Tips for Recent Design Grads

After going through some job hunting, hiring processes, ‘quitting’ and being laid off, there is a lot to learn about having a graphic design job. Here are a few tips based off of some of my experiences and some legal resources that you should read before accepting a job offer.

My First Professional “Job”

Earlier in my career I was so desperate to get a job after college, if someone told me to sign something for a job, I would and did. Actually, only now do i realize that my first ‘job’ was most likely illegal by some measure. Before i even graduated from university with my degree, I was offered what i thought was a job at a design studio in San Antonio. It was 9-6pm, Monday-Friday, with an hour lunch break at noon (as long as there was someone else in the office to answer the phone, otherwise I had to wait). I had signed up with this company as a contractor. They told me there would be a 3 month trial period as a contractor, and after that they would assess and see if I should be brought on as a permanent full-time employee. After the 3 months passed, the Creative Director and I both signed a piece of paper saying i was a full-time employee.

This was a small business and the co-owner had to juggle HR with her normal business tasks, so I did not push the issue much in terms of speed. After a month passed, I asked about the health insurance that i thought was coming my way… when does it kick-in? what do i need to do to use it? I got back pretty instant feedback from the other co-owner. He hollered at me and asked what I was talking about. I told him that a month ago I was signed on as a full time employee. He said he never authorized it so it was not so. This meant I didn’t get any benefits.

Now, I really love design but I really hated working here. I only really planned on staying for the security of health benefits and now that the reality of me not qualifying for benefits arose, I did not see a point in staying there. I normally took my lunch break off-site as i had to get away from the owner to get my sanity back, and that day was no different. After crying a bunch during my lunch break (as i often did), i told him that i quit.

The owner told me that I was making a mistake and asked who I was talking to. I kind of got the impression that he did not believe that a female could make sure a decision on her own. I stuck with what i said and left mid-day.

Also during this employment period, the owner specified that I could not show the work i did in my portfolio.

What Was Wrong Here

  • It’s common to hate one’s job. That’s not the wrong thing. What is wrong in this scenario is that i was classified as a contractor without any of the benefits of being a contractor but all of the negative of being an employee.
  • As a contractor, you set your own schedule. A piece of paper defined my schedule.
  • A contractor can take part of a day off or take an extended lunch break as they please. I did not have the option of off-time and my lunch break was defined for no more than an hour during mid-day. I also had the restriction of someone else being in the office before i left for lunch. The control of my schedule was very much in the employers’ hands, not mine.
  • I considered this my ‘job,’ when people asked what i was up to after college. This was my sole source of income.

Lessons to be learned for the designer workforce:

If you walk like an employee, and talk like an employee, OSHA and the Department of Labor count you as an employee. I paid taxes out of my own pocket since it was a contractor. I was most likely labeled a contractor by the employer to save a buck on payroll taxes and healthcare assistance. The employer should have paid their share of the pie in payroll taxes as i really filled the shoes of an employee. If someone calls you a contractor for billing purposes but in all other means treats you as an employee, you can contact the Department of Labor to investigate if they owe payroll taxes. If you are injured on the job as a contractor/ pseudo-employee, OSHA says that you should be provided with a safe work environment; you can probably ask OSHA or a lawyer to look into your compensation for an on-the-job-injury.

US Copyright law is pretty strict but it does have a few exceptions. Read them and get familiar with them. They will be confusing and ambigious, so also read some translations of the copyright laws into plain English, then read the laws again. One of the exceptions of copyright laws allows you to show the work you did for a company in a portfolio in an effort to get another job. This is because as a job-seeker, you are not competing with that company for client work, you are not dimishing the value of the original work and you are not making a profit of of including this in your portfolio. If you are unsure about this, ask a lawyer; copyright law is pretty confusing and sometimes contracdictory.

Lessons to be learned for employers from this job:

  • People will tolerate a job they hate with the right benefits.
  • Don’t tangle the carrot of full-time employment in front of an employee and then yank it back.

The Job Hunt (again)

Well, probably most people would have thought I was crazy for quitting that first job but when combining the level of unhappiness and little benefit, it just was not worth it. I was also able to afford this since I lived with my parents still. (Pro-tip: Don’t do what i did. Stay with your parents as long as possible so that you can really pay down those student loans faster!) During this time i was doing freelance design jobs from referrals and from what i found on Craigslist. I got impatient though and perhaps the wrong kind of encouragement. I started looking for another full-time job as the freelance was slow to land signed design contracts and slow to get in design payments. Maybe it was also because of the female/Hispanic influences in my family that thought it was safer to work for someone else than myself but I did find another job eventually. In hience-sight, perhaps i should have just been a bit more patient with my freelance clients because all of those people who said they would save up the money and get back to me, actually came back.

My Second Job

As fate would have it, the place that hired me as an official full-tike employee was literally right next door to my former employer. I was really happy to be a full-time employee with benefits on the commercial design team. It was a dream job and it lasted for awhile. I became an advocate for the company. I even referred one of my former college classmates to work there. I would sometimes be tasked with in-house marketing design jobs but mostly i did commercial design. I actually was making good money as an hourly employee and with some poor project management. I did work through what most people consider Christmas break, I think I even worked on Christmas eve, but i did bank big with the overtime pay so i did not mind a all.

After that ‘Christmas Bonus’ of overtime pay, I got ‘promoted’ to salary which actually meant I made less money. I would normally clock overtime pay due to poor planning of management. I’d even wave my arms around and ask them to confirm that they want me to stay and work on overtime when I was hourly but they still wanted me to stay and work. I guess they still wanted to have me work the hours but just not get paid more for them.

With the salary pay, I decided to move out of my parents house on my own. I first moved into an apartment but after my apartment got burglarized i wanted to move somewhere safer. Safe apartments ended up costing the same as a house payment, so i bought a house. The pros of this decision was that i was no longer worried about burglary or being stuck above an apartment unit with curious children that liked to cook food unattended (there was a kitchen fire below my unit). The cons were now I was committed to a bigger monthly expense and now and future job searches would be confined to San Antonio. In my job hunt, I was actually very close to getting a job in Houston which would have led to a very different life. Another con is that with a mortgage, you start to develop that caution and fear that most adults have and you are less willing to take risks.

When I became salary, I often worked 50-60 per week and lost some of my personal life. I also lost my freelance clientele at this time. I couldn’t  do all of that work for the company and my own clients so I stopped doing freelance altogether. Since I had the day job, I really only did freelance for the love of design and not for the added income. Keeping up my freelance was made even tougher with the never-ending insurance claim from the burglary where I was trying to recover my stuff. Since freelance became a luxory and no longer my primary source of income, i stopped doing it. I really do regret losing touch with those clients.

Lessons to be learned for the designer workforce:

  • Stay as an hourly employee by any means possible. It is the most honest system for everyone. You get paid for every hour you work (good for you) and nothing more (good for employer). Unless you are offered a grossly overpaid salary, I don’t recommend going salary. This will also come in handy if your employer offers OT for working on what is labeled as a company holiday.
  • Make sure you are happy with the job market in your city if you want to buy a house. Consider staying in an apartment, with a roommate or parents so that your housing options are flexible. There is nothing wrong with buying a house in your 20s though; it’s just a gamble of it’s own.
  • If you are too busy to do design freelance, tell your clients the truth, you are too busy and you will get back to them later. You probably worked really hard to acquire that client so don’t lose them!

My Third Job

Well my second job was great but the dedicated in-house designer had just left his position at the company and there was a gap that needed to be met. The company that I was working for decided to move me at the same pay and same benefits to the in-house position (75%) and some commercial support (about 25% of my time). They said I did not have a choice in this move and they considered it a lateral move and did not want to increase my pay. It was some what curious because generally in-house design jobs are less exciting than multi-client design jobs and the in-house design jobs generally pay a lot more because of this.

I was not very happy with this new position as it did not offer me the design variety I wanted and it did not feel like a designer. I was more-so just implementing the visions of the CEO in this position and felt like there was little room for creative input from myself.

This position re-awoke previous urges to do freelance design, start my own design agency or jump to a bigger & better ship. I began looking for other jobs. Other creative agencies were not hiring. When i was younger, I felt that the barrier from me and a good job was experience but now that i had experience I couldn’t find any of those jobs i seemed to thought existed. It seems like the case is that most creative agencies didn’t grow in staff very often; you really had to wait for someone to quit (which doesn’t happen if it is a good place to work) or die. I had a very exciting interview with one of the best design studios in town but i ended up being the runner-up; the runner-up doesn’t get a job. I also had an interview with a huge company in town that wanted to pay me double what i made but i really did not want to work for another corporate entity again. I also interviewed with a smaller medical company which was right next to me, but i was runner up to someone with 20 years experience.

In the middle of the job hunt I got laid off. The company I worked for had the money to throw an extravagant company birthday party that would cost more than most weddings but they apparently couldn’t afford to keep me on staff as a full-time designer.

I was then starting to look back at the option of starting my own design agency. It seemed very possible with less experience, so how much more viable would it be with my current experience? Also, i could offer my team members the dream job we all want. Generous vacation time, casual dress (who cares what you are wearing as long as you deliver on-time?), good health care, snacks and just a fun place to work. This is what i really want. I want to offer my employees team (employment means to suffer, so i don’t like that word) a fun place to make good design. I want to respect them and be respected. I then found that i simply did not want to work for someone else again.

Lessons to be learned for the designer workforce:

  • Try to get get a letter of lay-off from your employer.
  • If they don’t give you anything written down that says they are the ones ending the employment relationship, record the conversation on your phone. I didn’t think i needed to do this and naively believed HR would do the right thing, but when my unemployment claim was contested, it would have been just that much more evidence in my favour (i won my unemployment claim).
  • DO NOT SIGN ANYTHING THAT SAYS YOU ARE VOLUNTARILY QUITTING IF IN-FACT THIS IS NOT TRUE. Maybe you can sign a severance agreement or acknowledgement of termination but if the paper is suspicious, just don’t sign it. Ask to see if a lawyer can review it; if they don’t allow this, then there is more reason to not sign it. What is the worst that an happen, they fire you? You don’t want to inadvertently lose your rights to unemployment pay.
  • If your employer is trying to force you to sign anything that you are not comfortable with, even during a regular business day when your job is not on the line, don’t sign it. They can either fire you for not signing it or change it. Don’t put your signature on something you don’t understand, don’t agree to or find unethical. When i was younger i signed anything I was told. In my last years at this job I asked for foreign words to be defined or if i signed something that said i read another document, i refused to sign until i actually saw that document.
  • I can’t guarantee it but I suspect that something that is notarized for an employee of a company in favour of the company would be seen as a document that was notarized with a conflict of interest. Would the notary lose their job if they didn’t stamp the paper? Do they get a bonus for notarizing the document?
  • Keep your portfolio updated weekly, or at least monthly. You never know when you need to find another job quickly and you probably can’t afford to lose 1-2 weeks updating your portfolio before your next job search.
  • If you get a severance in a lump sum, that will not count against your unemployment pay. if you get unemployment for a specific time period or stipend out, that will be reduced from your unemployment pay.
  • Calling the Texas unemployment offices can result in long wait times and going through numerous automated menus, but the people that you talk to are really nice.
  • You only have 60 days to get health care coverage after losing your job. I was mis-informed; someone told me that it was 90 days, and to save money on not wanting to pay for more coverage per month than I needed, I waited until what I thought was the end of my window. Now i am without health insurance.
  • When your job stops requiring creativity to perform work, the legal exemption from overtime for creative professionals stops.

My Fourth Job

I tried applying to jobs at places that I wanted to work at. I didn’t want to be stuck at a place that made me unhappy again. There was no change though. All of the better design jobs were taken, so i decided to make my own company and job.

I am hoping this works out as I am shaping it to be my dream job. I have some really good recommendations from some clients but as a business owner I am faced with unsteady income and being in charge of the accounting and other non-design tasks of owning a company. I do find that I am a lot happier these days. I do need more of my own clients to pay my own bills and hire some employees.

Again, I felt discouraged to go out on my own by certain family members. it’s like they wanted me to stay on the hamster wheel and not be my own boss. Maybe because Hispanic females don’t really start their own business? I am not sure why they don’t see me having my own business as a good idea but working at a call-center being full-filling. On the other hand, there are more family and friends that encouraging me to succeed and it has helped a lot.

Lessons to be learned for the designer workforce:

  • Not all clients pay on time. Get some money upfront for any design gig.
  • Don’t count on a client’s payment until you have the payment in-hand.
  • Don’t count a check as payment until it clears at the bank.
  • Design your job to be what you want it to be. Reference online tips but you don’t have to follow them word-for-word when shaping your job/business.
  • With my reduced income and no insurance, I can’t afford to go to my normal doctors and some i just don’t go to at all (like my dentist). I now go to a low-income facility for my prescription; without this program I would not be able to afford my prescription so i am grateful that it exists. There is a much longer wait time in the lobby than my normal doctor’s offices though. It may be too much information for some, but it is a reality you may have to prepare for if you go out on your own.

More Tips and Thoughts

Make sure if you are hired as a contractor at a design firm, that you get the positives and not just the negatives of being a contractor.

You should be able to set your own schedule and decline work. You have to invoice your client weekly/monthly or at whatever pace YOU feel is right. You should not be filling out time-sheets, that is only something employees do. You won’t earn paid time off, you will have to budget for that on your own BUT you can decide you go on vacation when you want (be sure to be courteous though, so you don’t lose a client). You should be able to work where you want but if you do work in the client’s office you shouldn’t need to ask permission for a break or to go to lunch or to leave or come in early. If it starts to feel like you are an employee, like the business owner has control over your schedule and tasks, you may want to check with the Department of Labor to see if the employer should be payroll taxes.

Other things the Department of Labor will consider is if this ‘job’ is your primary source of income and if you advertise yourself as a business (like you have business cards or a website). Read the Department of Labor guidelines that define what is employment VS contracting so you don’t end up paying payroll taxes out of your pocket unfairly.

You have to be paid at least minimum wage if you are an employee.

If the employee reduces your pay check for a company t-shirt or breaking a mug and it takes you below minimum wage, that is illegal.

Take a day off.

Unless someone is going to die from you not showing up to work, enjoy your life. Take time off to go to your grandma’s birthday dinner, go to your preventative medical care appointments and see your sister graduate from college; these things shouldn’t be missed.

If you find you are salary constantly working weekends, try to talk to your project manager or boss about planning ahead and managing the work-level to be confined to business hours. Their poor planning shouldn’t be so consistently cutting into your personal time. If you are hourly and getting paid over-time, the extra work probably will be okay but you will reach a point where the extra money is not worth your personal time being lost. There are occasions where you have to work overtime, but it shouldn’t be due to consistent poor planning and traffic flow of management; it should be because of a client paying a rush fee on a brochure and maybe your employer giving you a small bonus or OT to make it happen. If they just don’t have the cash for a bonus or OT pay, you may try to ask to work this weekend, but next week, after the deadline is met, to get Friday and Monday off. You may want to see if the boss would want to hire a second employee like you if the work is so consistent. Tired employees are less productive than rested ones.

As a salaried employee, make sure that you are legally being paid.

A pretty easy rule is if as a creative profession, your salary is less than $23,600/year or $455/week, you should not be on a salary. If you are hired on as a Computer Employee, the same minimum weekly pay of $455 applies, or an hourly pay of no less than $27.63.

There are a few exemptions that play into our field like creative and IT exceptions that you can read about here:


Creative Professional Exemptions from Overtime Notes (to be salary)

  • If you are a designer that is allowed to use you creative talent to create works from your own ideas/imagination, you can be exempt from overtime and be paid a salary.
  • If you are simply illustrating a design that is dictated to you, and you are not thinking creatively to compose a design, then the creative exemption should not apply to you; your should be hourly and get overtime pay.

Computer Employee Exemptions from Overtime Notes (to be salary)

  • If you are labeled a programmer or developer, you can be salaried since you are also using your brain-power to solve problems.
  • If you are a help-desk member that reads off a script, with little thinking/ decision making, you probably should not be exempt from overtime pay.

Highly Compensated Employees

  • If you are lucky enough to make over 100k a year on salary, you are also can be exempt from overtime… but let’s face it, as an entry-level designer, this exemption is probably not on your plate.

There is no such thing as a permanent job.

It doesn’t matter if you are a designer for the government or your best-friend from college, you can be laid off or fired. Texas is an at-will  state, so you can be fired for any (legal) reason or no-reason at all. Times can get tough and generally people find us pseudo-artist as expendable as they are seen as not contributing to profits (even though most designers know that it was probably their design that did in-fact contribute to your product selling).

Save money for the time you will lose your job.

If your employer drags their feet with your unemployment claim, you may not get unemployment pay quickly. It took a month to get my first unemployment check and that was a super tough month financially. Your claim may also be denied or appealed, so you will need some cash in hand to cover your bills.

If someone asks you to waive your right to overtime, sign it since it is not enforceable.

If you are an non-exempt employee, it is illegal for you to not be paid overtime, so the paper is worthless (this is a tip I got from a representative from the Department of Labor).

Ask for the right job title.

If you are getting hired for a job with some years of experience and your employer wants to label you an intern, they are probably doing this so they can pay you less. Get a fair job title, like Graphic Designer, Junior Designer or Entry-Level Graphic Designer. This will make finding your right pay easier when looking at salary surveys. If you get stuck with the ‘intern” title, you will only get intern pay. Your job title will also be a contributing factor in your exemption status.

If someone offers you the job title of Creative Director and you have no experience, I’d be suspicious about the position. Does the employer understand design? Is this a scam? Will you get paid competitively with others that hold this title? Proceed with caution.

Finally, any time your job title is changed, try to get a raise. They are changing the title and the responsibilities most likely. Make sure everything is written down and you get a copy of all documentation. Print a copy of the documents and file it away; scan and save a copy of the documents and email it to yourself.

Unemployment Benefits

I found the Texas Workforce Commission’s website to be very confusing. Some information was not revealed on the website at all, only in brochures. Here are some reasons why you can qualify for unemployment:

  • You quit your job to avoid a stalker.
  • To move in with a new spouse not near your current job or you move with a spouse to a different city.
  • You are being forced to accept a reduction of pay.
  • You are losing benefits.
  • Your hours are being reduced.

There are more reasons, but these ones seemed most important and/or unexpected.

In conclusion

This is a very personal article. I hope some can learn from my past experiences.

Ellice Sanchez

About Ellice Sanchez

With six years experience in design, Ellice has done work for clients such as San Antonio Parks and Recreation, the City of San Antonio, Delicious Tamales, The US AirForce, Christus Santa Rosa, the University Health Systems, Sunset Station, Sushi Zushi Corporation of Texas, San Antonio Conservation Society, NIOSA, the San Antonio International Airport Concession, Representative Ivory Taylor, the Vidorra Condominiums, American GI Forums National Veterans Oureach Program, Republic National Distributing Company, Lifetime Fitness, Mr. W Fireworks, the RK Group, Pape-Dawson Engineers and other companies, working on projects ranging from signage, business cards, content management, design support, website design and coding, flyers, billboards and e-blasts.

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