What It Takes to Rise From Junior Web Designer to Art Director

Feb 21, 2019 by

The kind of careers children dream of haven’t changed much over the years. Ask a small kid what they want to be when they grow up – you might hear “firefighter”, “doctor”, “singer”, “actor”, “athlete” and so on. You probably wouldn’t expect to hear “art director for a software development firm”. But in today’s marketplace, a growing number of young people are setting their sights on this creative, challenging and highly rewarding career.

Rather like the conductor of an orchestra, an art director ensures a team of UI/UX design company works in harmony to produce a creative design solution. It’s a job that requires talent, vision and no shortage of dedication to secure, but the satisfaction of guiding a design team from the earliest conceptual stages of product design to seeing it reach market is hard to beat. But how to get there? How do you secure your first junior designer job before rising through the ranks to art director? It may seem like a mountain to climb. In this article I’ll explain exactly how to get to the top, and what you’ll see along the way.

How to become a junior designer

It’s not easy to become a designer, and it won’t surprise you to hear that the competition is pretty tough. But with the right mindset, it’s doable. You don’t necessarily need a diploma, but it will certainly make things easier. But don’t rush into things. Planning is essential to success, so take some time to think about the steps you need to take to get where you want to be.

What is a junior designer? It’s a person that has the necessary theoretical basis in design but lacks practical experience. There are two ways to start a career: as a freelancer or as part of a team. We strongly recommend the second option. As a freelancer, you’ll be out there on your own, without the benefit of the wisdom you can soak up from more senior members of your team. We believe that every single day of building product design in a team counts as three days of freelancing.

Nevertheless, both options require a portfolio, and a good one at that. The situation in the design market is tough for rookies: there are plenty of applicants with portfolios strongly resembling each other. A good portfolio shows employers who you are, what set of skills you have, and how you stand out. Don’t neglect the latter of these: think about how to get attention from hiring managers who have seen thousands of similar candidates over the years.

You need to show that design is more than just a job for you. Imagine you want to decorate the facade of your house in the Victorian style and you know several equally qualified architects who charge the same fee. How would you select a candidate in this situation? What if you see that one of them spends his spare time creating Victorian-style sculptures? Suddenly, the choice becomes a lot easier.

Once you’ve secured that first position, you’ll find that the role of junior designer demands as much from you as it gives. This entry-level position enables creatives with no or limited experience to prove themselves, understand how things work from the inside, and develop vital skills. You’ll need to strike a delicate balance between determination and flexibility, as you find that your hard work is criticised and demands on you are high. A growth mindset is essential here: take all suggestions as opportunities to improve.

Here are some pieces of advice to make sure you get as much as you can out of this first key role:

  • Communication is key to growth. If a company hired you, it’s interested in your development. Don’t be shy to ask for advice and bombard more experienced colleagues with questions. Devour all the information available to you; other people will help you learn more about yourself and your role.
  • Decide on a specialization. The profession has many branches: iconography, typography, animation, prototyping, UI/UX, etc. Eventually you will need to master them all, but it makes more sense to start with something in particular and focus on it for a while.
  • Take any tasks available to you. Hard work will enhance your skills. By viewing all tasks as opportunities to grow, you’ll prove your usefulness and gain valuable experience as fast as possible.

You will soon find yourself laying out pages, adjusting colors, making banners, and even attending client meetings.

How to grow as a designer

Sooner or later you’ll gain confidence in your skills, you’ll no longer be intimidated by your tasks, and you’ll be ready to advance further. You’ll get involved earlier in the design process and have less and less guidance to work with. You will move from tasks like “here is a page, make some adjustments” to more conceptual work.

One day someone will come to you with something like this: “Hey, I have an idea for an application on the blockchain, but I don’t know what design and logo I want. Do you have any ideas?” Suddenly, a project will need to be developed from scratch, including the entire product identity, visual components, in-depth competitor analysis and solutions to the problem. Congratulations: you’re a real designer now!

Although the job of designer implies having a unique vision for a project, you will need to work with the requirements of two groups constantly in mind:

  • clients, who set explicit requirements and are aiming to achieve maximum profit;
  • users, who want to solve problems with the help of a product.

Market conditions somewhat limit designers’ creativity, since major players introduced rules for their interfaces. Google’s Material Design is an obvious example here. Although the company’s visual language has its own logic and provides a set of ready-made solutions, it curbs designers’ creative potential.

A project that blindly follows the rules can lose its uniqueness and turn faceless and uninteresting. As a result, the marketers will face difficulties trying to promote it. A visual language is not a set of static rules and individual elements, but a developing ecosystem. You should definitely learn the rules and understand how they work – and then violate them where necessary.

At this stage, your career will benefit if you invest your free time in developing your own projects – things you like and that match your interests. This will help you to grow professionally, build mutually beneficial relationships with clients, build your reputation and expand your book of contacts and portfolio.

A designer’s career progression typically follows these stages:

  1. Junior designer
  2. Mid-level designer
  3. Senior designer
  4. Team leader
  5. Art director.

The first three are more or less focused on the work of design itself. But a team leader has managerial duties. When you reach this stage, you will have to learn how to manage a team, set targets and control the working process. Yes, to reach the top of our climb, you’re going to need management skills. But don’t wait until you’re eyeing a team leader position to start learning them – start early. Good firms will spot the potential in you and offer training in management. But with the amount of training material available online these days, there’s little excuse to slack; the knowledge is there for those with the initiative to find it.

What it means to be an art director

An art director needs vision. He or she has to see the big picture, take every little detail into account, and offer a complete solution to a design problem from conceptualisation to completion. He or she must inspire and guide a team of designers, develop their talents, criticize their work, pay attention to working discipline, and implement multiple projects – within budget and on deadline.

The job entails engagement with a wide spectrum of actors, including advertising agencies, PR firms and the various internet platforms you’ll be working with. You’ll take on a lot of responsibility, including for deadlines, clients, standards, and cooperation with developers. You’ll generally need to have at least five years of experience to get this far.

Here are some tips that could be useful on your way to making art director:

  1. Constantly expand and improve upon your portfolio. On its own, it won’t get you the job, but its impact can’t be overestimated.
  2. Keep on creating no matter what. The target is to reach the summit of Design Everest, and only continuous and thorough work can get you there.
  3. Connections are everything – other people will get you jobs, skills and you’ll get much more out of your career with a solid network.
  4. Keep abreast of the cutting-edge of the design industry. The functions of designers and art directors are constantly changing and becoming more complicated. You need to be aware of every new trend in the segment.
  5. Constantly seek inspiration, and not only in your own field. Never neglect what inspires you, whether it’s art, film, photography or nature. Creativity is about making unexpected connections.
  6. Keep your goal in mind and take any opportunities that come up to gain you more experience. If you just do the minimum, you won’t move fast.

Needless to say, there is no single formula to becoming an outstanding art director. But these tips should help. “Art director” is only a title, after all – the person behind it is way more important.

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