As someone who used to teach design at an online code and design school, I’ve answered this question many times. That tells me many people wonder this—so if you’re one of them, you’re not alone.
Short answer to the first question: YES. It’s 2021. For better or worse, you can learn and do (almost) anything from the comfort of your bed. Unless you’re trying to become an astronaut, formal training is less necessary than you think. What you’re probably seeking, my friend, is experience.
Unless you’re trying to become an astronaut, formal training is less necessary than you think.
I didn’t go to a renowned design school, though the school I did attend had a design program. I studied graphic design there, which led me to my first design job in Santiago, Chile.
I was 20. I had never been to South America or lived abroad, and I didn’t speak Spanish, but I was determined to experience the world. So I enrolled in a two-week crash course in Spanish and learned how to speak enough to get by at the local Chilean agency I worked at. By the end of my time there, I was fluent in Spanish, had freelanced with entrepreneurs from the StartUp Chile incubator, and made friends from all over the world.
I used to feel impostor syndrome about not having gone to a top design school. But at every job I’ve ever had, I’ve learned most of what I needed to know on the job. I realized that where I went to school didn’t matter, but rather the experiences I had. Names and diplomas may get people in the door, but they don’t buy you passion, personality or drive. No education can prepare you for the real world like the real world.
No education can prepare you for the real world like the real world.
Formal training won’t hurt, of course, but many designers I mentor are self-taught, and they’re just as talented as those that majored in design. The main difference: the self-taught designers are the ones questioning their own legitimacy. But anyone can build up a sense of legitimacy through experience.
So, how to stand out, then? Over the years, I’ve mentored and helped many designers get jobs. I always start by asking them: “What’s your dream job?” It tells me what kind of work environment they see themselves in, and what they’re passionate about.
From there, I help people decide on next steps. There is no way around this part—figuring out how to move toward your career goals takes hard work and persistence. Here are the five best tips I give my mentees:
- Once you figure out the job you want, talk to as many people in that industry and/or role. Ask them about their journey and whether they’d be willing to connect you with others who might be willing to chat with you.
- If you want a job as a product designer, call yourself a product designer. If you want to be a front end developer, call yourself a front end developer. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to be what you want to be—tell them what you are, and the rest will follow.
- Be relentless in the pursuit of knowledge and opportunities. Take classes, workshops, join communities, apply for as many jobs as possible—gain new experiences wherever you can find them.
- When interviewing for new roles, frame the things you don’t yet know as things you are eager to learn. Most hiring managers would rather hire someone who has potential and a great attitude vs. someone who has it all on paper but also…well, acts like they do.
- No real client work yet? Work on side projects. If you’re self taught, side projects can demonstrate your dedication to learning new things AND show potential clients what makes you tick. Side projects get people hired. Seriously!
Lastly: believe in yourself. It sounds corny, but impostor syndrome can never catch up with you if you’re constantly learning and challenging yourself. Keep a beginner’s mindset—and go for it!
You’ve got this,