The 5 Year Experience Milestone

The first design job I ever applied for was around 6 or 7 years ago, whilst I was getting ready for my placement year at university. I remember scrolling through miles of job adverts for product designers, design engineers, mechanical engineers, industrial designers, product design engineers and so many more. There seem to be as many job titles as there are actual positions in the design industry.

One thing that always frustrated the hell out of me was that so many of the job descriptions stated '5 years of experience minimum', or '5 years in a relevant field', even for junior roles. I wondered for so long what exactly 5 years gives you that you don't have after finishing training.

Well, I stumbled onto my own Linkedin page the other day, and realised that I have exactly 5 years of professional experience, not including the 3 years I studied at university. I didn't wake up one day and magically feel super knowledgeable, or become any better at my job suddenly, but on reflection, I'm a much different designer to the designer that walked into the office for his very first day.

Don't be the smartest person in the room

In the first 5 years, it's important to take notice of and surround yourself with two types of people. Those who are in a similar position to you in terms of experience, and those who have been in the industry for just as long as you've been alive.. slight exageration maybe, but having people around you with extensive knowledge is very important to getting a great career start.

It may be obvious why you need people around you with vast amounts of experience, but it's not all about the practical skills they have learned, but also about demeanour and work ethic.

When I started my first job, it wasn't the design skills of those around me that I found the most useful to soak up. It was how professionals communicate, with each other and clients, the determination to succeed and work together.

At university, I had group projects, but these were in groups of people with mostly the same experience, studying the same course and reading the same books. Working with people who collectively have experience from 100's of different projects, working with just as many different clients doesn't just help you avoid problems that they have seen before, but with the right instruction they can teach you find your own solutions which in turn you use yourself and pass on to others, and also to teach you what questions to ask in order to get the best results.

As well as experienced professionals, working with others in a similar situation to yourself but from a different background can teach you a lot too. I found that working with other placement students from different courses and different interests allowed me to work on my communication and my ability to listen.

I've always felt it is important to know when you aren't the smartest person in the room, in fact if you are the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong room. But also, you should be aware of the skills others have, so that you can help them. The professional world isn't just about taking knowledge from others, but also sharing it out if you're able to.

You only know as much as you know

Having 5 years of experience under your belt affects you in ways that aren't necessarily obvious at first glance.

Confidence is something I struggled with for most of my life, but starting professional work seems to have eased that slightly. I feel like one lesson is mostly responsible for how I now project in professional situations, it's actually a lesson from Budhism, but in different words is taught by many people,

There are only two things you have complete control over, your thoughts and your actions

I have realised over the years that I only know as much as I know, and I'm aware of how silly that may sound, but I feel that there's no need to stress over every unexpected event that occurs, be it a question someone asks you or a job that you're given.

If you don't know something, be courageous, admit it. But if it matters, don't leave it there! Learn from what you don't know, read a book or an article, ask Google or even better, a human!

It takes confidence to admit to yourself that you don't know everything, and having that confidence in a professional environment is difficult, but it's something that after 5 years I have started to be able to practice - and it's liberating!

Doing your job makes you better at it

5 years, perhaps obviously, does also give you huge amounts of actual, real skills. In my line of work I use Solidworks on a daily basis, probably for more than 5 hours of my 8 hour day. That's something like 1,300 hours in 5 years!

Doing your job makes you better at it, it's as simple as that. Repetition in any task is a key factor in improving at it, and 5 years of experience really does make a difference.

It's not just about making mistakes and learning from them, but also pushing yourself to see where you can make improvements. Doing your job to the best of your ability means making your best work better.

There is always room for improvement, in everything we do. I'm sure that in the next 5 years I'll learn some more lessons, hopefully I get the chance to teach others some of these lessons. But whatever happens, I know there are going to be challenges, and that's fine by me.