20 Tips for Designers to Beat the Recession

It is all around us, talk of Doom, gloom, job cuts, job losses and recession etc. This is not what a young designer, fresh out of school, wants to hear. It is also not what an employed designer wants to hear. However it is not the end of the road, and as long as the Earth keeps turning, there will be a tomorrow. Personally, I like to believe a recession is a time of great opportunity for everyone. Particularly for forward looking designers who have the right skills and are well placed to take advantage of a recovering economy.

But first let me share a little about myself. I first got out of design school; it was at the height of the Asian Economic Crisis in 1997. There were hardly any industrial design jobs available. I was retrenched from my first furniture design job after 3 months, and it took me another 4 months before I found a design related job. It was not easy. However I remained focused throughout and kept learning every step of the way. If you are interested, I compiled some of my lessons in this post on my blog, but I think it is the right time to expand and update these tips as, today’s economic situation is not only about getting a job, it is also about keeping it.

1) Be Flexible
In a time of recession, you need to be flexible. Not only should you do your best to chase down any design related job you can find, you should also be ready to be the one to do the “dirty” work. The tough jobs that no one else wants to do. In this time of crisis, employers look for people who are willing to do what it takes to deliver.

2) Can you sell Ice to an Eskimo?
The ability to sell yourself in interviews and all documents related to you is vital in winning in today’s job market. It is not only about getting your information out to people; it is about positioning yourself in the best possible light. Leverage on your achievements and strengths, but in a Design world filled with egos, soft sell goes a lot further than hard sell.

3) Know Thyself
Before you can sell yourself you need to know your strengths and weaknesses. Time for some navel gazing and be very self-critical. Play up your strengths and look to improve your weaknesses.

4) Where You want to go Today?
Have a strong vision of where you want to go or what you want to achieve as a designer. It’s important to employers as it shows vision, passion and ambition. A strong personal vision also helps you make the right decisions when you need to deliberate on job opportunities.

5) Continue to Improve
You can always look to do a task better or improve a skill. Striving to do things better, is an important mindset to have.

6) Lifelong Learning
Not only look to improve, but aim to learn new things. One new thing a week is a good start. Industrial Design is a huge profession with many facets of which you only learn the basics in school. Once you are out of school, take it upon yourself to lean more by being proactive.

7) Take Risks
A young designer, fresh out of school CAN and should take risks in their career. Of course you need to be prudent if you have to put food on the table. However it is not the time to pick the “safe” job, but the time to pick the job that gives you the best exposure.

8 ) Personal Branding
No, it is not the personal logo or monogram that makes most people cringe. It is about an image you want to present, a public “face” that represent the principles you stand for. A well written blog is a very powerful tool for Personal Branding.

9) Passion
I have to say that employers HATE designers with little or no passion for their work. Nobody can be more excited about your design work or career but you. Passion is also about doing what it takes to get things done. Employers like that. This should also be demonstrated when you talk about your portfolio.

10) Build Relationship and Communication Skills
When I got out of school, it was in the time when 3D CAD started becoming big and every employer wanted a 3D designer. Unfortunately my hand rendered portfolio could never compete, but it did not matter, my eagerness to learn 3D CAD, and my ability to communicate that design was innate and not reliant on a 3D tool was what won the day.

11) Be Serious with Your Job
Young designers are just that, young. They focus on a quality life more than quality work. Some just don’t take their work seriously. Good Design is serious business, this means quality work delivered on time and on budget.

12) Work Like a Slave
To get good in design fast, you need to clock the hours to acquire the skills. Work hard, when you are young, but also work smart. In interviews, show that you are willing to put in what it takes to get things done. Quality projects with short lead times are worth its weight in gold in portfolios.

13) Always Shine with Good Work
Always, I say ALWAYS focus on good quality work. When in doubt, awesome designs will always make anyone’s day.

Be diligent, before you go for an interview, do your homework. No employer likes people who know nothing about the company or the work they do.

15) Network
Online AND offline. Enough said, don’t you think?

16) Polish your Portfolio, Again and Again
Portfolios are a historical document of you and your work. Make sure it is updated and presented in the best possible light. When I first started out, I updated or re-designed my portfolio every 3 to 6 months. Your Portfolio should become a living document that reflects your goals and vision. If you went back to a company for a repeat interview they would have new things to see and a good idea how you are developing as a designer.

17) Get Real Projects Fast
Student work is great to start your portfolio out with; however do aim to phase it out of your portfolio as quickly as you can with real design work. Real world projects give you the creditability you need. If you are stuck in a job that has very little design work worthy of your portfolio, try to get some extra freelance or temporary work to shore up your portfolio.

18) Deck out your CV with Results not Skills
In your CV you would probably have indicated that you are a “team player”, or “great at creating 3D models” etc. Well, so can millions of other designers. Make sure instead that in every past or present job listing in your CV you describe your contribution to the bottom line. So instead you should write that you “worked in global team that spanned 5 countries” or “you were responsible for the 3D database generation for this award winning product.”

19) Widen your Interests
The most effective designers can draw inspiration from their have very varied interests, that are often no design related. Share some of that during an interview or with your colleagues, it makes you a much more interesting person.

20) Be a Problem Solver
Last but not least, nobody likes a “Whiner”, and I can vouch that most employers don’t. You supposed to be a creative, so be creative and figure how to make the best of your limited budget or your reduction in man power. In a recession there is no shortage of work, just the resources to do it.


Well, there we go! I hope these 20 tips will get you up and going as a designer, or perhaps even solidify your position as one. Please do not hesitate to leave a comment or additional questions you may have or need feedback for.

Brian is a multidisciplinary industrial design leader that goes under the pseudonym of “The Design Translator”. He muses about the art of design leadership and the business of strategic industrial design over at his website Design Sojourn. He often laments the lack of good soy mochas and Italian pizzas (with Rocket and shredded Parma ham) in Asia.


  • Brian: your comments are spot on, I have you beat, I started out during a much worse on, the oil embargo where prime was double digit and we had stagflation and twice the unemployment we have now.

    One thing and its kind of extreme I went to work for a company for free for 6 months, just to show them the difference I could make. The bad times will pass, and the lessons you learn now will come in real handy down the road.


  • Soft Shell says:

    Hi Brian:

    I have a question? are you hiring? No seriously! 😀

    – Soft Shell

  • paman says:

    How can you maintain a job when you can’t even spell correctly, let alone know enough to use a spell checker! What the hell are you trying to say here:

    If you are interested, I compiles some of my leanings in this post on my blog,

    Compiles? leanins? it just goes on. No wonder you got laid off.

  • Joey says:

    Brian, this is an excellent list for young designers looking for freelance or permanent work. A recession is also the perfect time to produce and sell your own designs: manufacturers are hungry for jobs, trade shows are slashing booth prices, and people are looking for new products.

  • Soft Shell says:

    Paman take it eeeasy…you totally missed the joke.. not only that, this shows you can’t even think out of the box! You are probably an engineer? In the article he says soft sell..and I made it even softer by turning sell into shell…basically playing on pronunciation..saying sell like you are really high..no references to seafood buddy!..anyway..why are you so angry? anger management maybe would help? “WHY SOO SERIOUS!!..LET’S PUT A SMILE ON THAT FACE!!” Joker.

  • Soft Shell says:

    zippy, I 99% agree. All designers, specially in the field I am in, Architecture, need to work hand in hand with the engineers. But it’s just inevitable for both of us to NOT make fun of each other sometimes 🙂 ..we architects give engineers hard times with designs that need unique and sometimes very difficult structural and mechanical solutions, and engineers with their ax^2+bx+c=0 and not understanding why Frank Gehry designs buildings that are not straight or why clocks in Dali’s paintings are distorted! Personally though, I think without us designers, your lives would be pretty boring! 😀 Just look at this blog! most of the postings are conceptual..not even built yet..however, we are browsing here because they are soo out there and cool! What is the slogan of this blog? “Form Beyond Function”, meaning they are so beyond, no engineer can even build it yet..we would need the help of a scientist! That’s it right there..if you are here to fight, fight the webmaster 🙂

    • soft: I am a designer, engineer, inventor, entrepreneur, author and bottle washer. I take out the trash, sweep the floors and create new (hopefully good) products. Part of why I am here is to help educate the young ones and help them turn dreams into reality.

      Frank Gehry designs buildings the way he does because of the power of CAD, and that power allows engineers to say to him “yea, OK, stress analysis says it wont fall down”. Dali is a different bucket of turnips, his vision of surrealism was the shock and awe of its time, not a design exercise.

  • Keith says:

    Not all of us engineers are missing this ability to “think out of the box”, which is a pure management phrase to begin with. Industrial designers and engineers are, essentially, the same thing. The difference is that we don’t often get to express our designs artistically, especially if you work in the military/defense field, which would include me. There is no line item in our budget to be aesthetically pleasing, so that is the first thing to be jetisoned when cost comes under the microscope of the government. I’ve tried to sneak it in, in my long 2.5 year career, but have yet to succeed.

    “Personally though, I think without us designers, your lives would be pretty boring!”, I highly disagree with this point. I get to see some of our Mission Innovation programs, and those are some pretty damned cool ideas. I do lots of concept art for presentations to our customers, concepts don’t preclude engineers. Again, I go back to the reality that industrial designers are engineers and vice versa.

  • kasem dusadeeprasert says:

    very useful and make me good inspiration.

    thank you very much.

  • Waikit says:

    Really nice list of recommendable habits/attitudes. I would add some important actions next to these habits, as many graduates might start worrying about a lot of things instead of doing the right things that you have mentioned:
    – write down the things you are worrying about (usually weaknesses)
    – write down what you can do about those things
    – prioritize those things (some are easier to execute, some are more important)
    – carry out one by one with the 20 habits/attitude as guideline

  • Anthony says:

    17) Get Real Projects Fast

    This is one I have to work with. These 20 tips all seem equally important, but I am hoping that this was not #1-10, because it is nto a make or break thing. I received my Bachelors in Graphic Design back in mid-2006. It was not until Decemeber of that same year when I finallly found a job. Although design related, it was the last job I expected to take and one instructor warned me in advance that I would not and should not resort to working at an apparel company–well, he was right.

    I am thankful to still be there to this day and I learned a bit about the clothing industry, so much so that I am learning things I would have rather not known. However, the dead end sign is within seeing distance of me. 2-1/2 years in this job and I have done little to nothing I would consider portfolio worthy. Unfortunately, with this job, the personal life, and a bit of personal free time I get to enjoy, I don’t have anything to give towards tweeking my portfolio, taking on freelance, or doing spec work.

    I do acknowledge that this may be something I should do before seeking my next job though. Maybe take some time to update three to four new pieces catered towards a job I wish to enter in while hopefully receiving a couple freelance projects in order to hold some weight–to have an actual client with a brief, a goal, and a true sense of accomplishment.

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