7 Tips for Breaking Into The Design Industry

My wife and I recently took a trip out of town with some friends to their family’s farm. The road trip took a couple of hours and on the way out of town one of our friends wanted to ask me some business questions. He was young, just getting started in business and trying to thing of a way to break into a certain industry. While I rattled off some thoughts on business and customers I remembered back to some of the best advice I ever received about breaking into an industry. So this week I want to share with you seven tips for breaking into the design industry. If you’re a student or recent graduate, these tips are for you.
But first a story…

You might not know this about me, but I use to be a professional photographer. I worked for various commercial photographers and eventually started my own business doing portrait and wedding photography. While I enjoyed shooting photography, I hated actually running a photography business. But for years photography had been my passion.

I started learning photography in high school. I knew I wanted to get into the portrait and wedding photography someday, but as an 17 year old, introverted kid, I was having a hard time trying to get a job in the industry. This was in 2000, luckily for me, photographers were just starting to explore online communities (this was pre facebook and twitter) ,mostly message boards, for creative feedback, training, and networking. One of the largest sites at the time was Zuga.net, where professional and amateur photographers shared and networked. This is where I first heard of the legendary photographer Monte Zucker.

Who’s Monte?

If you are a photographer interested in portrait or wedding photography, Monte Zucker helped push and a lot of the digital techniques used today. Not only that, but in the 1960s, he was one of the champions of using natural light in portraiture. His career started in 1947 and lasted until his death in 2007. He celebrated may achievements over the years: a Bride’s Magazine photographer of the year, he was sponsored by Canon, photography equipment was named after him, and in 2002 the United Nations honored him as photographer of the year. Basically he was an amazing photographer, teacher, and person.

When I joined Zuga.net in 2001, Monte was an extremely poster. He would share his recent work and offer feedback for those that asked. Monte’s feedback posts were usually very detailed and included diagrams on how the photographer could improve the shot. I spent a lot of time reviewing his posts and diagrams to match his style and learn his techniques.

A Phone Call Changed My Life

As a young guy trying to break into the photography industry, I felt defeated. It felt that I wasn’t being taken seriously as a professional. I was reaching out to every local photographer I could, trying to get some type of internship. After a series of rejection calls, I was at a breaking point. So in desperation I thought I would send Monte Zucker an email. I was sure I wouldn’t hear anything back, but at this point I had nothing to lose.

To my surprise within hours I got this simple message back:
“My phone number is…give me a call.”

I was shocked. And really nervous. Here was one of the biggest guys in the industry, telling this high school kid to give him a call. I had no idea what to say, or ask him. I sent him a message in desperation, not ever expecting to hear back.

So I picked up my cell phone and with shaky hands gave the number a call. My voice cracked and shook, “Hello, Monte this is Jesse.” The phone call only lasted a few minutes, but the advice he gave me changed my professional life, and advice I pass down whenever I get the chance.

His advice was so simple and profound: “In a trade like photography, if you want to work for a great photographer, you need to offer to take something off their plate that thing they hate doing. We all have something about our business that we hate. Find that thing and offer to do it for them. If that’s taking out the trash or getting coffee, do it. No job can be below you. Get in the door, work hard, and try to learn from the photographer any chance you get.”

Web design, like photography, is a trade. You can go to school for it, or you can get an internship or apprenticeship and grow your skill that way. While I eventually went to art school, my web design background came from years of on-the-job training and I have always used Monte’s advice.

1. Create a list of people who you would like to learn from.
I always keep a list of people in the industry that I admire or who I could learn something from. Who, if given the chance, I would to work with on a project. Do a search in your local area, see who is doing great things, and keep track of them. Follow them on the social networks they are active on. Twitter lists are fantastic for following these people.

2. Discover their pain points.
We all have things we hate to do in our businesses, for me it’s email, your goal is to figure out what that one thing is. It could be taking out the trash, coffee runs, standing at the local print shop, getting lunch, booking travel appointments, organizing their office, updating their quickbooks, doing writing for their blog, or anything else. Their pain point is your foot in the door.

3. Reach out in a reasonable way.
The next thing you need to do is to find a way to get in contact with the person you want to help. This doesn’t mean spamming them with 100 emails, but it means contacting them in an appropriate and professional way. Personalization is key as well. Don’t send a bulk email to everyone with some generic opening line, make it personal. I think phone calls generally work best for this. Email makes it very easy to say no. Often it’s harder for people to say no when talking directly to someone in person or over the phone.

4. Make a compelling offer.
Money is not your goal here. It’s great if you can land something that pays, but right now your payment is education. Make the person you want to work for an offer to help them in whatever capacity they might need. Tell them you’ll work for free, explain to them that you want to learn the business, show them your dedication.

5. Understand that you’ll have to make sacrifices.
Breaking into any industry can be hard. Early in your career you will need to make sacrifices. You might have to work nights for a season, or take on a part-time night job so you can work on your craft during the day. This can be difficult if you have a family, but if you have a supportive partner, it is entirely possible.

For the first part of my design career I worked a full-time job, then I would come home and have dinner with my wife. After that I would spend the next 4-5 hours designing for an agency I was helping out with. The time away from my family was hard, but we knew that it was only for a season of life and it wouldn’t always be that way. Seasons come and go, use this time to get good at your craft.

6. Focus on learning as much as you can.
If you’re lucky, you might end up with a job doing actual design work. But odds are, you won’t be. For example, I have my design intern currently organizing my photoshop layers. Not an awesome job at all, but provides a lot of help to me. In this role, my intern has the opportunity to see how I apply specific styles, how I story board ideas, and how I approach problem solving.

Focus on what you can learn. Ask questions when you can. Try to understand their process.

7. Be humble and work hard.
I think being humble is one of the most under valued traits in business. But I look for people who are humble and who are willing to take on any task. Do your best to serve the person you are working for, work extremely hard for them, and don’t become a burden on their business. This is your opportunity to learn the business, to grow your career, and hopefully get a great recommendation from the owner.

So how long do you need to spend working underneath someone? It depends on how much you need to learn. It could one year, or five. I spent two years interning at different photography studios and another year interning at a design agency before I felt comfortable enough to start applying for full-time work. Getting into our industry can be hard for new people or recent graduates, but if you stay humble, work hard, and reach out to influencers, you should have no trouble.

About the author

Jesse Orndorff

The founder of Glean, an agency for change. Formerly Innovation Program Manager at DAI. He's now focused on building technology and startups that work on challenging issues and doing social good.

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By Jesse Orndorff

Jesse Orndorff

The founder of Glean, an agency for change. Formerly Innovation Program Manager at DAI. He's now focused on building technology and startups that work on challenging issues and doing social good.

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