Advice #29: I Am 19 and I Want to Be A Designer. What Should I Do?

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ask nubby advice


As a fellow creative personality, what would you say to a 19 year old girl who has taken a year off college and wants to pursue a job in graphic design somewhat similar to your own? In a nutshell, what is a common workday like for you? What is the most exciting thing about your job? How much school did you have to go through to be where you are now? Did you ever consider any other careers? Is Portland a booming center of design and if not, do you know somewhere in the U.S. that is?


At 19, I admire your confidence in knowing what you want to do for a career! First of all, if you are really passionate about graphic design, I would recommend enrolling in a college level program. While there are plenty of amazing designers out there who are self-taught, graphic design requires an understanding of basic design principles and a specialized set of skills that a structured program will thoroughly cover.

Even if you naturally have an eye for composition and can put together fantastic layouts, knowing how to properly build those layouts and prep them for production is just as important. Agencies commonly used to have production artists on staff but with economic woes, many will now expect you to do it yourself. What I’ve learned (the hard way) is that designing something just because it “looks cool” is not enough of an explanation, especially to clients! Knowing how to get from point A to point B, why you decided to design a project in a certain manner and being able to accept critiques (both good and bad) is hugely valuable.

Not all of us are able to go to school when we want or where we want but in the meantime, don’t let that slow you down. When I decided to go to school for design, I enrolled really late and didn’t make it off of the waiting list. During the year I had to sit out, I regularly purchased design books, scoured design blogs and worked on art projects. I did my best to stay inspired and keep the momentum until it was finally time to take the plunge.

A Common Workday is Not Really Common.


As a freelance designer, establishing structure can be difficult because you never know what’s going to come up. On a normal day, I usually wake up by 6:30 a.m. If my blog post for the day isn’t ready to go, I try to wrap it up. By 7:30, I am putting on my makeup, getting dressed and then walking to the coffee shop with my boyfriend and dog. When I get home, I quickly scan my emails to see if anything client or agency-related has popped up.

My workdays can vary quite drastically. I could have an entire week at home in my office doing work for my clients (at any time, they range from 5 to 10) or, on the flipside, I could end up double-booked, running back and forth between two agencies. It’s all very unpredictable. I get calls at the last minute, sometimes with a day’s notice to show up somewhere. In the last year, I’ve freelanced at four different agencies in Portland, one in New York and in-house at one company — Nike. Agency hours are usually pretty long. It’s not uncommon to arrive by 9 a.m. and work until 6, 7 or 8 pm. Clients don’t care how late you have to stay….they want the job done. Since I am still young and don’t have a huge amount of responsibility, I don’t mind the long hours but if you have other extracurricular tasks, kids and pets, be prepared for your day to not wrap up at a set time.

The hardest part of being a freelancer is the lack of a division between work and life. I often cancel after-hours plans to get a job done, work through the weekends and feel guilty when I do take a day off because there’s always a job waiting.

Exciting Work is Usually Balanced Out with Production


What do I love about my job? The sheer variety of projects that I get to work on! In the last few months, I’ve designed websites, books, blogs, email ad campaigns, landing pages for online retailers, logos, media kits and more.

Though, not all design work is fun! I think that a common misconception that students have when starting out in graphic design is that they get to be creative all day, every day. From my experience, while graphic design is more creative than your average job, I would say that I only get to be creative HALF of the time. The other half is spent setting up files, doing production work or conducting research. When you walk into a store and see signs for events and promotions everywhere, when you pass window displays, when you pick up a catalog or notice a product’s packaging…someone had to set up those files and send them to the printer. I’ve had entire weeks where I spent 10 hours a day in InDesign, outputting mechanicals to go to print. Being creative is a great asset, but knowing how to properly set up and deliver the files that that creativity is housed in is really important.

I Considered Other Careers Because I Didn’t Know What Graphic Design Was


I wish I’d had a mentor or someone who could have taught me about design. I would have discovered it that much earlier. I always read fashion magazines through my history and math classes (mid-90s issues of Bazaar were so great!) and I loved the world they showcased outside of my suburban town. I think I would have wanted to do something in the fashion industry….though I’m not sure what. Beyond that, I knew that I didn’t want to toil my life away doing mundane office work (which I ended up doing for two summers in college).

School Felt Never-Ending


For school, I am going to go out on a limb and say that overall, it’s less important about where you go — the weight of your employability is mostly based on the quality of your portfolio, your personality (are you easy to get along with and willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done?), who you know and of course, your experience / expertise.

My road to becoming a designer was a bit convoluted. When I was in high school, I would scour the school library for advertising books and anything to do with vintage Swiss poster design. I didn’t know any graphic designers though and the connection that design could be a viable career was completely lost on me. When I interviewed at a local art school, the professor told me that my portfolio needed more fine art — but I disliked drawing and painting. Looking at my angular collages, excessive use of rub-on letters and very sparse, graphic layouts, I really wish he had told me about the graphic design program. I walked out of that meeting feeling disillusioned and decided that I didn’t want to be “a starving artist.”

Later, after spending some time in community college, I fell in love with an eBusiness class. Marketing was where it was at for me. I still dabbled in design but it was more of a visual experimentation and nothing professional.

In 2005, once I finished my business degree, I felt unsatisfied. I was a creative person by nature and people had begun to offer me freelance design work. I had a vision for what I wanted to do and started doing some fairly big jobs, but I wasn’t comfortable with my skill level — I wanted to know how to do things the right way instead of guessing. In 2006, I went back to community college for a two year design degree. The classes were small, affordable, thorough and the schedule allowed me to continue working. If you’re on a budget and live on your own, I highly recommend going the community college route. If you still have a thirst to learn more once you’re finished, you can always transfer to a four year school.

For Not Being a Metropolis, Portland Has a Lot to Offer


Besides being home to the behemoths that include W+K and CMD, there are so many small agencies scattered across this town and I am constantly discovering more. It’s quite unbelievable, really. Large companies like Nike, the U.S. headquarters for Adidas and Columbia Sportswear are located in town so there is a constant flow of work funneling down from them that keeps a lot of places busy. Four of the agencies I’ve worked at in the last year have 15 or less people and there are tons more that I’ve learned of only recently. Before I make Portland sound like a perfect utopia for designers, there has been a nonstop influx of creatives for probably the last 10 years now and the market is flooded. Competition can be stiff. Don’t just show up and expect to be handed a job! On the other hand, if you want to be a freelancer and run your own studio, the independent creative spirit is very much alive and well.


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