Things to think on as a design graduate

Starting a career in design can be both exciting and daunting. In truth, even those of us who have been here for a long time find it tough going sometimes—things are always evolving, and new trends and tech mean that we always have to stay ahead of the curve.

At this time of year, I often get messages from new graduates asking for advice. What should I do next? Where do I start? How do I stand out fresh from uni? These are not easy questions to answer because every designer is different, and my path is not the same one as you might want to choose.

That said, though, there is some great advice that I’ve picked up along the way – some of which I still look on to this day when I feel like I’ve lost direction or just need inspiration to get going when things are slow.

Here are some key pieces of advice (that I wish I’d known) for design graduates entering the field:

Build your portfolio

Your portfolio is your most important project.  Rather than treat it like a catalogue of everything you’ve ever worked on, focus on quality over quantity. Showcase your best work. It’s better to have fewer, well-executed projects than a load of mediocre ones.

Make it attractive and cohesive, showcasing your narrative through the work that you’ve done. Be personable rather than presenting just another portfolio. No jargon.

Build your connections

Reach out to as many people in your field as you can, both online and offline. Attend industry events, join design communities, and connect with professionals on social platforms. Networking can open doors to job opportunities, collaborations, and mentorship. Every connection counts.

Share your work consistently on social platforms. Engage with industry professionals and people who might help you. Amplify your narrative and expand your network.

Get out and go to events. Turn up. Create connections everywhere you go.

Find a Mentor

Having a mentor can provide guidance, feedback, and industry insights that are invaluable at the start of your career. Find someone willing to offer sound advice and constructive criticism when you need it.

Learn to be resilient and persistent

The design field is competitive, and rejection is part of the process. Stay persistent and keep refining your craft. It’s not easy, but don’t fall into negative outlooks. Nothing great is ever easy, so expect to have to put the work in – it will be worth it.

Get practical experience

Look for paid internships or freelance work. These experiences can provide practical knowledge and make your resumé more attractive to potential employers.

Try to work on real-world projects; this can be a significant portfolio booster. Don't work for free.

Stay focussed, keep learning

Try to avoid ‘scattergun’ tactics. Instead, use your energy and time wisely and remain focused on one or two things instead of burning yourself out trying to do everything.

Design is a rapidly evolving field. Stay updated with the latest tools, technologies, and trends. And invest some time in continuous learning. Online courses, workshops, and design communities can be valuable resources.

Use any downtime you have to create new things to show in your portfolio and on social media. Anything you can do to stay fresh and visible will go a long way toward building your reputation and keeping your portfolio interesting to potential employers.

Look after yourself

This might be my most important piece of advice, yet one that is overlooked by all of us – maintaining your mental well-being is the single best thing you can do for yourself at any point in your career.

Make time to step back from things once in a while and do something for yourself and only yourself. When you’re relaxed and mentally positive, it shows through everything you do, and you are much more likely to enjoy your experience, whether that’s job searching, freelancing, or building your design career in-house.

Don’t take rejection personally

It’s a harsh truth that a proportion of the people that you reach out to won’t respond. It’s not you; people are busy. They might not have the time to respond right away (or at all), you might not be a good match, or they might pin the message to respond to at a later date – I’ve had people come back to me after several months, so don’t lose hope.

If you’ve approached someone who you really want to work with, don’t be afraid to follow up after a week or so. You won’t annoy them – it’s just a reminder. If they still don’t respond after you’ve followed up once or twice, then perhaps they simply can’t offer what you’re looking for. It’s not personal – move on to the next thing.

Starting your career in design requires a balance of creative skills, professionalism, and the ability to continuously learn and adapt. Embrace the journey, stay curious, and keep pushing your creative boundaries.