Author: Derek Mei
Over the past few months of 2020, openings for jobs across all industries have been sparse due to companies taking a freeze on hiring during this time of uncertainty.
Within the field of design, some designers have noticed that there are fewer full-time positions available, especially for those starting their careers or looking for their first job in the field.
As someone who's newer to the field, what are some steps you can take right now to gain experience to build a solid portfolio of work or stand out amongst the competition once more companies start hiring again?
Note: The following tips have been curated by a team of junior, mid-level, and senior designers. Not every method will work for you, and we recommend a combination of the following to get the most out of this time. In addition to those following tips, continue to build up your skills and knowledge, as that's the most important part of the learning process.
1. Volunteer for Non-Profit Organizations
Not everyone has the freedom to volunteer because of time or money limitations, but if you do, this is a great way to gain experience. Regardless of whether you're looking for a job or if you're working full-time (or part-time), volunteering and using your design skills to help a non-profit organization is a great way to apply what you've learned to a real-world scenario. In addition, many organizations will let you use the work you do for them as a case study or piece for your portfolio.
Note: If a company asks you to volunteer your time for free to help them with their product/website/app but they're making money off of what they're selling, that's not volunteering. That's called unpaid labor, and you're most likely better off finding another position or role. Furthermore, these companies might promise you a return offer for a full-time position or tell you that you'll get good exposure for the work you're doing, but be cautious, as sometimes these promises can be empty or false.
2. Attend Hackathons and Designathons
Hackathons and Designathons are short events where designers (and others) come together to work on projects together. They're a great way to learn new skills while building projects with others who have similar or complementary skills.
Some past Hackathons and Designathons include:
- College Hackathons/Designathons (such as HackMIT, RU Hacks, ConUHacks, and PennApps)
- Localized Hackathons/Designathons (such as BostonHacks or MLH's Local Hack Day)
- Topic-Based Hackathons/Designathons (such as Citizen Hacks or Hack Quarantine)
- Company-Sponsored Hackathons/Designathons (such as Camp Figma or Salesforce's $1,000,000 Hackathon)
- Hackathons targeting BIPOC and underrepresented minorities (TechTogether or Superposition)
Hackathons and Designathons are a great way to meet and network with others, and also meet hiring recruiters from different companies that might be hiring. To find other Hackathons and Designathons, check out AngelHack, Devpost, and Major League Hacking.
3. Redesign an Existing Product
Redesigning an existing product is a great way to learn and gain experience as a designer. In particular, it'll help you think critically about how to improve an existing website or app that exists, and how to design under constraints that exist.
Daniel Burka's article on "Fake Designs" lists out several reasons why designing or redesigning a solution without being asked can produce real results - among which can include building out case studies for your portfolio and learning the intricacies and nuances of designing products.
4. Join a Local Community and Connect with Others
Gaining experience and learning new skills can also come in the form of learning from others and connecting with others who have been in your shoes. There are a lot of great online design communities online full of designers and mentors who are willing to volunteer their time to help other designers advance in their careers.
Design Buddies (on Discord)
ADPList (to find a design mentor)
5. Participate in Online Challenges
If you don't have ideas for projects, participating in online challenges is a great way to apply your knowledge to a problem someone else has identified or created to be solved.
Some of these challenges are merely for practice, but some other challenges are pain points someone else has that can potentially turn into a profitable side project or a valuable case study.
6. Join a Remote Team and Work on a Project Together
Another great way to get experience is by joining a remote team and working on a project together. Unlike a Hackathon or Designathon, these projects don't need to be completed over the course of a short time frame, so you'll be able to think through problems more methodically and take your time to do the right amount of research and discovery before jumping into a project.
Here are some great places to find teams to work with:
7. Consult with Real-World Clients or do Freelance Work
If you have experience working with clients or feel confident taking the jump into the world of freelance work, consulting and working with real-world clients is a great way to build experience while also getting paid.
In addition to asking around in your network, other great sources to find work include localized Facebook or LinkedIn groups or sites like Upwork, AngelList, and Toptal.
You don't need to work for a company in order to gain experience. Although 2020 hasn't particularly been kind to everyone, there's still a lot of ways to make a difference in others' lives and connect with those around you while also building up your experience so that you can land that first job.