14 Must-know Career Transition Tips for Designers

The post covers various aspects of career transitions, such as learning from failed opportunities and more!

Let’s be candid for a moment; initiating and sustaining a career can be daunting. There may be instances where we find stability in a particular role, only to recognize that a sudden career shift is necessary. Alternatively, we could wrestle with the idea of a career transition for years before actualizing it.

More often than not, these significant shifts are the toughest parts of our professional journeys. However, it’s entirely feasible to transition successfully from one opportunity to another. To corroborate this, we need only turn to industry veterans who have paved the way.

designers thinking

I had the privilege of interviewing some truly inspirational graphic designers, web designers, marketing experts, and other creative professionals to gather insights on managing career transitions. Their words of wisdom can provide invaluable guidance for anyone contemplating a shift in their career path.

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1. Every Failed Opportunity Teaches a Lesson

Chris Bank, Growth Lead at Lever, offers a wealth of knowledge. One of the first enlightening insights I garnered from his personal reflection was this: not every job will be “the one,” and that’s okay. However, each job, client, or project carries valuable lessons. It’s crucial to appreciate each situation for what it truly is.

His first startup, Epostmark, for instance, was technically unsuccessful. “Beyond the aesthetics, a well-designed product should possess enough market demand to attain market adoption. We failed to achieve that,” he explained.

Chris perceived this failure as an opportunity to reassess his future direction.

“I had to deeply contemplate my career and the skills I wanted to develop, the teams I desired to work with, the industries I wished to acquire expertise in, and the products I aspired to help build."

“Early-stage companies are generally very flexible when it comes to hiring, as finding intelligent people who fit into the culture can be challenging – more so now given the global talent competition.”

failed opportunity

Nevertheless, Chris highlights that this situation is a double-edged sword.

“On one hand, it can be excellent for transitioning your career, gaining more experience. On the other, you may be broadening your experience at the expense of depth. You may end up taking on tasks outside your core responsibilities to assist the team. Being understaffed and under-resourced could slow your skill development.”

The journey may have its share of significant challenges, but reaching the final destination makes it all worthwhile.

“It becomes addictive when you discover the right company, and you want to work all the time because it doesn’t feel like work. The opportunities are boundless regarding what you can take ownership of, the projects you can be involved in, and how quickly you can learn.”

2. The Benefits of Being a Small Fish in a Big Pond

Chris embarked on his first significant career transition shortly after graduating from college. Looking back, he believes it would have been more beneficial to accumulate more experience beforehand.

“I see immense value in absorbing as much knowledge as possible from established companies. Leveraging their resources, professional networks, and brand can be a springboard into your next job or venture,” he suggests.

“For every successful entrepreneur I meet, there are dozens more who haven’t achieved the same level of success. Conversely, most of my friends who chose more ‘corporate’ career paths are now in respected leadership positions. Their specialized skills and knowledge, which are in high demand at startups, give them the flexibility to shift into the startup sector whenever they wish.”

He adds, “I believe the ‘small fish in a big pond’ approach is effective. It provides insights into potential career paths and how to navigate them. Being a ‘big fish in a small pond,’ on the other hand, can limit your perspective.”

3. Choose a Job That Opens Opportunities

Despite his primary interest not being sales or business development, Chris Bank spent a significant amount of time performing these tasks at his first startup. As a result, numerous companies sought his expertise in these areas. However, as these tasks did not align with his passions, he declined.

In retrospect, he realized that taking on those roles could have served as a stepping stone into highly successful companies. Once established within the company, he could have showcased his design skills.

Chris referred to Sheryl Sandberg’s well-known quote: “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.”

looking for opportunities

Chris reflected, “This thought deeply resonates with me. Though transitioning from an unrelated role to one that aligns with your passion might be challenging, such a transition becomes more manageable when you’re already within a company that offers resources and an engaged audience.”

4. Aim to Establish a Strong Client Base Before Transitioning to Full-Time

Paul Boag, a known figure in boagworld, has experienced several career shifts early in his career. One, in particular, proved to be remarkably beneficial.

Right after joining a dot-com company, it unexpectedly shut down. Despite this setback, the timing turned out to be ideal as Paul managed to synchronize the company’s closure with the launch of his own agency. As the dot-com company had been handling a considerable amount of client work towards its end, Paul was able to transfer these clients over to his new business venture.

This fortuitous start endowed him with a tremendous advantage, enabling his business to be profitable from the get-go. Reflecting on this, Paul commented, “It’s crucial to have a solid base of existing clients prior to launching any new company. It alleviates the pressure of sourcing new work and instantly offers a channel for word-of-mouth recommendations.”

Paul further offered some advice for those considering starting their own agency or freelancing. “My suggestion for anyone contemplating this path is to grow your business during your spare time. Dedicate your evenings and weekends until you max out your available hours. Only then, contemplate transitioning to full-time. It might entail several months of extended work hours, but it is a preferable approach than starting a new company and immediately plunging into debt.”

5. Don’t Hesitate to Explore Various Methods to Acquire New Clients

Not everyone is as fortunate as Paul. Indeed, only a few of us find ready-made clients conveniently falling into our laps.

Take Jarrod Wright, for example, a graphic artist and online marketing consultant. His business, Subtle Network, is currently thriving, but it didn’t always have a smooth sailing start.

Every day, Jarrod would rise early, dedicating his entire morning to going door-to-door, distributing his business cards. Later in the afternoon and evening, he would focus on whatever projects he could find.

Jarrod confesses, “I’ve never been particularly adept at networking, but with no budget or client base, it was all I had. It took me several strenuous years of essentially working for free to achieve any level of success. But eventually, things started to stabilize.”

6. Anyone Can Be a Valuable Networking Contact

Jarrod’s method worked for him, but it isn’t always the best tactic for everyone. Before knocking on doors or joining networking organizations, consider your own personal connections.

In today’s context, Cory Simmons regularly shares tutorials on TutsPlus. However, there was a time when he had to search tirelessly for clients, just like many others.

Cory’s first design job came from a local community college. “A teacher I used to have lunch with mentioned that he knew someone interested in getting a website made. He didn’t have the time or interest to do it, so he offered me the opportunity."

“I attempted to offer the teacher a kickback for connecting me with the client, thinking that was how things worked. He laughed and told me it wasn’t necessary. Instead, he connected me with another client. With these two satisfied clients, I was able to continue making connections and getting more work to sustain myself."

networking contacts

Casey Ark, CEO of Plato Web Design, shared a similar experience. His career grew thanks to a networking effect.

“When I was 13, a local gym owner asked me to design his website. My knowledge was very limited at the time; it consisted of two HTML tapes I’d borrowed from the library, and I was terrified. Somehow, I managed to complete the site, and the gym owner ended up mentioning my services to other local businesses."

“From there, things started to take off.”

7. The Impact of Social Media on Your Career is Greater Than You Think

Clients meticulously investigate their potential freelancers. Therefore, it’s crucial that your social media profiles honestly reflect your character, skills, and work ethic. Need evidence?

Jacob Cass from Just Creative exchanged his life in Australia for one in New York City to take up a job he was offered…via Twitter.

Jacob shared, “At first, I didn’t perceive it as a serious job proposal. I mean, who extends a job offer via Twitter? However, I decided it was worth exploring further.”

From a practical standpoint, using Twitter to extend the job offer was logical. The company was a specialist in social media marketing. Of course, they were seeking someone with a proficient online persona.

power of social media

What does your social media presence suggest about you? Would a client extend a job offer to you based on your publically available information?

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8. Recognizing the Competition

As Casey Ark astutely observes, “Many people fail to fully grasp the fact that the web design industry could possibly be the most competitive market globally. Not only does it present incredibly low barriers to entry, but it also places you in direct competition with millions of ambitious designers worldwide, irrespective of your location.”

To provide some context, there are currently over 200,000 design and multimedia freelancers seeking work on Upwork, in addition to approximately 180,000 freelance web developers in search of jobs. The statistics on oDesk are even more striking – more than 490,000 freelancers are vying for opportunities in similar categories. Even accounting for freelancers searching for work across multiple platforms, this is still an immense amount of competition.

Faced with this reality, Ark confesses, “I recognized that I needed to work more diligently and dramatically differentiate my business to outperform them.”

9. The Importance of Self-Marketing

When Casey Ark first embarked on his venture, Plato Web Design, growth was initially slow due to his reliance on word-of-mouth advertising. His realization that active promotion was crucial marked a turning point for his business.

“I shifted my strategy from relying on word-of-mouth to aggressively marketing my business. I learned how to optimize online ad placements, ran Google AdWords campaigns, and implemented various strategies including viral and content marketing, and email outreach. I experimented with every marketing strategy imaginable,” said Casey.

This proactive approach resulted in a significant increase in clientele and subsequent business growth. A few years down the line, Plato is more robust than ever.

Paul Boag, another successful entrepreneur, resonated with Casey’s experience. “While I may not be the best web designer, the success I’ve experienced stems primarily from recognizing the importance of marketing in business. It’s a misconception among many freelancers that their work alone will get them recognition, which, unfortunately, is rarely the case.”

“My reputation only started growing when I began to actively engage with the web design community by blogging and podcasting. Sharing my experiences led to people acknowledging my work and, consequently, recommendations started flowing in.”

10. Explore Creative Approaches to Expand Your Business

Many of us are continuously seeking new clients. We are constantly exploring ways to increase our revenue and make our creative ventures successful. One such method involves providing innovative solutions for unidentified issues.

business promotion

When Jarrod Wright first established Subtle Network, he primarily functioned as a print broker and freelance graphic artist. “At that time, most full-color printing was still quite expensive. Gang-run printing had just started gaining popularity but was mainly marketed to nightclubs as they regularly required affordable flyers.”

Jarrod viewed this as an opportunity to attract more clients. Why should he restrict himself to nightclubs and flyers? “I marketed the same gang-run printing as postcards, business cards, and brochures.”

11. Enhancing Your Skillset Should Not Be Feared

Once again, Jarrod Wright provides us with valuable insights into boosting profitability by targeting a new potential client base. Just like his initiative to promote gang-run printing across all sectors, he quickly identified other avenues to bring in more clients.

“I self-taught web design and online marketing over time. Eventually, I shifted my emphasis from solely reselling printing.”

Why did he feel the need to diversify? “The fact is, once you’ve done an excellent job designing something for someone, they want you to take on various tasks. In their eyes, designing a business card is no different from designing a website. And if you can design a website, you should be able to help them promote it… correct?”

12. Utilize Downtime to Acquire New Skills

When clients are scarce and the workload is light, your finances will undoubtedly feel the strain. However, downtime isn’t necessarily a negative circumstance. Use it as an opportunity to learn new skills.

learn new skills

Cory Simmons‘s inaugural design job came with many benefits. He was part of a fantastic team that treated him respectfully. However, the remuneration was less than satisfactory, and there was rarely much work to keep him occupied.

“I was free to invest my time in learning whatever I desired. I gravitated towards design and CSS. I dedicated a considerable amount of time on platforms like TutsPlus and blogs such as Hongkiat.”

Later in his career, Cory found it challenging to manage his finances on his design salary alone. Again, this dilemma presented an excellent learning opportunity. “I supplemented my income with a night job where I cared for people with mental disabilities. When they went to sleep, I would get out my laptop and work on web design.”

13. When All Else Fails, Return to the Basics

When contemplating a career transition, keep this in mind: all new endeavors share the same fundamental prerequisites. Reflect on why you chose this career path.

Consider Chris Bank’s description of the tasks involved in a freelance career: “Having a clear product or skill people want; doing everything possible to expand my network; leveraging that network; acquiring distinctly different skills to promote my company, product or personal brand; and managing my time effectively.”

That’s the crux of it. Don’t allow the technicalities of a new opportunity to overwhelm you. Concentrate on the fundamental elements required for success.

14. You’re More Talented Than You Realize

A. A. Milne, the renowned author, once said, “Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

To this profound quote, I’d like to append, “You’re more talented than you realize.”

Many of us find ourselves envying other freelancers’ client base, reputation, awards, and recognition. We often perceive these individuals as operating on a different level, a level we believe is beyond our talent. However, this notion is entirely incorrect!

talented person

Take Cory Simmons as an example. He ecstatically stated, “TutsPlus approached me, asking if I’d be interested in crafting a course on Jeet. This was a site I had been actively using and observing since its establishment, and they were inviting me to contribute! The joy I felt was immeasurable.”

In conclusion, remember this: You are braver, stronger, smarter, and more talented than you perceive yourself to be.