I’ve Only Designed 1 Poster in 5 Years: A Day in the Life of a Graphic Designer


Like the idea of working in a fast-paced industry? Graphic design has evolved rapidly since Derek Atkinson finished school and joined the workforce—first at Microsoft and then at Wieden + Kennedy. This field will undoubtedly continue to change as people shift their attention from print and computer to mobile and tablets. Derek tells us why it’s important to be good at lots of different things, keep up with personal projects, and avoid student loans.

Has your title changed since you started working?

Until recently, I worked at a lil’ place called Microsoft in the Xbox Advertising group. When I started my title was “Designer.” I made them make me “Senior Designer” after a couple years. I had actually asked to be made “Señor Designer,” but I think they misheard me. Now I’m a Designer at Wieden + Kennedy.

What’s a typical day on the job like for a graphic designer?

Typical day goes…

Get coffee

Check my email. Sometimes I have 30 and sometimes I have 0.

Go to a stand-up where we make fun of each other and get reminded of what is due that day before we make fun of each other some more.

If I have lots to get done I start clicking in Photoshop for a couple hours. If I’m not busy that day I read or look at design blogs.

Something usually needs updating so I negotiate with the account managers to come up with a due date that works for us both.


More clicking in Photoshop and working with devs to get our ads built.

Right about 3 p.m. I start thinking about moving to the mountain, living in a sweet rock house, and having a private chairlift.

Answer more emails, send out what I finished, or click some more until it’s time to leave.

Leave. It might be 3; it might be 7. It all depends on the day.

What are your favorite aspects of your job? What are the things you would change if you could?

I really like that I get to work with hundreds of different clients, mostly Fortune 100s and 500s. That being said, the thing I wish I got to do more of was less serious, more playful stuff. I do that in my spare time, though.

What did you study in college? How does your major relate to your current position?

I studied design. The studying had actually little to do with my job now. They were so print-focused this whole digital/internet thing must be a real shock. I have only designed one poster in the five years since school. There I did one a week.

What advice would you give to college students who are interested in working in your field?

I’d say be fast and good. Get really good at lots of things. I design sites, do motion graphics, edit audio, and all sorts of other things. I’d work on being the go-to person for all sorts of stuff. Getting really good at concepting is a huge plus. Also don’t take out any student loans. Ever. Be poor in school. You will be happier about it after.

Postscript from Derek: After writing this I left Microsoft and started working at W+K. In the short time I’ve been here I’ve learned that people skills and knowing the right people are as important as the ability to do the job. Everyone I know a friend got them the job and people get hired based almost entirely off of personal recommendations. This was as true at Microsoft as is it is here. Once you get on board, please don’t take yourself too seriously. Nobody wants to work late with boring/serious guy/girl. Also taking a pay cut can be a good thing if you actually want to wake up and go to the place you work. Oh yeah and if you want to play in advertising, be able to stay up and do good work for at least 20 hours straight and please don’t move Portland. It rains every single day, all day.

Homework time! Derek talks about the importance of being good at lots of different things and striving to be the go-to person for a wide variety of projects. Make a list of your talents and strengths and brainstorm a few ideas of how you can incorporate them in your professional life. If you’re not working now, how could you get a little more practice? For example, could you start a project with a friend or volunteer somewhere to develop your skills?


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