Reflecting on my first year as a full-time product designer

What I wish I learned in college and knew coming into my role

March 21, 2020

6 mins

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Last week, I hit the momentous one-year anniversary mark at my first job. I was kindly reminded when I received a package and card in the mail sent from my manager (I work with the best people). Gifts aside, it was a significant milestone for me that sparked deep reflection and gratitude for what I’ve been able to learn these last 365 days. I hope these pointers can spearhead others in the right direction and prepare young designers as they spearhead their early careers.

1. Don’t be scared to negotiate.

When I first received my offer letter, I was satisfied with the numbers; I didn’t feel the need to negotiate my salary higher than it already was on paper. However, friends and mentors pushed me to ask regardless — they stressed that the worst thing that would happen is that I’d be stuck in the same situation. After doing homework online on best negotiation practices, I was able to loop back in with my recruiter to bump my existing stipend up.

The truth is many companies expect candidates to negotiate, setting offers about 5–10% below what they have the budget for. Mentioning offers you may have also been presented with or companies you’re in late stages of the pipeline with can also increase your chances of success. It’s amazing what happens when you simply ask.

2. Keep an ongoing archive for your work.

Among our busy weekly schedules as designers, it can be hard to measure our progress in the last few months. With the additional aspect that nature of our work exists in the digital space, it can also be challenging to tangibly comprehend the amount of work we’ve done. By being more intentional with reflections, it can keep us focused on areas of growth we want to work on.

A helpful way to keep track of former projects is by keeping an-going document. For each project, write descriptions of what you did, include links to related documents and assets, note what went well, highlight parts that could’ve gone better, and describe a few takeaways. This will help you out when you’re writing up mid-year reflections, updating your portfolio, or simply monitoring your growth as you continue to progress in your role.

3. Your biggest lessons will come from mistakes.

In the span of a year, I’ve seen many of my designs ship and land in the hands of users. While projects with seamless design reviews kept my stress levels healthy, those with unexpected obstacles pushed me to grow the most.

The way in which you react and handle situations of turmoil speaks more to your character as opposed to a perfect track record of shipping great designs. When curveballs are thrown, you’re pushed to think on your feet — great designers are able to quickly act and come up with alternative solutions.

4. Extend your impact beyond your assigned projects.

If you observe gaps in existing processes or have an idea to on how to improve the way your organization operates, propose initiatives to your manager. In most cases, your team will appreciate the work you’re doing to help improve the organization, especially if you volunteer to lead and tackle the proposals you suggest. Some examples include starting skill-sharing workshops between colleagues, sharing feedback on interview procedures, and suggesting ideas for team events.

5. Don’t underestimate your value as a mentor.

In my off-time, I’ve been hopping on calls with designers who have reached out to me for career advice or help on their portfolios. What I’ve realized in becoming informal mentors to these students is how a little reassurance and advice can go a long way. Personally, I still remember a majority of my interactions with those I reached out to in the creative community when I was in college. The most potent aspect of those interactions was how I felt afterwards — focused and inspired for where my career would navigate next. On a similar note, many of the “thank-you” emails and text messages I’ve been sent in this process have reaffirmed my impact of giving back.

6. The best way to learn is to teach others.

Over the last year, I’ve been able to combine my two passions — writing and design — through my blog posts. While the main goal of my pieces was to educate others on various topics in the product design sphere, I’ve also been a student in this process. I’ve noticeably spent more time looking back on notes I’ve taken at design events, digging back into documentation for old projects to ensure what I’m sharing is accurate, and genuinely reflecting more on what I want to learn next as a designer. Whatever it is that you want to master, there’s really no better way to learn than to teach others by any preferred means: writing, videos, mentorship, etc.

7. Understand that you’re not alone in battling imposter syndrome.

Earlier in the year, I gave a talk at a design meetup we hosted in the office focused on imposter syndrome. Our marketing team was nice enough to publish the written follow-up I had to our own company blog shortly after. When it released, several coworkers across different divisions reached out to me to share that they too faced the same battles and thanked me for vulnerably speaking on the subject.

It made me realize that we are all trying to do our best on the daily, and, by sharing our struggles, it allows room for empathy for those that we work with.

8. Broaden the scope of your relationships.

When I first joined my role, one of my immediate projects was to investigate the current usability problems on our platform. I decided to first engage in internal research by setting up chats with our customer success managers, technical account managers, and support associates. The resulting data I collected for that work was immensely invaluable, but so were the resulting relationships. Because of the noted efforts of those I worked with, we now collaborate heavily on future work — sharing opinions on prioritization for backlog tickets, recruiting customers for usability studies, and outlining future roadmaps.