5 Different Paths to Becoming a Designer

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When it comes to building a career in design, there’s a multitude of different paths one can follow. In this post, five professional designers share their unique path into the design industry, what their experience was like, and lend some advice to those building their own careers in design. Let these designers help guide the way.

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  2. Hallo: Universities characters cute vector character design hiwow illustration educational opportunity school work student university education

Row 1:
Kasia Bojanowska for DigitalOcean,
Alaina Johnson,
Olga Zalite for Hiwow.

1. Get A Formal Education

Designer Gabrielle Widjaja recently graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in Graphic Design. Here’s how she describes her experience getting a formal education.

I feel incredibly lucky to have had the unique experience of being a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. I think one of the best privileges of going to art school is that you are surrounded by hard-working peers with unique talents and interests. While you’d think competitiveness would be rife in art school, you’d be happy to know that everyone is very supportive of each other. This workroom is a safe and collaborative space for the growth and development of young designers, and it feels amazing to be a part of this environment.

One of the best privileges of going to art school is that you are surrounded by hard-working peers with unique talents and interests.

Since I have classes, I have to work around those hours. If you’ve heard that the RISD workload is intense, it’s true. On top of having five-hour studios around three to four times a week and a few one to three-hour liberal arts classes scattered in-between, I spend upwards of four to five hours at my studio desk working almost every day except some weekends. My schedule has to be fairly regimented due to school in general, and I always have between two to six projects going on concurrently in addition to extracurricular obligations.

2. The Self-Taught Approach

With so many online resources and networking opportunities, you don’t necessarily need to get a formal education in design to get your foot in the door. All you need is a little hard work and persistence. Take it from self-taught designer & Illustrator Spencer Gabor.

Four years ago, I was a business major in school and heading in the complete opposite direction of where I wanted to be. I continued with my degree, but spent every second outside of class drawing, learning the Adobe Suite, and hopping on any possible project I could. This included reaching out to start-ups at my school and pro-bono projects just so I could get the inklings of a portfolio together.

This process was long, but some of the most fulfillment I’ve ever felt.

To be honest, at first, I was making loads and loads of bad work, and I would send this to any industry professional that would respond to my emails asking for a critique. Bad portfolio after bad portfolio, I kept putting together collections of work until the feedback finally became positive. This taught me more than I think any art program could have, and I wasn’t feeling any sort of burnout from other people’s assignments, deadlines, etc. Sure there was a lot of self-doubt, frustration, and uncertainty — but these lows were just part of following a passion.

This process was long, but some of the most fulfillment I’ve ever felt. Finally, something started clicking as I began to grow my social media following and receive emails for actual work.

3. Enroll In A Bootcamp

Bootcamps are a great hands-on option for those wanting a job in Product Design. Whether you want to be a UX/UI Designer, or Visual Designer, there are plenty of online bootcamps to help you earn the necessary credentials. That’s how Spencer Winkelstein built his dream career.

The rise of the tech bootcamp has been somewhat of a revolution over the past decade. Bootcamps allow you to take classes in-person, online, or some kind of combination over a short period of time and get your feet wet in the field you’re pursuing. Some of these bootcamps offer scholarships and others allow you to pay after you find a job post-graduation.

The best way to get the most from your learning experience is through highly practiced people in the industry.

The best way to get the most from your learning experience is through highly practiced people in the industry. Whether you’re fresh out of undergrad, high school, or already have some work experience and you’re looking for a career shift, I highly recommend a bootcamp to introduce you to product design and fill in any knowledge gaps.

4. Say Yes To New Opportunities

Sometimes, design just finds its way to you without you even trying. For designer Gustavo Zambelli, staying open to unexpected opportunities is what ultimately led him to become the amazing designer he is today. Here’s a snapshot into his story:

One day in 2007, I went to eat pizza with my friends at a local pizza place in my hometown. While we eating, we started messing around with a digital camera. The owner of the restaurant saw us with the camera, came to our table, and assumed that since we had a digital camera, we could design things too. So, he asked us to design the restaurant’s menu, magnets, and other stuff.

We accepted the proposal, but none of us actually had any design experience. Throughout the next few days, I took on the project and I fell in love with design. Obviously, I designed the whole thing in Microsoft Publisher like a real champ, lol.

Have you ever thought about studying graphic design? Because you have a good eye for this…

One of my friends who was at the pizza joint told me about his brother who was a Graphic Designer at the time. The only downside was that he lived in California, but thanks to Messenger and Skype we were able to get in touch with him and ask about how I could translate my Publisher design into Corel. He had no problem helping me and when checking out the design I made he said, “Have you ever thought about studying graphic design? Because you have a good eye for this.”

And that was it! Ever since that day, I just fell in love with design, and I haven’t stopped researching, testing, and creating things.

5. Create Opportunities For Yourself

If you want to build a creative career, one sure-fire approach is to simply create those opportunities for yourself. Putting your work in front of the people who want to see it is a sure-fire approach in landing the kind of work you want to do. Our very own podcast host Meg Lewis talked about her own experience with this approach in a recent episode of Overtime:

I do this thing where if I’m interested in getting into a new area, (like podcasting, or textile design), I’ll always create an opportunity for myself, where I don’t have to wait for a brand or an employer to believe in me to give me that opportunity—because that’s probably never going to happen if I don’t have any proof that I can do that thing.

Because I had a single example up, it opened the door for brands and future clients to hire me for that.

So, that’s what I did with textile design. I ended up creating a Society6 shop where I designed a bunch of textiles. I put them up there and learned about textile design in the process, and I was able to have examples of the fact that I can design textiles, and I can do a great job, and they look really nice.

And because I had a single example up, it opened the door for brands and future clients to hire me for that. Literally, a couple of months later, somebody said, “We love your textile line, we’d like you to apply patterns like that to our product line,” and that’s how I get work in other areas.

We hope these stories offer some insight into what path is best suited for you. Each method has its own unique set of challenges and advantages, but one thing remains true for all—it’ll take plenty of hard work, dedication, and passion to build the design career of your dreams. Keep at it, we believe in you!


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