Dear Design Martyrs: The One About Finding a New Design Gig

Posted inDesign Inspiration

“Dear Design Martyrs” is PRINTmag’s latest advice column from Debbie Millman. Debbie will respond to your most burning questions about design, branding, work-life balance, and so much more.

Dear Design Martyrs,

I CAN’T FIND A GOOD JOB. I hate what I am doing at the design job I have, and I hate all the rejection I’m facing looking for a new one, and I am beginning to give up hope. COVID isn’t making things any easier. What advice do you have for me?

–Hopeless in Houston

Dear Hopeless in Houston,

The notion of a “vocation” has changed rapidly over the last two centuries. As recently as 150 years ago, most people didn’t consider happiness or fulfilling their purpose when considering their job. Most people were happy to have paid work in the first place, and they were grateful that they could provide for their families. 

By the turn of the 20th century, major changes in agriculture and transportation began to affect socioeconomic and cultural conditions. Products and services began to be associated with people rather than just manufacturing. The values these people brought to the marketplace were as much personal attributes as they were professional ones. By the turn of the 21st century, the notion of purpose-led businesses became the primary reason to work at a specific organization. And today’s millennials and Gen Z cite company purpose as the single most important attribute when considering where to work. Nowadays, being “happy” at one’s job is akin to finding a calling in life. But how do you get that kind of job? How do you persuade someone to give you money to do something you love? And how do you get hired for a job you really want, a job you’ll think you love? A dream job?

I don’t need to tell you it is hard. 

Everything is hard. Jobs you love are hard, jobs you hate are hard, working at Mcdonald’s is hard. Working at Starbucks is hard. Most work is hard.

Navigating corporate politics can sometimes cause one to fall down and not want to get up. (Photo: Andrew GIbbs)

People hire other people and pay them to sell more products, communicate ideas better, move things off shelves, write code, and invent and innovate. But when you work for someone—anyone— you are essentially asking them to give you money to do that thing. That thing might be something that you love or went to school for or have a deep interest in—or all of the above. The people that hire you (for the most part) are not interested in what you love or what your dreams are or what inspires you. The people who interview you are primarily interested in moving more products or communicating more clearly, or winning an election or inventing new marketplace opportunities. Interviewers and employers expect a return on the investment of giving you money in exchange for doing what they hired you to do and doing it efficiently and with zeal. To them, love has absolutely nothing to do with it.

It takes work to get the work you love. It takes knowing how to interview well, how to communicate flawlessly, and how to articulate your purpose. And, of course, you must simultaneously do this while facing tremendous rejection. But it is possible.

Like everything else meaningful in life, it takes training to get good at job hunting. You don’t just find and get a great job. Finding and getting a great job isn’t like going to a supermarket and finding a great deal on the shelf. You have to WIN a great job against a pool of very competitive candidates who may want that job as much—if not more than—you do. Finding and winning a great job is a competitive sport that requires as much career athleticism and perseverance as making it to the Olympics. You must be in the finest career shape possible to win.

Everything that you do contributes to your success at winning your dream job, and you must take your training very, very seriously. Only the best athletes in the world make it to the Olympics. Only candidates who work the hardest at finding and winning a great job are successful. There is very little luck involved. Winning your great job is about hard work, stamina, grit, ingenuity, and timing. What might look like luck to you is simply hard work paying off.

If you think you are truly working your ass off to find a new job and are being met with failure after failure, I would suggest you ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I spending enough time looking for, finding, and working towards winning a great job? (If it is less than two hours a day while working full-time or six hours a day while freelancing or eight hours per day while unemployed, I would have a hard time believing that you are working hard enough.)
  • Am I constantly refining and improving my skills and my portfolio? What can I continue to get better and more competitive at? As Stefan Sagmeister once said (and I am paraphrasing): If you don’t have work that you love in your portfolio, make the work you love for your portfolio.
  • Do I believe that I am working harder than everyone else? What are the people who are competing with me doing that I am not doing? If not, what else can I be doing? We can now see how hard people are working and what they are making on social media. Are you keeping up with your side hustles?
  • Am I doing everything I can—every single day—to stay relevant? Am I writing think pieces about design innovations on LinkedIn, submitting article ideas to design magazines, commenting on design blogs like Brand New, submitting presentation ideas to conferences? If the answer is no to any of the above, I am sorry to say you are not working hard enough.

And finally—one big question—you state at the top of your letter that you HATE your design job. What is making you unhappy? The actual tasks you are doing? The work your employer is asking you to create? The politics? Some additional questions I would urge you to ask, as your state of mind will follow you wherever you work and with whatever job you have: What do you want out of your career? Do you need to reframe those things and really focus on what you even want to accomplish?

Remember: If it were easy, it would be easy. (That goes for pretty much everything) If you are not getting the results you want, you are either not working hard enough to find a better job, you are not working smart enough to find a better job, or you are not good enough to get a better job. Look deeply into your efforts and see if you can answer the questions above. Please write back, and let me know how you are doing.

Need some design advice? Got a question for Debbie Millman? Send your questions here!