The Calculated Creative

How To Land Your First Design Job

Finding your first opportunity may take persistence. With the right strategic approach, you can get those critical early design roles.

Getting your first job as a designer can seem daunting, but with some preparation and persistence, it is very achievable.

Here are some tips to help you land that coveted first design role:

Build a stellar portfolio

Your portfolio is one of the most important things when applying for design jobs. It showcases your skills, style and experience better than any resume can. You'll want to spend time carefully curating it to highlight your strengths.

  • Include 8-12 carefully curated projects that highlight your strongest skills in visual design, UX and UI. Select work that shows your design process from research and brainstorming to final execution.
  • Showcase work that is recent, ideally from the last 1-2 years. Older projects may not accurately reflect your current skills and approach. Remove projects from more than 3 years ago.
  • Present cohesive projects, not just a collection of random samples. Show how you think about design holistically and systematically approach each project.
  • Only include your best work that you are proud of. Cut any projects that you are not fully satisfied with. It's better to have fewer examples that are very strong, rather than many average projects. Quality over quantity.
  • Tailor your portfolio to the type of job you are applying for. If it is more visual design focused, minimize wireframes. For UX roles, process may be more important than visual mocks. Cater to each opportunity.

Spend time refining both your online and PDF portfolio to reflect your personal brand. Ask other designers for feedback to improve it before applying. This is your chance to showcase your talents in the best light possible.

Expand your design skills

The design field is constantly evolving with new trends, technologies and techniques emerging every year. Show that you are keeping your skills fresh and relevant by highlighting continued learning and growth.

  • Learn and keep sharp your foundational design skills like typography, color theory, layout, information hierarchy and more. These are key for any design role.
  • Study current design trends, predictions and examples of innovative work. Follow thought leaders in the industry. Stay on top of where design is heading.
  • Experiment with new design tools and software. Many companies use Figma, Sketch, Adobe Creative Suite or other programs. Practice to get fluent.
  • Consider taking online courses, tutorials or bootcamps to build skills quickly. Subscribe to newsletters and podcasts.
  • Get additional certifications in an area like UX design, design thinking or visual design to demonstrate focused expertise.

Treat learning like an ongoing habit, not just a one-time event. Find ways to continually improve your skills and absorb new information. This will show you are dedicated to growth.

Build your professional network

Getting connected with the design community can help you find job openings, get insider advice and get your foot in the door at companies you want to work for.

  • Attend local design meetups and conferences to meet other designers face-to-face. Follow up with your new connections after.
  • Follow designers and companies you admire on social media. Comment, share, and engage to get on their radar.
  • Connect with designers on LinkedIn, especially alumni from your school or program. Ask for informational interviews to learn about their career journeys.
  • Consider interning, volunteering or freelancing to gain real-world experience. This expands your network quickly.
  • Offer to mentor students or junior designers to develop connections with your peers.

Expanding your network takes effort but is invaluable. The more designers you connect with, the more opportunities may arise.

Perfect your application materials

When applying for roles, take time to carefully tailor your resume, portfolio, cover letters and other application materials to each job. Show why you are a great fit for that specific position.

  • Highlight design projects, skills and achievements from your resume that directly apply to that role and company. Align to their needs.
  • Tweak your portfolio to reflect the company's brand, values and design aesthetic. Include relevant case studies.
  • In cover letters, explain why you are interested in that company and role specifically. Do your research beforehand to personalize your letter.
  • If you have a connection to the company, mention it in your cover letter. "John Smith in your UX department used to be my professor..."
  • Double check for spelling and grammar errors which can make you seem careless.

Spending time targeting your application to each company shows attention to detail and enthusiasm. Follow up after applying to build connections.

Apply for entry-level and junior roles

The best way to start your design career is looking for roles that are suited for emerging designers like internships, junior designers, assistants or freelance gigs. These provide valuable early experience.

  • Search job boards and company career sites specifically for entry level or junior design positions. Set up alerts.
  • If you meet some but not all qualifications, still apply. Mention your eagerness to learn on the job.
  • Consider freelancing, pro bono or volunteer design work to gain professional experience if full-time roles are limited.
  • Offer to job shadow designers to get your foot in the door and learn about the role.
  • Apply widely to increase your chances. Follow up with every application.

Finding that first opportunity may take persistence through some rejections, but keep confidence in your abilities. With the right strategic approach, you can get those critical early design roles. Your hard work will pay off!

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