Becoming a designer - stepping up to the plate

In the second part of this two-part blog Onespacemedia's Creative Director James Dellar offers his expertise and advice to young designers that are moving into their first commercial job.

In the second part of this two-part blog Onespacemedia's Creative Director James Dellar offers his expertise and advice to young designers moving into their first commercial role. While the first article focuses on the steps from University to getting your foot in the door with an agency, this article is aimed at giving you advice about the ins and outs of agency culture.


The first day of school

Congratulations, you’ve got your first job in a design agency. This is where the real work begins. A big part of a junior designer role is learning the foundations of commercial design. This is everything that they don't tell you at University. The first few years are crucial so here are a few tips that might just give you the edge.

Don’t get ahead of yourself

Every design agency will have a hierarchy and you’ll need to understand it quickly. It may not be obvious from job titles but all of your colleagues will have worked hard to achieve their positions in the company so make sure that you give them the respect they deserve. Their experience and expertise can help you become the designer you want to be. Listen, learn, and know your place. You’re up in the premier league now.

Open, crop, save, repeat

Sometimes your creative director or senior designer will give you a task that seems so boring and mundane that you can lose the will to live. It may be to resize 2,000 images to make them ready for the web, or path out 500 product shots and position them on white backgrounds. Believe me, I’ve done both in the past. At the time it seems horrendous and feels like you’ll be working on it forever. Now, before you moan or roll your eyes, this type of work is character building and here’s why – firstly, every designer should want to help their team members deliver a professionally crafted end product. Secondly, you should approach every piece of work, no matter how small, mundane or stressful, with the same work ethic and attention to detail and quality. Make sure you have a ‘can do’ attitude in everything that you do. You will become a better designer in the long run and these characteristics will stay with you throughout your career.

Don’t become a 'John Doe'

Agency life can be a daunting experience. There will be internal politics and lots of rules, policies and processes. Sometimes work can be stressful - creative people are usually opinionated and disagreements can create tension in the workplace. Designers are passionate people and when tension is riding high it's easy to hide away at your desk and stay out of the way. Remember that you were hired for your skills and personality. This includes your ability to think for yourself and solve problems so if you have an idea about how to solve the creative challenge that two team members are disagreeing over, then speak up. It's far too easy to be a shrinking violet and you'll be the first on the exit list if the company needs to downsize.

Rocking the boat

You may be the only designer or a member of a larger design team; either way you’re there to support the entire company for its creative needs. It's hard to summon creativity on demand but you need to be self-motivated, consistently deliver your best work, and stand by it. Sometimes your boss or peers won't agree with your approach but before you lose the plot, remember that companies have a lot of personalities to manage and the world is bigger than the problems you have on your desk. It's easy to misinterpret your passion for frustration so it's vital that when you do have to defend your work you ensure that your responses are clear and that you have a solid rationale behind any design decisions you have made.

If there is something on your mind about a job, client or colleague make sure that you exercise professional sensitivity and address it with the right person at the right time. For example it's probably not the best idea to bring up your grievances with Dave from accounts when the year-end accounts are due. Low morale effects everyone so if you are going to rock the boat, do it carefully.

Finger on the pulse

Knowledge is power - a phrase especially true in the creative industries. Do you want to be on the cutting edge of design? Then you need to stay up to speed with the latest news, trends, and styles in the industry. Share links though your social channels and with your team. If you don’t have an internal system of sharing inspiration within the agency, be proactive and create one. This not only shows your peers that you’re thinking for yourself but also that you want to help evolve the creative think tank.

Your first live client project

Lets be honest, you’re scared. It’s like a dream where you’re naked at school, and everyone is watching you. And that’s not a bad thing. Suck it up and get on with it.

Go old school

A pen and pad are your best friend. Use either lined paper or off white rough paper, even unused print outs. This means that you’re less precious about how things look. Draw fast and large. Stay clear of details, it’s rough after all.

It’s good to talk

Before you open your software, see if you can grab the attention of another designer. Hit them up when they've come up for air from their work - the kitchen or other communal areas are always good places to strike up a conversation. Talk them through your ideas (they’ll probably already know the brief) and see what their thoughts are. They will give you feedback on your ideas and possibly unlock something that you hadn’t considered.

Gather the essentials

Make sure you've got everything organised to start the project - typefaces, images, branding, colour schemes. Getting prepped means that you don’t waste time sourcing all this stuff down the line and interrupting someone who may be busy. Organise your files and write paths/locations down on your pad so it’s right in front of you rather than hidden away in an epic email chain.

It's time to put that first pixel down. Go for it, don’t be scared of a blank canvas, this is your time. You know you've got the skills and everything you need to do the job so get all the elements onto the canvas. All designers work in different ways but I prefer to design fast and I don’t usually worry about organising layers and folders until later in the process. Edit, share, discuss, repeat. By the end of the process you'll have something you and your team are proud of.

Know which battles are worth fighting

Critique sessions, both internal and external can be draining. These meetings are there to ensure that everything is designed for a purpose. If there is no purpose or rationale behind a visual element or piece of functionality then it shouldn’t be there. Common sense is your friend when you’re in these meetings. Know when to listen, and when to fight for something. A strong rationale that is grounded in common sense will help you move forward.

The results are in

So there’s a couple of things the client didn’t like; that’s all part of the industry that we’re in. There can be numerous reasons given, or none at all. They may just not like the colour blue! You have to remember that this is an iterative process. Just because you, your peers, and your Mum and Dad like it doesn’t mean that the client will too. Sometimes you will have to compromise and adapt to client ‘must haves’.

Chin up

Every designer’s heart is firmly affixed to their sleeve when it comes to their own work. Rejected ideas aren’t the end of the world, they make you evolve as a designer. Believe in yourself. This belief will get stronger over time as you tackle increasingly challenging briefs.

My wife makes great wallpaper choices

Now of course this doesn’t mean that she can design. By the same token, you're not a surgeon just because you've played the game 'Operation'. The client will likely hold the views and opinions of those who normally make the creative decisions in high regard. Be prepared for anything, this is where good rationale for design decisions will be crucial. Sometimes a client can find it difficult to understand why your idea will work as it may be a new approach and bucks tradition or accepted norms. This is where your research will help you to provide examples of why your ideas will work.

A slice of humble pie

Hurrah! The design has been signed off. Now remember, being humble should be at the heart of your job. Creating a successful, and well-delivered final design that everyone is happy with is your day to day job.

'OK kid, don't get cocky'

You’ve finished the project and everyone is stoked. Don’t down tools, you can celebrate later. If you’re on a roll keep that momentum going — a positive attitude can spread like wildfire and galvanise a team into delivering better and better work. Don't expect your success to make you a hero but rest assured that your efforts will have been noticed. Congratulations, you have become a designer.

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