience and something to show for your knowledge goes a long way.

Otherwise, be sure you truly enjoy whatever you decide to pursue. Many designers and artists I’ve met thoroughly enjoy their lifestyles, even when they’re struggling to find work. This is not to say that you should undervalue your work, but if you can enjoy your career when you’re not making money, then it’s probably a good match for you.

Wolfgang Bartelme Link

First and foremost, designing stuff has to be fun: you have to love what you do. If that’s not the case, look for something else. Secondly, you should, of course, have a decent measure of talent and imagination. Even though you will learn many skill in the course of your studies, without talent and imagination your work will be at best mediocre.

Chris Spooner Link

As with any career, if you’re passionate about the subject, you’re set to succeed. Careers in the design industry can seem exciting; after all, all you do is sit and color things in all day, right? I think this draws in a lot of people who maybe haven’t been particularly creative in the past and see the career as easy. This type of person might then find it difficult to be motivated to learn the required skills and to continue developing those skills throughout their career. That’s not to say that if you’ve weren’t a creative child, you can’t pursue a career in design. We all stumble across different interests throughout our lives, so as long as you feel you have a passion for design, go for it!

3. How do you balance education and work? Link


Zach Dunn Link

By my last estimate, I spend about 3 to 4 hours on client work for every 1 hour of academic work. I generally learn specialized skills more from client work than from academics. It’s easy to get caught up in client work and blogging. The hard part is making sure you don’t lose touch with the world around you. Interacting with clients and blog community members is certainly social, but you need to take a break and interact with “regular college students” from time to time. I consider it like mental detox.

I’m convinced you must put in extra time on personal projects to truly become competent in the Web design industry. Going through the motions during class and homework hours only leaves you behind. The Internet moves faster than any standard academic schedule. Keeping current and practiced is up to you.

Jacob Cass Link

Finding the right balance between family, friends, work and all of life’s other misdemeanors will always be a challenge, no matter what your career. You must set priorities and goals relative to what you want to achieve and get out of life. Although I have now finished studying (officially), I could say that my biggest challenge then was finding enough time to give high-quality attention to all projects, whether they were educational, personal or for paying customers. At times, I found this nearly impossible, and to be honest a lot of my university and personal work suffered from my commitments to paying customers. In saying this, I guess a lot of it comes down to having priorities, goals and good time management.

4. How did work outside your studies prepare you for your career? Link


Zach Dunn Link

Almost all of our “career” success so far has been a direct result of work done outside of studies. College is a great incubator for a number of things other than academics. I value school for reasons that are different than those of the average person. College has helped me socially. Sam recently wrote an article that does a great job of explaining more about our college philosophy in relation to Web design, titled The Role of College for Web Designers17.

Certain career paths cannot start before graduation date. Lawyers, for example, can’t have hobby clients while putting themselves through school: it’s all or nothing. Web design isn’t limited by credentials for entry. Web design is largely portfolio-based. When’s the last time a client was more interested in your GPA than in your previous client work? In this industry, we have the luxury of starting early. I like to take advantage of that.

I don’t know what the future holds for Sam and me, but I’m confident that at least some of the projects we start today will have some role in it.

Jacob Cass Link

To be honest, I learned more in six months of blogging and following other people’s blogs, than studying for three full years at university. Doing extra work outside of the education system is vital.

5. What should students and new designers focus on outside of their course work to advance in their careers? Link


Brian Hoff Link

Students should definitely consider taking many business classes, especially if they want to go freelance or start their own studio one day. I’ve always been passionate enough about design to teach myself, but I wish I took more business and marketing classes. Also, I would recommend collecting designs. Having resources of inspiration and also an idea of good design is essential. I take photos of many types, colors, designs, etc. as I pass them by, and I use LittleSnapper to organize online media. Being a graphic designer is non-stop learning. Here’s an article I wrote that covers more: 16 Tips to Improve as a Graphic Designer18.

Chris Coyier Link

No individual program is going to cover every single angle of design, especially the most modern technological stuff. Because you are already reading Smashing Magazine, you probably already have a good grasp of what’s going on in modern design. Reading and following tutorials and doing your own experimental projects on the side will definitely help you excel. That being said, your whole life doesn’t have to revolve around career enhancement. A well-rounded life will serve you well. Perhaps some of your other hobbies could benefit from your design talent. I have a friend who used to build coffee tables and decorate the surfaces with patterns of partially burnt matches. If he were looking for a design job, I would absolutely tell him to put that stuff onto an online portfolio.

Elliot Jay Stocks Link

Build your portfolio. Do free websites for your mates’ bands or your Mum’s friend’s wool shop. It might not be glamorous work, but doing as much as you can builds up your portfolio, and you’ll learn loads on every project. When I left university and got my first job, my portfolio was made up almost entirely of stuff I’d done on an extracurricular basis, not really the course work itself. But also don’t forget that it’s about quality, not quantity, and a good portfolio strikes a balance between variety (showing that you’re versatile) and continuity (showing that you have your own identity as a designer).

Walter Apai Link

It’s important to expand your knowledge to any areas that are related to design. Most design courses concentrate on the basics or on how to use the various pieces of software that are available. These are just basic tools for new designers, but they won’t make you a great designer.

Learn about art, layout and composition, and try to read at least one new book on design every month, or even one per week. Subscribe to design blogs such as Smashing Magazine and Webdesigner Depot, and never stop learning. Keep updating your knowledge whenever possible by attending conferences, reading books and magazines and becoming involved in the local artistic community. Try to become a well-rounded designer, not just an operator of Photoshop or another design software tool.

George Lois, the real-life inspiration for Don Draper in Mad Men, said it best:

“The computer has played a role in destroying creativity with Photoshop. Everybody thinks they’re a designer.”

While he may be generalizing a bit, I believe what is meant is that you can’t be a proper designer without understanding the fundamentals of art and design.

Jacob Gube Link

When I was a college student, what truly helped me in my career was proactively attempting to get real-world experience by doing freelance work, part time. The purpose was two-fold: to see what it was like to work with the kind of people who would become your employers once you were out of school, and to apply what you learned in class, which reinforces your education and helps you understand it hands on. You might even end up with a few portfolio pieces to show employers once you’re on the job hunt — and some money to buy those expensive classroom textbooks.

6. What one thing do you wish you knew before starting your career? Link


Darren Hoyt Link

Being in touch with my limitations and skills.

The first few years of designing for the Web (1998 to 2001), I knew being cross-trained was important, so I built my skills in design and front-end code (HTML, CSS) equally. But then I made the mistake of thinking that, if I was to become a more complete designer and developer, I should learn Perl, Flash and Unix commands, too. I sucked at all of those things and kept sucking until they asked me to stop.

Deep down, I knew I wasn’t wired for any of that stuff. And more importantly, I wasn’t actually interested in it, not compared to design anyway. Employers do value someone who is cross-trained, but not if the results are mediocre.

David Leggett Link

Pleasing everyone is nearly impossible. Be friendly to those who enjoy your work and friendlier to those who attack it.

Jacob Gube Link

I wished I had realized that quality is more important than quantity. When I started out, I focused on low-cost, high-quantity jobs, which resulted in late hours, not enough pay and nothing really that I could be proud to put in my portfolio. I wanted to work with as many people and on as many projects as I could to jumpstart my experience and resume. But the Project Triangle principle applies here: I did it fast and cheap, and so the outcomes weren’t good. If I had slowed down and focused on getting gigs that were interesting and better quality, I would have progressed more fruitfully.

Paul Boag Link

That constraints are good. As a Web design student, I was given endless freedom to design how I wanted and what I wanted. However, the real world is not like that. When I joined IBM out of university, my first job was to design 8-bit icons. Very restrictive indeed. When I started on the Web, it allowed only gray backgrounds and text that was justified left, right or centred. The first time I worked on a multimedia CD, it was capable of running video at only 160 x 120 pixels.

At the time, this frustrated me massively. However, in hindsight it was enormously beneficial. It pushed me creatively, and it has also given me a lot more patience with the peculiarities of browsers such as IE6.

7. What job search advice do you have for recent graduates? Link


Soh Tanaka Link

First and foremost, get your portfolio up, and make sure it represents your best work. If you lack work samples, start creating projects for yourself (websites for your hobbies, your family or for friends). As a new grad, you need to prove that you are serious and willing; the best way to get that message across is through a robust portfolio.

Secondly, hit the job boards, and send your resumes and cover letters to companies you would like to work for. Doing research and tailoring each cover letter and resume to the company is important. Stick to the job requirements, and follow directions carefully. These employers receive many applications daily, and nothing is worse than seeing a bland and generic introduction to who you are and what you offer. Stand out from the rest.

Thirdly, keep your networks open, and make yourself known! Networking is key.

Darren Hoyt Link

Obviously, scour the online job boards (Authentic Jobs19, 37 Signals20, Coroflot), but also follow the blogs and Twitter feeds of Web designers who you respect. Studying their methods will give you a clearer picture of the sort of designer you want to be. If you need advice, trying dropping them an email. But remember that not everyone has the free time to answer.

Truthfully, most designers I know didn’t get their job by applying cold to an agency they knew nothing about. Instead, they slowly made relationships with like-minded people until they began to see opportunities and get offers.

But I would stress, don’t “network” compulsively. It can look obvious and obnoxious and make you look needy. Instead, make connections with people you actually think you share interests with, people you could imagine being colleagues and friends, rather than business contacts. The rewards are much greater.

Chris Coyier Link

Nobody will hire you because you say you have skills. You’ll have to demonstrate your skills, so either work on your current personal website or start building one. Use the website as a portfolio and resume to send to companies. Send it both to companies that say they are hiring and to ones that don’t. Just because a Web company doesn’t hang a “Now hiring” sign on it door doesn’t mean it couldn’t use someone. Pitch them. A little advice for that portfolio: three awesome designs are better than three awesome and six mediocre designs packed in the same space. Showcase only your finest work, what you’re capable of. Quality over quantity.

8. What should new designers consider when deciding between working for an agency and freelancing? Link


Elliot Jay Stocks Link

Jumping straight into freelancing once you’ve completed your education is really tempting. I very nearly did that myself. But I’m glad I didn’t. You learn valuable lessons working for someone else first, and it’s actually much easier because you don’t have to worry about getting clients for yourself. So, I would recommend working for someone else before going it alone. It’s a great opportunity to build up your portfolio without dealing with any of the boring stuff that goes with freelancing or running your own business. I wrote a post about this a while ago: Build Your Profile to Get More Freelance Work21.

Soh Tanaka Link

As a new designer, being at an agency or on a team is great for learning and feeling out the industry. Though you may not be able to set your own hours or work from home, a steady pay check and health insurance are both welcome during a tough economy.

When choosing the freelance route, have some experience under your belt, and be ready to be on your own. The key factor is knowing what your skills are and having discipline. Freelancing has its ups and downs, and you must be self-motivated and determined to overcome the challenges. Working from home and setting your own hours is ideal for most, but young designers should consider the requirements and reality before diving in head first. It may be wise to freelance part time until you build enough confidence and experience and know enough about your strengths and weaknesses to be able to make the right decisions when you strike out on your own.

Chris Spooner Link

It’s always worth learning the pros and cons of working for an agency and freelancing, because each has its perks! Here are a few that spring to mind.

Agency pros:

  • Working for an agency after your studies can be great for gaining experience in how the industry works and how projects are managed from start to finish.
  • At an agency, you work with like-minded colleagues, who you can learn from and develop with.
  • Large agencies often attract big corporations and established brands.
  • A full-time job guarantees you a monthly wage and set working hours.

Agency cons:

  • You might get stuck working on projects that you don’t find interesting or might have to work on something you don’t agree with.
  • Agencies sometimes have strict policies, rules and guidelines. For instance, browsing the Web, checking Facebook or tweeting might get you a slap on the wrist.
  • Agencies work during the usual 9:00 to 5:00 business hours, so you will have to as well.

Freelance pros:

  • As a freelancer, you have complete control of the projects you take on and the type of work you do.
  • You’re not tied to any particular working hours, so taking a day off is no problem.
  • If you can generate a consistent flow of projects, it can be much easier to earn a decent wage than you would by working at an agency.
  • You can work in your pyjamas!

Freelance cons:

  • You are personally responsible for your own income, a circumstance that can put you at risk.
  • Freelancers need to be able to manage their time in order to avoid distractions.

I would recommend that new designers first seek out employment, which will give you professional experience with and knowledge of design. Then you’ll be able to decide whether you fit better at an agency or working for yourself.

One of the main things to consider before starting out as a freelancer is whether you’ve generated enough industry experience to be able not only to create designs but to source work, manage multiple projects and communicate with clients. These other factors definitely come into play when freelancing, so having at least some knowledge of these processes before diving in is important.

9. How can students and young designers make themselves more valuable to potential employers? Link


Darren Hoyt Link

Start building a Web presence as early as possible, even before seeking a junior position. Buy a personal domain and set up a simple portfolio, with an “About” page that gives a snapshot of your personality and talents. If haven’t done client work, do pro bono projects for friends until you have work samples to show. Displaying them publicly shows that you have pride in your work.

Be concise. Employers and human resource people are like anyone else: they are busy and have short attention spans. Don’t make them dig to find out who you are. Give your portfolio website just enough text, images and examples to paint an accurate picture. If you can’t give your own content a crisp and concise design, why should employers trust you to do that for clients?

Also, don’t exaggerate the facts when presenting yourself. Our lives are way too public these days to bother. More important than bragging or dazzling anyone with half-truths is finding a team whose needs and interests align with your own. If you get hired under false pretences, you will have wasted everyone’s time. Even experienced designers with great portfolios aren’t the right fit, disposition-wise, for every agency they apply to.

Wolfgang Bartelme Link

As I mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of the interdisciplinary approach. At most companies, you are unlikely to work exclusively in a single field. In fact, when you do Web design, being able to do some decent-looking icons or cut a simple screencast or promo video is good. This becomes even more important when you are self-employed. Moreover, this variety makes and keeps work interesting… at least that’s the case for me.

Chris Coyier Link

Just being a nice person and easy to work with is pretty huge. I think employers look for that during the interview process, at least as best they can in that short time. Someone incredibly stiff or stand-offish is unlikely to win the job over someone who is happy and casual. Design studios, in my experience, are pretty friendly and casual. Other random advice: become really good at one thing. You’ll be a lot more valuable as the guy or girl who knows that one thing really well than as a jack of all trades. Being well-rounded is awesome, but having a spike of talent in one particular area will serve you well.

Walter Apai Link

Social skills are necessary when dealing with potential clients. Designers should know what their clients do and provide them with the best possible service.

I’d encourage all designers to make themselves a one-stop shop for all of their clients’ design needs. That would include Web design, copywriting, printing, etc. If you’re not an expert in these fields, team up with a few peers so that you can help each other as needed.

Designers should focus on making the entire process easy for clients, but involve clients in some design decisions as well, so that they feel that they are part of the project.

I suggest asking the clients a lot of questions and truly aiming to get to the core of their business and what would work for them. The more we understand our clients and their projects, the more successful the projects will be and the better our chances of getting them as repeat clients.

A designer is a human being, too. Become a well-versed designer, understand your medium, get educated and become a well-rounded person who always aims high.

Set high standards for yourself and your work. The right clients will gravitate to someone who holds themselves to high standards.

10. What should new freelancers do during the first few months of their business to succeed? Link


Paul Andrew Link

You have to have a personal business plan. I really wish I had a plan when I started out; I really do. I jumped right in, feet first, and landed on my head! And it hurt. Partly, I think it was those first few months of hardship that even now propel me forward. That period not only affected my finances and confidence, it damaged my reputation. That is very hard to regain. I think over the years I have regained it, but it was hard work, and it all could have been avoided with a bit more planning and simply by writing a personal business strategy.

It’s not enough to have a strategy planned out in your head; it has to be on paper. You need to be able to read it and see it to live by it. Every so often you should read it again, just to realign yourself. And then read it again, and only tweak it if you really have to.

Your personal business plan could do the following:

  • Describe your business objectives, business direction and where you hope to be in x number of months.
  • List all potential pitfalls and how to avoid them.
  • Set honest and realistic targets, and allow for a little flexibility.
  • As your business grows, track its efforts and compare them to your business objectives.
  • Set up a financial framework to measure how much your business is making or not making.
  • Describe how you are going to attract new business to meet your financial targets.

Everyone and every business is different. Write down what is correct and achievable for you, and be very honest: it is your business after all.

Stick to the plan!

Brian Hoff Link

Personally, I worked for nearly three years while preparing to go freelance. I would work my 9:00 to 5:00 job, come home, eat dinner and then market myself (blog), search for new business, advertize and work from around 7:00 pm until 12:00 am. Having a good feel for running your own business is important before you go in head first.

Saving money is also important. Every business, no matter what it is, goes through periods of drought. Having money to back you up for a little while is a must. Freelancing is not for everyone. Part-time freelancing while maintaining a steady-paying job will help you get a feel for things.

Chris Spooner Link

I think the most important time in freelancing isn’t particularly the first few months, but more so the time leading up to going freelance. As a freelancer, you’ll need a good flow of clients to generate income; you’ll have to get busy promoting and building a name for yourself, so that when you’re ready to leave your job, you’ll be all set to simply flick the switch from employment to self-employment.

During this build-up time, you’ll want to design all of your personal branding, especially your website, to showcase what you can do. Become an active member of the design community by blogging, guest writing and networking via Twitter (or you might want to network offline or locally); and begin taking on projects that you can work on during the nights. It can be hard work managing both your full-time job and one or two freelance projects simultaneously, but when the number of inquiries reaches an optimal level, you can quickly switch from your job to taking on more freelance work — rather than making the decision one day, falling flat on your face and then having to eat beans on toast until you’ve built a profile.

Jon Phillips Link

I believe the first few months are crucial, especially because it usually means quitting the day job and taking the plunge into the freelancing world. It can be scary at first. Many things need to be done in the first few months, but of course nothing is irreparable. Should you make a bad decision, you can always fix things as you go along. I highly recommend getting a portfolio website up; even if you don’t have a lot to show, you need a place to showcase what you have. Then get a good invoicing system such as Freshbooks22 or Billings 323, network with other freelancers as much as possible via Twitter, Facebook, design forums and blogs and maybe start a blog of your own.

Elliot Jay Stocks Link

Work for someone else! For the first few months to be a success, you need to have work lined up, so having that in place before you make the jump is important. I’d also recommend getting a good accountant as soon as you can and some sort of system for keeping track of your money, such as Xero24. Also, make sure you have a website set up long before you decide to go solo.

11. Aside from design and technical skills, what aspects of running a business should new freelancers focus on? Link


Paul Andrew Link

The advice I have been given over the years about freelancing as a business has varied. Some have told me that putting business ahead of design guarantees profit and keeps your head above water. On the other hand, I have also been told not to treat design as a business, to work on what your passion is, and the business side will take care of itself.

These are both great philosophies, but they don’t really work in the real world. The answer is to have a healthy balance between the two. Both need to be kept apart while at the same time working off each other. Think of it as the positive and negative charge of a battery. The battery only works when both charges are connected. (You can decide which is the positive and negative side in relation to business and design).

When meeting potential clients, first impressions really do count, and you really need to present yourself with professionalism. It does not matter how strong your portfolio is or who you are — it is about how professional and business-like you appear to them. You are negotiating a business transaction after all.

Yes, this means breaking away from the designer stereotype of wearing t-shirts and jeans and instead being clean shaven, putting on a business suit and remembering the manners your mother taught you. Carry business cards with you, maybe even a briefcase; do what you have to do to convince the client you mean business.

Some monkeys you should not carry on your back by yourself, and they are the finance side of your business. Let’s be honest: who understands tax and monetary law. I certainly don’t and don’t care to either. Find yourself an accountant. They don’t cost that much — maybe a week’s wage out of the year, and when you weigh the cost of doing your taxes incorrectly and the penalties that might follow, an accountant is a worthwhile investment.

It would be nice if everyone you worked with was honest. Protecting the integrity of your work, yourself and your business should be next on your to-do list. The reality is that at some point, someone will try to shortchange you or, worse, wiggle out of a payment. That is why you need a watertight contract. Every country has its own laws regarding design; make sure you know and understand yours.

Hiring a lawyer to write a standard contract for your small business would be expensive. A way around this would be to write your own, as I did. I asked a few designers for advice and researched the law online and came up with an outline for my own. I then took it to a lawyer and asked them to sanity-check it. Not as expensive as asking them to write it — still, it wasn’t cheap, but it was worth it.

So, to sum up, if you’re dressed smart, your business finances are in safe hands and you are legally protected, you are now free to do what you were trained to do and give your creativity free reign, letting your passion fuel your design. It is a long road to take, but it is necessary.

Brian Hoff Link

Marketing without a doubt. I receive many emails asking how I get so much freelance business or how do I find clients. My response: You have to work hard for it. Clients won’t come to you. Tell everyone what you do, start a blog, attend networking events and conferences, contact clients directly. Running your own business is hard work. There is no such thing as a 40-hour work week when you run your own business. I work seven days a week. I’ve even gone so far as to strike up new work by chatting with someone at the bar (not recommended). You have to have personality and drive to freelance successfully.

Jon Phillips Link

Being a freelancer means having to wear many different hats (a ton of different hats!). Spending some time on government websites and meeting with an accountant to learn more about tax laws goes a very long way. Of course, many designers, being creative types, tend to forget that it’s a business (I often forget). You need to spend time on accounting but also on networking and marketing your business. In the first few months results will be small, but your efforts will pay off in the long run. You need to be as good with numbers as you are with Photoshop.

12. What are some of the best ways for new designers to find clients? Link


Henry Jones Link

I can only speak from experience here. Shortly before I went full-time freelancing, my portfolio was listed on several popular CSS galleries. From that point on, clients found me. I was very surprised to see how many people used the galleries to find designers. Once I had a few clients and projects under my belt, I started to get a lot of referrals. So, work hard on creating a great portfolio, and use the design galleries. This is probably the best and easiest way to get the most exposure. Plenty of design-specific job boards are available, such as AuthenticJobs25, where you can search for projects that are a good fit for you.

Jon Phillips Link

I think websites such as Twitter are a great place to get started! In fact, I found a lot of my own clients via Twitter. Design forums are also a great place to network, make friends and find work. New freelancers may also be tempted to try design contests and crowd-sourcing, but I personally think they devalue the industry, so I wouldn’t advise doing that. Even if you don’t have much to show in your portfolio, there are others ways to get gigs. There are always job boards, such as the one on Smashing Magazine26 and the one on FreelanceSwitch27, which are great for finding clients. You might even consider buying banner ads on design-related websites. But your marketing budget may not allow this at first, so networking websites, job boards and forums would be the places to hang out.

Jacob Cass Link

Get your name out there. Start blogging. Showcase your work. Look on job boards. Ask friends, family, local charities. Read books and blog posts: the information is out there. Your job is to find it!

Walter Apai Link

Networking is one of the best ways but often one of the most overlooked ones. I suggest that new designers speak to everyone they know and use every chance they have to talk about their work and what they do for a living.

I found myself just mentioning Web design to someone the other day (not even looking for more work), and immediately they thought of someone they knew who was looking for a website redesign. Opportunities are everywhere; just seize them.

I should also mention that one should not rely on networking alone or any other single “system.” I’d encourage new designers to take a multi-faceted approach to their new career.

There are unlimited ways to get new clients. Posting on bulletin boards, both online and offline, and placing small ads in the newspaper or local magazines are just a few of the media you can use. I also think that starting local is best, and getting experience working on projects with people who you can meet in person in your own city. This is a good starting point to gain more “field” experience.

Paul Boag Link

It has to start with friends and family. This will help build your initial portfolio. From there, consider doing some discounted work for a local charity to gain experience in working for real clients. After that, the contacts you have made through networking will start to pay off, and hopefully you will get some work through them. Finally and most importantly, make it known that you want work. It is surprising how many freelance websites I visit that don’t state whether they currently accept work or not.

That said, I would suggest that if you are straight out of university, you should probably work for a small agency before jumping into the freelance world. Being a freelancer requires a lot of business skills that they don’t teach you in university.

13. What networking tips do you have for young designers? Link

Henry Jones Link

One option is to attend design conferences, but for young designers this can be expensive. So, I would recommend getting involved in the design community. Start reading and leaving comments on popular design blogs. Create a Twitter account, and post useful stuff. Depending on how much time you have, you could even start your own design-related blog. Blogging has been huge for me, and I believe it’s the best way to get your name out there and meet other designers. No matter what route you take, just remember to be helpful and genuine, and you will build lasting relationships.

Paul Andrew Link

You are young — you cannot change that fact — and you want to be successful. In any business, especially ours, you need friends, you need contacts and most importantly you need to build professional relationships. Bear in mind, though, that networking is not something you can rush; it takes time and patience.

The best time to start networking is right now. Even if you are still in high school or haven’t yet graduated college, reach out now. It is never too early to get your name out there. Your name is your most powerful and memorable asset. Work will follow, I promise.

The most important relationships for any designer are the ones they have built with fellow students. No matter what happens, they are your primary network. You can help each other by sharing knowledge and design contacts and by learning from each other.

The best way to network beyond your inner circle is to get in touch with seasoned designers. For the most part, designers are pretty selfless and love to share and help when they can. With that in mind, put together a list of designers on whom you want to model yourself and someone with a strong body of work. Send them emails, accompanied by your portfolio, stating that you are a young designer starting out and seeking a little advice. Ask them how they got started, and ask for any tips they might be willing to share? Seasoned designers need to build their networks, too, and will welcome your introduction and questions.

When I started out as a designer, I sent a letter (with my portfolio and business card) to a local design agency — certainly not the biggest one or the most prestigious — and introduced myself as a young designer who was eager to learn. I asked if I could come in for a day or two to learn a bit about the design business and gain some work experience. Thankfully, they consented, and I spent three days asking questions, picking up business cards and meeting clients. That was over ten years ago, and I still rely on those contacts now. And to this day, that has been my most productive and successful period of networking.

Not every design agency will be as open as that one was, but I would try. There is no harm in asking.

One thing to remember about networking is that success is determined not by your number of contacts but by the quality of those contacts. Even if the best designer in the world sent you a courtesy email reply, it does not mean that you are in their network or that they are in yours. A quality network contact is someone who gives you a personal reply and genuinely tries to help you. These are the contacts you must maintain. This is your network.

Finally, please don’t think of youth as an impediment. Think of it as a license to ask questions, to learn and expand your personal network.

Paul Boag Link

Step away from the computer. Meeting people online is great, but nothing beats meeting them face to face. Attend conferences and meet-ups and get to know people. Then follow up on those relationships via Twitter and Facebook.

Also, don’t have an agenda. Or, if you have one, be honest and open about it. Too many people network solely to win work or become a “Web celebrity.” Instead, network because you want to meet like-minded people who will inspire and excite you about your work.

Soh Tanaka Link

Attend industry events, seminars and any kind of social gatherings. Don’t be shy; get to know the people around you. Be interested and willing to learn from them, and at the right time let them know who you are and what you do. Carry business cards with you at all times, and have your elevator speech ready. You never know when you will run into a potential client or employer. Networking is all about expanding your opportunities, and as a designer this skill is critical.

You may be interested in the following related post:


Footnotes Link

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Steven Snell is a Web designer and blogger. In addition to maintaining his own blog and writing for a number of other top design blogs, he also manages an online shop that offers premium graphic design resources.

  1. 1

    Some really good advice for me as a web design student.
    Instantly bookmarked :)

  2. 3

    The leaders being mentioned are the best in what they do. :)

  3. 4

    Exelent post. Thanks a lot.

  4. 5

    Personally i’m glad to see the response to question #4, “How did work outside your studies prepare you for your career?” I especially like what Jacob Cass had to say, which I agree with wholeheartedly. Im currently still a student but within the past year acquired a agency job, within that year of work i’ve learned more then the past three years of schooling. Im just glad to see im not the only one.

    Great Article!

  5. 6

    Nice article, very helpful!
    I’m a mediadesign student from northern germany and try to get some clients while I’m studying… and that lines are really helpful for me! :)

  6. 7

    Brilliant stuff. Perhaps one of the few articles on SM i read twice all over! :)

  7. 8

    Very community profiding

  8. 9

    Thanks for this great article.
    So important to get first hand advice from industry leaders.


  9. 10

    Just what i was looking for!
    I’m gonna make my first website for a client but i really don’t know how much money i must ask?
    Does somebody has a good link to an article about prices?
    Thanks Smashing Magazine

  10. 11

    anonymous (berlinerin)

    February 17, 2010 3:52 am

    Couldn’t you find even one female designer for your panel? While they may be exceptional at design, there are few enough role models for young female designers and students as it is.

    Secondly, there is no way of discerning how the experience for a female designer might differ simply because there is a complete lack of representation.

    Please try harder.

    • 12

      Smashing Editorial

      February 17, 2010 4:22 am


      you are making a valid point. We will try to prepare a similar article interviewing female designers and artists. Thank you for your feedback!

      • 13

        This is definitely something that crossed my mind when I read the list of participating designers.
        I for one belive there must be a huge number of female designers… I just wonder where they all are!

        Excellent read by the way, very encouraging and informative.

      • 14

        As a man, I would like to agree that your androcentrism is reprehensible.

        • 15

          I wouldn’t say that Smashing is androcentric, I think it’s merely that the majority well-known design bloggers/web designers happen to be men. I think part of this is that men are often more driven to make their business or online presence more impressive whereas the women tend to focus on more important things such as real life relationships. However, there are a good number well-known women in the field, and I think it would be absolutely wonderful to ask them for advice as well! Sneh of LBOI is one that comes to mind, I’m sure there are very few of us commenting here that haven’t heard of her and read her blog.

          • 16

            Design Informer

            February 17, 2010 3:01 pm

            Yes, it would be a great idea to compile a list of female designers as well.

            Jina Boulton, Meagan Fisher, Veerle Pieters and lots of other great female designers.

            Anyway, I really enjoyed this interview and it’s nice to read the advice of those who are really doing some great things in the industry. Awesome job by Steven Snell and SM.

      • 17

        Jan Cavan is a really good female designer especially her logos.

      • 19

        Jennifer Kyrnin

        February 19, 2010 11:43 am

        Thanks for addressing this matter.

        I was very impressed by the idea of the article when I first read it. But then when I saw that there were ZERO women on your expert panel I was a little shocked. Nevermind that I have been writing about Web Design and HTML professionally since 1997, there are many other women experts in this field. Molly Holzschlag is one who comes to mind instantly. But there are others.

        If this was intended to be an interview with well-known web designers who are also bloggers, then the article should have said that.

    • 20

      Also some diversity in people chosen to answer the questions would be nice. All these people have proven they can run a blog but only a couple have proven they know how to run a successful business.

    • 21

      Agreed 100%. It’s a shame we even have to remind people of this.

      • 22

        What? You’re seriously implying that it’s a shame that they happened to overlook gender? If anything it’s proof that there’s less of a sexism issue — the fact that they have acknowledged their mistake obviously implies that they didn’t include gender in their critera.

        • 23

          Smashing should have realized this before posting the article.

          I’ve come across one too many articles where our voices aren’t heard and one too many design events where female speakers are not present. To have to constantly remind others of our presence gets pretty damn annoying. So yes, I was being serious. It is a shame we have to remind others that we exist, or that we should be respected (just look at the relationship comment above). Smashing should have realized this before posting the article, not after. It is a mistake yes, and it is good they made a comment. But I’m just saying, it’s shame we even have to point out the mistake.

  11. 24

    Wow, what an insightful post. As a high school student currently trying to decide where I’m going to school and what to study at a University, this post has offered extremely valuable opinions by some of the designers I respect the most. Now it’s simply a matter of figuring out what to do with the next four years of my life!

    Thanks for making this composition Steven, and for publishing it Smashing Mag.

  12. 25

    Extremely helpful beyond any doubt!! Thank you ever so much for posting this, I was going in circles and this post will definitely help me out with my career!

  13. 26

    Thanks, that was a great read and had some very useful advice.

  14. 27

    Really good article :)

  15. 28

    Brilliant! It’s almost like free book on freelancing :).
    Many beginners will find it useful, you can be sure.

  16. 29

    Goldenboy Media

    February 17, 2010 5:47 am

    Nice to have the pros (idols in some case) spending their time in helping others.

    Thanks for all the helpful advice!

  17. 30

    That’s very helpful Article, :)

  18. 31

    This article is amazing. I agree with GoldenBoy in that it is nice to see pro’s willing to give their time to help others who wish to pursue the same paths. Thanks to all who participated in this article.

    I only wish that I had this kind of information available to me when I was choosing a major in college :/

  19. 32

    Again, another briliant post by Smashy. Thank you guys. Now, where do I find guts to put it all in action to start my own business/freelancing?

  20. 33

    Thanks again for the opportunity to be included amongst such talented individuals. Much appreciated Steven, Vitaly and all involved.


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