Building Confidence as a New Designer

It’s been six months since I started here at ExpandTheRoom last July, my first full time design role out of school, and it’s been terrific! Over the past few months my confidence as a designer has increased significantly. I’m still very new to the field and have a lot of confidence and skill building ahead of me, but today I’ll share some of the ways I’ve been able to build my confidence as a new designer.

Always Be Learning

Learning doesn’t stop when you get out of school or finish a course. Learning should be a constant in everyone’s lives but it is especially important for people in tech fields, where the tools to get the job done are always changing, technology is ever-advancing, and insights are being uncovered. There are so many articles already out there detailing the endless free resources available to designers. Check out this exhaustive, multi-disciplinary list of resources that even includes a list of more lists.

In general, my go-to resources are..

I should also note, don’t limit your learning exclusively to design. One of the great things about design is that it is inherently multi-disciplinary — both design and the industry you’re designing for. If you work for multiple clients then you never know what discipline you’ll be tapping into next — medicine, running, dogs, oysters… All knowledge is useful knowledge, expand your horizons!

Join a Community of Fellow Designers

A great way to learn is to learn firsthand from others. There are plenty of design communities, both online and off, that you can take advantage of.

“Real world” communities are easy to find through if you live near a city. Here are some communities I suggest with a presence in major US cities and beyond:

I should note that as a new designer, one of the most confidence-testing activities I’ve experienced is attempting to network at Meetups. It’s difficult at first, especially if you’re more on the introverted side. Quick tips for this: you don’t have to network if you don’t feel comfortable, even just being at the event to learn is enough. If you do feel comfortable to talk to someone, just know that everyone there has networking in mind and is sure to be very friendly and grateful that you’re talking to them.

Plenty of people have written on the art of networking, here are a few:

An alternative to “real world” meet ups, great for introverts and those removed from the big city, are online design communities. My favorites are the ones found on Slack, like Designer Hangout and The Designership. What’s great about these communities is that there are designers from every level and the conversations are always happening. I keep these Slack channels open at work and I know if I ever need to ask a design question or get outside feedback I can turn to these groups and get a response within minutes. It will do you well to get involved in an online community like this, not just to ask for help but to help others. Even if you are a novice your feedback is valuable, and I find that spending time reading other people’s posts and critiquing things myself makes me a stronger designer.

Get a Mentor

I think the term “mentor” is intimidating to some; it seems so formal. Basically, a mentor is someone in your field with more experience than you who you can personally turn to for feedback, advice, and possibly recommendations. There are many ways to get a mentor, either organically or through a program. You could find someone in one of your design communities, or a coworker. Start just by talking to them, learning about what they do, and maybe ask a couple questions or for advice. I think it’s important that these relationships form naturally and don’t begin with “Will you be my mentor????” If you are respectful of their time and express genuine interest in learning from them, the mentorship will happen on its own without needing to label it.

The other way of getting a mentor is through a formal program designed to pair new and experienced designers together. I’ve seen a lot of these programs cropping up lately as the idea of design mentorship gains popularity. I myself gained my mentor from one of these programs. I signed up for Hexagon’s mentorship program last fall and got paired with Kelly, the VP of Design at Smart Design. The mentorship program had a guide for how many meetings we should have and topics to discuss, but we quickly forged our own path and just met to talk about things personally relevant to my career and what I needed to succeed. The program was a set amount of time but I still talk to Kelly and benefit from her guidance and support. Thanks, Kelly!

More resources on getting a mentor:

Side Projects

Sometimes it’s hard to find time to do even your daily tasks after a long work day, but I think making time for side projects is important. Work might have you strengthening your skills in one area, where with side projects you strengthen your skills in another. It doesn’t have to be a huge project, just something to keep your creative juices flowing outside of work. Some ideas:

Design your personal website.

Every designer should have a website showing who they are and their work. I also believe your website should be unique to you. It’s a perfect way to learn code if you’re interested. Since this site is yours, you have the chance to be in control of everything — the information architecture, the branding, the UX, the UI, the interactions, the content…everything!

Do pro bono work.

Whether or not to do free work is a hotly debated design topic. I’m on #teamfreework because, I think, if you have the time and are financially sound enough, free work is a good way to help others, gain experience, and possibly get paid work in the future from referrals. It’s skill-based volunteering. I’ve always been a service-oriented person and when I started my career in design I wondered if I was making the right choice because, does design really help the people who are most disadvantaged in this world? I came to the conclusion that, yes, it can. A well designed brand, website, or marketing materials can put a nonprofit on the map. Design can make it easier for them to receive donations or reach the people who need their services. Making a nonprofit’s website, app, logo, and documents can free up money for them to use in other places. It makes a difference.

Here are some resources I use for finding pro bono work:

Also try reaching out to local nonprofits you admire if you think they could benefit from design work!

Sites like 99designs.

This is another debated design topic. A lot of designers hate sites like this. Essentially clients submit an open brief that anyone can submit designs to, and the client picks a select few to make changes with, and there is one winner that gets selected as the chosen design and gets the prize money. People dislike 99designs because it’s essentially free spec work, the rewards could be higher, and you can’t interact with the client like you would in a normal one-on-one freelance role. Here’s how I make it work. I don’t concern myself at all with winning. Essentially I use 99designs as a brief generating site with the added bonus that I could possibly win some money. Again in order to make this work you have to be okay with the idea of #teamfreework. What’s great about this site is that after the contest is over you can see what other people submitted. I often find it is helpful to see, after I’ve designed something, the solutions other people come up with. Not everyone on 99designs is top talent but it’s helpful to see how other people think nonetheless.

Tips for making this work: Only decide to do contests that you think would look good on your portfolio (for instance, I’ll wait until I find a cool app concept rather than the umpteenth trendy startup landing page), watermark your work before submitting, and, if you care about winning at all, only enter contests marked as “Guaranteed.” 99designs has a policy that a client can get a refund if they don’t like the work submitted. I think this is kind of shady because what’s to stop them from seeing all these concepts and then requesting a refund and running away with the ideas? At least when the contest is guaranteed the client must pay someone.

And the last way to build confidence as a new designer…

Take initiative at your job.

You’re the new kid. If you can’t use years of design experience to back your confidence, then be a go-getter and wow your team with your enthusiasm. Suggest ways to improve the company or team internally, speak up about your ideas, volunteer to do something if you have the bandwidth. Feeling valuable and like you have something to contribute can really help with your confidence.

Lastly, become comfortable with your team. Having camaraderie with my teammates has helped me feel more confident presenting, asking for feedback, and generally feeling more relaxed. Get to know the people you work with, even those outside the design team. Go to a meet up together or grab lunch. Everyone has something to teach you.