Advice #32: How Can I Get Back into Design?

ask nubby advice

I received a bachelors in graphic design a few years back, but have done hardly anything with it and have been working in an only marginally related job since graduation. My design software isn’t even up to date. I’ve been toying with the idea of getting back into design lately, but I don’t know where to start. What would you suggest I do?

ask nubby advice


Life happens but really, it’s never too late to catch up. There are times when we get pulled in different directions or have to take another job that’s not related to our profession and that’s okay. Nobody expects you to be an amazing designer overnight. Possessing a willingness to learn and a sense of follow-through will help you with getting back on track.

Enroll in a Continuing Education Program

If you need a quick refresher, you’re in luck because quite a few art schools now offer Continuing Education programs. I am familiar with these because I was recently invited to review portfolios for design students in the program at PNCA. Many of the students I spoke with had already previously earned degrees in design or related fields and in the meantime, ended up in different professions, took time off to be stay-at-home parents or just wanted to refresh their knowledge and update portfolios.

These programs make a lot of sense when you really think about it. Many aren’t necessarily credit-based and the cost tends to be less expensive than traditional, for-credit programs. And, if you’ve previously earned a degree in design, it’s pointless to go back to school to re-earn the same degree again. Technology and software are always changing and if you’re hoping to re-enter the field after an extended break, one of these programs can provide the tools, motivation, connections and resources to get you up to speed with current practices.

Subscribe to Design Blogs

Become familiar with what your design peers are doing (for free) by subscribing to design-related blogs. Keep an inspiration folder on your desktop and collect images as you go (I upload my saved images into a private folder on my Flickr account about once a week).

Once you learn about a few blogs, a whole world will begin to open up as they link to others. A few good places to start (in no particular order) are: Smashing Magazine, For Print Only, Neusblog, I Love Typography, ISO50, Logo Design Love, Computerlove, Brand New and Brand New Classroom, Friends of Type, The Dieline and Design Work Life. This is just scratching the surface!

Take Online Tutorials

When I was in school, we weren’t required to purchase many books. Instead, we subscribed to, which I highly recommend. Providing an amazingly comprehensive selection of online tutorials, Lynda uses videos to teach you new skills. If you don’t understand something the first time around, it’s easy to re-watch the video again and again. Lessons are divided up by chapters and if you’re more advanced, it’s very easy to skip ahead. In the past, I’ve learned a lot of inDesign and Flash tricks by watching Lynda videos. Finally, the subscription options are really affordable, as low as $25.00 a month and allow you to access over 53,000 online video tutorials instantly. So much knowledge at your fingertips!

Test the Waters With Temporary Work

If you haven’t been in the design market for a few years, it’s hard to know what to expect and if you’re up for the challenge — will you enjoy the work, can you handle the workload, are you up to date with practices, do the clients interest you and do the hours work with your schedule? You can only tell so much from an interview. Many companies have been trending towards hiring freelancers as a way to test the waters, especially in this still shaky economy. This is beneficial for both parties because a freelancer can see if they like what the company has to offer with regards to work quality and culture; at the same time, the company can make sure that the freelancer is a good fit with the rest of the team.

When freelancing for a company that I am unfamiliar with, I personally prefer to go through placement agencies so that I have a liaison between myself and the business via my agent. Your agent can assist you with navigating unfamiliar or tricky situations and act as a confidant if any issues arise. They can also put in a good word if you really like the place and are seeking permanent placement. And, if things don’t work out for some unseen reason, there’s less of a loss for both sides. The company doesn’t have any contractual obligation…and, well, you don’t get fired.

Pay Attention to your Portfolio

As a designer, if you end up in a long-term gig (design-related or otherwise), it’s easy to get too comfortable and neglect your portfolio. We are all guilty of letting things slide at some point. Though, when you take too much time off, it becomes increasingly difficult to catch back up. For this reason, I try to set aside a chunk of time every six months to refresh the look and contents of my book. This is your key to finding steady work, whether it be freelance or permanent. And, if a few years slip by, your book runs the risk of becoming dated and falling behind the competition.

Where should you begin? If you feel too overwhelmed to take on the challenge by yourself, a continuing education program can help you get up to speed. If you lack the budget and time, most agencies and design professionals are willing to set aside 15 to 30 minutes to give you a quick round of feedback as long as you’re polite and clear about what you are looking for (an informal portfolio review, not a job!) If you’re in need of some portfolio tips, pay a visit to two of my previous posts, 7 Tips for Creating a Print-Based Portfolio and Creating a Killer Portfolio Discussion.

Readers, do you have any recommendations or further resources for someone who would like to re-renter the graphic design job market?

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