Getting Started in Design Sucks

I often see people sharing stories about how they are struggling to get their first design job. Know this, it’s not just you that’s having a hard time, everyone I’ve know has gone through this in one way or another. I want to share a story about particularly awful interview I had early on in my career that I thought I’d never get past.

In 2009 my wife and I moved from Massachusetts to North Carolina. I didn’t know anyone in NC and I didn’t have a job lined up. I had a few years of experience doing a wide variety of things including film production, front end development (CSS wasn’t a thing yet) quality assurance, and customer support. These jobs exposed me to working in the web industry. None of this was out of the ordinary back then, everyone working in the web industry did all kinds of weird and varying tasks. Although I didn’t have much experience I knew I needed to put myself out there and start applying for the jobs I wanted.

During my first year in NC I applied to a lot of jobs and didn’t get many interviews. The interviews I did get were somewhat uneventful, but there is one interview I will never forget because of how comically horrible it was! The job position was posted as a Flash Designer. This was pre-iPhone days and Flash was still a relevant and popular way to create websites because most people were viewing websites on desktop computers with browsers that supported Flash.

The job description was kind of vague. It sounded like the company needed someone to produce graphics and animations to be used in the creation of Flash websites. I didn’t fully understand what this involved but it sounded awesome, so I applied, and for some reason I actually got an interview! I didn’t have a portfolio at the time but I did have access to a computer and the internet so you know what that means…Photoshop tutorials!

Back in the early 2000s I had two main sources of learning, Abduzeedo and Signalnoise. Pretty much everything I learned about creating digital graphics in Photoshop came from those two blogs. Now don’t get me wrong, I learned a bunch of awesome techniques from those sites but what I learned wasn’t exactly the most practical knowledge to have when trying to get my first job as a designer. All I knew back then was I wanted to make visually interesting things for the internet, whatever that means.

I show up to the interview and walk in to a very nice office. The scene was exactly what you would expect to see at a web design agency ten years ago. Exposed brick, artwork hanging on the walls, dudes in Star Wars t-shirts working on multiple monitors. I was pretty nervous but also excited! Upon my arrival I met the guy who would conduct my interview. Let’s call him “Steve” because I don’t remember his name and I don’t want to personally call him out. I sat down in Steve’s office and he began asking me questions about my interest in the job and my prior work experience. I thought I was doing well and everything was going normal then all of the sudden the interview got really awkward.

Steve started asking me about my experience developing websites with Javascript and PHP and if I could pull up a couple of live sites we could look at together. Not only did I not have any live sites to show him I didn’t even know what PHP was! In my defense I thought the position was more focused on designing than coding…guess not. I tell Steve that I haven’t built any websites but I did have design work I could show him. I proceed to pull out a folder containing prints of things I made from various Photoshop tutorials.

One example of design work I showed Steve was a circular object I created by combining shapes, colors, and blending modes in Photoshop. I learned the technique from a tutorial on James White’s O-Series. For the purpose of this post I tried replicating one of these objects in Sketch, which you can see in the example above. I think it came out alright!

I showed Steve a bunch of other things I made from tutorials, like gel buttons. Remember when gel buttons were the hotness? The worst offender in my portfolio was a poster I made featuring a couple of UCONN men’s basketball players. It looked like one of those bumper graphics you see on ESPN in between segments when 3–4 athletes are all in different positions and bright beams of light are shooting out from behind them liker lasers.

I thought my work was awesome because I had fun making it. Steve was kind of thrown off by what I was showing him. From here on out I don’t think he really knew what to do with me and honestly I understood why. I was interviewing for a position that I was not prepared or qualified for, I had no real world design experience, and I was showing him pages of irrelevant things I made from Photoshop tutorials. I probably shouldn’t have gotten that interview but there I was. Steve was not impressed and it showed.

How was I ever going to get a job doing design work if one of my first interviews went so horribly wrong?

I don’t remember the rest of the interview or even leaving the building but I do remember driving home feeling completely devastated. I emailed Steve the next day to thank him for meeting with me but unsurprisingly never heard back. I started to doubt myself and question if I was cut out for this industry. How was I ever going to get a job doing design work if one of my first interviews went so horribly wrong?

I let myself be upset for a few days then I got back to applying for jobs. It was slow going for a while but I continued to get interviews and with each interview I learned more about what skills I needed to work as a designer. I didn’t stop doing Photoshop tutorials, I just did different ones that were more focused on the type of work I heard companies say they were looking for during my interviews. Sticking with it paid off because several months later I finally landed a design job!

Getting started in design wasn’t easy for me…it straight up sucked! Ten years later I can write this post and laugh about some of the things I did and went through early on in my career. If you learn from your bad experiences and don’t let them slow you down you’ll eventually get where you want to be. If I can do anything to help you get started in design please let me know, even if you just want to share stories about how to get past awful interviews!

I lead in defining and implementing strategy for User Experience design teams.