I found this forum via Google search awhile back, and have been lurking every once in awhile gathering the courage to join. I’ve been wanting to get involved in an online design community for some time, and have been struggling to figure where to land. I’ve visited r/graphic_design on Reddit, joined a couple Discord communities, and have been looking into Slack groups. But honestly, in my opinion, nothing beats a good forum (Discord still deeply confuses me and I feel that I’m already aging out of their target demographic even while still being in my late twenties… darn this newfangled tech scene).
Having lurked for awhile, I see that there are some very kind design veterans here, and that means a great deal to me. If possible, I’m looking for some advice and guidance.
I was let go from my job this week. I worked at a small local sign shop that’s been facing financial and organizational problems. It’s for the best, I think, and the writing was on the wall for a long time. I knew I was stepping into a very difficult situation that would most likely be short-term when I was first hired there a little over three months ago, but as I’m facing the sinking reality of now being without a job, I’m facing the existential dread of what to do in life yet again.
If it’s okay, I would like to give a little backstory and then proceed to ask for any insight or advice that you all may be willing to give. (If you do read further, thank you so much for your time and consideration).
Graphic design has been an interest and hobby since I first laid eyes on the portfolio of a really talented commercial artist when I was in third grade. “Someone can have a career making beautiful things? Oh my goodness. I want this in my life.” I eventually started drawing, and then a friend gave me an old Mac a few years later. I never had access to Photoshop, but I was gifted Pixelmator one birthday, and I dove into tutorials. It was hard-fought design because, at the time, Pixelmator was quite bare bones and didn’t have non-destructive workflows. I enjoyed design immensely, but I really grappled with what to do in life and found myself being inconsistent, pulled in many directions with various interests.
I had the privilege of attending college. I wanted to be an engineer, but after being placed in a remedial math class, I realized that it might be best to refocus on something that I enjoyed (copious amounts math aren’t it… although I somehow received an A in my remedial class and each subsequent math class I took after that—something that hadn’t happened since my elementary years). I rekindled my interest in computers and design, and decided to focus on a degree in web design/development, feeling that would be a marketable skill set for the future.
Nevertheless, I had two incredible opportunities in college to work in graphic design roles. Through these work experiences, I fell in love with design and began taking as many design/art-related classes as I could. While I enjoyed aspects of my computer science classes, I realized I didn’t really want to be a web developer as I was so jaded by tech culture. Programming also zapped a lot my energy and I felt like I didn’t have the intelligence to make it a career. Design though? I lost track of time, even in disappointing or bland client assignments during my jobs in college, I enjoyed it—and my bosses kept giving me more and more important design work.
My last semester of college was eye-opening. Career fairs. I somehow got an interview at a company I really, really liked. I didn’t know how to sell myself. I wanted to be a designer, but I was more of a generalist because I was completing a degree under the business/computer science umbrella. I lacked confidence (still do) and saw that my portfolio and design jobs in college weren’t sufficient for them. Also, I was really, really burned out. 4+ years of burning the candle at both ends, trying to do the best work that I could, and focused almost entirely on getting good grades (with the hope that my GPA would matter to an employer). I’m not intelligent. No, I just have grit, grit that I often focus in the wrong direction. After bombing the interview, and feeling the physical effects of burnout, I decided to finish my last semester and just go home, hoping that I could figure some stuff out after getting some rest.
Home was an important step in my recovery. I learned about recovery. A month or so after graduating (I graduated in the winter), I decided to give freelancing a shot, which then led to additional attempts at finding full-time work as a designer. I had a few interviews, but I wasn’t hopeful. I eventually got recruited by a cult and in an effort to earn money to travel for their training in Central America, I decided to get a job in housekeeping in a local tourist trap to save up (I had previously worked a housekeeping job at a local hotel during high school that I adored). I went from an unfortunately toxic workplace into a Central American cult. I got out of the cult after a couple months and returned home even more burned out and broken. 2020 hit soon after, and I decided that, with the advice of my mom, I needed to take advantage of the situation I was in and do some deep healing. I slept in my grandma’s basement, took care of family, and got into therapy and support groups. I began not only dealing with my PTSD from my cult experience, but also my boatload of childhood trauma. I did some freelance work amidst my recovery, but thankfully my student loans were taken care of due to an incredibly unexpected gift that impacted the entirety of my mom’s side of the family (the passing of highly successful great aunt of course—no one quite knew the extent of her success). From 2020 to early 2023, I slept in my grandma’s basement, cooked meals at my mom’s, took care of family in any way I could, and spent a ton of time recovering and working on myself. Few people get that opportunity, and while I carry shame that I only had a few freelance projects and a contract gig for a couple months at a local newspaper, I’m thankful that I had that time to reset and heal. It wasn’t idle time in any way, but it’s not something I feel that I can easily explain to employers. Not only that, but four years after graduating college, I see that my portfolio and skill set are definitely not at the level they should be.
I moved across the country in early 2023 to be near my mom’s family, and despite the large gap in my resume, I was able to find work at a local sign shop, until being let go this week due to the budget. I’m trying to figure out what my next step is. I’m on my own. I’ve got bills. I’m continuing to adult (haha!). But I’m scared. I’m scared because life hasn’t gone like I hoped it would. In a perfect world, I would have taken my childhood interest in design/tech and been heavily invested since high school, practicing daily, building connections, doing internships, etc. Ideally, I would have pushed myself despite whatever burnout I faced in college, maximized my college education, and found full-time design or tech work right after college. But, alas, I’m just a trauma kid who has made poor decisions and struggled to find direction and meaning. I’ve barely been surviving, much less thriving.
While I’ve been back and forth about what kind of career I would like to have and put in the work to pursue, I still come back to graphic design. I loved the design jobs that I had the privilege to work while attending college. The fact that my previous employer took a chance on me (despite my work gap) gives me hope that, with determination and a deeper commitment to practice, I can maybe have additional jobs related to this industry in the future. I still maintain connection with the bosses I had in college, and their encouragement has meant a lot to me.
At the sign shop, I wasn’t able to do much graphic design, but I did learn the production side of sign making. Of the designs that I did do there, there’s nothing I feel comfortable putting in my portfolio. I’m ready to more deeply commit to daily design practice and to do the professional work needed to grow as a graphic artist. The thing is, I’ve gotta survive in the meantime. I currently don’t think my portfolio or skill set is enough to get me a design job, so I’m looking at retail work (or basically any work) that I can do in the meantime to earn an income (I try to live as simply and frugally as possible). I think pursuing more freelance work will help me grow, in addition to just tons of consistent practice.
I apologize if this was too long of an introduction or if I overshared. I would love to hear any advice or stories you may have to offer.
Oh, and I’m excited to be here.