If you’re thinking about this question early in your career, good for you! As a young designer, you’re likely eager for a job that pays you well and lets you do what you love, all while building your portfolio and design skills to set you up for more exciting opportunities in the future. The dream!
However, “dream jobs” are harder to spot than you might think. When you’re reading job descriptions and filling out online applications, a lot of positions will sound perfect for you. But the true test comes when you meet the team and get to interact with your potential employer at the interview.
The true test comes when you meet the team and get to interact with your potential employer at the interview.
Early in my career, I landed my dream job—or so I thought. On paper, it was true: it was an established and reputable company, and I would get to work on a product that I already knew and loved. When I received my offer, I felt victorious! My family would now see that my design degree could be applied (they had been very skeptical), and it would look great on my resume. And surely, I would grow plenty there.
Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way. The role was not a good fit for me, and in retrospect, that had been clear from the first few interviews. With each conversation, I had been getting the feeling that it wasn’t what I’d hoped it would be, but I took the offer anyway, because it seemed like the obvious—maybe only—decision. It wasn’t a bad company; it just wasn’t for me, and I should have listened to my heart when those early conversations had left it feeling uncertain. Years later, I still think about what a great job it could’ve been for someone else.
You might not know yet what kind of environment you thrive in, whether you can tolerate uncertainty or prefer having defined processes. That’s okay! You can find out through internships, or just by talking to other designers of various levels, and learning about how company cultures can vary by size and industry. Even if you’re still unsure about your preferences, trying different things can help you recognize them over time. As a product designer, I’ve worked on e-commerce, social media, consumer and enterprise software—I even designed digital products for a 160-year-old newspaper. I’ve joined a small startup as their first designer, several medium-sized startups, a rapidly growing pre-IPO company, and a solid public company. Each opportunity has helped me grow in different ways, whether in design craft, domain expertise, or increasing autonomy.
You might not know yet what kind of environment you thrive in, whether you can tolerate uncertainty or prefer having defined processes. That’s okay!
The best way to find out what it would be like to work at a company is to ask the right questions during the interview process. You are a candidate for the role you’re interviewing for, but you’re also assessing if the employer is a good fit for your career goals. Research the company, its leaders, its products and brand. Ask interviewers to describe the company culture and values in their own words. You’ll be spending a lot of time with the team and product, so you want to make sure they’re ones you’re really thrilled about. Ask your would-be manager and peers about their experiences so far—what brought them to the company, what they’re excited about working on, and how they themselves have grown in their time there. You can tell a lot from having a conversation with someone about their role and whether you’ll jibe with them; with luck, the answers you receive will help you make a personal and informed decision.
The truth is, what might seem like a dream job in theory might end up being the opposite in practice. But even if it turns out that way, I’ve found that you can learn a lot from a disappointing job, about what you don’t want, and about how to do things differently in your next opportunity. It’s equally important to be certain of what isn’t a good fit.
I’ve found that you can learn a lot from a disappointing job, about what you don’t want, and about how to do things differently in your next opportunity.
Say you do land your dream job, though. You maximize your growth potential, and you’re happily employed for several years. You might realize, after a while, that you’re ready for a new challenge. Over time, companies change, products change—but more importantly, you change. Your priorities will evolve, which means your definition of a “dream job” will evolve, too, and that’s totally okay. The working environment that allowed me to grow as a wide-eyed new graduate was very different from the working environment that I now love as a seasoned designer and mom of two.
Companies might support your growth to various extents, but ultimately, you’re in charge of the story of your career. Define areas in which you want to grow, set goals for yourself—and trust your gut!