There's no instruction manual for this: navigating your first job

I remember graduating from college, diploma in hand. The previous four years had been sort of tough, so it made sense for me to walk away from the podium in my cap and gown feeling I’d really trained. I was ready for whatever came up in my first job.

Then I started said job and realized I had so much to learn.

When I began my first-ever grown-up gig as a graphic designer, I was excited. But once I was “on the ground,” so to speak, it all felt really overwhelming. Working with a group of talented senior designers, I struggled with imposter syndrome. Each of my colleagues has their “thing,” whether that be animation, illustration or typography. I wasn’t sure what or how I would contribute, and whether I’d make any impact on the agency.

I tried very hard to seem like I had it down and prove I was meant for the team. If you’re reading this and doing the same thing, I have some life-changing advice: don’t.

I was too embarrassed to ask questions about things I thought I should’ve learned in school but didn’t. In the end it just held me back from figuring it out faster by just asking, “Hey, how do I do this?” I eventually began to realize I work with a group of people that are always eager to help one another. If I’d realized it sooner, my learning curve may not have been quite as steep.

So, in the interest of supporting other young design professionals, I present to you the things they don’t teach you in college list, an incomplete compilation that nevertheless I hope gets you thinking about the things college didn’t teach you, and how you might support fresh grads on the job.

The list is specific to me, but the experience is universal. No matter the industry, there’s the work you do to enter, and the work you discover upon entry. This was only the beginning of my professional journey, but I want to illuminate it because shedding light on these experiences is instructive and helpful for early-career professionals and their colleagues.

what they didn’t teach me in college:

how an agency runs

Despite the fact that every agency is different and has its own processes, just having an idea what some processes might look like would have been a help. Instead, I spent a lot of my first year so frustrated with myself because I felt like I was doing everything wrong. It felt like everyone spoke a language I’d never learn. I was frustrated with my school because I’m thinking, “Why didn’t they tell me this!?” I was even frustrated with my new agency because I wasn’t sure how I was going to adapt. More exposure to workplace processes in our classes (since not everyone can expect to get an internship) would have been hugely beneficial.

the shortcuts

Design school didn't teach me all the little tricks that come with each program. If there’s one thing I learned about working at a branding agency, it’s that efficiency is key. Knowing and being adept at using a program’s full capabilities is extremely important. It's the difference between drowning and staying afloat in this fast-paced environment. I spent the majority of my free time learning all the program tips and tricks that first year, just so I could keep up. It was like I’d spent college at the tip of an iceberg with no idea how vast the ocean actually was!

the printing process

As a designer you need to know how things are going to print and more importantly, set up your files correctly. I was in college when COVID happened, and because of it I’d printed off a single poster at most. I missed a lot of that in-person printer training, so I never learned how to set up a file for a brochure or booklet to go to print. They also don’t tell you what a bleed is (that’s an important one!). When I had to learn what 4-page printing was and how the page numbers needed to be easily divisible by 4, I played it cool and pretended I knew that.

The wrath of adobe after effects

For any college student who’s currently studying design and reading this, yes you will have to touch Adobe After Effects again. I know, it’s tough. I told myself I’d never use it again, yet here I am, taking courses, scheduling training sessions with my creative directors and reaching for it for new projects. I think now that’s just where everything is going. People want to see more than the static piece. Clients get excited watching the work come to life. I’m no pro by any means, but I’ve definitely improved by using the spare time I get to watch tutorials or take courses.

the links folder

I giggle as I mention this, but I feel like I have to. I never knew your Adobe Illustrator and InDesign files had “links.” These are the connections between the files and the images, logos, etc. that you place into the file to make it look great. Well, because I had only ever worked from my computer and its documents and not a server where everyone has access, I never put links in the links folder for the jobs I was working on. Our production manager asking where 15-plus links are located was a very humbling experience.

The final word

I believe early career experiences like this one resonate for people across industries. In conversations with our agency’s creative directors, I’ve learned that they too struggled with their own learning curve. What hasn’t been mentioned is that while there is so much knowledge I’m gaining, I (and they, during their career’s early stages) have brought fresh ideas and new skillsets to the workplace. In my own agency, I’ve brought important things to clients and colleagues alike in an industry where staying current with trends is vital. New grads have that impact.

Despite that, I think it’s important to share those vulnerable moments, too. Starting your career can melt your brain to putty as you learn by doing, where it’s reshaped into something more capable, agile, knowledgeable. And while some of that is a given, I’d advocate for two things: one, more career education inside the classroom, so that it’s not up to students only to capture these lessons on internships, and two, as much understanding as possible for your new colleagues who are just starting on the job. They’ll be a different person in a year—but for now they need your guidance!

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