A Junior Designer's survival guide

You've landed your first role in user experience design but what now?

A person climbing a rope, the rope is up the side of a laptop screen.

How do you survive, develop, and elevate yourself as a Junior Designer?

In this blog, I highlight 10 things which will make starting out your life as a Junior Designer that little bit easier. These are things I’ve learnt as an individual from completing my MA in Information Design across my progression to becoming a Senior Designer. As well as additions from the wider studio team, armed with pens, post-its, and paper plus some time in one of our studio meetings.

Here’s some things about me to set the scene:

That said, without further ado, here’s my 10 rules to live by for Junior Designers.

1. Don’t assume anything

As a Junior Designer (or a designer of any level) you should always listen and ask questions. No one is going to expect you to know everything, but the longer you wait the more awkward these questions become to ask.

Remember: There is no such thing as a stupid question but, there is such a thing as a stupid designer.

2. It’s ok to panic

Personally, I struggled with this a lot. Guess what? You’ll panic a lot at first (I sure did). Then less and less. Learn to recognise when you’re panicking and what helps you to get unstuck. Whether that’s ringing your line manager, writing things down (to create a plan of action) or talking to someone beyond your project team.

3. Always prepare

Everyone around you is winging it a little bit. But, you’re a junior, you can’t afford to do that. It takes years of practice to get yourself out of a tight spot with limited preparation. Here’s three compelling reasons why you should always prepare:

Clients are paying us to be experts – so don’t waste their time and money.

4. Don’t go straight to the screen

Always break things down on paper, post-its or a whiteboard first. Whatever works best for you. Don’t rush. There is no point in something looking great if it doesn’t achieve the desired outcome for the user. Follow this approach - it’ll help to formulate your thinking and save you countless hours of wasted screen time.

5. Copying is ok

Entirely unique design is hard to come by - someone has probably always done it before you. As a Junior Designer there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Reuse other people’s material but question what you’re reusing. If it’s good use it but make it better. It’ll save you time and effort on the small things. Design is a self-sustaining ecosystem and as you grow and develop you’ll stop copying others and others will start copying from you.

6. Set expectations and meet them

Do what you said you’d be doing and do it within the timeframes you gave. You should seize these chances as you’ll feel good for having delivered and people will come to trust and depend upon you. Both of which contribute to your development as a user experience designer.

7. Learn your place

You may be eager to impress but wait until everyone else has had a chance to speak. Don’t jump in or cut across people. Someone smart once told me that senior people know what the most important thing to do is – I’ll take their word for it.

8. Design the whole thing first

Speaking from experience, I used to focus on the details which resulted in me always trying to make my design perfect - this meant I’d never save versions of my changes. Now I create a new file or artboard for everything, this allows me to show my progress with ease.

As a Junior Designer you can avoid this by first designing the thing as a whole, whatever that might be. This will help you avoid getting bogged down in the details. When you have the whole design completed you can then iterate and make it better.

Here: the idea is to design the whole thing first as version 1. By doing this you’ve always got something to show for in your internal reviews and meetings with clients. It’s never going to be perfect the first-time round, but having the whole journey is helpful in getting the right conversations going. With v1 done, v2 can be improved by feedback.

9. Back up your work and use version control

This should be pretty obvious but often it isn’t. Save out your work regularly – not just locally but externally too. Label, name, and annotate your Sketch and Photoshop files. It’ll make handovers smoother and save unnecessary back and forths which can be annoying and time-consuming. By controlling and ordering your work you’ll save yourself and the people working with you - that might need those files urgently! – a lot of grief and anxiety about corrupted, poorly organised, or overwritten files.

10. Find a mentor

The most helpful piece of advice I can give you is to find someone who will be your mentor and not just your manager. Someone who will give you career advice and not just project advice.

Learn to appreciate people that will give you guidance beyond your project work and current job. Those are the people who care, and what they teach you will stick with you wherever you go.

I have a mentor and manager within work, but also two outside of work. They help me to be a more rounded designer, as they all have very different skills and viewpoints.

A learning: I had a colleague who would write a summary at the end of all her projects. She’d write down good things, bad things, what she’d learned and what she could have done better. She told me to do the same. I never did… When I had to start putting together my portfolio, I realised how hard it was to remember details about specific projects I’d worked on. Now I do it all the time and I encourage whoever I mentor to do the same.

Summing up

Hopefully, these pointers will make your life as a Junior Designer easier whilst ensuring you progress up through the rungs of the studio that you work in. Alternatively, they can be something you have in your back pocket when you’re hunting for your first role, so you can hit the ground jogging opposed to stumbling once you’ve been hired. 

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