If you’re stuck in a non-creative job that you completely uninspiring, the idea of becoming a professional designer and working for yourself while creating beautiful projects for interesting clients might seem like a fantasy. But
thanks to the practically infinite number of educational resources online, becoming a professional creative is now more accessible than ever.
No matter how many resources the internet has to offer, the process can still seem daunting. So we spoke with two of the design mentors at RookieUp to hear how they transitioned into the creative industry and to get their tips and pointers for finding your creative niche and developing your skills. Danielle Eastberg was a systems engineer at Lockheed Martin and is now a Visual UX Designer at Audible. Caryle Cunniff was a professional Irish Dancer before attending a UX Bootcamp and landing a job as a Senior UX Designer at Amazon.
Find your creative passion and jump in head first
The first thing you should do is explore what areas of the creative world you’re naturally drawn to. Watch YouTube videos and online courses about visual design, UX design, Illustration, and more to find the creative skillset that appeals to you the most. Think about why you’re interested in a creative career and hone in on what field will let you focus on that interest. Are you fascinated by the impact that a logo can have on your perception of a brand, or do you get most excited when the User Experience of a new app is elegant and intuitive?
Danielle “was filling up [her] nights and weekends learning Photoshop and web design, taking weekend workshops and teaching [herself] online.” She knew that design was something she was passionate about so she “set up a plan to save money and within a year, [she] left [her] job and went back to school at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.” Carlye took a slightly different educational path, instead of applying to a bootcamp at General Assembly. “[she] was fortunate enough to take a 3-month intensive UX Design Bootcamp program with General Assembly. This type of learning environment allowed [her] to completely focus on learning the new skills [she] needed, and forced [her] to jump into the new career – even if that leap way scary.”
Spend as much time as you can surrounded by experienced creatives
No matter how many courses you take online, studies show that the most effective way to learn is through 1-1 education with experienced professionals in your field. Having someone nearby that you can receive feedback from is hugely impactful, especially when you’re just getting started. Danielle emphasizes this point: “Be around other designers! Having teachers and mentors who know what to look for and know what feedback to give you are incredible when you are starting out. You also start learning how to have a “design eye” and everything can become inspiration.”
Create! Create! Create!
Do as many projects as you possibly can in order to build a portfolio. It doesn’t need to be client work, but it should be as varied as possible so you can grow different skills and show potential clients your breadth of experience. According to Danielle, “of course a portfolio is great, but it doesn’t have to be work from a specific company or client. Concept work (any project you make up and explore on your own) is great to show your skills and have discussion points of your interests.”
Be sure to challenge yourself when coming up with new projects. Pick a problem you see and try to solve it rather than just doing the same type of practice projects over and over. Danielle says that she would “rather see someone with critical design skills than someone with a long client list.”
Immerse yourself in the language of your creative field
Portfolio work is crucial, but being able to confidently speak in the language of your new field could make the difference between winning or losing a new client. Surrounding yourself with people in your field can help with this, but if you don’t live in a city with an active creative community, try to become an active contributor in online design communities like this and this.
According to Danielle, “the most helpful thing was to build a design vocabulary so that [she] could speak intelligently during interviews. Companies will often give you a work sample and ask you what to improve—you need to practice a lot to be able to see and give those pointers on the spot.” Carlye agrees, suggesting that you “need to have a portfolio, and real-world experience will certainly help, but I think more important is your ability to translate your former job skills into your new field. You can learn Photoshop and interaction design, but those skills are worthless if you are a poor communicator or can’t work with ambiguity.”
Find a mentor
Having an experienced person you can turn to with questions, requests for feedback, and frustration is one of the most important—and difficult—things to think about when you’re learning a new creative skill. If you live in a city with a creative community, check out your local Meetups to meet relevant design professionals. Some cities even have AIGA chapters with official mentorship programs. You can also reach out to people in the industry you respect to ask if they’d be willing to give you feedback or advice. If you’re having trouble finding a mentor in your area, you can find a community of mentors on RookieUp to help guide your creative journey.
Carlye’s creative education was significantly improved by mentors:
“My instructors at General Assembly both served as amazing mentors for me during the process. I literally came to class the first day, surrounded by people who were switching from careers in Product Management or Visual Design – I couldn’t even draw a rectangle in Photoshop, so it seemed like they were all miles ahead of me. My instructors were incredibly encouraging. That constant belief that I was going to be fine did wonders for my motivation.”
Take risks. Don’t be afraid of failure.
Finally, it’s important to remember that risk-taking is a part of the process. Entering a new field alongside people with decades of experience can be terrifying, but remember that everyone was in your shoes at some point. The only way to get better is to apply yourself to your new skill and try to learn as much as possible from the people around you. Danielle’s favorite quote is “Jump, and the net will appear.” She emphasized that “changing careers can be scary and it’s not always a linear path to happiness, but things do have a way of working out. The resources are there for you if you want them. Why not answer those “what ifs” and find out what you’re made of?”
Carlye “struggled with the idea that [she] was not ready to be a designer throughout the process of making a career switch. [She] still struggle with that imposter syndrome at times, even in the position [she’s] in now. Design, by definition, is problem-solving, so every time [she’s] given a new problem [she] panics a little bit. But it always gets solved, that’s what is so fun about design. That panic is part of the process, so when you’re learning, try and embrace it.
So if you’re ready to make the move, dive in head first! The worst thing that can happen is that you learn a new skill or hobby, and the best thing that can happen is that you find a new lifelong passion that you can grow into a successful career. If you want to talk with someone who’s been in your shoes before and can help you accomplish all of your creative goals, check out RookieUp. To chat with the mentors featured in this article, book a session with Danielle here and Carlye here.