Starting a career in design on your own is a tough task, especially when you don’t have any educational background in this field. A source of motivation is constantly required to bypass the ups and downs of this journey. For a moment, a feeling to back out may hit the head and it’s the time when you’ve just started getting the taste of what design actually is. I always wanted to share my experiences about how my journey started but never had a chance nor did I feel myself to be capable enough to do it. However, now I think that if my story can motivate someone, it’s worth sharing.

Disclaimer: It’s definitely not the perfect story to take an inspiration from nor a guide to be the best designer. These are mere experiences and lessons learned from life and are totally personal. There are many stories out there which may inspire you. You always have to keep looking for the best ones.

Background

I was born and brought up in Faridabad, Haryana. I enjoyed painting in my school days. At times, I even bunked the sports class to attend art classes. I enjoyed it more than anything else in the world. Fascinated by cartoons, I always wanted to pursue my career as an animation artist or a cartoonist. But like most of the 90’s parents, mine too were not a lot aware about this new field and were also concerned about my future. They wanted me to get into something more solid, something that would provide me a secure future. Hence I, being apparently good at studies, was told to follow the flock of sheep moving towards engineering. I left painting and joined coaching classes to prepare for IIT-JEE. During the two years spent in studies, I got almost no time for my hobbies. Well, those 2 years’ preparation didn’t go in vain and I got selected in IIT Roorkee with majors in Production and Industrial Engineering. Yeah! That’s something that I had never imagined (and maybe never wanted too). And this is where it all started.

The beginning

Not too happy with the branch I got at IITR, I started my journey as an engineer. But more surprises were to come. One fine evening, I saw a poster saying “Geek Gazette goes recruiting for the Design cell”. I saw to it as a new light where, I thought, I could pursue my love for sketching after the long detachment. I participated in Geek Gazette recruitment, got through the interviews and finally joined this technical magazine of IIT Roorkee, as a designer. I thought my job would be to sketch on a paper as I used to do back in my school days. It was only after joining Geek Gazette that I understood it was far from sketching. For the first time, I got my hands on software packages like Adobe Illustrator. This somehow fascinated me to pursue designing further and I sat on this train to embark on a journey to explore the world of design.

Geek Gazette Design team

My first year experience

I spent my first year exploring new tools like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe After effects. I was a worshipper of “self learning is the best learning”, so I tried to learn them through youtube tutorials on my own. I began with tracing small illustrations, and then some superheroes, to set my hands on the Pen tool. It’s really hard to master Pen tool but with sheer practice, one can get it right.

Collection of my traced illustrations
Guess whose this? This is me actually :p My first traced illustration. I failed terribly.

After I had practiced enough with the Pen tool, I tried my hands on digital art, low poly designs and double exposure.

Here’s a collection of Digital art. The one to the right is finally me now.
Double exposure and low poly design

Building my portfolio

I knew Behance and Dribbble as the best platforms to showcase my designs. So, I started with a small project on Personal Branding, uploaded it on Behance and got an unexpectedly positive response.

My First Behance project.

With due course of time, I kept on uploading more projects, most of which were done for mere practice. It’s true that in the beginning of your career in design, you are not exactly sure which domain will suit you in the future.

Try to explore as much as possible and keep your portfolio extensive at an early stage so that you never miss on any opportunity to learn new skills.
My Behance portfolio

UI and me

Although I had tried to incorporate different design styles, most of my work was centered around Graphic Designing. I wanted to get the taste of UI and UX designing. So, I joined IMG (Information Management Group that manages the intranet applications and main website of IIT Roorkee). I got to know about the whole process of designing an interface starting from User research, Wireframing, Mockup, Prototyping and then final launch. The interface design ignited an interest to code my designs and see them live in action. I learned some of the frontend languages- HTML, CSS, Javascript, JQuery and some developer tools- Git and Vim and a basic idea of backend languages- MySQL, PHP, Python. Yeah!, I almost got the taste of being a full stack developer.

It’s good to have a basic knowledge of at least the frontend languages. It helps in understanding how things actually work and help in designing codable interfaces.

Making a difference

As I was continuously uploading my work on Behance, I was eager to outshine among the vast community of designers. For this, Dribbble was the new milestone to achieve. Dribbble is a community of designers sharing screenshots of their work, process, and projects where new designers can upload their work only if they get invited to it. Getting a Dribbble invite is simple but not easy. Designers usually post about the invite on their profile and announce it big on social media sites. You have to look for these invite posts and follow the procedure. Usually, you have to send a mail to the concerned person with your 2–3 best shots. And here is the hard part — you get rejected multiple times. You have to persist. You have to keep sending mails. But that’s fun too!

Do extensive mailing until the world falls short of good designers and that day would be yours.

And don’t get disheartened if you are rejected. This only means that you need to work more on your portfolio or the time hasn’t come yet. I sent around 90 mails ( 6–7 mails/day) and It was the 81st mail whose designer finally sent me an invite. I saw this mail when I woke up in the morning. I was bit sleepy so I had to double check if the mail wasn’t spam. Finally, I made my entry with a debut shot on dribbble and it also marked the start of my second year.

My Debut shot

“Am I the best? Really?”

Everything seemed to happen just the right way. However, it wouldn’t last long. As my inner-self started building overconfidence in my skills, I shifted my focus from learning to showing off. As a result, the quality of my shots fell down. The dribbblers no longer seemed interested in my designs. Also, I got involved in a year-long project with IMG and gave up working on self-driven projects. I grew overconfident enough to believe that I didn’t need to work hard anymore and that everything would fall in my way right as it used to be, every single time. With a senior’s mentorship, I got an intern quite easily in my 2nd-year winter which again boosted up my self-’over’-confidence. And then came the moment of realization when I had to apply for a 2nd-year summer intern.

The breakdown

Quite confident about my past endeavours, I started mailing with a bright hope of getting selected within the first few trials. But things didn’t turn out well this time. The rigorous mailing for 3 consecutive months did not yield any positive outcome. Most of the mails got ignored. Where some of the companies were kind enough to send me a reply informing me about “No requirement” or that I was not suitable for the position others just appeared complacent in exploiting designers and in paying them below their caliber. But such companies proved fruitful too. Due to such companies, I learned the art of negotiating. An article by Haseeb Qureshi turned out to be very handy during this process. One by one, I was either rejecting offers or was getting rejected. My inability to find the right company for the internship was hollowing me from inside. The feeling to completely give up designing started hitting my head. I thought to push myself back to engineering and stop wasting my time in designing anymore.

The turnaround

Here, I would thank two of my seniors Vineet Arora and Vivek Singh for continuously supporting me and motivating me when I was about to break and even felt like giving up designing. They motivated me to work even harder and not lose faith in my skills. They also suggested me to start networking with designers around the globe. I got to know about their stories of struggle. All of this helped me in finding a way to start afresh from where I had left. I started uploading shots on Dribbble once again but this time with due diligence and sincerity. And this time, I saw responses from a relatively larger audience. This again fueled me with the hope of bringing difference through designing. I started sharing my work on other platforms too. Uplabs was one such website where I got an unexpected response.

Never lose faith in your skills

What’s next?

The stress I went through taught me a valuable lesson. I have to keep working hard. Try, fail and repeat again until I will succeed. Although, in the long run, I am not sure what my fate will be but there’s one thing I’m sure of. I am not going to waste my time anymore. I will work harder and opportunities will follow.

Takeaways from my journey so far

I have committed many mistakes and all these mistakes have only made me better. Here I have tried to list down everything I learned over these two years.

  1. Explore and Eliminate- I have tried multiple fields — Designing, Frontend development, Backend development and engineering, of course. It’s only after trying that I got to know that I love aligning pixels more than aligning divs in a website or writing long chunks of code or fixing gears.
  2. Do concept projects- While you may ponder upon how to build your portfolio. One of the best ways to build a portfolio is to do concept projects. These projects can be as small as your personal branding projects and as big as redesigning popular websites. No design is perfect. Look for the flaws in the designs of app/websites and redesign it from scratch considering how you would design it if the task was given to you.
  3. Market yourself (It’s not unethical)- I have seen many designers who are quite good in their skills fail to impress employees/hiring managers only because they are not good marketers. Share your content far and wide. Behance, Dribbble, and Uplabs are good platforms. Try to share on multiple platforms to have a good reach. Most importantly, make the shots presentable enough so as to increase its visibility. Here is a good article on this.
  4. Build a focused portfolio- While uploading more work matters but uploading content specific to one domain of designing matters even more. It saves clients/recruiters time and they can view the shots of their interest.
  5. Network with people like you- This lesson can never be pressed enough. To improve continuously and to have a stable position in the market, you have to have a good network of people like you. While you may be bad at networking, you can easily start with giving feedback/suggestions and asking questions in comments on the design shots while also welcoming new people, providing constructive criticism, dropping occasional funny comments, building public design collections. People will get curious about who provided this critique or who built this collection, which will eventually lead to your profile. You too will start receiving constructive feedback for your shots.
  6. Work on a real project- If you ever get the chance to work on side projects for real people as a young designer, take the opportunity. It will teach you a lot. It will make you aware of the feasibility of your designs and let you build developer friendly designs.
  7. Google your doubts- Designers and mentors are not be available all time. You need to be independent. Google is the tool you can be dependent anytime. It is one of your closest friends who reply to all your silly doubts without judging you (except for those machine learning bots of course).
  8. Read and write regularly- Reading blogs diversifies your knowledge on technicalities and various design practices. And sharing your work lets employers/customers to know about your design sense. Most of them want to know how you solved your problems. It’s important to show that your work had a process and that it didn’t just magically appear. Writing and sharing your design processes is an excellent approach towards doing so.

Get in touch

Although it was a long story, I didn’t cover everything (sigh).

If you still have any questions or just want to chat or connect, ping me on any of these. I’ll be happy to help and learn from you. :)

Dribbble | Uplabs | Behance | Twitter | Facebook | InstagramLinkedIn


Summarizing my 2 year Design story was originally published in Prototyping: From UX to Front End on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.