Getting a Job as a Designer without going to Design School


Listen to your heart!
(You can cut to the key take-away points if you wish to skip my life story).

I am 25, a Telecom Engineer by qualification but making a living as a self-taught designer. I come from a background where majority of your life’s decisions are influenced by your parents, your uncles and other family members; a society where having a degree other than Engineering or Medical is looked down upon. The decision of pursuing a degree in Telecommunication Engineering too was influenced by my parents. I remember having this conversation with my dad while I was still in High School. Dad: ‘Son, if someone asks you what you aspire to be when you grow up, just tell them you wish to be an Engineer’. Not that I question his intentions of visualizing his son having a great future ahead, but influencing the career paths, especially when someone’s life will depend on it, brings in both positive and negative influences. It affects positively if someone can cope with it and idealizes his/her parents’ profession but negatively if the person has other things in mind, as of what he/she wishes to pursue. I happened to be in the latter category. Even though I used to reluctantly accede to the conversation I had with my dad, my heart just did not seem to agree. The result was that even though I got enrolled in an Engineering School, I never found the drive and mental attitude to get myself invested in one!

I had a flare for design while I was still in School; and the go-to guy when it came to painting or sketching Biology anatomy diagrams. During my Engineering, I sat through classes while my mind would be off wandering appreciating a new design I had witnessed during my morning commute on a billboard. I was once approached by a society President to design some marketing collateral for an upcoming event, because apparently, one who can sketch a little bit should know all about design (pun intended). Fearing my reputation at stake, I frantically started googling up all sorts of ways to designing a digital piece, which led me to acquaint myself to Adobe Photoshop. I got exposed to various design tools while working with student societies; every single event bringing in more exposure and more learning. Internet was my best friend, and I learnt various design tools mocking processes and tutorials found online. I used to pick up a great design tutorial, follow through every single step, and imitate the final design.

In my earlier days, I did a lot of pro bono work to get myself more exposure. It was hard and challenging but worth every bit. If I were to credit my current job, I would give it to networking. I landed my first job through a networking event while still at university when a guy who I had helped out with some design stuff introduced me to the CEO of a local start-up. I was scheduled an interview the next day; extremely nervous with a less than average portfolio to flaunt with! The interview continued for a good 70 minutes or so; and it wasn’t the portfolio that landed me the job, it was the passion that did! I worked with them as a part time designer for a couple of months before my finals kicked in; polished my skills, and explored various avenues in design – mobile design, UI/UX, etc. Soon after graduation, I was sent off to an Engineering firm to practice what I had been studying at school, but again my heart fought back. I quit my Engineering career within six months of joining and led off to do something which I could enjoy; and it happened to be design. Again, my networking bit played the part! Just when I was this close of quitting my Engineering job, I got a call from the Chairman of an IT firm who offered me a design position; referred by the CEO of the very same start-up I had worked with during my university days. It’s been around 3 years now, and I haven’t looked back since. I now enjoy a career other than the degree I have in, and love every bit of it. Fortunately, design is an industry where if you can show that you can do it, degrees become a little less relevant. Not saying hiring managers discount it entirely but it doesn’t have the same weight in tech as it does in other industries. Having said that, I am still a strong advocate of attaining a good degree, no matter in whatever discipline it is in. A good degree not only states your academic achievement but gives you the necessary exposure to perform well in your professional life – every single experience counts!

There is plenty of inspiration and good design by the gurus out there on websites like Dribbble and Behance; and to be honest, sometimes, I do get depressed merely by the look of them, since they are just so over the top and way better than my capacities and skills; but perhaps that’s just part of the learning experience. You get yourself acquainted to the best of design and it adds on to your capacity building. Your eyes start to distinguish between good and bad design, pushing you to create a better design than the last one you created.

Here are some of the key take-away points:

  • Follow your heart – there are no failures, only experiences!
  • Start humble – there are no short-cuts.
  • Learn as much as you can and try to mimic some of the best stuff you’ve come across. There is plenty of design inspiration and tutorials out there – Dribbble and Behance showcase some of the best stuff from around the world. TutsPlus offers some great tutorials. Go through at least one of them everyday. The day you stop learning is the day you stop living!
  • Teach yourself the basics – books are great and highly under-rated. “Universal Principles of Design” by William Lidwell is great to start with, and interestingly applies well to almost every genre in design.
  • Get your hands dirty with some of the industry standard tools such as Adobe Photoshop & Illustrator, but never under estimate the power of a pencil and a paper. Some of my best logo designs started off with simple sketches.
  • Choose something that you are passionate about, and excel in it. Design is just as broad as Engineering; there are various avenues – Web Design, Print Design, Industrial Design, Product Design, Fashion Design, the list goes on! Pick a specialization and stick with it.
  • Maintain a portfolio and seek critique from the best – the voices that matter!
  • Network as much as you can – talk about your design processes, your methodologies or even something creative you have come across recently. It not only builds upon your interpersonal skills but gives you the much needed exposure you so badly want. You never know what strikes a chord with someone.
  • Witnessed a bad design and wished it was designed a different way? Take up the challenge – it’s guaranteed to raise some eye brows and bring extra attention your way.

I’m sorry if my post went on to be too much of a drag but I just felt like putting myself out there, hoping it would benefit someone.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. – Steve Jobs

This answer was originally published on Quora as a response to “How do you get a job as a designer without going to design school?”