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Navigating the design industry as an early career designer

Navigating The Design Industry As An Early Career Designer

by Tash Willcocks

Advice from our design team 

Entering the design industry for the first time can be both exciting and daunting. As you set sail on your professional journey, it's important to equip yourself with the right methods, mindsets, tools and strategies to stand out in what is now a competitive field.

I asked our design team for some top tips from their experience for getting prepared to enter the world of user centred design.

Curating your portfolio

Your portfolio doesn’t need to serve as an exact history of every project you've ever worked on. Don’t be afraid to remove projects which aren’t aligned with your career interests, or those you don’t think represent your best work. 

Instead, use your portfolio to showcase a selection of projects that best represent your abilities and skills. This allows you to maintain a focused narrative and present your strongest work during interviews. Don’t shy away from including projects that didn’t go exactly to plan, either – discussing those gnarly, challenging projects is a great way to demonstrate your ability to tackle complex tasks. 

Adapt your portfolio content and presentation to align with the goals and values of the organisations or industries you are applying to. Your portfolio doesn’t need to be a flashy website. Present your work in whichever way you think shows you off best, it could be a slide deck, a Miro board, a Figma file… the medium isn’t as important as the story you’re telling.

Take a user centred approach to your portfolio – think about who it’s for and what their needs are. Creating a portfolio isn’t a one size fits all task,adapt your portfolio to each role you apply to – while continuing to express your uniqueness.

Finally, it’s important to note that some roles don’t actually require a portfolio, like our Content Design roles, or have a portfolio listed as optional, like our new Graduate Scheme. So think about how you can demonstrate your skills in different ways if you’re not asked for – or don’t provide –a portfolio.

"Don't write a novel in a portfolio, but let me see how your brain works!"
Caitlin Roach

Senior Interaction and Product Designer

Your process is as important as showing your end product

The person looking at your portfolio or interviewing you will value your problem-solving skills and the ability to collaborate effectively. When presenting your work, try to emphasise your design process. Highlight how you think through challenges, work with other disciplines, and approach problem-solving. 

If you’re coming from a non-design background, this will really help enhance your practice – diverse perspectives bring invaluable insights. Remember, your portfolio is a reflection of your thinking, so demonstrate how your brain works and tell the story behind your projects.

Being able to explain your thinking through the design process is paramount. Clearly articulate the activities you engage in, such as user research, competitor analysis or mapping. Demonstrate your understanding of why you made certain design choices and discuss how you would improve a site, app, or service, using a user centred approach. In an interview, if you’ve not had the opportunity to do this in the “real world”, talking about your approach could be enough to give us an idea of the way you think and work.

Learning and networking

Continuous learning is essential in the design industry. You can be proactive by attending meetups, conferences, and engaging with industry professionals. Read articles, follow influential people in the field, and connect with them on platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter. Reach out to individuals and ask for insights, guidance, and potential opportunities. By taking these initiatives, you can expand your knowledge, gain exposure, discover new paths that can help you secure your first role and maybe make some new friends along the way.

There are also some fantastic mentoring sites that some of the TPXimpact team mentor through like MegaMentor and One Million Mentors

"Be proactive to learn about the industry, go to meet-ups, conferences, and chat to people there. Read all the articles - learn if it really is a job you'd enjoy."
Amber Polley

Service Designer

Self-initiated projects

One recurring theme among the team's advice is the encouragement of self-initiated projects. If you have the privilege of time, use it to work on passion projects you can add to your portfolio. These projects demonstrate your initiative, passion, and problem-solving abilities. They allow you to explore your creative boundaries and showcase your thinking process. 

Consider creating side projects that align with your interests and aspirations. For example, as an interaction and product designer, you may want to develop a portfolio website that reflects the behaviour and smooth interaction you envision for your ideal role.

Don’t give up! 

Not every job application will result in success, but don't get disheartened, get curious. Take the time to reflect on and learn from each experience. Don't hesitate to ask for feedback, and seek input from different people on your CV, covering letter, and portfolio. 

When approaching people in the industry, be mindful of their limited time, requesting specific feedback on a particular project is more likely to yield valuable and actionable insights. Remember to embrace a growth mindset – receiving a rejection is not a definitive "no," but rather a "not yet,". Continuously ask for feedback, actively  listen, learn from it, and then iterate, iterate, iterate.

"Be kind to those giving you their time. From recruiters to Heads of Practice. It’s a small world and people are connected."
Jaskiran Kang

Head of Service Design

The power of graduate schemes and internships

Internships and graduate schemes offer valuable opportunities for growth and exploration. They provide practical experience, allowing you to apply your skills in a professional environment. 

"My internship opened so many doors. I got a job offer during the internship. The internship also helped me realise that Design Research was something I really enjoyed and wanted to continue working in."
Fanechka Fernandes

Design Researcher

I am obviously going to add here our very own Graduate Scheme! Applications are open now, and you don’t need a degree – we’re open to all early design career applicants, as long as you have an understanding of UCD principles.

Last tip – it can be hard, but keep believing in yourself, your skills, talents you have mastered so far and be confident in them and open to what else you can learn on the way! 

Thanks to our design team for sharing their thoughts, I could have written a book, these are the synthesised learnings of many great shares from a magic team, most of whom have been where you are now and are cheerleading you all on to succeed.

Tash Willcocks's avatar

Tash Willcocks

Design Lead

Contact Tash

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