Field Guide — Finding your path By Kate McGuinness

5 years ago by

Kate speaks to three designers at different stages of their career on advice for navigating the beginnings of a design journey.

Ryan Romanes

Freelance Designer / Art Director

5+ industry years
Ryan Romanes is a graphic designer and art director from Rotorua, New Zealand. He is currently based in Melbourne, having previously worked in Auckland, New York and Dubai. Ryan works on branding and design projects for a range of clients, both local and international.

How did you get a foot in the door?

“The first job I took was at a studio in Auckland. I intended on staying several months but only lasted a couple of weeks.” Ryan quickly learnt that working for himself would be the best fit. He explains, “the thing I like most about working for myself is having the ability to work on the kind of projects I find stimulating. The work environment at the studio was a large open space that I personally couldn’t concentrate in. There was a lot of repetition in the designated tasks and I always dreaded the 5pm finish time because I wasn’t able to complete everything in that time frame.” He now spends his days as an independent freelance graphic designer, working directly with his own international clients and with larger studios. “Although I typically label myself as a graphic designer, my day-to-day tasks are a lot more varied than computer-based work. The projects I work on alternate between branding, packaging, editorial, digital, photography and image making work”

What are the challenges of freelancing?

For Ryan, there was (and still is) a fair amount of self-teaching involved. “The biggest challenge is the speed you’re required to work. To sustain a freelance business you typically need to work
with many clients at once and this was the ultimate test in my productivity and time management skills.”


Ryan’s Personal Tips

  • Get a camera and take photography lessons early. Honing your craft with basic photography skills are a total asset when everything is becoming incredibly digital.
  • Think quality not quantity and be wise in how you use your time. I think a lot graduates work incredibly hard for the first bite, but looking back on your portfolio there will probably be one or two projects that get you in the door.
  • Reach out to people you admire for feedback and don’t take criticism personally. Remember that you’re competing with hundreds of other graduates in the same position to you. Work on something that will elevate you from the crowd. Always push yourself to produce work that’s at the same quality as the people you want to work for.
  • Self promote! It is essential because a lot of graphic design happens off the computer.

Nicole Arnett Phillips

Typographer / Freelance Designer / Printmaker

15+ industry years
New Zealand born Nicole has worked in the UK, Australia and US. She is now based on the coromandel peninsula and has a unique work arrangement that is the envy of many. She manages to successfully divide her time between both her professional practice ( and passionate practice ( where she curiously explores the world of typography and experiments with analogue print processes, as well as collaborating with the Design Assembly team!

Describe your current role(s)

“In my professional practice (Nicoleap) I design documents with emphasis on clarity, creativity and the effective delivery of information. I do this about 20 hours per week – but it ebbs and flows depending on clients needs and deadlines throughout the year. My clients are typically architects, authors, publishers and property developers. But I also work with local government, creative agencies and small business clients from time to time too. In my passionate practice (TypographHer)… I research, test and play with visual communication ideas and printmaking methods. I publish ‘Typographic Musings for Curious Creatives’ via books, journals, art prints and a blog. (I do this about 20 hours per week). I also spend about 10 hours per week on the admin, finance and business development stuff that comes along with running the two businesses. And I teach throughout the year – at universities, colleges and workshops in Australia and NZ.”

How did you find the transition from tertiary study into work?

“I was working part time (18 hours per week) throughout my certificates and bachelor, so I think the transition was probably a bit easier for me… But one of the biggest adjustments going into full time work was understanding the value of collaboration and the importance of continued learning. For each design brief you undertake while studying, your teacher is obligated to give you feedback that is constructive, so you learn, they work with you, nurture your skills and help you to advance. In the workforce you need to be proactive in partnering with your clients and colleagues to foster your own advancement and to seek meaningful and constructive feedback for you work (so you don’t stagnate)!”

Career changes along the way…

Nicole did not start off as a full time designer. She began working at an apparel company in Auckland carrying out tasks such as event coordination, administration and customer service. Spotting opportunities to get involved in the design side, she got to work on posters, event invitations, flyers and artwork for Lee tees. Travel then took her to the UK, where she continued to work in marketing-type roles, incorporating as much design as possible. After returning to New Zealand, Nicole began to take on more freelance work. This started out mainly from friends and family and grew to small commissions from clothing brands, small businesses and a couple of publications. This led to full-time mid-weight, and eventually, senior roles (Typesetting and Book Design) within publishing companies. A desire for something a little different took her to a multi-disciplinary design studio, where she collaborated with architects and urban designers, learning more about designing for the built environment. After becoming an associate of the practice, Nicole was given the opportunity to lead a small team of designers in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, and Abu Dhabi. They worked on projects in the UK, US, Middle East, Asia and Australia. Despite loving the job, long hours meant that had little time to explore her own interests. She decided to leave the position and “bought my first letterpress machine so I could play with type and make a mess in my spare time!” She continued to work by day on freelance and studio work and in the evening has fun with the letterpress. Since then, her practice has slowly evolved to her current approach – a balance of professional (client driven) and passionate (self-initiated) practice.

Nicole’s Personal Tips

  • Your covering letter is as important as your portfolio “…it should be clear, concise and well formatted.”
  • Be prepared to take risks and fail “My Granddad taught me ‘Experimentation is the anticipation of innovation’… Failure is how you learn but it’s also how you come up with new (great!) stuff!”


Karl Burke

Design Director

25+ industry years
Karl is the Design Director at the multidisciplinary studio Sanders Design in Auckland.

His professional journey

Originally from Auckland, Karl wanted to study in a far off city… which led him to Christchurch. Following graduation, a lack of job opportunities meant that he found himself back in Auckland where he worked as an office junior. His first role involved working on all aspects of brand identity and packaging using traditional methods, i.e. no computers! One of the more restrictive aspects of the job was client, project and brief limitations, yet he also recollects the lighter side, “Lots of talking and laughs probably due to Bull gum and magic marker fume inhalation.”
Three years later, he travelled to London where he found a job as a packaging designer for a design company which produced a lot of Tescos own brand packaging work.” Fast forward another three years and he returned to NZ to work part ­time and freelance. Acquiring a mortgage and kids meant that he needed something more full time, so he worked for a few companies before landing a Senior Designer position at Sanders Design. Now he is the company’s Design Director and Owner. Over his career, Karl has observed some transitions in the industry, the present climate features more start-ups and digitally focused companies, “Obviously demand for print is reducing so there is more focus on digital platforms.”

Karl’s Personal Tips

  • Get a part-time job whilst you’re studying. Look for part-time work which has some connection to the industry. Think gallery assistant, retail assistant, and hospitality.
  • Be prepared. Get every detail to a high standard. Know you have done all you can.
  • Learn new software and improve your current knowledge of applications
  • Aim to add value, e.g. attend a course on social media.
  • Try to get some studio time…even if it’s for free, such as researching or offering new industry/market developments, cleaning etc.
  • Volunteer to help with industry related activities
  • Attend industry related events, not just to meet people but also to keep in touch with uni friends.


Finding your own path Collective Tips

  • Focus on personal presentation and communication skills
    Ryan: “While I’m good at presenting myself online, I’m probably too relaxed and casual when I should be more professional at times.”
    Karl: “Dress as if you want a job.”
    Nicole: “…the last time I hired a junior graphic designer I had over 200 applicants – I made the first cut of candidates based purely on the covering letter (before looking at portfolios).”
  • Expand your interests, whether design related or not
    Ryan: “I think my interests in music, theatre, art and other design related subjects like fashion, photography and architecture, have fed into the work I create today.”
  • Work on personal projects
    Nicole: “Prioritise personal work – when you graduate you have a portfolio of work that is in essence really similar to every other person graduating from your course. The personal/passion projects in your portfolio will help you stand out and tell your prospective employer something about your point-of-view…”
  • Be eager
    Nicole: “There are significantly more graduates than employment opportunities. So tenacity is really important for you to succeed in a competitive market. Be passionate – be eager and engaged.“
    Karl: “Have a ‘can do’ attitude.”

Tags : design careerfield guideKarl BurkeKate McGuinnessNicole Arnett PhillipsRyan Romanes


Inclusive and Accessible Design: More Than Just the Wheelchair Symbol

Kate speaks to three designers at different stages of their career on advice for navigating the beginnings of a design journey. Ryan Romanes Freelance Designer / Art Director 5+ industry […]

5 years ago by

The Freelancing Diaries: Should I operate my creative business as a sole trader or set up a company?

Kate speaks to three designers at different stages of their career on advice for navigating the beginnings of a design journey. Ryan Romanes Freelance Designer / Art Director 5+ industry […]

5 years ago by

Pulse Check Survey

Kate speaks to three designers at different stages of their career on advice for navigating the beginnings of a design journey. Ryan Romanes Freelance Designer / Art Director 5+ industry […]

5 years ago by

Isthmus's Boudewijn Thomas on Parametric Urbanism

Kate speaks to three designers at different stages of their career on advice for navigating the beginnings of a design journey. Ryan Romanes Freelance Designer / Art Director 5+ industry […]

5 years ago by

Leave a Reply