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October 28, 2022

Lessons From My First Year in the Industry

Isaiah Harwood

Jumping into the industry during finals week of my senior year was one of the most challenging, but rewarding things I’ve ever done. I ended up pitching my first professional logo concepts to a client and presenting my thesis to my professors in the same week. The leadership team at Creative Energy took a leap of faith in an ETSU student, and I’ve been thankful for the opportunity ever since. If I could condense my first year at Creative Energy into the most important lessons I’ve learned, the list would look something like this:

College was only the tip of the iceberg.

It may seem obvious now, but nothing could have prepared me for the sheer depth of knowledge that I’ve absorbed during my first year out of school working at Creative Energy. As a new grad, I could have sworn I had it all figured out. I’m now embarrassed to admit that my good grades had me believing I was a master of my craft. My first day at Creative Energy felt like taking off the training wheels and jumping on a motorcycle. It was humbling. School was predictable and even boring at times, but working at an agency is exhilarating. Each day there are new problems to solve and new challenges to overcome, and it requires flexibility. Working side by side with the award-winning designers and creative directors at CE has sharpened my skills as a designer more effectively than in all four years of college combined. I now notice things about my work that I never noticed as a student, and have become aware of an entirely new level of design finesse and technique.

No pain, no gain.

Starting your first industry job is a lot like learning to ride a skateboard: you will scrape your knees. You will make mistakes. The key is to take these mistakes in stride and realize that they are not setbacks, but signs of growth. School cannot fully prepare you for navigating the ins and outs of the agency world, and it will take some time to learn the ropes. Focus on mastering the fundamentals, and soon you will be doing ollies and winning Addys.

Lean into your mentors.

The best agencies are full of experienced designers who have already learned these lessons, and Creative Energy is no exception. My fellow designers and creative team lead taught me everything they’ve learned from their time in the industry, and I could not have survived my first year at Creative Energy without them. The entire Creative Energy team has been pros at turning my rookie mistakes into teachable moments with the goal of helping me succeed as a designer. There have been no hurdles too tall with the help of my mentors and the creative team at my back.

Collaboration WILL make your work better.

Crazy, I know. I’m sure I’m not alone in the fact that I dreaded group projects during college. Throughout my time in school, it was extraordinarily rare to work with a group of people who shared the same vision, or at the very least, wanted to meaningfully contribute to a project. This is not at all true in an ad agency. The best work I’ve ever done is a result of feedback from my mentors at Creative Energy, team brainstorming sessions, and sometimes even comments from the client. As a general rule, your first idea is rarely the best idea. Working with multiple designers and/or a client adds nuance and a fresh perspective to your work as a designer. A great designer on their own can get the job done, but a team of great designers is unstoppable.

Working from home is still work.

When I say working from home is still work, I mean the collaborative and social aspects of working in the office are just as seamless through a webcam. At Creative Energy, we work on a hybrid schedule, and those who live in the area go into the office a few days a week and work remotely the rest of the week. We still have meetings, check-ins, chance encounters, and group discussions. I feel just as close to our fully remote employees as I do to the ones in our backyard here in Johnson City. The culture at Creative Energy and the community we’ve built here transcends the traditional boundaries of the office.

There is no such thing as a small client.

As a new designer, I held the misconception that some jobs were more important than others. It can be easy to fall into the trap of prioritizing the big guys and saving your best work for the highest budgets, but a flier that will only be seen by 20 people still deserves to be beautiful. During my first check-in with Will Griffith, the Executive Creative Director at Creative Energy, he knew this was an area I was struggling with. Will told me something that I keep in the back of my head during every project I work on now, and it’s probably the most important thing I’ve learned during my time at CE. These small businesses are not just small businesses. They are someone’s pride and joy. They are the reason a family has a roof over their head and the reason someone gets out of bed in the morning. They are a person’s hopes and dreams; the lifetime culmination of a generational work ethic. Knowing that my work as a designer can help a family business reach its full potential and compete with the big guys, is what motivates me to give every job I work on my all.

Don’t ever stop having fun.

Creative work is still work, believe it or not. It can be demanding and sometimes draining. Whether your first design gig out of school is as an in-house designer, a freelancer, or at an agency, if you want to avoid burnout, you should strive to never forget why you went into this field in the first place. For me, it was because we have the power to turn anything into eye candy. What makes it all worthwhile is that we have the ability to bring our clients’ ideas to life; to entertain, to wow, and to make the world a little more beautiful. Don’t ever stop experimenting, don’t ever be afraid of the weird or unusual, and choose to lean into the things that make you different as a designer and as a creative in general. At the end of the day, we are artists. How lucky are we to make a living doing what we do? Don’t take yourself so seriously, have fun!