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7 Ways to Start as a Young Designer

We’ve all been there as young designers. Sitting on our parent’s computer, playing with the latest edition of Photoshop Elements trying to figure out how these design rockstars create those amazing websites we find on Most Inspired and The FWA. But what does it take to become a design rockstar? Where do you start?

We all envy the best, its the competitive nature that is preprogrammed into our brains that gives us that desire for something more. Unfortunately for all but a select few there is a long road ahead before people will be envying your work, though not impossible. As a young kid at a computer I spent hours playing with a copy of Photoshop 3 and Microsoft Frontpage. I thought it was incredible that something I make can be seen around the world and I wanted it to look the best I could make it.

1 – Don’t be Afraid to be Yourself

There are more designers out there than you could imagine. The first part of learning to develop not only your design skills but your name in the field is to be yourself and let that reflect in your work and reputation. The nice thing about the design industry is that we are never expected to show up to the office in a suit and tie and push paper all day. We’re creatives, we’re weird! Almost every design department I’ve set foot in has people that wear over colorful clashing clothes, have tattoos, wear shorts and those old school Converse shoes, etc. Keep in mind that being yourself and being professional are two very different things usually. When it comes to designing for clients its OK to have a personality, but being responsible with projects is where the bottom line is drawn.

2 – Learn the Industry

The world of design is a strange and quirky place. Clients don’t understand what we do, money is tight, and the competition for projects is vast. Before starting to approach any kind of organization about a project you’re going to need some experience with the production process, client relationships, and how those clients think. There are plenty of places on the internet to get an idea of how projects are typically handled, even by freelancers. Don’t worry about pricing yet, but develop guidelines for yourself to follow when starting a new piece. (Try A List Apart)

Another good resource to learn from is the very people that work in the design world. Find out who the leading design firms are in your area, look up who their Art Director or Senior Designers are and call them. Be extremely polite and understanding of their time, explain who you are what you want to do, and ask if they would be willing to meet with you at their convenience to answer a few questions and critique your portfolio. Most designers will be more than willing to help out!

3 – Learn the Difference Between “For Fun” Work and “Pro” Work

There is a huge difference between what you might find most enjoyable to design and what potential clients are looking for. Not to say that designing professionally isn’t fun, its just well…different. Clients are in business for a reason, and they need a website designed to sell that reason to their customers. As cool as the Firey Text effect you accomplished after school might be, your local bed and breakfast will have little interest in such an ability. When thinking of businesses and organizations that you could possibly approach, do some research on similar businesses. Find out what works for them and how you can accommodate those requirements. When a client hires a designer, it is crucial to remember that we are working for their success not ours.

4 – Do Charity Work

This is honestly one of the best ways to learn and gain real world experience without asking a client to gamble on you. Every community in the world has small grassroots charity organizations that will be glad to take on volunteers to improve their image both in print and on the web. You might end up designing fliers, small websites, brochures, etc for free but you will learn to work with real world clients and projects for your portfolio. The most important part of doing these pro-bono projects is to treat them as if they are your big break into the industry because they very well could be! Charity organizations are usually tied to local businesses that sponsor their efforts, if you make them happy the word will spread quickly!

5 – Stay Humble and Know Your Abilities

The latest edition of he GAG’s Pricing and Ethical Guidelines might say that a small eight page website is worth thousands of dollars but you’re not quite there yet. To be able to reach such levels is a long road and a hill you’re going to have to climb. There is nothing wrong with that however! As a young designer starting out you have a huge advantage to those larger firms and older freelancers, a major lack of overhead. They have to worry about payroll, rent, insurance, equipment, software licenses, utilities, etc and need to adjust their project pricing accordingly. Without all those responsibilities you can work just as efficiently for a much lower price. When talking to a potential client, there is nothing wrong with asking for their budget on the project.

In addition to the price you can work for starting out, you need to know your abilities. A freelance designer wears many hats, so you need to prioritize which you wear best. My suggestion for a beginning web designer would be to stick to basic static sites or skinning simple Content Management Systems. This will keep your code work minimal and your time management more efficient. Many possible clients will ask you to design the next YouTube (I’ve personally had this request) and even though you might be able to find a script online that lays out the framework for you, it is very likely that you will paint yourself into a corner halfway through the project where you might be in over your head. Situations like this can quickly hinder your growing reputation.

6 – Show Off Your Stuff

When I first started looking for clients I designed fake websites and print projects that showed a variety of styles, layouts, and applications. I took these fake designs along with any charity work and showcased them on a simple website, as well as printed them out and organized them in a binder. This not only gave me something tangible to back up my claims as a freelancer but I also had something I could show prospective clients as examples of what I could do for them. I literally went door to door asking for business owners and managers to see if there was any interest in a service that I could provide. Being young many thought it was impressive. With out any pressure on them to start working right away I would thank them for their time, ask them to keep me in mind and leave them with a business card. It worked better than you might expect!

7 – Network! Network! Network!

This is just a general necessity in business but for good reason, it just plain works. After you have gotten your feet wet with a small variety of projects and feel ready to start talking to paying clients you need to get your name out there. Hopefully after successfully completing some charity projects they were happy enough working with you to talk about you to their friends and sponsors. Don’t be afraid to ask the heads of these organizations of they know of any sponsors or local businesses that might be interested in talking to you about your services. Have clean and well designed business cards ready!

Also there are tons of local business networks, both free and paid memberships that you might want to join. Don’t be afraid to approach business owners and just explain what you do, you never know who will be interested in throwing some small projects your way. After all, you’re a young kid that can provide a legitimate service to any small business; how cool is that!?

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