Later in life, after you have some experience under your belt, you can go in any direction. You might find success as a full-time employee, an owner, a partner, or a freelancer. But at this point in your career, when you have just graduated from design school, I highly recommend that you get a job with an established firm of experienced designers. Here is why:
Real-life Design Skills
I say real-life design skills because there are tons of real-life problems that just don’t come up in a classroom. Setting up a 5-color job for press, coding a website that will actually behave in IE10, and color correcting a photo to look a certain way on a specific color of paper are things that will most likely be expected of you as a designer, but that you probably didn’t cover in class. I could create an extremely long list of things that I learned in my first five years as a design employee that I never learned in school. It’s so much easier to learn these things from experienced co-workers and directors than to figure them out through trial and error on your own.
Inspiration and Motivation
Any freelance designer will tell you that one of the hardest parts of working on your own is lack of inspiration and motivation. There is nothing like the collaborative team environment of a design firm. As a beginning designer, it will be even more difficult to summon up the discipline necessary to stay on task each day, constantly creating new and inspiring designs. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn to work within a team, to experience idea-building exercises, and to be inspired by the other creative people around you.
When you are young, it should be your daily privilege to be inspired by your co-workers, learn from your superiors, and take in as much knowledge as possible. This will only make you a stronger designer later if or when you decide to venture out on your own.
Customer service is top priority for any successful design firm (well, any successful firm, period). It’s one of the most important elements of being a designer, and it’s completely overlooked in school. This is, most likely, because the only way to really learn about customer service is to experience it first-hand.
As students, most of us design for ourselves. Sometimes for our teachers, but mostly for ourselves. We make what we like. When you venture into the business world, though, you will be designing for another person. A person with different taste, different likes and dislikes, and their own set of visions and goals. Making that person happy is your job. It’s not an easy balance — creating something you can be proud of because it is a visual masterpiece and creating something that pleases your client.
You will learn a great deal in a design firm, watching how other designers and your directors deal with clients. It’s much easier to learn about customer service from experienced professionals on the job, than by losing your freelance clients when you can’t get it right on your own.
Sales, Accounting. etc.
There is more to running a successful design firm than being a good designer. Without sales, there are no clients, and there is no work. Without billing, there are no paychecks. Basics like these may be covered in business school, but are usually not part of design school. By working for a successful design company, you can pay attention to the other departments. You will learn how to land new clients. You will find out how designers track their time, how projects are billed, and how everything is filed for easy recall later. You’ll know what to do if a client disappears or tries to skip out on the bill.
It’s going to be very hard to run your own well-oiled design-business machine if you’ve never experienced how the other successful design businesses work.
Most design firms rely on outside businesses in their day-to-day operations. They work with printers, illustrators, photographers, video editors, copywriters, etc. Just out of school, you probably don’t know too many of these people. You probably also do not know how to find these people — short of typing “Photographer” into the Google search box. After you’ve gained experience working for a successful firm, you will form relationships with all of these people. You’ll know who is the best, who is the cheapest, and who is going to be the perfect fit for any job.
Peace of Mind
As designers, many of us make quite a few career moves in our lifetime. It’s fairly normal for designers to have been employees in design firms, directors in design firms, freelancers, owners, partners, and everything in between. There is a lot of growth, and when you first graduate, there is a lot of time. You may not know exactly what you want to do right now, but I know that I would feel regret if I didn’t at least try all of it. If I had just jumped into my own business right out of school, I would have always wondered what it would have been like to work in a creative collaborative professional environment.
If you feel the same way — if you want to experience it all — start by working for someone else. It’s much easier to move from working for a creative firm into owning your own business than it is to do it the other way around. Once you build your resume in one direction, it’s hard to jump into another field of design. Once you’ve started your own business, it’s hard to convince another business owner that you really want to give that up to work for only him, by his rules, with his clients. It’s hard to work backwards.
At this time in your life, the world of design is completely open to you. You can probably get an entry-level job with almost any design firm you choose. It’s up to you: web design, print design, motion design, advertising design, promotional design…anything you want! You won’t ever have that opportunity again.
My advice for you is that you take this time in your life to continue your education by learning from the professionals at a successful design firm.
Where could you go from there?