Issue 2: How can junior designers get more experience?

And a follow question from last issue on cover letters.

Welcome, designer.

Firstly, thanks so much for the very kind reception to my first issue. I am dumbstruck by the idea that I am sending this second issue to 600+ of you. I am eternally grateful that you’re here and hope I continue to be helpful in your journey.

As always, feel free to continue sending me questions as often and frequently as you like. I read every single one of them as they come in. 🥰

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This week, we take a look at:

  • What outlets do you suggest juniors can take to acquire more experience in design? (with guest: Mark Johnson)

  • Follow up to last issue: What to include in a cover letter?


What outlets do you suggest juniors can take to acquire more experience in design?

Is freelancing the answer? If so, what types of projects/work do you think could be really advantageous in adding to that list of experience?

This is a fantastic question, one that I know can be better answered by my friend and proven self-starter, Mark Johnson. Because not only is he a Principal Designer at Mixpanel, he also founded Budbud, which is a company that turns neat ideas into real things. Hear from him firsthand on the many ways he’d go about gaining some design experience.

P.S. Mixpanel is hiring a product designer! If you're interested, you can reach out to Mark at mark.johnson@mixpanel.com.

How do you get opportunities? Well, it’s either coming from inside (yourself) or outside (others). There’s a direction to go. Let’s start inside.

Starting from the inside

A self-imposed project means a lot of self discipline, some level of confidence, some motivation, some constraints (like a deadline, or amount of money you’d want to spend), and some expected outcome. Once you finish whatever that project is, chances are you want to tell someone about it, which means learning to communicate what you did.

Identify the skill you want to improve the most and consciously make up a project to practice it. Sometimes I do this with something as simple as a typeface. I hold onto a typeface, and look for a project. It’s not going to end up in my work at Mixpanel because we have a design system with two typefaces, so me wanting to use Pilowlava doesn’t make sense. But I might be able to use it for some presentation, or poster, or piece of swag or whatever. Any idea in moderation is doable.

🌈 Pros:

You get to be the generator of ideas, creator of work, manager of your own reliability, and communicator of those ideas. You get to have an experience created by you. This could be literally anything. It could be a poster, a coffee mug, a website, and application, an art installation, or a business. It’s up to you what you do, and just the act of doing will generate experience no matter the outcome. That’s positive, regardless of if you make money doing it, or if you go into debt and have to sell all your belongings and live in the woods. (But hopefully, don’t do that.)

👀 Cons:

The negative to doing your own side project is never being satisfied, never finishing, and not having anyone else to hold you accountable. Usually these are the traps I find myself falling into. I can always tell myself I’ll get to it tomorrow or that it’s not good enough yet. But these are surmountable obstacles.

💪 Actions to Counter Cons:

  • Create real constraints like applying a financial or time-based constraint (e.g. Enter your work into a contest so that you have a deadline).

  • Ask a friend to hold you truly accountable.

Starting from the outside

External opportunities means some level of hope of finding projects or work with others. This leads to what more traditional routes like internships, jobs, freelance, or shared projects. These are great ways to gain experience traditionally, but it may be hard to find some of these, which may mean doing pro-bono work. It’s pretty easy to just say “get a job, internship, whatever and work hard” but that’s been said a billion times and is pretty boring.

So let me open up this fun ol’ can of worms: do some freelance, and do what you want to do. If you want to do web design work for hotels like the ones in Schitt’s Creek, find those folks, talk to them, and offer your services. Or ask your friends if opportunities like that exist. If you want to design restaurant menus, talk to some restaurants. All it takes is for one person to say yes, to start opening doors to the next one and the next one. But make sure you don’t open the door to something you hate, because you’re just going to find more of that kind of stuff behind that door in all likelihood.

🌈 Pros:

One place I feel almost every designer really begins to earn trust and understand not only their value, but the value they can add to any business, person, or project—is understanding the dynamics of any given business. What I mean by this is designers are often looked at as people who make pretty things. This undermines the value of what designers actually do, which is create clear and coherent value for something else.

A restaurant sells food. Hopefully good food. Good design gives you the idea that food is good before you’ve even taken a bite. Conversely—haphazard, chaotic, and unclear design makes that food sketchy and taste bad before you take a bit. It makes you believe something you can’t even hold in your hands—is or isn’t expensive.

Part of you growing from a junior to a senior designer is going to come from experiences like freelancing in which you find ways to learn and understand the business value you’re able to add with your skills, craft, and ability to communicate.

👀 Cons:

Everyone sucks at freelancing when they start, and some people are okay at it years later. You’re going to be bad at the following almost certainly coming out of the gate: pricing, communicating clearly, and knowing what you’re doing. This is okay. You won’t know how undervalued work is until you do it. And you won’t understand how to communicate the value of your work or services until you understand the cost and value of your work.

But let me inform you that you are not the only person who doesn’t know how that process works. The first client you get will probably not know either. Clients who often work with designers tend to go within a network of designers they know. People who don’t have no idea what they’re getting into. This means you’re going to make up a lot of the rules, for something you already don’t know!

💪 Actions to Counter Cons:

  • Set expectations, make them clear, check in, deliver.

  • Read up on boring stuff like contracts, how to price, how to bill, etc. You’ll need it and it’ll make your life easier.

  • Make sure they’re people or organizations you’d be happy to work with. Check references and Glassdoor reviews. Or better yet, find excuses to work with good people.

  • Be nice. No one wants to work with jerks. People find excuses to work with people they can remember did a good job, and left them with a good experience. People avoid jerks like the plague.

No one is everything

As you go about your experience-seeking journey, know that no one designer is phenomenal at user interface design, type design, graphic design, user experience design, user research, interaction design, frontend development, and backend development. There are some insanely talented designers and engineers in the world, but 99.9% of people—based on a figure I made up—are good at one or two of those things, and mediocre at the rest. And that’s not bad. So have some reasonable expectations of yourself and don’t beat yourself up if you’re not good at half of this list. Get really good at the stuff you like and enjoy doing by finding opportunities that let you do those things.

— Mark


A follow up question from the last issue:

What to include in a cover letter?

Thanks for sharing your cover letter template! I had a looked at it and noticed that it includes past experience and past projects. What if these can already be found in my resume and portfolio? Do you think it’s still important to include them in the cover letter?

What is your opinion on addressing items in the job description and giving specific past examples on how I am able to fulfill those tasks?

Ah, you’re so on the nose! Although I mainly wanted to emphasize the brevity of a good cover letter by sharing my template, I pulled out a lot of really defining details from my final letter. But to understand the content I didn’t include, first here’s the purpose that a cover letter serves: Convey what makes you uniquely qualified for this role.

While your resume and portfolio expresses whether you are qualified, your cover letter is an opportunity to champion yourself so that you are picked out of a line of other similarly qualified people.

Which means this can be incredibly particular to each candidate-employer combo and why I left it out of the template. For instance, I included a list of my notable projects because one of my strengths is driving impact. And although I cut out most of it from the template, I demonstrate that by speaking at length about metrics and outcomes for each line item.

However, for you, this could instead be:

  • A highlight of the many accessibility initiatives you’ve led across several companies, as it is an area you care most about and will continue to advocate for in your next role.

  • Evidence of your expertise in coding, which was mentioned to be a huge plus in the job description.

  • A special reason why you have an interest in this industry. Perhaps you’re applying to Duolingo and you are self-taught in 3 languages.

So to answer your final question: while it is definitely a nice format to map each item from the job description to a past example, make sure you’re not just proving baseline qualification. If it’s just to check a box, I wouldn’t include it in your cover letter. Instead, make room to highlight the moments that makes you exceptional.

P.S. Outside of the above, there are a couple things that you should always include if it is applicable to you:

  • If you have major gaps in employment for reasons other than school, provide an explanation why. A succinct, honest answer would be enough to preempt any concerns.

  • If you are pivoting from a very different field, give some context for the transition and how that background makes you a better designer.


What I’ve been reading, etc


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Special thanks to Mark Johnson for his incredibly thorough answer to this week’s top question. He is a truly awesome human being if any of you were wondering.

Until next time, 👋

— Lily