Rabu, November 07, 2007

First Year of Work = Last Year of School

"Copy - Paste" from:http://www.coroflot.com

Your first job! Nice work kid, we always knew you had it in you. Getting a staff position or even a steady freelance gig in the creative world is no easy feat, especially for someone right out of school. If your school is like most, there are probably three or four former fellow students from your class still hustling for work or who've given up and slunk back to whatever they were doing before. So this is testament to your skills and perseverance.
Hang on though, you're not done yet. Have you ever heard the saying "The first year of work is the last year of school"? If not, it's probably worth committing to memory, because plenty of recent grads think the hard part is over, and so they stumble. The next few years will do more to determine the course of your career than anything you did in art or design school, and in some ways demand even more attention than you're used to giving. The working world is like school in some important ways--there are deadlines to meet, egos to appease, and plenty of late nights--but there are some crucial differences, and a successful career largely depends on your ability to adjust to this new structure without losing passion and focus, and without ever letting the learning process end.

All those new skills you're picking up are going to be not-so-hot at first. You'll be tempted to stick with the same tools you've spent years sharpening, and rightly so: you're getting paid to be awesome, not flail around with something you just learned. There's a balance to be struck, though, because if you never practice your new skills, you'll never grow, and growing is what you came here for.
What follows are some broad guidelines on how to make the working world more like the academic one, squeezing as much toolbox-building into that first year as possible. And if you're already into your second year, it's never too late to start.

1. Be humble.
However hard it was to make it this far, remember that everyone else in the office made it too. Most creative disciplines are highly competitive fields, so chances are good that your co-workers were really hot in their school days, and on top of that, they've been doing it in the real world for a while: under deadlines, answering to demanding clients, busting their butts to produce the great work that made you want to work there in the first place.
It's easy to come out of school thinking you're done learning, since you just spent the last two to five years struggling to the top of the heap, but there is plenty they didn't teach you there too. Five years from now, your most useful skills are probably going to be those learned on the job, while the slick, bizarre projects you took such pride in senior year sit wrinkling in the closet. You'll get the most out of your job by adhering to Socratic adage: "The beginning of true knowledge comes from accepting that we know nothing."

2. Make friends with people who know how to do things you don't.
The specific application of Guideline #1 starts with actively seeking new things to learn, and lucky for you, you're surrounded by people who want to help. Creative professionals are generally a vain lot when it comes to their abilities--I know I am--and tend to be pretty indulgent to small requests from admiring compatriots. So find someone who's good at something you're not, and tell them so. If there's a formal training system set up at your workplace, so much the better, but you can learn an awful lot just by opening up a new software package and asking a couple of quick questions every day after lunch. One of the most valuable perks of my first staff job was getting to learn Pro/Engineer from an extremely talented and experienced designer, for free--you know how much that's worth?
This doesn't just apply to easily defined skills like Illustrator renderings or lofted surfaces, it's also true of more nebulous conceptual processes. If there's someone in the office or studio who reliably cranks out great ideas, ask them about their process. Maybe they do more research than you, or make lots of thumbnail sketches while they're on the phone, or something else that never occurred to you. So you just say "Hey, I loved that concept for XY...how'd you come up with it?" You'd like to answer a question like that, wouldn't you? Easy.

3. Learn the business side.
You're not going to be sketching/adjusting kerning/driving CAD/texture painting forever you know. Most of us eventually decide we want to do one or more of the following: start our own business, become a director or manager, buy a house, pay off our student loans. In other words, deal with some of the business of design. As a newbie, you're not going to be involved with that stuff most of the time, but there's plenty to learn by keeping your eyes open.
Learn the difference between a quote, a design brief, and an invoice. If you're in a consultancy, be curious about where clients come from and why they leave. Pay attention to the non-designers in the meetings, and find out what they do all day--chances are pretty good they help decide what you're going to do all day. Even if you never ever want to run your own studio, you'll get your way more if you know how one is run.

4. Learn the technical side.

The project isn't done when the concept gets approved. It's not even done when the proofs get the OK, or the surface model checks out. The tragic story of the brilliant design that never sees the light of day is largely a function of business realities, but there's also plenty of room for designers to work around those constraints, if they only knew what they were.
This is the greatest problem with the "over the wall" creative process: once the creative tosses their completed concept over the wall to the engineers, printers, publishers, etc. they lose control of it. The more you know about what's happening on the other side of that wall, the more effective you'll be at finding a compromise that works for everyone and preserves your intent. So if you're in ID, you should know a little about draft angles and BOMs. If you're a web designer, have lunch with some back-end coders every now and then. Getting shot down repeatedly over something about which you have no clue gets to be a real drag eventually.

5. Teach a co-worker something

The flip side to Guideline #1 is that you will know some things that nobody else in the room does. In a field that uses lots of technological toys to get ideas out into the world, it's a given that you'll come out of school with some tricks your co-workers haven't seen yet. And if they're any good, they'll be interested in learning them. So no stinginess here, and no false modesty--some youngsters consider it sly to keep their tricks to themselves as a way of preserving mystique, or job security, but in the long run they're doing themselves a disservice.
The advantages to taking time out to share your knowledge are many: it's a great way to brush up on fundamentals, it puts you in a position of competence, and the co-worker you briefly train will probably be able to shoulder some of the load should a project depend too heavily on your unique skill.

6. Document your process.
Yeah, we know you're sick of hearing it, but it's just as true in the biz as back in school: document everything. That means scanning your sketches, photographing your mock-ups, hanging on to your dead models, and keeping it all organized. It's good for you, should you unexpectedly have to move on, and need to gather together portfolio-worthy work in a hurry. And it's good for everyone else...you never know when a client's going to come back two months later, asking about that one concept that got trashed by an exec who was recently shown the door.

7. Do something new every project.
All those new skills you're picking up are going to be not-so-hot at first. You'll be tempted to stick with the same tools you've spent years sharpening, and rightly so: you're getting paid to be awesome, not flail around with something you just learned. There's a balance to be struck, though, because if you never practice your new skills, you'll never grow, and growing is what you came here for.
So here's what you do: make one thing in every project a new way. If you're used to doing marker renderings, pick one sketch and render it digitally. Or vice versa. At worst, you'll blow an hour or two on something that doesn't get used, but you'll have gotten to practice working a new way with a real concept under real constraints. At best, the new tool will spark you to see the project in a new way, and make everything else that much better. Win-win.

8. Go to all the events you can. With business cards.
Personal contacts are the lifeblood of the creative professions. Getting new clients, finding new vendors, even moving to a better job down the road: as often as not these things happen because of a complex web of people that you know, both inside your industry and out. Any opportunity to meet with other professionals is a chance to broaden this web, and hopefully learn something too, if it's a conference or professional development event.
This is a different sort of networking than what you did in school and while job-hunting, by the way. Now that you're working, you can relax a little: you don't need to keep a portfolio in your shoulder bag at all times, and every now and then a student will probably come up to you all apprehensive and obsequious, hoping to make a good impression. This is when networking gets fun. You can ask people what they're working on, tell them about your projects, crack jokes about marketing people, grab a beer, or whatever, but find out who they are and what they do. Networks work in mysterious ways, but the larger they are, the better they work--no mystery there.

9. Understand that you'll probably be working somewhere else in five years.
You're in a field with a high rate of turnover. Once you're comfortable with that, the preceding emphasis on continual learning and network building makes a lot more sense. So in addition to all of the above, it's important to have a master plan nestled like a map in your back pocket. You take it out from time to time to make notes on places you'd like to pass through, and others you'd like to avoid, pitfalls you've seen others make in the form of poor career choices, and designers with The Perfect Job. That way, when work falls off and the juniors get cut, or re-structuring takes its toll on you in a very personal way, or you're just not getting what you need from your current job, you've got something to anchor and direct you to the next place.
Experienced designers, developers, illustrators and creative directors are much hotter commodities than kids straight out of school, so you'll find that you get a lot more say in where you work the second time around than you did the first. Especially if you read this article.

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