Sometimes I try and pinpoint the moment in which I finally felt like a professional. It’s more recent than you might think and I’m not sure becoming a professional came complete with the feeling of being a professional, but now I’m writing a blog post about it so I think I’ve arrived. I cut my teeth for so many years as a freelance while slinging lattes part time, with a chip on my shoulder from dropping out of art school less than halfway through and having a lovely daughter when I was 19. Lately a few college students have reached out asking to pick my brain about how I broke into design and found myself where I am now so here’s a few of the answers I’ve been giving (In no particular order)
The views expressed in this article are mine (Kevin Alves), a designer at Idea Collective, not necessarily that of Idea Collective.
You’re not as bad as you think you are
It’s good that you’re your own biggest critic, but don’t let it get in the way of showing your work or applying for a job or just reaching out. I spent years not applying for jobs and not showing my work because I assumed no one cared because I didn’t go to college. After a few years of freelancing from home, contracting at agencies, in-house at fortune 500 companies and startups alike, it became clear to me that no one was ever going to even ask where I went to college, as long as I kept doing good work. That bring’s me to my next point.
Do (good) work (often)
It sounds obvious but I’ve seen a lot of people, young and old, try to skip this step. No one will take your word for it that you’re good, you have to show them, and you have to make them look, and to make them look you have to make it really good, and since you’re young and have no clients you have a golden opportunity to do that. Open up illustrator, or a sketchbook, or photoshop or a code editor and make something awesome and make sure other people see it. If you HAVE clients and they aren’t the ones you want, that’s ok, make your personal projects the kind of work you WANT and make it really really good.
Repeat the above step every day
Design is hard because design thinking is unnatural. Running 100 meters in 9.5 second is unnatural too, and you don’t accomplish that by NOT running every day. Your brain is a muscle and you have to work it out in order to get better. I’ve been so busy this past year with design and illustration work that I’ve barely had time to sleep and as a reward I can now look at the work I was doing a year ago and think “WHAT WAS I THINKING”. Work your brain out until you start to see results. Start to see the world through the eyes of a designer. At the grocery store, consider how you would rebrand your favorite ice cream company, notice systems, think critically about how you would improve your cities public transportation map, notice the beautiful detail on an old building in your town and consider how you might make your work feel like that. Just don’t talk to your friends or dates about your favorite type face, I promise they don’t care.
No one wants to work with an asshole. no one will pass your name along, no one will give you a chance, no one will want to give you money even if you’re really good. Realize how much you have to learn and then EMBRACE IT, because that is exciting, and if you think you’re good now, just wait until a year from now.
Be skeptical of trends, ideologies, and “how to” articles like this one
In the end you have to just do you. I love (fellow Portuguese-American designer) Mike Monteiro’s “fuck you pay me” as much as the next designer, and I agree with the AIGA’s stance on spec work, but I did work for free or cheap or on spec all the time when I was starting out and it worked for me. It helped me get my confidence up and learn how to talk to clients and manage time etc… I even moved out of expensive Boston to 500 dollars a month apartment in Holyoke Mass so that I could devote more time to work I wasn’t even getting paid for (probably don’t do that). There is no right way to get where you want to be in life. Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten came from my good friend and brilliant designer Aaron Taylor-Waldman. He said to imagine yourself where you want to be and then work backwards. My addition would be to realize when you get there and let that make you happy for a while, then do it again.