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Starting a career in design? Five things design leaders want you to know

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By Claire Blyth, host of ‘My Life in Design’ podcast and founder and managing partner of brand design PR specialist Red Setter

When I launched the ‘My Life in Design’ podcast last summer, the aim was to speak to some of the design and branding industry’s most interesting figures and to share their career stories and journeys of how they got into the industry (in most cases it’s not as obvious as you might think).

I learnt a lot speaking to my first nine guests in series one.

The fact that it seems ridiculous to make 14-year-olds have to choose between a GCSE in design or music. You can’t do both apparently.

The fact that you don’t need to get onto the ‘best’ design course in the world to maximise your career possibilities (it’s what you do with your skills and the opportunities that you make for yourself).

I generally learnt that with working in design and branding the scope for learning is pretty endless. You’ll never get bored!

Here's my key outtakes from the first series about starting a career in design:

Never underestimate the importance of an influential teacher

In most cases a career in design is not a given. It’s not even obvious. Many of my guests’ passion for design was stoked and cultivated by just one teacher who encouraged their creativity and helped point them in the right direction, leading them to study art or design at a higher level.

Without that push, many of my guests said they wouldn’t have necessarily pursued design as a career path (or know that that path was open to them).

Curiosity is essential to be a great designer


Stu Watson from Nomad

The big difference between art and design is that with design you’re always creating for someone else. And as part of that journey as a designer, you have to have a natural curiosity about the world around you.

I loved what Stu Watson from Nomad said on this, “You have to be obsessed with everything around design. Film, art and culture and music. And everything that inspires creative thinking.”

Kirsty Minns ECD at Mother Design also stated that “if you’re not curious about the world and people, perhaps design is not a role for you.”

Be relentless in your pursuit of a career in design

The door to a career in design isn’t always an easy one to open, but all our guests agreed that internships were essential to help young designers get skills, stand out and be more attractive to future employers.

Contacting design and branding agencies about internships can feel like a thankless task. But Stuart Watson from Nomad told us you’ve got to be determined. Find the right person to email, don’t go via a generic address or send a generic email. Make it personal, do your homework.

And don’t be afraid to chase up. As Stu said, he’s a “classic creative director”, too busy and missing emails. One of his best interns emailed, emailed again and with still no response, called the agency and demanded to speak to him.

“It took balls,” Stu says as a compliment. “But I invited him in, offered him a year’s placement, then offered him a job on graduation. He went above and beyond. You’ve got to be fearless as it’s so competitive. Don’t just send stuff and expect a reply. Have a thick skin, make it personal and follow up.”

A design agency is not just about design  


Heidi Lightfoot and Katja Thielen from Together Design

When you intern at a design agency, you don’t just learn about the creative side. Beyond design, the best internships will provide a full scope of life in an agency – from responding to a client brief, to strategy, to client management, even in some cases the all-important financials.

Heidi Lightfoot from Together Design said of the importance of her own internship experience: “I could see how it all worked, how briefs came in and the different parts of the puzzle. That’s what I really fell in love with. All the different elements you bring together in a piece of work called design or branding. It’s the coming together of those pieces I love.”

Don’t let those elements scare you. All my guests shared the importance of not being afraid to ask questions.

Make your mark

When you’re lucky enough to get a foot in the door of an agency you need to make a positive impact. Founder of Bulletproof, Gush Mundae, shared his advice to interns and new joiners, saying “be enthusiastic, be cheeky and don’t be a d***”.”

Also stand up for yourself. If you don’t like way something is being handled, or you don’t believe in the chosen route, say so. Don’t wish later down the line that you wish you’d said something. Be honest, it’s a great way to be and to make your mark.

A career in design is ultimately exciting and hard work. It’s clear from my guests that it’s also more than a career. Design is the meaning to life for so many. How many other industries could claim that?   


Series two of ‘My Life in Design’ kicked off in January with new partner the Design Business Association and guests including Matt Baxter and Dom Bailey of Baxter & Bailey, Dave Palmer of LOVE, Aporva Baxi of DixonBaxi, Liza Enebeis of Studio Dumbar, Craig Oldham of Office of Craig Oldham, and Vince Frost (amongst others).


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