“Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” —John Lennon
I qualified in design 13 years ago and had been a full time designer, but the market changed locally and I found freelance tricky to get paid. I’m currently working as the I.T. guy in a civil engineering firm, which I enjoy, although I miss the boom of satisfaction from working on a great design, and seeing it born into print or digital media.
I feel stuck in a rut. Many folks I know who were designers into our 30’s have drifted away from the industry, mainly for financial reasons but I don’t want to be one of them. The freelance angle is something I keep my hand in so I don’t lose my skills, but I’m unsure of what the break would entail, or how to start.
You loved design so much that you majored in it and carved out a career. But then, life threw you some curve balls. Clever and quick, you rebounded, finding steady employment in another field. It’s comfortable and it pays — on paper, shouldn’t that be enough?
If you’re not creatively fulfilled, that void will gnaw away at you every single day. How do I know? Because I’ve been there…and the only solution was to get back in the game.
When the economy crashed in 2009, design and advertising were hit especially hard. Budgets were slashed and work became much less steady. To make ends meet until the industry picked back up, I took on extra hours at my previous shoe store job. I’d never closed that door completely and it’s a great lesson to never burn your bridges! To keep my skills sharp, I picked up as much freelance as possible (no job was too small) and reminded myself that the position I was in would soon pass. And, it did. Within a year, the industry began to rebound and I landed a placement at a local design studio that soon stretched onto a year and a half of steady employment.
If you’re feeling stuck in your current position and want to get back in the design field, here are 5 tips I’ve personally used to build my career:
1. Befriend your design peers.
Sounds simple enough, right? Never underestimate how far being a nice person who is genuinely interested in others will take you!
Branch gets dozens of new client inquiries a week and for the ones we can’t take on, I immediately pass on a list of design referrals for other freelancers and studios. This list is made up of people I’ve met in person or people I’ve known online for years. Having that personal connection makes me trust the people I’m recommending that much more. I met half of the people on that list at Designer VACA.
Even if you aren’t able to hit up every event and convention, make a list of 10 people you admire today and reach out with a simple introduction. Once your relationship has solidified, let the designer know that if they have any work overflow, you’re available.
2. Create self-initiated projects.
One of the biggest complaints I hear from designers who’ve taken a break is that they’re not sure how to land the types of clients they want because they don’t have any of that genre of work to share in order to get hired. It’s a loop that can seem endless but there is a fix.
What’s your dream brand to work with? Whether it’s Anthropologie or Apple, you can create a fictional project to showcase your design chops as long as you clearly call it out as such. Even better, dream up a business of your own and then design it into reality!
Self-initiated projects do hold weight. When my brother was trying to get into Nike, he created his very own shoe design and ended his portfolio with that piece. It showed that he was serious about working there and took the initiative. He got the job.
Need more insight on self-initiated projects? Check out this post.
3. Brush up on new skills.
If you’re feeling stuck and uninspired, the easiest way to remedy that is to sign up for some new courses. My top picks are on Skillshare because some of the most talented designers in the world are teaching you their tricks of the trade for a reasonable price. Learn from the best and then show off those skills in some self-initiated projects!
4. Put up an online portfolio.
The easiest way to get more work is to share the work you currently have. The golden rule with sharing your work is that you only want to showcase what you’re willing to do more of. I have piles of work that I did for sports brands and the NBA and NFL but you’ll never see it in my portfolio. Instead, you’ll find work from creative, innovative small businesses because that’s what I’m most passionate about.
Allergic to code? No problem. Sign up for Cargo Collective, Squarespace or Behance and give yourself a deadline of a week to get your work together. No more excuses!
5. Share, share, share.
Wrangle an invite to Dribbble and also pin projects from your design portfolio to Pinterest. As a side note, I just had a project that got repinned 50 times from my Pinterest board — think about how many times it then got pinned from those 50 boards and it’s digital marketing gold. Finally, don’t be afraid to share those behind-the-scenes shots on Instagram — often, they’ll get more engagement than a finished project because people love to feel like they’re part of the creative process. Stay consistent, be relentless.
Remember, the right clients are out there, they just have to know how to find you. Give them the “in” that they need — and if you do a great job, they’ll refer you to everyone else they know! To this day, I can draw out a spider diagram from five core clients and everyone else I’ve worked with since literally connects off them. Even with the internet at their fingertips, people still value personal recommendations the most.
I hope these five tips help you jump-start your design career once again. It’s never too late to pick back up where you left off.
Your turn: Do you have any tips to add to the mix? Have you been in this situation and what were your solutions to remedy it?