Year Zero: My journey as a designer
This is a post for the beginner, the fresh meat, and the starry eyed out there who are getting their hands dirty with design as a self taught designer. Fist Bump to You!
(I’m packaging up the resources that helped me get where I am towards the end)
Today is the day.
It is weird to think that I started my first course of web design and branding a year ago today. It wasn’t my goal or intention because I had intended to get a job in marketing as an assistant marketer. They just wanted me to be able to say that I know some things about HTML and CSS. I said that I could do it no problem and snuck in a refresher course of HTML and CSS. Little did I know what “knowing” in their standards was being a code wizard in the form of a marketer.
I worked really hard at refreshing my knowledge and to my disdain, it wasn’t enough for their job requirements. At that point I had a choice: Continue working my day job where I was unfulfilled as a creative mind or pursue something that I had no prior experience doing professionally. I chose not to be passed over again because of my lack of knowledge of digital skillsets like code and design. There was a fire lit underneath me and it was going to be a bumpy ride.
What mindset do you have?
My mindset was ready for this career change. I started feeling the fire lit underneath me a few months after having our son, Atlas. We’ve lived here in our small 1 bedroom apartment poor as could be and in debt, but somehow complacent enough to not do anything about it. We had outlets that let us escape from that tiny bit of reality, but when we found out we were expecting our son (this will sound very cliché), everything changed. There are certain moments that I hope you have in your life where the “beds of roses” you have around your life start to show what they really are. Maybe they are really nice beds of roses, who knows. Mine were not and some things had to change.
I knew that learning a new skill set outside of a college or technical course was going to double the length of time I had to get something going. I chose however to continue learning outside of the realm of “traditional education,” treating the pursuit of the career as a full time job. (My second full time job, mind you.) The first two months were crucial to how I chose my path to be where I am now.
Month One: November — End of job search, start of education
After getting that first rejection on a job that I tried really hard for, I knew it was time to learn more about websites and design. My education had to be as low cost as humanly possible. Sara and I were cutting out extra spending where we could and education didn’t really have a place in our budget.
I was following along with this great resource by Christopher Pound on how to become a web developer which lists some of the best resources for learning code as a self taught web developer as well as a career path for being a full stack developer.
I also had found Codecademy which lets you take some of their courses for free with basic tutorials on using code with a “copy this — do that” style. These were crucial to me understanding that I had something that could be great.
Month two: December — Start of a crazy year
I was looking for a coding boot camp to help increase my skills. I recommend you research and ask around for what others have used and what worked for them. With the advent of the internet, anyone can put a course online and say they’re an expert. The hard part of you being the beginner is that you don’t know what you don’t know. I found Skillcrush.com which had classes being offered on what I wanted to learn and learned a lot with their Web Designer blueprint. The price was reasonable to learning to code versus what you would pay at a college for a similar course. The design section was what I was lacking. Before the course I had no idea how important it was to put a system in place for your sites. (Rookie mistake, I know)
Because of how thirsty I was for more information as well as how determined I was to make a career switch, I learned too quickly for the coding parts of the blueprint. Even though I was learning fast, it still wasn’t enough to do what I needed to.
This didn’t stop me from pursuing design, there are still plenty of things you can do as a beginner in tech.
My first year and what I have learned
So what did I do? It was almost 2016 and I was borrowing a laptop from my ex. I needed to have proper tools for me to do my work. I got myself a laptop that could run the design programs I needed with little difficulty. I got a few micron pens and some Baron Fig sketchbooks. I played with graphic design software like Gimp and Inkscape which are free tools, as well as using the “trial version” of Photoshop and Illustrator.
Don’t be afraid to do a job for free. Just don’t stay in that mindset.
I could have gotten a lot more money upfront with my designs, especially if I had stayed within my own target market. I did jobs that I won’t show on my portfolio because a lot of the work isn’t what I want to be known for. But a small bit of projects that I have been putting up have been free work, stuff that I felt I wanted to do, but the client wasn’t a great fit for my price range. I wanted to make sure I had projects on my site versus money in the bank from them. It was a strategic goal to help me out in the long term versus the short term.
You can’t have everything for free
I had to get the laptop, it set me back in price. I also had to buy my domain name and the boot camp course. My investment was almost 1500 USD before I had made any money in tech. (It was a huge amount for someone with close to nothing.) I made a good portion of this back with one of my first jobs, even if it wasn’t the side of design I had wanted to be in. But there were still more costs to be able to do my work. I needed something that allowed me to create good quality mockup designs for the sites and create assets to be used in those mockups. So I had chosen to pay for the Adobe Creative Cloud. I needed to buy a business license for the work I would be doing as a freelancer. I would need to spend money on a few more things, but the theme is pretty much the same. All of these costs come at a price that really would be worth it towards the end. It’s just that there are so many prices of things that I never thought I would be spending on.
Not everyone will support you
I have heard from at least six other people that I need to “have real expectations about design careers” and that having a career as an artist isn’t going to pay the bills. (well, right now they were right about that, but that’s for later.) They also said that a designer is really a sellout who makes art for money. They’re all wrong. I got this.
I found a few great communities to have support and give support to others like
I have talked about why designers and developers need to find a community to join. If you haven’t joined one, that’s okay, but you’re missing out on the wonderful things that can come out of it. Like my friends across various communities:
- Tyrel Chambers: Who was my first client, we grew together cheering each other on and continue doing work together.
- Justin Jackson : An insanely cool podcaster, maker, father, and product person. He teaches what he knows and helps people grow too.
- Ross Litzenberger : Ross is great with git and rails, and never fails to help out when I’ve accidentally created merge conflicts or broke something in code.
- Andrew Krause : A great developer and a surprisingly good designer as well.
- Pavel Ispravnikov : Always present and representative of the people he supports. I have seen him across many things that DevTips does and respect his advice on designs.
- Michael Weibel : A designer with a love for great typography and an excellent photographer.
To them and to everyone else who wasn’t mentioned who has also supported me along the way, you guys mean a whole lot to me. I really appreciate the conversations we’ve had and that you guys took the time to help a pleb like me.
I barely had any chance of a full night’s sleep in over a year.
Partly because I have a child that likes to wake up in the mornings around 5am. I didn’t ditch my day job partly because my pursuit of design didn’t quite have a lot of money up front for someone who had baby skills in design and development. So I was restricted to 40.5 hours a week working at the very job I was trying to get rid of, leaving me to fit in being a dad, working a day job, and doing design work into my everyday life. I’ve kept this up for as long as I remember starting design a year ago.
I should have kept investing in my health.
and drank less beer.
I have gained more weight this year with both stress and unhealthy habits than I have the previous 4 years. There was “no time” to do so, but it was really me just making excuses. Your health matters as well, and even with all the craziness, afford yourself at least 20 minutes of some sort of activity that gives you a small workout each day.
I got engaged, and a month later un-engaged
It’s like being Alladin, soaring over the world and having that rug pulled out from you. You’re excited because you’re building something that will be great for your family, (fiance and son), and then that idea of family, it’s just gone. I’m a little miffed by it still, but I know that my son’s future is still better by me waking up and working hard for this. He’s my north star and I won’t let anything keep me from providing for him and myself.
I got on with a group of talented developers as the Lead Designer
I am very thankful they have had enough hustle to keep up with me and my crazy life, I am also thankful that they accepted me even with my lack of history. I have no doubt that they will be better now that they have a consulting brand identity designer and web designer.
Don’t underestimate the leverage of curating your work.
Doing work that you don’t want to be known for, writing a case study about it, and sharing it only bring more people who want you to do that work. Further pulling you away from where you would like to go. A small portion of my work can’t be shared because of this and it ultimately doesn’t further me towards my goals. It was money and not much more than that. I started curating two types of work, doing my case studies (which now are being rewritten) and sharing only the work I wanted to do. Works like a charm.
I should have created a process sooner.
I was aimless and haphazardly going about where I learned from, not really paying attention to the levels they were teaching but also how much time I spent there versus how much I actually practiced or did work for clients.
I have created a Process Page. I love having something to reference or point to.
When it comes down to a tl;dr
What I learned from my journey:
- Not everyone is going to be nice and supportive when you do something different.
- There are plenty of people who go through the same things you do, you just have to go find them.
- Learn the guiding principles before trying to learn the tools and do crazy things. That means you need to learn it so well that you start to see what’s wrong with road signs, take-out menus, and how misaligned and asymmetrical everyone’s bodies actually are by design.
- Treat your self-teaching with the same level of intensity as your job. It is one and you are a fool to think that learning without applying will get you anywhere. Go out and make things.
- Even if there seems to be nothing going right along your journey, there’s no reason to quit. Nothing of quality comes in this life without hard work.
- Don’t undervalue yourself with the job boards and $5 logo sites, you’re better than that. It’s a good place to start to see that people will pay for work you do, but they are vicious there and will constantly try to devalue the time, effort, and difficulty it is to do creative work.
- I have consumed nearly 500 videos, podcast episodes, and resources that helped frame my mind towards design thinking and teaching the hard skills and soft skills needed to do my work.
- Read, read, and re–read the books, articles you’ve saved, and tutorials.
- In pursuing anything, you’ll learn more than just that thing. I’ve found that I have been learning how to market and sell my services, display my work, manage social media accounts for growth building. It keeps bubbling out there.
- You have value. You matter. And no one but you can tell yourself that.
Resources on where to start.
- Look up hackdesign.org and get on the list for their curated resources, articles, and videos.
- Get online with some free courses to practice like freeCodeCamp and Codecademy and So You Want to be a Web Developer
- Books: Making and Breaking the Grid, Thinking with Type, Don’t Make Me Think, and any of these from A Book Apart.
- Get on a site like Briefbox which is a site that gets you some of the best practice briefs and preps you for design thinking and tackling both challenges and deadlines.
- Get into some communities like Compass of Design, Design Mentors, and
- Watch this talk by Mike Monteiro about getting paid for work.
- Start looking around on YouTube for people doing some great work like The Futur, Will Patterson, and Swerve, Mackenzie Child, and J Fremaint.
- Get some good podcasts in like MegaMaker, Late Nights with Trav and Los, and even though there’s only one free one to listen to each week, The seanwes Podcast is still a great podcast too.
- Look for great articles from invision, A List Apart, and me Wink
You are in control of what you know. Do what you will with what I have just given.
You have value. You matter to people. And you have “oh so much to learn.”
Get out there and be creative.
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Originally published at darianrosebrook.com
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Brand Identity Designer for @itssomagnetic, running a design community at @compassofdesign. I write to help others grow their skills as designers.
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This! This is exactly what I was looking for! Thank you so much for documenting your process thru learning design! I am currently starting on this path and have read countless articles about design, for designers, and tho informative and useful they don’t really speak to self- teaching a beginner. Ive spent considerable time researching and reading…
Joelene. Thanks for the response, you and I have a few things in common for sure. I know what it’s like to start when there’s not a lot of money to throw at a side-hustle.
For design tools, you could always try Figma. https://www.figma.com/features