I've been doing graphic design for 5 years as an in-house designer for retail. I was laid off earlier this year due to restructuring. While I was in shock of the news I was also genuinely burnt out from working there. I didn't like the work I was doing but I felt like I didn't have the skills to get another job. My portfolio feels like it hasn't even improved since I graduated college. I really doubted my own design abilities and wondered if I'm even good enough.

I studied Media Communications so I didn't necessarily get proper graphic design education, but I'm considering going back to school for an actual diploma in design. I’ve been learning on my own time but everything feels unstructured and inconsistent. I know it's not necessary to have a degree but I think having that education will put me back on track and boost my confidence.

Do you think I should go back to school or continue with my independent learning?

There’s a lot of debate about formal education (post-secondary education) versus self-education, and I understand why because there are a lot of pros and cons to compare.

On the side of formal education, some of the pros are: you have teachers with (presumably) industry experience and connections sharing all their knowledge with you. Your program is designed to teach you a broad spectrum of things you’ll need to know professionally and creatively. Your classmates will eventually become your professional peers, meaning your first network connections are built in. And the formal structure of school keeps you accountable and progressing.

However on the negative side: university and college are expensive and school debt can burden you for a long time afterward. Not all programs are equal and it’s hard to tell if a curriculums is good or not from the outside. And it’s a huge time commitment, which can be hard for people who can’t afford to centre their lives around their studies, like parents, or people who need to work to support themselves or others.

Those negatives for formal education, on the flip side, are kind of the pros of self-education: you can spend as much or as little money as you want, by watching free tutorials on youtube, to paying for something like SkillShare - way cheaper than annual tuition. You can focus on learning what you want, rather than enduring classes that might be poorly planned or poorly taught in a larger curriculum. You can find online teachers and resources that cater specifically to your preferred learning style. And you can fit all this into whatever schedule you need, and work it around other school, work, or family obligations.

However, I think the negatives of self-education outweigh the pros: choosing what to learn online means you can be completely oblivious to information you need - you don’t know what you don’t know. Not having a planned schedule can mean you can learn very slowly, forget information over time, and the overall process can take forever - there’s also no way to know when you’ve learned “enough”. I see lots of people completely on the hard technical skills (like software tutorials) and not learn about conceptual thinking, semiotics, visual problem solving, design history, or typography history. And there’s nobody but yourself to hold you accountable or push you creatively.

Here’s the final thing to consider though: how much you already know. You’ve been working for five years, and you say you don’t think your portfolio has improved at all. I can’t say either way without seeing it, but I would wager you know more now than you did before you started your job five years ago. Remember that your old portfolio presumably got you hired in the first place; there must’ve been something in there your managers liked.

You say you don’t like the work you did; was it truly bad design, or was it work you didn’t personally like or want to do more of? If you can do a good job designing something boring, like a price tag, web banner, print flyer, as long as it functions and communicates the way it needs to, then that’s probably good design.

Reach out to your network and see if anybody will meet with you for a portfolio review in exchange for a coffee or something, and get an objective opinion. It can be really hard to measure our own abilities, especially if we haven’t been happy at work for other reasons. Try to meet a few different people, because each will have different opinions; anything that gets repeated, you need to work on.

You might find a solution in between the two options: sign up for individual classes, workshops, or online courses to hone your skills in the areas you feel weakest. Just going over the information in a class and seeing how much of it you’re already familiar with, might give you a better sense of where you stand. And if you realize you’ve underestimated yourself, you’re not out too much money.

If going to school is going to give you the confidence you need to succeed in your career, then that’s as good a reason as any to go. Worst case scenario, you learn the same thing twice. Just keep in mind that at that point, you're paying tuition for peace of mind as much as for an education - only you can decide how much that’s worth.

(This is one of a series of questions I received on Instagram prior to Portfolio Review Night 6.) 

Curious how to build a portfolio that looks professional.

I don't think "professional" is the thing you wanna focus on, instead you want to make sure your portfolio is “communicative”. Building a portfolio is a design job like any other: you have to think of your audience and what information they need to see. I think a lot of people get tripped up 'cause they're like "I don't know what a recruiter is looking for". But the way that recruiters choose who to interview is the same as when you've made choices between multiple options before.

Here's an example: let's say you wanted to hire a baker to bake you a chocolate cake for your birthday. You would want to see examples of that kind of cake on their website or in their store before you hire them. So let's say you have three bakers to choose between: Baker number one is doing a lot of red velvet right now, baker number two has examples of vanilla and chocolate cakes, and baker number three is just doing exclusively cupcakes. Based on that, who would you hire?

All three bakers probably have the skills to make the cake you want, a chocolate cake is not hard to do. But only baker number two has the evidence that they can do what you need. You can't know what the other bakers are capable of without seeing it, and why bother taking a risk on them anyway when you already know baker number two can do exactly what you want.

Like the bakers, you'll be hired based on the work people can see. People will not fill in the gaps or assume you can do something you haven’t shown - you have to be explicit. You also need to talk about your role on a given project, your responsibilities, your creative process and rationale, and the outcomes of your work if possible. This is especially important for juniors too with little to no experience, talking about your role within your team (either at work or school) and how to solve problems independently will help visitors to your portfolio understand what you’ve done and what you’re capable of.

Otherwise, you have to implement good web design practices, especially as a designer (UX, UI, and accessibility). Writing in a professional (which can also be warm) tone, no typos or broken links are also important. In the best case scenario, the portfolio itself becomes a portfolio piece, and a representation of your design skills. So focus on the experience you want your audience to have and what you want them to learn when they visit your site, and how you can best do that for them.

(This is one of a series of questions I received on Instagram prior to Portfolio Review Night 6.) 

There seems to be a shortage of agency positions for junior designers right now.

I get this comment a lot, I've been hearing it for years, and I know it's usually borne from anxiety. It's really impossible to say how many jobs are out there at any given time. A lot of hiring is done through word of mouth, and not every job is posted to LinkedIn or Glassdoor.

I won't get into the state of the economy or anything, obviously there are times of low and high employment, but these numbers don't really mean anything to the individual. I always think of this clip from Scrubs when I think of this kind of thing. The bottom line is, it doesn't really matter how many jobs are out there, if we could even measure that. You can’t impact the statistics, nor control which side you fall on. All that really matters is that you keep on applying and moving towards your goals.

The only thing that you have to consider as far as how many jobs are out there, is that if there aren't a lot of jobs - and again we can't tell that - but if there aren't a lot, that does mean that the ones you're applying to will have more people applying to them on average. The competition will be higher - but the competition is usually high to begin with.

So you have to make your portfolio and resume the best they can be to be competitive. The best designers will be hired, generally speaking. So keep working on your design skills and make sure your portfolio shows your best work. Reach out to network too, and expand your network by meeting other creatives at social or networking events, and tell people you’re looking for a junior designer role. And on top of that, keep applying online, and remember that this process takes time. Good luck.

(This is one of a series of questions I received on Instagram prior to Portfolio Review Night 6.) 

I hate how the job market is right now, any tips on climbing up the ladder from intermediate designer to senior?

If you wanna move up a level, you have to know what the difference is between the job you're doing now and the job you wanna move into. So if you're an intermediate designer and you wanna become a senior designer, you have to know what a senior designer does.

The thing that changes as you move up the ladder generally speaking, is that the more senior you are, the less overseen you are. Juniors are overseen very closely by Creative Directors. Intermediate designers a little bit less, senior designers even less than that. And often as you go up to see the scales tip, where the senior designer might then oversee the junior designer a little bit. In other words, you’re given more autonomy and space for independent decision-making as you move up.

A huge part of that is simply down to how much experience you have; it takes time and practice to get better at anything. You also encounter a wider variety of situations the longer you work, which grows your problem solving skills in unique ways (within the design work, but also socially with your colleagues).

If you want a promotion at your current company, you should talk to your bosses and see what you can work on to make being a senior a reality there. They probably will have specifics for you that you can work on. But your promotion will also depend on if they have the need or space for a senior creative; you may have to wait until somebody else leaves or there’s a business case for adding another senior role.

Often, the easiest way to move up the ladder is just to apply for that role at a new company. To be hired in a senior designer role, you should do these things:

  1. Demonstrate your creative process and rationale in your portfolio and talk about it in the interview.
  2. Talk about the outcomes of your projects or what client reactions you received.
  3. Describe what your work relationships are like and how you collaborate and solve problems with others.

The higher up you are, the more your leaders will need you to make good, sound decisions without their guidance that they would be happy with. The more senior the role, the more it becomes about managing relationships. Demonstrating how you work with people and handle different situations will help interviewers understand what you’re capable of.

As a creative, I’m always making things after work hours. What is a pro tip on balancing this and avoiding burnout? It’s hard to “turn off” and I often find myself not doing enough. I know there isn't an absolute answer, but I think in a culture where content is king on social media, it feels like burnout is always on the horizon.

I work in a field I do not have formal education in, so I try to prove my credibility by pumping as much work out as possible. A lot of the work is just personal projects, and my job doesn’t see any of it. My current job is not my ideal one and not where I want to be in 10 years; it’s 10-20% design work, and 80-90% project management. I want to do work where it’s a bit more even and there’s more variety. I work on powerpoint reports and that is very limiting in what is possible. The personal work is to learn and develop my style, I don’t have a formal education so I try my best to learn and practice on my own time.

Bottom line, there are only 24 hours in a day. It’s up to you to balance your time between stuff that’s necessary - work, sleep, chores, self care, time with family and friends - and stuff you want to do, like personal projects. You say you’re “pumping out as much work as possible” and that’s probably too much! It’s really important to give yourself rest time, for your own well being and health, and also for your creativity. Design work that’s done under stress or without good rest usually isn’t our best, and if you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself to keep churning out work, you’re probably not doing the best work you’re capable of. Taking some time off, counterintuitively, can make your design work better. Pick a couple evenings a week and say you’re not allowed to do design work, you have to relax. Relaxing is a priority, and the only way to conquer burnout.

But I want to address the “pumping out as much work as possible” part of your letter. Reading between the lines, it sounds like you’ve decided personal projects are the solution to your lack of formal education, and for the fact that you don’t have a lot of work from your current job to put in your portfolio. I want to assure you that many designers come to work in this field without formal design education. I know people with degrees in science, math, and history, who decided to pivot to design or advertising later. They didn’t go back to school, they put together a portfolio to show what they were capable of and that got their foot in the door. Working as a designer is very much about how good your skills are, but it doesn’t really matter where or how you learned those skills.

The more experienced you are, the less your education is a factor when you’re applying for jobs. School is just a starting point. Once you’re a couple years in, your professional experience matters more than your education because it’s a much more recent example of your abilities.

Personal projects are great for exploring things you can’t with your job, and can be an asset to a portfolio to show more breadth in your experience and skills. But you don’t need to overdo it: a couple of your best projects are better than a dozen mediocre ones. Quality over quantity is key. If you’re pushing yourself to do design work every night, is that going to be the best example of what you’re capable of? Are you really able to think about your personal style and approach if you’re burnt out?

I suggest taking a moment to pause and think about what you want next. You want to leave your current job, so think about what kind of work you’d like to do instead and do some research into jobs and designers who do this work now. Then figure out what gaps exist between you now and the designer you want to be, and just focus on a couple of those things at a time. Creating simple goals for yourself and choosing one or two things you can do to get yourself there is a much gentler way of working towards your goals than constantly pushing yourself to create every day.

Take the focus off social media too - you don’t need to go viral to get another job. If anything, I find the dynamics of social media are a distraction, and really irrelevant to your career. Don’t let likes and views distract you, they’re not a measure of how good your work is and you don’t need them to prove yourself. The social media beast will always ask to be fed - you can ignore it.

You don’t have to be the best designer you can possibly be to move on to the next stage of your career, you just need to be the designer your next job needs. Becoming a better designer is a slow process, you evolve over years as you have different experiences. You can’t rush yourself there by working in the evenings. Do personal projects because you truly want to, or because they’re specifically helping you reach a specific goal. If you’re feeling burnt out, then those projects are probably hurting you more than helping, and it’s okay to stop.