Tips For Designers To Gain Exposure and Experience

In this guest article, Preston Lee guides new graphic designers with various tips and techniques on how to gain working experience in a ‘tough-to-start-out-in’ field. As a designer, you’ve certainly run into the classical blunder: You can’t get real design experience without a design job, and you can’t get a design job without real-world experience.  This article lists several steps you can take to gain real-world experience as a new graphic designer.

Brand Yourself

Believe it or not, one of the best ways to get experience and show off your work at the same time is to brand yourself.  Assemble a portfolio, design a logo, build a web site, and do whatever you can to promote yourself as a designer. Although you may not gain real experience dealing with clients, creating a stunning branding system for yourself and your work will show potential employers that you know how to think through the design process.

Do volunteer work

Although it may seem counterproductive to do design work for no pay, volunteering to design for non-profit organizations or worthy causes can be a great way to get your foot in the door.  Many organizations have connections with paying companies and if you do a good job with a logo or a web site they will be more likely to recommend you to others. The pieces you create for these organizations can also be great portfolio builders.

Rework existing logos or ads

One suggestion I received from a mentor when first starting out was to rework logos or advertisements for local companies. Get a hold of the phonebook or any local form of advertising and browse through to find logos or advertisements that you feel need reworked.

This activity has multiple benefits. First, it will provide material for your portfolio. Secondly, you could also approach the business (in a very tactful way of course) and present them with the renovated piece of work.  They may want to purchase it from you or offer to hire you for future jobs. Either way, they now know about you and your abilities as a designer.

In the comments below, please share with us the tactful ways you might approach a potential client in this situation.

Apply for an internship

Many companies offer paid and unpaid internships for current students that can be excellent opportunities to grow and learn from experienced professionals that have excelled in the industry.  You may be fortunate enough to be paid for your internship, but if not, you can still gain priceless experience working with others in a real-world setting.

Contact friends and family:

Although it is often frowned upon, sometimes family and friends can be a great way of landing your first few design jobs.  I know, we all hate it when we hear someone say something like “My brother-in-law designed this. He’s pretty good at stuff like this.” Usually, this type of work is poor quality.  Your job should be to achieve the opposite.  Don’t fall into the stereotype of the “brother-in-law who designs”.

A few more methods to try

While researching this topic and brainstorming this problem, I also considered the following:

  • Contact a design studio and offer to “shadow” (follow employees around, offer to help, and learn)
  • If you are a student, try doing ads for the school paper or magazines. Many schools also have a student-promotional team.
  • If you hold a job outside of graphic design, offer your services to your boss or fellow employees.
  • Offer to design for your local church, schools, and other establishments.

There are plenty of ways new designers can gain real-world experience. Just be creative! After all, that is what you do best right? What other useful techniques have you used to gain real-world experience when just starting out in graphic design? Share below.

Preston Lee is an advertiser and graphic designer who has a passion for unique, problem-solving design.  He is also the principal content provider for Graphic Design Blender, a design blog that focuses mainly on helping new designers find their place in the design industry.  You can visit Preston’s blog, Graphic Design Blender, or follow him on twitter.



Discussion and Comments

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  1. Brian says:

    Thanks Preston for taking the time to write this article… All sound advice! I would also add in the fact to get as active as possible in the design community. Work has a funny way of finding you when you are active so the more you put in the more you get out of it.

  2. Sven says:

    Great possibilities to build up a portfolio.. i did this the same way.. a website for a car seller were i worked in my freetime after school, or a complete branding for a band of some friends (cover, photos, website, myspace etc.)

    You dont get rich.. put you do some real works and get real world feedback.. the best way to start.

  3. Mert TOL says:

    Nice tips Brian, New designers should read this post first…
    Especially last tip most useful and easy to earn some experience for all new designers. And i want to say to “Newbies” ~ Keep your eyes open for inspiration at all times.

  4. Jason Aiken says:

    Hello Brian and Preston,

    Great tips for beginning designers.

    Cheers,
    Jason Aiken
    99designs.com

  5. Lukelux says:

    Hi guys, the article is great.

    The best way to start with is making designs for NGO’s.
    They always need designers and you can show your work to a huge range of people.

    I could not see myself as shadow!

    Thank you.
    Lukelux.

  6. [...] Tips For New Designers To Gain Real-World Experience [...]

  7. Noel Wiggins says:

    The biggest eureka moment I had as a designer.

    Is that I didn’t do for myself what I offered and did for my clients.

    So the perfect place to start for a new designer trying to get real world experience is to do all the things you want to do for yourself first.

    this enables you to make mistakes and learn from them without the added pressure of a hard deadline and money that you may need to return…

    Best of luck there is no greater profession than being a graphic designer!


    Thanks & Regards
    Noel from nopun.com
    a professional graphic design studio

  8. These are very good tips. Thank you.

  9. [...] Tips for New Designers to Gain Real World Experience [...]

  10. Emmet says:

    Really nice article, thanks!

    I found what really helped me starting out was to establish a local newsletter. Every month, I was given little snippets of information and various articles and I was free to arrange them as I saw fit. Within a couple of months, ads were flowing in, and I had dozens of clients that I had been dealing with in the newsletter who needed other promotional material.

    I would definitely advise anyone in a small enough area to try this out. I approached local businesses for sponsorship, to cover printing costs, and word spread fairly fast so I didn’t need to spend much on promotional material for it.

  11. One of the ways I managed to start freelancing was to go through the school I graduated from, and ask for a list of the alumni working in the area that had similar majors. A good portion of them worked in the field and were able to help.

    I sent out emails asking to meet with them, so I could ask them questions about how they got started in the field – and I made sure to just “happen” to have a resume and business card with me when I went.

  12. Keith Davis says:

    Great article and it comes at the right time.

    With lots of redundancies due to the credit crunch… it looks as though the web design business is always a place to earn a modest wage and to stop you going mad if you are out of work.

    If you know XHTML and understand CSS you can put a website together.

    Problem is finding clients / design work. This article certainly helps with some concrete suggestions.

  13. “In the comments below, please share with us the tactful ways you might approach a potential client in this situation.”

    I take it, “oh hai i c u haz bad logo, i can haz contract?” is not a tactful way to approach a client?

    The best way is probably to play up how much your logo can help them, but also to downplay as much as possible how crappy their existing logo is.
    Saying something like, “I want to help you to maximize your public visibility with a logo designed to pull in to your target audience,” or something like that. They love corporate speak. Also, you’ll have to be telling the truth, which means you’ll have to do research about their target audience, first.

  14. Preston Lee says:

    Thanks, everyone for the positive feedback!

    Emmet,
    I thought the newsletter idea was an excellent one. In fact, i’m curious to learn more if you wouldnt mind emailing me.—> http://bit.ly/Z9xfr thanks!

    Will,
    I also thought your idea was a great one. It’s always great to learn as much as we can from those who have been in our shoes previously. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Jillian says:

    Thank your Preston! This is amazing!
    I’m working as a web designer which I’ve done for years but I’m hoping to return to school and move more toward graphic design and this will be a great help! Thank you so much!

  16. [...] professionally for 30 years or are you fresh out of design school? Chances are the more ‘real-world’ design experience you have the better your work is. Everyone and everything gets better over time, especially your [...]

  17. [...] you’re first starting out, try using your personal connections to find yourself some work. Ask family, friends, classmates and associates if they know anyone who could benefit from your services. Most of the time, this [...]

  18. [...] of mine. Each time she does this, I see spikes in twitter followers or blog traffic. I also wrote a guest post at Brian Hoff’s The Design Cubicle which brought a substantial amount of visitors to the [...]

  19. [...] many of my readers know I wrote an article titled “Tips For New Designers To Gain Real-World Experience” over at Brian Hoff’s The Design Cubicle. I wrote it a while ago and from what Brian told me, [...]

  20. Jordan says:

    Very Solid article!

    The reworking dated, or just plain bad logos, is some great advice. Just like you said, you may get a job but if not, they at least know about you and your abilities.

Brian Hoff
About Brian Hoff: Designer, Writer and Speaker

I’m a graphic designer living in Brooklyn, New York who loves creating compelling and useful websites and memorable interactions across the web. When I’m not designing I can be found writing, speaking and occasionally part-time teaching at colleges — all on the subject of design. I started this blog to share my passion and experiences with designers and clients. I'm most active on Twitter; say hello:


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