How to jumpstart your career in design without a degree (A Memoir)

If you are someone looking to get into a design, research, marketing or an engineering role and have considered whether or not you should go to college––This one’s for you :)

So I was talking with my hair dresser the other day, and somehow we got into a conversation about how she is going to school for Marketing. I was instantly interested as I had spent the majority of my career (8 or so years) working in the Marketing field.

She had mentioned to me that she was sick of going to college and really just wanted to find a job as soon as possible in the field.

I told her about my roles as an Interactive Graphic Designer for Fisher-Price, and how I worked as a Director of Creative Services, building brands, websites and marketing campaigns for a number of businesses in our city.

She stopped what she was doing and asked me what degree I had…

“I don’t have a degree” I said, shrugging.

Confused and amazed, she whipped my chair around and looked me dead in the eyes eagerly and said,

“How?!”

01. You don’t need a degree to learn a trade

Ok, I know this is crazy and it goes against everything everyone in your life has said to you since you were old enough to write letters and do simple math, but you don’t need a degree to learn a trade.

To be honest, I did go to college for about 2 years for specifically Interactive Graphic Design. The problem was, I already knew everything they were teaching me, and at points I was way ahead of what they were teaching.

So far ahead, that while the other students we’re learning the basics of Photoshop, I was well off into coding my own website, doing small freelance projects for my friends and family and had previously ran my own Myspace Layout Company when I was 15 (Formally known as Jsuhkuhz Layoutz– Do the “Z”s make you cringe?).

I literally had my own Myspace Layout Company (As official as it can be for 15), let that sink in for those of you who empathize with how old I am.

Side note
In college they also made us painstakingly take a “Computer 101” course where they taught us how to navigate Windows 8. I am not even joking– I had to sit through, and pay for a course on something that I had been doing since the dawn of computers.

Unlike most teenagers, I did not go to college right out of high school. I instead worked. I did odd jobs like working at Taco Bell, a Pizzeria and I worked part-time as a caterer.

At the time that I went to go sign up for college, which was in my early 20's, I had no idea that Graphic Design was something people paid for. Design and art were just hobbies I enjoyed– I had no idea I could profit from years of creating Myspace Layouts and cool gifs in Photoshop.

I am not saying everyone shouldn’t go to college either, but for me, it was literally a waste of money and time.

I was bored out of my mind in core classes, I was finishing month long projects within a day or so, and my own professor for my graphic design course had taken me on as her intern where I helped her build websites and graphics for her design business.

All in all, college taught me one core lesson….

02. You can learn anything on your own

All these years, my classmates– what were they doing? Why did they choose to go into graphic design when they barely knew how to navigate Windows 8? Was I an enigma?

How did I become so fluent in HTML & CSS from coding Myspace Layouts for fun, and how did I learn Photoshop, Illustrator and even Dreamweaver before I even took a class on it?

The simple answer: Google.

My only regret in this story is that I did not know sooner about the powers I was possessing while I was working part time.

And I don’t mean the powers of design, but the simple powers of my fingers typing in some poorly spelled words, which navigated me to a very ugly website with CSS clippings you could copy or the hundreds of hours I spent watching Photoshop tutorials on Youtube.

Being self-taught is not a talent. Knowing how to learn on your own is.

When you’re in college for anything tech related, everyone avoids telling you the very hard and honest truth that everything you learn in college will some day not exist or be completely different (Flash…RIP).

I don’t know how to say this gently but, everything I learned in college is no longer relevant to anything I am currently doing as a designer. That is because technology, trends, techniques and best practices constantly change and adapt.

Everything you are learning is something you could google. The majority of my classes were spent doing just that, googling.

In fact, in one class our professor chose to show us Youtube Tutorials and a majority of my homework was to watch Youtube Tutorials.

Painfully, I am still paying off my student loans for a degree I did not get.

And now, a poem about all the money I wasted…
Thousands of dollars to watch Youtube Videos I could have watched on my own. Thousands of dollars to use google when I didn’t know something. Thousands of dollars on books I never read– That Flash 101 book that still sits in my bookshelf, never opened–and never to be opened again.

03. Passion & Guts: A Designers Survival Guide

Yes, I am telling you that all you need to do to become successful in any tech related field is to learn how to Google. (Also please learn how to navigate Windows OS…)

What I am trying to say is, if you are not willing to learn on your own, or if you don’t have enough passion to figure something out, then you are going to have a really hard time in any tech related field.

After 2 years of college and going on my last semester, I was finally almost at the finish line. I had spent the last few months helping my Professor as her intern and I was quickly growing as I learned from her and doing real projects for real businesses.

By the time I took a class on building a portfolio, which was well into my college career, I already had a website with several projects on it. We also had a requirement to intern somewhere for two weeks, but as you know, I had been doing that for months.

Overall, impatience and frustration started building in me. I was missing out on opportunities just because I was waiting to finally graduate.

At this point, I became so desperate to start my career that I started looking into entry-level design positions.

This seems like taboo for any one in college waiting on that glossy piece of paper that says you are smart and you deserve this job because you watched lots of youtube tutorials and know how to set up your Windows password successfully. (Yes, another Computer 101 joke…)

Now, I know what you are thinking, because my hair dresser said this too…

“All of these jobs want like 5+ years experience and a bachelors degree.”

In that moment a rush of nostalgia washed over me, and I was in my old bedroom in my parents house, on a random Tuesday night in the middle of January creating several cover letters, resumes and fine tuning the presentation of my portfolio over and over again.

It was 4 a.m, and little did I know, that wouldn’t be the last time I pulled an all nighter to complete something design related.

“No, they just want to see if you have the guts to apply and prove that you have the passion to learn.” I replied to her.

And I am not saying you can get a job without the skills either, you need the skills, but you do not have to be the best or greatest that ever lived to start your career in design.

No one is expecting you to come into an entry level position with years under your belt and PTSD from years of dealing with rude clients.

Most of the time when companies put 5+ years and a bachelors degree for an entry level position for a designer, they are trying to weed out those of us who have the guts and those of us who don’t.

04. You learn more from doing rather than being taught

Everything I have learned about being a designer was either self taught, or I learned while working as a designer.

That morning after feverishly applying to 5 different positions, somewhat like a fairytale, I received a phone call from a Human Resource Manager named Pam. She welcomed me to come in for an interview and to meet with the Creative Director for a company that manages Fisher-Price & Mattel’s website and marketing campaigns.

I laid on my floor for an hour in disbelief…

Two minutes after coming to my senses I received another call back from a different company, also wanting me to come in for an interview and to meet with the design team.

In a matter of hours, on limited sleep and totally burnt out, I had two interviews. No degree, no experience–just the guts and passion to try.

And my final but most important thing I learned…

05. Give your all to every opportunity

In the coming weeks I went to my first interviews in my career. I was offered a job with both companies and ended up taking the Fisher-Price position.

I did not know it then, but the chance they were taking on me was the foundation for the rest of my career.

I had proceeded to end all of my classes with my college, and instead I focused on learning everything I could and decided from that moment on I would take any opportunity given to me and try my hardest.

10 Years later, I look back and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Thanks for taking the time to read my ramblings about how I jumpstarted my design career. If you are like me, I hope this inspires you to go for your dreams & not let years of experience or a degree stand in your way.

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UX / UI Designer | Creative Director | Front-End Developer

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Jessa Wolfe

Jessa Wolfe

UX / UI Designer | Creative Director | Front-End Developer

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