With the global pandemic turning lives upside down, even as it morphs into an economic recession, what should product designers do if they can’t find work? Design recruitment insider Brad Harper has a few ideas in this product design job guide that could help
So, you’re unemployed…
You’ve read the headline and you’re probably thinking, ‘Who the hell is this guy, and how come he thinks he’s got all the answers?’ Well, my name is Brad Harper and I’ve been working in product design recruitment on a global scale for the last six years.
During that time, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some pretty awesome brands and design agencies, and have found new jobs for designers in the UK, US, China, Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand and parts of Europe. I’ve spoken at universities, held live design events, started an industrial design podcast that has been downloaded thousands of times and I’ve seen more design portfolios than you could shake a stick at.
The reality right now is that it’s tough out there. My sympathy for any jobseeker is off the scale. Designers may be trained for solving problems, but I’m not sure we ever signed up for problems of this scale.
But let’s think positively and look for solutions. Where might you go – and how do you get there?
1 – Go solve a problem
Before we kick on, any advice here needs to be viewed within the context of your own personal situation. Most of you have bills to pay. Maybe you have a mortgage. You don’t necessarily have redundancy pay to fall back on. A portfolio of riches, or the last five years of your career, might be tied up in confidentiality agreements.
We all have our own unique challenges. But regardless of circumstance, the longer you are out of the game, the rustier you become.
My advice? The world is fraught with design problems – go solve one. What might your idea become? Where could it lead you? Working on a live project not only keeps you honing your craft but also gets those commercial juices flowing.
A Kickstarter project is an option for good reason: you will learn marketing, branding, finance. Think beyond just applying for jobs and plugging away at the portfolio. How proactive can you be right now?
2 – Club together
Collaborate. Your colleagues and wider network might be in the same boat. That annoying one you remember from uni, or Jamie’s friend who can sketch a bit.
Whether you take on the Kickstarter concept, or think about setting up your own agency, or take part in these weekly rendering challenges on Instagram, just make sure you are collaborating with other people.
One of my predictions is that, over the next six to 12 months, many people will use their time to experiment and fail. You will see an influx of start-ups and small design consultancies, particularly when you factor in some of the heavy redundancies being made at big employers such as Dyson.
If the right job is not out there, sometimes you just need to create it. Right now, that most likely means setting up for yourself.
How you scale that, win clients, and find your niche is for another article. But right now, you have to leave every option on the table. If you can, make sure you have a partner in crime for the journey ahead.
3 – Pivot
Doing this gets far more difficult as you get older. So much content and energy right now is aimed at students, and probably rightly so. Let’s be clear: they will eventually find work.
They have time to retrain, pivot, and in some cases, shape the future direction of the market. Pivoting is far easier when you’re young, particularly if you are well-educated and have some strong design skills and a decent attitude. You will not be signing on.
As you get older, the market turning like this makes pivoting tough. But you can do it! There are a few options to consider and LinkedIn is your friend on this one. Start any consideration just by getting in touch with those who’ve already made the jump you are contemplating. They will be able to provide you with clearer directions than any course, video or article.
Popular options tend to be UI/UX with ‘digital design’ in place of the word ‘product’. I mean, you buy an iPhone for the software, right?
There’s no denying that a good industrial designer can pivot into digital, but it does require training, a software refresh and training You will not be walking into any new industry, particularly as you are up against those with direct experience for open positions.
Other alternatives can be design research, design strategy, product management, design education, service design, structural packaging/ branding and design visualisation. In other words, you have many possible paths to explore.
4 – Create content
Okay, here’s the wildcard. Let’s look at value for a second here, or even perceived value. Having a kick-ass YouTube channel or Instagram page does work.
Marketing in product design is an activity only ever explored when things are quiet. We are a little bit behind the curve when it comes to breaking away from the cloak-and-dagger approach, in favour of something more open, transparent and ram-packed full of insight.
Start a podcast. Create tutorials. Get in front of the camera or behind the microphone. Design businesses should be doing this anyway.
Why? It creates relationships. Outsiders see you as an authority. You can add new strings to your bow, whether that be in graphic design, social media marketing, video editing. There’ll be new pieces of software to learn and the chance to get creative again.
You will be seen by employers as someone who can communicate, who can take on a variety of tasks, who is commercially aware and could potentially bring in a little bit of business as well. These are all go-to traits in desirable job candidates.
So, what should product designers do if they can’t find work? Do their job: find a kick-ass solution to a problem.
Brad Harper is an industrial design recruiter.
As well as doing his day job, you’ll often find Brad speaking at universities, rambling about portfolios on LinkedIn, or talking about that time his podcast ‘Design Truth’ ended up 8th in the Belgian charts.