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Designing Your Career: Amber Asay on Finding Your Passion

by Chloe Gordon on 09/01/2023 | 4 Minute Read

While branding studio Nice People's founder Amber Asay wasn't sure what kind of career she wanted, she always knew it would be something creative. 

Her journey started with a five-year exploration through advertising, animation, and even musical theater before she ultimately discovered her passion for graphic design, and she settled into a program at her university where she knew she was in the right place. After graduating, she further honed her skills through internships and professional roles in various agencies, accumulating invaluable experiences that molded her into the designer she is today. 

Amber Asay's insightful advice for aspiring graphic designers is invaluable. She encourages exploration early in one's career and embracing the trial-and-error process to find your niche. Amber's journey, wisdom, and candid advice offer guidance for students and emerging designers navigating the world of graphic design. 

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Can you give us a snapshot of your career timeline? Where did you start, where are you now, and what's between them? 

In my school days, I had an on-campus job as a designer for two years, which was a good first-hand experience working with non-design-minded clients and bosses. It was the first time I was ever paid as a designer, which was like, "I get to be paid to do this?" 

The ironic thing about this period was I was literally in classes learning design while simultaneously working as a designer. I also had two internships during and after graduating, which were even more helpful experiences. Once I spread my wings professionally, I worked at three different agencies over four years. Each step in that journey was a crucial stepping stone, shaping me into the designer I am today. I've now been the proud owner of my design studio and managing a team for six years, spanning 13 years as a professional designer.

You received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design and have led a career almost exclusively in design. Were you ever unsure if the design space wasn't right for you? Why or why not?

Absolutely! Nowadays, many designers have their paths mapped out in high school. For me, it was quite the opposite. It took five long years of college exploration—dabbling in advertising, animation, and even musical theatre before I settled on applying to the graphic design program. Taking a break during school allowed me to regroup and rediscover my passion. The struggle to find my true calling was real, but the moment I joined the program and immersed myself in design classes, I knew I had finally found my home. It was a long, uncertain journey that led me to where I belong.

Five years after graduating college, you founded your graphic design studio. What experiences allowed you to feel comfortable to open your own business?

The last studio I worked at before going it alone was a pivotal time in my career. As a design director, I was free to manage projects and clients. It came easy to me, and the sense of fulfillment was unparalleled. 

Transitioning to handling my clients, directing projects, and building a dedicated team felt seamless. Something else changed when I realized people I knew would work for me. It wasn't until I heard that that I realized I could do this alone. While my journey as a studio owner has been a learning curve, I'm always evolving, honing my business acumen, and refining processes. Growth is constant, and I've learned to embrace that discomfort.

There are countless job opportunities in the design world. What advice would you give to a student who wants to go into graphic design but needs to carve out their niche?

It takes a lot of trial and error to figure out your niche. The 2nd agency I worked at, I ended up getting fired from. I was shocked and heartbroken. But honestly, their design style was completely different from mine. What I considered good design and what they regarded as good design were at odds with each other. That's when I learned one of my biggest career lessons: "You can be doing what you love but working at the wrong place." 

Start your career in exploration mode. Be open to testing different specialties or styles if you still need to figure that out in school. That could be publication design, UI design, or packaging, even if that includes passion projects outside of work (which I also dabbled in). The first 3-4 years can be a discovery phase of your career. It takes time to realize, "Nope, that was not for me," and try again.

Creating a student portfolio can be overwhelming. What are the three most important things a student should showcase in their portfolio and why?

  1. Only show your best work—I learned this in school from my professors and continue to see this flaw as I hire designers. You're only as good as your weakest project. I'll always see portfolios with three strong projects and one outlier that ultimately made me keep looking. Think quality over quantity; keep cutting your weakest projects as you grow.
  2. Show a bit of process—As a student, showcasing your design thinking and the rationale behind getting from point A to point B will set you apart from designers just creating pretty designs. But keep in mind there's a fine line between showing a few applicable sketches to the result and opening your entire library of ideas.
  3. Limit your variety—I think showing variety in your work is okay, but I'd keep it limited. Most of your portfolio should be of work you want to do and get hired for. The rest can be of other areas you've tried that might be worth showing (as long as it's strong enough—see point 1). Using a 70/30 ratio is probably the best rule of thumb. 70% of the area you want to specialize in and 30% of the other parts you excel at. You never know where that 30% will get you early in your career.