Being a graphic designer can mean a multitude of different things. Especially in this day and age, everybody and everything wants to be on the fast track to digital stardom and having an interesting and well executed design is a necessary step in getting there.

If you are a designer yourself, choosing the best route to take to get there can be daunting. But because there are so many options open to designers, it often opens the door to a lot of really cool life opportunities and jobs.

We spoke with designer Ian Micallef to find out more about what it’s like to be a designer and what his strategy was to break into the design market. Ian has done everything from starting his own design company to designing for big name entertainment companies like HBO and talks to us about some of the realities of working for a big brand entertainment company and the way he began to build a reputation as a designer.

Ian studied graphic design in school and during that time he ran into a problem that a lot of designers face in the beginning which is choosing what is the best route to take.

“With designers you can go down so many paths. Part of my story is that I kind of went down the wrong path in the beginning where there’re production designers, UI designers, UX designers, Interaction designers, and all these different things … I did what any college kid who was going into design who had no idea what the hell he was doing. I don’t know what I want to do exactly but I know that I want to be a designer at a place that sounds fucking cool. So I went towards entertainment and big brands, and anything that would sound cool to my college friends.”

Ian worked to start discovering what would be the best fit for him. He ended up getting internships while in college with the Discovery Channel for one year and HBO the next. Working at brands that everyone knows definitely had the perk of being cool, but there were also some unseen realities to working for a big brand that Ian was starting to get a taste of.

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“There are things that most people don’t realize at first with a lot of in house design versus an agency, especially the bigger the brand, you know, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be… It’s one of those things that I’m grateful I learned early on because a lot of designers think man, I’d like to be a designer at Nike or Pepsi or especially one of the entertainment companies, but the thing that many people aren’t aware of, myself very much included is that all [these companies] have their brand completely set up and … it turns out to be way less fulfilling work, way less creative work and anybody working for them is going to be more limited and doing a lot of templated stuff.”

It’s great to be able to have the coolness factor in your job, but when it comes down to it, what people think about your work matters way less than the fulfillment you actually get from doing it. Luckily though for Ian, finding work that was more creatively challenging did not have have to mean that it would lose its coolness factor. He had experienced work as an ‘in-house’ designer and was ready for something more creative.

At this point, Ian was no stranger to side hustles. He had already been involved in a few and found himself in his last year of school with a light class load and decided the time was right for another side hustle.

One of the most important things that you need to do in almost any industry which, can also be one of the hardest, is to find a way to tap in. Being a huge fan of music, Ian was able to uncover a great opportunity to put his skills as a designer to work and start building his portfolio in the industry he liked.  

“Music is probably one of the easiest, probably the best industry to tap into if you want to start freelancing or growing yourself as a designer and developer.”

Ian was able to start a small design agency where he and some fellow designers he recruited began making all sorts of designs for musical artists he liked.

The magic of this opportunity is the sheer quantity of musicians that need some kind of work and don’t have much money for it. This means that it could be applied to many different specialities like programming or marketing. This leaves you an opportunity to start establishing yourself and building a portfolio of work. The best part, Ian says, is “that you can be super creative which can be super helpful in building your portfolio and really challenging your creativeness.”

Design for Music

So how did he actually go about working with musicians?

“Cold calling every artist I liked on soundcloud. I was a music buff and was really into the underground rap and hip hop scene and just started cold pitching them. I would offer to do people’s profile pictures, Facebook banners, their actual posts, their Twitter skins, their YouTube skins. I would do some of their album art for soundcloud and spotify. If they needed it I would do it.”

Ian had started to grow a reputation as a trusted designer and started by offering some of his services for free. But because he was not charging at first, he was able to get his food in the door, learn a ton, and make connections for the future.

One of the goals that Ian had for the side hustle project was to put feelers out for something for after he graduated college. He ended up hitting the jackpot when a duo DJ group, the Jane Doze helped him get his dream job at the time.

“I got really luck when the Jane Doze, a DJ duo who I was doing their album art, doing their social stuff for and doing it all pro bono just because i thought they were super cool … I found out they were the two publicists at Columbia Records.”

This connection essential led to Ian landing a job at Columbia Records right after he graduated from college.

“Super cool headquarters, super cool office, and so exciting when any of the artists could walk through the office anytime. The work was a good middle ground between super creative agency work and that dull templated work at the TV networks where you have a little more creative freedom. It was cooler assets but at the same time, you still just doing production, still doing banners. A lot of the artists already have their branding already established.”

Design Ian

Although Ian was now at Columbia Records working with some really cool artists doing interesting assets, he started to see that the work was more like the big TV brands that he had worked for than he hoped. While it was cool, Ian still felt the need to further challenge his creativity.

Since then Ian left Columbia and has been working at an agency and has been doing design that  is  much more free in regards to creation. For the past year and has been doing total creative stuff building brands from the ground up and he’s “found it wildly more fulfilling.”

Ian is also putting his side hustle efforts into building his career at the moment. He has relaunched his website which has already won multiple design awards and has been active on bringing on new clients.

Keep up with what Ian is up to by following him at @IanMicallef and check out his site at ianhm.com.

You can also email Ian at hello@ianhm.com if you’re interested in your own powerful digital brand and web presence.