New York Survival Guide for Designers

by Kiran Samani

The song was composed by John Kander; the lyrics written by Fred Ebb; and sung by Frank Sinatra.

‘Start spreading the news
I am leaving today
I want to be a part of it
New York, New York

If I can make it there
I'll make it anywhere
It's up to you
New York, New York’

The song repeated in my head as my plane began its descent into JFK airport. I had made it. The concrete jungle was mine.

That was 3 years ago.

The jungle kicked me into survival mode. This is the city that never sleeps because at every moment of every day, you need to be striving towards your goal, especially in a saturated market like graphic design. There was no lack of talent on this island and there are a few things you can do to keep up with rest.

Manage your time, your money and your goals. Your time is valuable and time is money. You will quickly learn that New York is full of dreams and bills. Improving your management skills will allow you to set your goals. And once your goals are set, you can focus your time on achieving those goals. And when you are focused, you know where, when and how to spend your money.

Photo credit:  SEMillustrations  -

Photo credit: SEMillustrations -

Be Social
‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’

Yes, you are in survival mode, but a key part in survival is keeping yourself happy. Surround yourself with people that you like and are ambitious. Their experiences and presence will automatically motivate you. And if you are worried that having any sort of social life means spending a lot, well, I will tell you that you are wrong. For a minute forget that you are in survival mode and realize that you are in survival mode in New York City. There is always something happening somewhere. And most of the time it’s free (just get there early enough to beat the crowd). A good resource for fun things happening around the city (on a budget) is And also, there is just walking around the city, going to Central Park, visiting the High Line, or even people watching at any of the squares or Grand Central station.

When I allowed myself to have a social life, the most important lesson I learned was that inspiration comes very many different sources. From the ads you see on subway to watching the Hare Krishna’s dance in Union Square.

Try it. You may surprise yourself.

Have a Mentor
You have heard this since you were in college. And it makes sense: find someone who has done or is doing what you want to do, and follow them. I have mentors but only in a social sense. I follow some talented designers on Instagram (Timothy Goodman, Jessica Walsh, Brit & Co., Sarah Williams) and of course agencies like Wieden + Kennedy and Ogilvy. Just mere exposure of these companies and people encourage me to do and be better.

You can do the same or actually have a mentor that you meet with. You will have to work to get a mentor and maybe even go through a few to find that right mentor. It’s very much like dating, but professionally. There has to be a spark, some chemistry, and of course, a similar focus.

Fast Company has a great article on this topic: Ask The Experts: How Do I Find A Mentor?

Keep Your Portfolio Updated
This is so simple that I bet you are reading this and going ‘DUH!’ But it needs to be said and it needs to be said repeatedly. I cannot tell you how many times I have looked back and wished I had updated my portfolio instead of waiting till the last minute.

You have a lot going on. You have to manage your money and time and focus on your goals and also remember to have a social life and then somewhere in between meet with a mentor. Updating your portfolio always falls last on the priority list and I am here to tell you that it always needs to stay first. Or at least higher than it is now.

If you update your portfolio as you go, you will always have an updated portfolio in hand when you accidentally run into the Creative Director of the company of your dreams in the Lower East Side during happy hour. And, if you make it a habit, then it will become second nature.

Trust me, your future self will thank you.

This is the other thing you have heard since college. Network. Network. Network. And I never really grasped this concept until I found myself living in New York with no job and no leads and no one to turn to. And networking is scary. You have to walk into a room filled with people you don’t know and impress them and do it without being overbearing. Where to even begin?

I have found myself Googling ‘how to network’ more often than I would like to admit. But this is the most important skill you will ever learn. I don’t have a secret to make this any easier. Like with everything else, practice makes perfect. Push yourself. Join and force yourself to go by yourself. No safety net. The first nine times will be awkward and uncomfortable. But that tenth time, you are going to walk out feeling like a pro.

A last few words of wisdom to pass on: try everything, read everything, and eventually you will stop surviving and start living. To quote Effie Trinket, “And may the odds be ever in your favor!”