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How I Broke Into the Design Industry With No Degree and No Experience

How I Broke Into the Design Industry With No Degree and No Experience

It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it
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Nov 12, 2021 11:01 PM
Last updated
Sep 25, 2022 5:36 AM
Career & Life

Originally published @December 13, 2019 on the Crash blog

Going to college wasn’t exactly my cup of teaat first.

After a grueling four years at an unforgiving high school packed with 2,400 other students, I was quite ready to move onto bigger and better things. My questionably volatile relationship with my parents only made that drive to leave the nest stronger. But when I finally got around to college, I unwittingly made the wrong choice (for me). I picked business school.

(What’s funny is, years later, I find myself in business and loving every minute of it!)

But business school itself was not the college experience I needed. So I set out to change it.

My College Experience, From Business to Design

My first few weeks of business school felt just like high school again, except there were ten times more people in my lectures, none of which I knew. (The Tempe campus at Arizona State University is one of the ten largest campuses in the country.)

It felt dark and cramped, like this:

I felt alienated. This felt like the opposite of what I’d envisioned.

Granted, for most students, the first couple years of college are packed with “gen ed” coursesnothing specific to your major. This is a flaw in college itself, but that’s for another story. 😋

Still, I’d envisioned a much more collaborative and creative experience.

I continued along like this, unsatisfied with my classes, until spring semester, when I set a meeting to speak with my counselor. Within a few minutes, she understood I would probably fit much better in a design program and made the recommendation that I switch majors.

As you might guess, the thought of design school made my heart racehow hadn’t I thought of that myself before?! I went into a Business Marketing major because I wanted to be in advertisingbut I wanted the creative parts of advertising, like designing the ads. Not courses described like this:

ECN 211: Basic macroeconomic analysis. Economic institutions and factors determining income levels, price levels, and employment levels.

Comparatively, design school sounded like angels singing from above:

GRA 121: Graphic design as a language and process for creative thinking and realization.

So, with a skip in my step, I rounded out my last days in business school. I put in the minimum amount of effort to just get by in my economics and CIS classes. And I focused instead on finding a cool design internship to get a head start on my new path.

Getting My First Design Internship

Like any curious job seeker, I started perusing the job boards in search of something that spoke to me. Most of the entry-level design jobs and internships sounded pretty boring or were for boring-sounding companies. I found a few decent ones, and I sent my resume into those black holes (this was before Crash existed 😉).

Within a few weeks, and before the semester had even finished, I’d somehow managed to get hired as a design intern at a software startup before I even knew what startups were.

Once school ended in June, I started at SoftPoint as the design intern. I quickly realized my “internship” didn’t involve working with (and learning from) a professional graphic designer. Instead, I found out I was the graphic designer. 😱

The environment was pretty casual and open; it felt something like this:

Before actually having any official design education, I did everything from rebranding the company (my logo and tagline are still in use at the time of this writing, seven years later!) to designing app flows and screens, designing marketing brochures, and even writing copy for those brochures.

All in Photoshop. 🙈

Hint: Don’t use Photoshop for any of this stuff! 😂 Brand assets get built in Illustrator, app screens in XD, and brochures in InDesign.

My time at SoftPoint taught me to work on just about every type of design that a small software company needs. It was incredibly valuable, and I’d show you all my workexcept I signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that prevented me from publicly displaying it as my own.

Pro tip: Whenever possible, avoid signing NDAs. They limit your ability to display work in your public portfolio (though you can still share work privately). As a designer, your portfolio is part of your lifeblood: it shows potential employers (and freelance clients) that you can do what you say. When it’s published publicly, it can even attract new opportunities to you. So always try to avoid NDAs. If you must sign one, understand how long it will be in effect. Try to get your employer/client to give you written permission to display your work in your public portfolio by a certain date, so you’re not restricted forever.

Switching From Business School to Design School

During my internship, I also started design school, which was such a breath of fresh air compared to the previous school year.

Right from day one, I felt like the studio concentration was exactly what I’d been looking for. It felt like high school art class on steroids—everyone was serious about being in the class, the professor had tons of industry experience, and the curriculum was highly hands-on.

Wouldn’t you feel right at home working like this?

I made friends, collaborated on assignments, learned techniques and the history of graphic design. I continued working part-time at SoftPoint throughout the school year, which gave me a ton of real-world context for what I was learning. My work got better, and, for the first time in my life, my education felt relevant.

I also happened to be living with some friends in a classic college houseparties every weekend, and way too much distraction to be a good student. 🙈 By the end of the school year, I hadn’t put much effort into either my capstone project or my final review projects, one of which consisted of meticulously drawing dozens of gradient lines and typographic elements with a hand-cut carpenter’s pencil.

Needless to say, cramming these projects together in the last four days of the semester was not the way to stand out from the other 200 first-year students to become one of the mere 45 selected to continue in the Graphic Design concentration for the remaining three years.

Needless to say, I didn’t get into the program.

I was pretty upset at the time, but I didn’t let it stop me. With the help of my advisor once more, I switched to a Design Management degree—something between Graphic Design and Business Marketing, minus the design studio classes. This solution was perfect since it took into account the business school credits I’d already accumulated, and allowed me to graduate in four years after all.

Winning My First Real Design Job

After my sophomore year, I finished my internship at SoftPoint and moved on to a customer support representative (CSR) role at TinyPrints. I learned a ton about working with people during this time and even got to exercise my design skills a bit:

It was an amazing experience, and if you like working with people, I highly recommend that you get a job in customer successeven just for a year or two. Supporting customers on the phone and live chat taught me to be concise and well-researched, polite and empathetic, and to avoid taking things personally.

Of course, I wanted a design career. I tried to transfer into Shutterfly’s Production Design Team (the people who take terribly designed holiday cards and turn them into something halfway decent before getting printed), but company management wouldn’t let me switch. So I took matters into my own hands again.

Once more, I started hunting for design jobs just like how we teach here at Crash, except I didn’t have the benefit of an awesome tool built just for job hunting. I found a few promising-looking roles, and I submitted my resume and application the old way:

“The old way of sending out a hundred resumes is completely dead. That is the most average strategy, and it’s going to lead to the most average result. And if you want to radically improve your chances at getting a job you actually like, you have to do something to stand out from the crowd.” – Nick Rundlett

Thankfully, I landed one interview for a layout designer role at an educational content company. (The job required using InDesign to flow copy [text] into these new templates that they’d paid to have designed.) I knew nothing about InDesign—other than that it was an Adobe productand I knew Photoshop really well.

When the hiring manager asked if I knew how to use InDesign, I lied and said I did. I must have been convincing enough because I got the job.

In retrospect, don’t lie. Be honest when you don’t know how to use a tool yet, and tell the hiring manager that you learn quickly and can teach yourself. Of course, start dabbling in different software now, and you won’t even have to worry about this. 😋

I wound down my customer service career and spent my first four weeks learning on the fly in this new design job. It was a thrilling experienceI love being challenged to figure things out quicklyand over the next few months, I became something of an InDesign expertgetting paid $17/hour, the highest wage I’d ever had. 🤤

About five months into the gig, my manager asked if anyone on the team was interested in creating custom illustrations for the educational workbooks we were laying out. I volunteered immediately, saying I knew how to use Illustrator (not a lie, but I certainly hadn’t used it much!), and they gave me the role. This was another thrilling experience to beef up my design software skills and techniques.

During this job, I befriended an older designer named Mark. Mark was a former art teacher, a decent designer, and a chronic cynic of lifealways with a tongue-in-cheek opinion about the topic at hand.

Still, Mark gave me some valuable feedback on personal design projects and told me about a renowned design agency in Phoenix: Moses, Inc. He spoke highly of their creativity, unique approach to design, and award-winning track record. Intrigued, I started developing a soft spot for the counter-culture agency and decided to figure out a way to intern there.

The homepage. © Moses Inc.

Hacking My Way into “Real” Graphic Design Classes

Don’t forget, during this time, I was still in design school.

Despite the fact that my major (Design Management) was a non-studio concentration, I still wanted to take some classes available only to the “studio students,” like Graphic Design majors. I spoke with my advisor about this, who admitted that I’d only be able to take studio courses if a professor approved me.

So, with a chip on my shoulder, I reached out to one of the professors teaching a “restricted” course and simply asked her if she would approve me to be in the class. I shared my enthusiasm for the subject and the reason I hadn’t gotten into the program. I was honest about why I hadn’t made it (partying, ugh) and what I had learned from the experience.

As you might have guessed by the title of this section, the professor approved me! I was thrilled and started that same week.

Never forget the power a simple ask can haveif you want something, there’s almost never any harm in asking.

Being in this studio-major-only session gave me access to some particularly interesting information. It also gave me connections to classmates as well as the speakers invited to come in and share lessons with us. And, most importantly, it exposed me to something special: the Phoenix Portfolio Review.

Breaking into the Professional Design Industry

I didn’t wait until college was over to weasel my way into the industryand you shouldn’t, either. Design jobs and internships aren’t unlimited, so if you want a spot, you’d better go get it fast. The best time to start was yesterdaythe next best time is right now.


The Phoenix Portfolio Review at ASU

The Phoenix Portfolio Review is part of the AIGA Portfolio Review initiative to help design students get experience and actionable feedback.

ASU’s design school, Herberger, hosts this exciting event every year for students in Arizona. Events like these are an excellent way to meet influential folks in the design industry and get your foot in the door somewhere.

That’s exactly what I did in March of 2015, and I wrote about it on LinkedIn. I also made a poster for it. →

In summary, the portfolio review was my chance to connect with industry pros, and I made a point to meet everyone I could, to take the right business cards (rather than give mine and never hear back), to have a handshake as strong as my personality, and to make a generally good impression.

Remember, I had my sights set on Moses.

I made sure I got face time with Matt Fischer, their Creative Director at the time, and he invited me to tour the agency’s downtown Phoenix offices! I was thrilled.

I tried to have the same level of connection with the other industry pros at the event, but I knew it would be too busy for me to stand out much. I’d need to do something more in order to have my chance.

My submission to the PPR poster contest.

By the end of the night, I was already typing up thank-you emails to the professionals I’d met. I sent them out immediately and got a couple short responses back. I knew I needed to do more, though.

Following Up

A couple weeks later, I’d found some job listings online and used them as an excuse to reach back out to my new connections. I followed up to find out if their agencies were still hiring for any of those positions.

Reaching out to ask, “I see you’ve got a job listing for X. Is this position still available?” is great for several reasons: 1. It keeps you top-of-mind, keeps building the conversation and relationship. 2. It saves you from wasting your time if they’ve already filled the positin, and forgot to take down the job posting. 3. It gives you the chance to ask additional questions about the job. 4. It alerts them to the fact that you’ll be applying, which might make them more likely to notice when they see your name come through.

I also reached out to Matt at Moses to schedule a time to go check out their space. We settled on a date, and I continued on my job hunt. Three weeks later, it was time to visit Moses Inc.

Touring the Moses HQ

As luck would have it, the day of the tour, my car broke down. Armed with nothing but sheer force of will and my girlfriend’s bike, I took the light rail downtown and biked the last mile to Moses’s building.

A much-less sweaty Matt Fischer welcomed me in and offered me some water to cool off. He showed me around and introduced me to some folks.

Pro tip: repeat people’s names when you meet them. You’ll remember them better.

At the end of the tour, we went into the conference room, and he asked me about design school and what my plans were. It was the perfect set-up for me to ask about jobs!

I told Matt I was looking for a junior designer job and asked if they were hiring. He told me that, as a matter of fact, they were opening up four internships that fallthe only downside? The internships were unpaid. I was pretty bummed but not completely dejected. I told him I’d think it over and get back to him.

Pro tip: don’t be afraid of unpaid internships. But, if you need money, remember that it’s a business—they make money. If you’re confident in what you bring to the table, you can ask for a small stipend to cover your expenses. Come with a proposal, and the worst they can do is say “no.”

I mulled this decision over a long time. I needed money, man. I’d lost my layout design/illustration job due to a personality clash with our project manager. I didn’t have my next move lined up. And I so badly wanted to get into the real design world, the agency world.

A few days later, I made up my mind to accept the unpaid internship, find a part-time job to cover my expenses, and do my best work at Moses to hopefully turn the internship into a job. I sent in my application and wrote Matt to ask him to keep an eye out for it. For two weeks, I hustled to build some sample projects to share with him. As soon I completed one, I’d send it over.

Two weeks later, I was the newest design intern at Moses, Inc.

Lessons From My Journey

Moses was the best thing that ever happened to my design career. It taught me things school never could have, and I went on to found my own creative agency afterward.

Throughout my short career, I’ve been a full-time in-house designer, a full-time freelance designer, a creative agency owner, and everything in between. I’ve built projects in every Adobe app that exists, from graphic design to illustration, from photography to video editing and animation, from Wordpress to bootstrap. I’ve published work, I’ve sold work, and I’ve lost work.

Here are some lessons for every young creative, often learned the hard way. Hopefully, I can help you learn them faster than I did. 😋

  1. If you’re not in the right major, switch now. Don’t wait for permission. Go get what you want.
  2. Force yourself to network, even if you’re introverted or uncertain of what will happen. Go to events, join AIGA, send personalized connection requests on LinkedIn.
  3. Shake hands, speak up, and remember names. Smile. Be interested in others.
  4. Take business cardsdon’t give them. This way you control the follow-up. Then actually follow up. Multiple times. (People are busy, not ignoring you on purpose.)
  5. Do creative projects all the time. Dabble in new tools. Learn to love the processand show your process in your portfolio. Creative directors love seeing that.
  6. Ship your work.
  7. Save your work. Often. And back it up frequently, both to the cloud and on an external drive.
  8. Don’t be afraid to work for free until you’re confident and have a few portfolio pieces. Then, charge per project, not per hourand charge triple what you think you should. Seriously.
  9. Invest in your skills and knowledge early on. Pay for Adobe CC. Take online courses.
  10. Learn to use non-design tools like spreadsheets, no-code software, and email.
  11. When you’re ready to find a great design job, run your job hunt like a sales process.
  12. Don’t go it alone. Always be seeking support from your friends and family, as well as advice from mentors/professionals who have done what you’re trying to domyself included. If you have more questions about this stuff, don’t hesitate to reach out via email and I’ll be glad to help you out personally.


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