Design careers 101: Get the job you want


All of the incredibly good illustrations in this post are © Lunchbreath


Chances are that if you’re reading this post then your title in work is one of the following: Executive Creative Director, Creative Director, Associate Creative Director, Design Director, Creative Group Head, Creative Lead, Art Director, Senior Designer, Middleweight Designer, Graphic Designer, Flash Designer, UI Designer, UX Designer, UI/UX Designer, Communication Designer, Visual Designer, Art Production Manager, Brand Identity Developer, Broadcast Designer, Logo Designer, Illustrator, Visual Image Developer, Production Designer, Production Artist, Artworker, Motion Designer, Motion Graphics Designer, Multimedia Developer, Layout Artist, Interface Designer, Web Designer, Packaging Designer, Junior Designer, Associate Designer.

It’s a bewildering array of titles isn’t it?

When I moved from London to San Francisco I discovered that in the US titles were much more important in a designer’s career. Previously the work in my portfolio and level I operated at was the key to my career. What my employers called me was far less important. Amazed by the cultural difference in the same industry I decided to write a ‘how to’ article on the jumps between key stages of a designer’s career.


It can be hard to work out how to market yourself when starting out 


So who am I to talk? Well, I’ve been working for 20 years as a designer, art director, ACD and lately as an independent ACD. But lets go back to those early days when I was a designer starting out. With titles like Junior Designer, Associate Designer or Production Artist that first job often involves putting together the finished deliverables such as Flash banner ads, coding a web page or preparing InDesign files for printers. At this level it’s all about learning the nuts and bolts of how the process all fits together. The role involves a lot of being told what to do and rising to the occasion.

Like a fledgling star you want your moment to shine and move up the food chain, so to speak. If something creative or challenging comes along in work then take a leap and volunteer to take it on. If it doesn’t come along in your job try something else – I know one designer who got a full time job based a series of nightclub flyers he did in his spare time.

Failing that, have a look at responding to some design crowdsourcing sites: not for money but to get some work in your portfolio. Pick something that captures your imagination. These are the design areas that you can show some flare in. You can even pick from a great many projects to find something that reflects your current skills or stretches them further. You can also pick projects from industries which reflect a specific job you are going for.


To the outside world this is what our average day looks like – if only…


There seems to be two paths for most people after being Production Designers. Some choose to be career production people while others strive for something much more creative. This post is aimed at the latter group. They are the ones who are shocked at the lack of creativity that their first job entailed since it probably involved filling in missing bits from an art director’s sketch (or lack of). Photos of designers reflect this and tend to involve them looking at designs or their computer screens. It’s as if they and the work are one.

To progress onto being a Designer (Visual Designer, Interactive Designer, Production Artist, Web Designer etc.) you will have to show mastery of the design software of your chosen field (banner ads, motion graphics, UI, print etc.) before moving away from them being the core of your job. While these skills defined your previous role the one you are aiming for (designer) will involve projects now starting with a blank page a with well-articulated problem in front of you. Most agencies have a non-profit client so volunteer for that work or find your own non profit clients – there must be one that matches your interests.

Similarly, I was at a talk once where a presenter said designers have to develop their own ‘Hot Rod’ project. What’s that? Well, if you needed your car fixed and you knew of two equally skilled mechanics located beside each other and charged the same amount which one would you pick? What if you found out that one of them built hot rods in his spare time? Now it’s obvious which one you would choose. Likewise in the design market there are so many designers with similar portfolios it becomes hard to choose who to hire.  


Every art director’s dream


When I taught Art Direction in San Francisco’s Academy of Art I told my students that they would be devising concepts and then becoming the champion of those concepts. In order to generate successful concepts an art director has to see the bigger picture, think things through in order to see the problem clearly and then devise a suitable solution. Have a look at the site Hovering Art Directors – there are lots of hands on chins and either expressive or folded arms.

In doing all of the above you end up managing projects from start to finish. Everyone else has a part to play but you are the director – hence the title. With that comes the shift to taking responsibility for deadlines, resources, a client (or a group of clients) and implementing high standards, all while co-ordinating with designers, production, photographers, developers, illustrators, printers etc.

In order to make the transition to art director a designer needs to stop not waiting to be told what to do and start thinking about the problems the ACD/CD is facing and how can you start helping. Think things through like they have to do and offer solutions. Design with more creative uniqueness in mind.* Start thinking on your feet more, volunteer to take on more problems, aim to present to your concepts to clients.

* My own view is that the more the unique the problem then the more unique the solution.


Sadly this is the stereotype of CDs – I always give credit for other people’s work


A huge amount of an ACDs/CDs day involves constantly providing answers, being in meetings, approving work, motivating team members and one-on-ones. You have to champion creative ideas, support the creative team yet tow the company line and advocate the clients needs in order for the business to grow. As a result it can be lonely at the top.

I didn’t mention “do really creative design work” as most ACDs/CDs are not actually designing anything any more. They often steer other’s design work, suggest solutions or clearly define a problem. Their personality is driving the team towards increased creativity. As a result photos of ACDs/CDs tend to have them looking straight at the camera. This partial involvement often causes them to take much of the glory should the project go well (see Lunchbreath’s cartoon above). The opposite is true if the project goes badly.

An ACD/CD also has to stand back and look at the biggest possible picture – where the business is going, improving the relationship with the client, building a creative team. Out of all the positions mentioned in this post this one has the highest stakes. You are responsible for the entire creative output of a firm/agency without any buffer zone. This really puts your head on the block. Perhaps it is finally having the greatest say (or greatest ego) but I have never worked for a CD who has not been laid off or fired at some point unless they were one of the company’s owners.


Guttenberg was not the inventor of moveable type – he just made it more accessible


When I was in the military we were always taught to think two levels up in case that person was killed or wounded in action. This may seem like an overly dramatic example compared to the world of design but a similar process will help get you to the position you want since we all have those emergencies where suddenly we are pulled off one project and shoved onto another. Basically if you are a designer you should be thinking what is the Creative Director/Associate Creative Director really looking for or hoping to achieve. If it’s “they want to look good when they are presenting your ideas to the client tomorrow” then you should be working backwards from there i.e. what will impress this client in particular, what rationale will be easier to present to them and what is the key takeaway to make it a memorable presentation.

It’s not just beginning to understand what the person two levels above really wants but thinking at that level on a daily basis. Soon it will effect everything you do. It’s not about needing the permission of a title to start thinking at the level but ‘being’ at that level. In some situations you will grow and thrive. In others you will create waves and may lose your job. Either way you will be true to your aspirations and not waiting for the day when someone grants you permission to think at a higher level.

Whether you get a chance to display this higher thinking in your job or not, start a blog or website on the area of design that is most of interest to you (especially if you are in a more stifling environment). Use it to demonstrate your ability to think like a leader, which will put you in the drivers seat and get you where you want to go. It also shows everyone else what you are capable of – a key step in getting the job you want.


Recruiters have seen so many portfolios that few things are new to them.


When it comes to titles it’s recruiters who have the clearest idea of what each title means and what a designer should be capable of. It’s their bread-and-butter so they don’t want to get  it wrong with their clients. However, different companies have their own idea of what each title actually means and they don’t want to take a chance at stretching someone to a level above their current one. You may feel you are quite capable of the job in question but the design industry places such a heavy emphasis on titles and it may become a barrier to your career progression.

An anecdote from my own career really illustrates this view in the design industry’s job market: in a previous job most of the creative staff had a range of titles (Art Director, Senior Art Director and Associate Creative Director) but all did roughly the same work. The title translated to the equivalent of a position one step lower in other companies or agencies. In a bizarre twist of fate years later a recruiter mistakenly sent my details back to the same firm again for another ACD position (I had left as an ACD). The firm asked “why had I taken a step down in my career by becoming a Senior Art Director after leaving?” I had to explain that despite the title, the next position was actually a huge step up in responsibility. This point became a big stumbling block for the ACD position in question as contrary to reality, in their eyes my career had gone downhill after leaving them, not uphill.

Since most design salaries are tied to a particular title the latter becomes the gateway to the former. As a result hiring managers and recruiters are very title centric when looking at your résumé. In the agency world everyone moves around so much that the market reaches its own equilibrium and balances out. Companies who don’t have creativity as their core business tend to pay lower. Jumping from one to the other can cause a shift in title and/or salary. In this case look closely at the creativity of the work and the level of responsibility to gauge what the job really entails.


Volunteer for creative side projects but beware of these common pitfalls that come with them 


While I have detailed some of the main aspects of the various stages in a designer’s career there are key things to do at every level that will help you ultimately get your ideal job:
– Ask yourself what your boss or their boss is thinking about and act accordingly
– Start your hotrod project (this blog is mine)
– Rise to the occasion when a challenge comes along
– Always try to meet other creatives (they may recommend you for a job)
– Go to design events to see what is going on in the industry*

Think of yourself as not just being the title you currently have but instead acting the part of the position you want to be. Others will start to see you that way too. Only you can decide to be the person that you want to be whereas anyone can just make a title up. Mine previously was ‘Grand Poo-Bah of Art Direction’. At that time the designer beside me held the title ‘Zombie Killer’. Another’s was ‘Superhero’. After all, they’re just titles.

* Meet-Ups or AIGA events (panel discussions on design, studio tours, design competitions)


4 thoughts on “Design careers 101: Get the job you want

  1. very fun and practical article! I particularly agree with “act the part of the position you want to be”. Titles are often just pay scale and chain of command requisites – doing as though you are already in the position you want shows integrity and ambition. But at the same time, don’t be afraid to mop the floors. Coming from 10 years in the restaurant industry, an owner or manager who isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty not only enhances morale, but also sets an example.

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