Across the world, design students are graduating this summer and looking for their first jobs in the profession. But what's it really like to work in the design industry? In this article, we share advice from young employees around the globe doing just that.
To get the best insights, we turned to award-winning brand design and innovation agency JDO, who let us speak to staff in office locations in London, Tunbridge Wells, New York, and Shanghai. We chatted to youngsters working in design, client services and strategy roles to find out how much the reality of the profession matches up to what they expected from their university courses.
From these interviews, we've pulled out seven things that commonly surprise new starters about working in the design industry. Thankfully, they're not all bad by any means! Read on to find out what they are.
1. Deadlines are super-tight
As any creative graduate should know, working in the real world is all about meeting deadlines. But quite how pressured those deadlines are is something that many newcomers to the workplace aren't quite prepared for.
"The thing that's surprised me about working at JDO is the super-tight turnaround," says Jay Dorward, a designer at JDO Tunbridge Wells. "We're talking two days to turn ideas into concepts into presenting.
"Working with clients is a completely different ball game to uni," he continues. "I used to have a week or even a month on a brief! Now, sometimes I'll get a few days to turn around a new route or jump onto the next phase of work."
That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, adds Faith Abe, a junior account manager at JDO Tunbridge Wells. "I get bored very quickly," she points out. "In fact, before I joined the working world, I was worried I'd never find a job that would keep me engaged. But here at JDO, I love the variety of projects I'm involved in.
"I've worked on everything from body lotion to stationery," she continues. "And the fast-paced nature of the job means that I can always expect something new to get stuck into each day. For example, in my first few months at JDO, I was lucky enough to work on a project where I got to arrange, attend, and participate in a photo shoot."
2. You learn on the job
While a university course is a good way into the profession, it won't teach you all the skills you need to thrive in a design agency. Most of them you'll learn on the job.
One example is how you present your work to others, says Ryan Worcester, a designer at JDO Tunbridge Wells. "Whether that's a colleague or a client, it's part of the job to sell your ideas and get others to believe in them," he explains. "You want to get people as excited about your work as you are!"
Rachael Skingle, a strategy researcher at JDO London, adds: "Since being at JDO, I'm much better at thinking about the bigger picture of a project and not needlessly sweating the small stuff. I am more confident in making decisions, prioritising, and deciding which areas to go into tiny detail about now, rather than burning out, overanalysing every single design choice ever."
3. You need to ask questions
When you're new to the profession, your instincts may tell you to keep your head down, and if you don't know something, don't admit it. But if that's the case, says Rachael, your instincts are wrong. "You look sillier for not asking the question," she points out. "Nobody bites, and nobody expects you to know all the business lingo already. So just ask!"
That particularly applies when you first start your job, adds Carolien Grebe, client manager at JDO London. "It's very important to have the best understanding possible of the role you're joining and the expectations the team has of you," she says. "When I started, I wish I had asked even more questions."
4. You need to think globally
We all know the modern world of design is global. But even so, many of our interviewees were surprised by just how much that would influence their day-to-day work. "I'm always in briefing and review calls involving team members in the US, China and beyond," enthuses Faith. "As long as I remember to double-check time zones, it's always a super seamless experience."
Jennifer Ren, account executive and PA at JDO Shanghai, also loves how international her work is. "It's really fun to work with people from a different culture and background," she says. "I can always learn something new." Mary Toscano, a junior designer at JDO New York, adds: "It can be difficult at times, but for the most part, collaboration has been seamless. As long as I approach every day with everyone's time zones in mind and do a bit of backwards planning, I rarely have any issues."
5. You can have a life too!
When you're at uni, some of the lecturers and visiting speakers are keen you don't think working in design is easy. Sometimes, though, they can lay it on a bit thick and scare you with tales of working long hours and weekends. But while that may have been the case in the past, the modern profession has very much cleaned up its act.
"It's no longer the case that you're working yourself to the bone as a junior," says Ryan. "There's more of a focus on mental health and preventing burnout, which leads to creating better work."
Faith adds: "The idea you'll have to wave goodbye to a work-life balance is a bit of a myth now. Don't get me wrong: I've had a handful of nights where I've had to put in an extra shift to get work over the line for clients. As account managers, we do everything we can to ensure our clients have what they need. But most days, I get to sign off in good time."
"For me, the most pleasantly surprising thing about working at JDO has been the 'Friyays', where we get an extra Friday off every month," says Jen. "It's not a common offer, and it really shows the company is taking care of their staff by encouraging work-life balance."
6. Seniors are surprisingly reachable
When you see groundbreaking design work for global brands, you might expect the people behind it to be 'design rock stars' who keep themselves out of the way of junior staff. But Carolien says it's the opposite.
"I think one of the myths in the creative industry is that more senior members in the company can be almost unreachable, but it's been the opposite in my experience," she says. "Although their time is precious, and we need to be considerate of this, all the directors and more senior people at JDO are very approachable and happy to help. They're very involved in the core of projects but also interested in really getting to know everyone in the team."
Mary has had a similar experience at JDO New York. "The most pleasantly surprising thing I discovered after joining was the attitude," she says. "Here, everyone values everyone's opinions, regardless of their rank or tenure."
7. Co-workers feel like family
Many young designers enter the world of work fearing a dog-eat-dog atmosphere. But while that may be the case in many professions, design isn't one of them. Instead, designer Jay Dorward describes working at JDO Tunbridge Wells as: "a family feel and culture. I've been welcomed into the group and still feel as important as the day I joined. We all enjoy clocking off at the end of the day to go to the pub when we can. We've even organised to go on a pub crawl this Friday because it's Friyay, so everyone is heading to London for a few bevs."
Rachael tells a similar story. "I've really enjoyed how blended and collaborative agency life has been," she says. "There's always something different and fun going on, and everyone gets stuck in. It's been so great working on a variety of projects at the same time, with lots of different people and roles. Everyone is excited to offer their advice and help each other out, even if it's not a project they're directly involved in. I've not yet experienced the agency ski trip, but I'm already excited to see how this team working spirit traverses ski lifts and the intricacies of black runs!"