Mike Joosse is Community Director and Partner at DESIGNATION. Since 2001, he has devoted his career to nurturing and leading design communities and championing the talents and dedication of its designers.
I’ve heard the experience of attending DESIGNATION referred to as hiking a mountain, which makes the Career Phase the final climb to the peak. And I’ve heard DESIGNATION called a marathon, which makes the Career Phase the last couple of miles. There are a bunch of other metaphors I’ve heard in the two years I’ve run this phase, and they’re all variations on the same theme: it’s the toughest phase in the program.
This isn’t an accident, and there are four big reasons why:
- All the pieces that get created in the Career Phase—case studies, résumés, portfolio sites, cover letters, and more—are new to a majority of designers in the program. That means another steep learning curve.
- Transitioning from the Client Phase, designers discover they now have to work on behalf of the toughest client of all: themselves. Each one has their own expectations, excitement, and hesitation about their future career paths. That means every deliverable requires a tremendous amount of personalization from every designer.
- As the final phase before graduation, there’s nothing beyond it, so designers have to be prepared for life after DESIGNATION. That means the phase has to teach designers self-sufficiency to be able to utilize their career materials on their own.
- And frequently the scariest: the Career Phase is the one part of the program that’s most explicitly about communication instead of design.
That last one is significant because communication doesn’t just mean writing; it’s also storytelling, translating, presenting, and analysis and synthesis. The not-so-secret about being a professional designer is that design is almost more of all of those things than it is pure designing.
Analysis is understanding the why and how behind decisions—why it happened, how it affected the process or outcomes, why it was necessary to happen, why that decision was chosen instead of others. And synthesis is understanding how and where that decision fits within larger patterns or actions. The Career Phase is filled to the brim with times when a designer needs to analyze and synthesize.
Collectively, all the Career Phase deliverables seem like an impenetrable amount of work. But when they’re parsed out and tackled individually, it’s clearer how they build on each other and aren’t as difficult as you might think.
Let’s look at each one, followed by a few great examples:
- Your résumé is a succinct list of what you know, what you’ve done in professional jobs so far, and how you got to where you are today. It’s a focus on the facts alone, without analysis or synthesis. It pays special attention to what you learn at DESIGNATION, and your combined skills and tools. And it must be presented in a well-designed way and, above all else, be easy to read.
- Case studies are the stories of the individual projects done at DESIGNATION. But they’re far more than just what was designed; they require walking through the process of creating each step of each project, analyzing each decision and synthesizing each step to make sure it all flows well for readers. Case studies are the single best way to demonstrate what hiring managers really want to see: not what you created, but how you grew into a stronger, smarter, more thoughtful designer while creating them.
- Your personal statement is almost the opposite of your résumé; it’s a succinct statement about your life that’s all synthesis—it explains you and your background but also symbolizes the professional designer you plan on becoming. It’s your biggest opportunity to introduce yourself in a narrative way, and show you can connect different parts of your life together efficiently.
- Your portfolio site is the container for your case studies, personal statement, and résumé PDF. It demonstrates your ability to organize information and show some of your personality alongside your work. And most importantly, it gives your contact information and shows just how easy it is to get in touch with you. While some designers at DESIGNATION choose to code their own sites, the majority use templates like Webflow, Squarespace, and Format.
- And cover letters are an important part of the interview process because they’re what lets a company know you’re unique and qualified for a particular job. You’ll restate and flesh out your personal statement, and discuss yourself through the lens of that specific job and company.
Each material gets used in some form again and again throughout a designer’s career, and you combine various materials in different ways for different jobs. Anytime a graduate updates their materials to prepare for searching for another job, they’ll revise what they created in the Career Phase. Professional designers will always be asked to present their work on a project, whether that comes in a verbal presentation or a written case study. So all of this work ends up being enormously valuable for years—sometimes decades—to come. And that’s pretty cool.
The phase also allows designers to explore best practices for using social media, updating their LinkedIn presence, employing personal branding, and more. And they meet a panel of graduates who were recently employed, visit local studios, learn about creative placement agencies, look at job boards and online resources, get matched with a career mentor, and more. The two weeks of the Career Phase are intentionally bursting with activities to show designers as much of the working world as possible.
But the question I know you’re asking yourself right now is, “Will I get a job at the end of the program?” Everyone has that question. And the answer is, like so much else in design, “It depends on you.”
The Career Phase isn’t about finding you a job; it’s about giving you the tools and confidence—and reinforcing the design process you defined earlier in the program—you need to find a job yourself. That search will continue after graduation, as you put the finishing touches on your materials. When you take the momentum you built in the program and keep it up afterward, and use the tools provided, you’ll go really far in your job search.
The Career Phase isn’t about finding you a job; it’s about giving you the tools and confidence—and reinforcing the design process you defined earlier in the program—you need to find a job yourself.
Ultimately, the Career Phase is really tough. That’s by design. It’s that last mile of the race, after all. But it also can be the most rewarding phase of the entire program, because it asks every designer to stop focusing on the present and start working towards the future they envision for themselves. When you sign up for DESIGNATION, you sign up for that future, and we’re here for you as you work hard to get there.
If you’re ready to put in the work to get and use the tools you need to start a career in design, reach out to us. We’re excited to speak with you.