‘Tis the season for graduation! But beneath all the anticipation and excitement, I have been receiving a number of nervous emails from freshly minted design grads looking for ways to carve out their post-college careers. Most of us have been in that boat as well and I know how stressful it can be so I’ve compiled some tips to help make the transition smoother.
1. If full-time work is your goal but you don’t have a job lined up, try placement agencies.
I’ve worked with both Aquent and 24 Seven in the past and have had fantastic results with both. Placement agencies are great for a number of reasons. If you’ve never been to one, here’s what happens: first, you’re interviewed by an agent and they review your portfolio in-depth to determine your skill set. From there, it’s their goal to place you in jobs that they feel are the best possible fit. They have a good reason for wanting to keep both you and your employer happy: for each hour you work, they earn a commission.
Through placements, I was able to get into a number of boutique design studios and even Nike. The experience I gained was incredibly valuable and by moving around, from the tip of corporate America all the way down to 10 person studios, I learned a lot about how the design industry functions in a really short period of time. By trying on different hats, you become much more adaptable to varying management and design styles and I would argue, more valuable as a designer.
With placement agencies, since the work isn’t consistent (unless you get offered a contract), you tend to get paid substantially more than you would at a full-time position. I had times where I would get booked for two days but I can tell you that if you’re a good fit, they will find a way to make room for you. One particular short-term gig I had turned into an entire year! And if the company loves you, there’s a chance that they will offer you full-time employment.
Placement agencies are a great way to test the waters, especially if you’re still finding your way and settling into a niche. You’re able try out a variety of places and determine what works best for you (Agency or in-house? Digital or print? Design or production?) And if things don’t work out, that’s okay, too. Your agent can help you with parting ways gracefully and it’s a lot less painful than quitting a full-time job.
2. Before you reach out, whip that portfolio into shape!
When I graduated in 2008, print portfolios were absolutely mandatory. I know that since then, a lot of job seekers have switched over to digital portfolios exclusively to showcase their work. While I do use my iPad for supplementary work, I still have a print version. Maybe I’m old school but I know that a lot of the people I meet with are older than I am and appreciate the time and energy it takes to put together a print portfolio. I limit mine to 10 to 12 projects max and then share a larger variety on my iPad if they request more samples. If you’re curious, here’s a peek inside the last print portfolio I did.
While my print portfolio is very tightly edited, my digital portfolio is much more broad. I love Cargo for its ease of use and very reasonable fees. The pre-made templates are fantastic and with a little CSS magic, you can refine them further. I’m working on a full website to house my projects (more on that later!) but in the meantime, Cargo has treated me well over the last two years. Also, Squarespace has some beautiful template options, too.
3. Nail the interview basics.
We’ve all heard tips for nailing a great interview from friends, family and industry professionals enough times to feel like they’re one big cliché. Show up on time! Dress the part! Act enthusiastic! We know, we know! UGH!
But seriously, all of these small things combine to make an unforgettable impact. I’ve been on dozens of interviews and can vouch that most run incredibly smoothly — most creative staff were once in your position and remember that nervous, uncertain feeling well. As long as you move through your portfolio quickly, they are usually incredibly accommodating.
But, there’s always those curveballs when we least expect them and that’s where practicing these tips comes into play so you can remain graceful under fire! There was one interview that I’ll never forget: it was so intense that I felt like I’d been transported to the O.J. trial. I kept thinking, “I’m being interviewed for a job so why does it feel like an interrogation?!” Even so, I made it through, smiled, shook the interviewer’s hand and thanked him for his time. And then quickly left. Always keep your cool! My 11 tips for acing your next design interview can help you get started.
4. Knowledge Is Power.
I’m always reading books about my field in an effort to stay current with design trends, strategy and business. My top three picks for highly valuable insight on breaking into the industry are:
A. How to Be a Graphic Designer without Losing Your Soul by Adrian Shaughnessy
I found this book to be hugely beneficial when I was first starting out — it’s simple, relatable and immediately applicable. And that’s exactly what I needed.
B. Work for Money, Design for Love by David Airey
I love the smooth flow of this book, from beginning to end. It’s so rare that hugely successful designers open up and share the inner workings of their businesses along with detailed insights of their processes.
C. Design Student Handbook by Computer Arts
Looking for a guide that covers all the nitty gritty of prepping a killer portfolio and breaking into the design industry? The Design Student Handbook is for you. I wish there was something like this on the market back when I graduated!
5. Blog about your projects. Always.
When I was first starting out, I used my blog to share all of my new client work. The good, the bad and the ugly made its way up for the world to see and each project I shared brought in new prospects.
Getting comfortable with sharing my work was hugely beneficial in getting my foot in the door at a number of design jobs because I’d already developed my voice and style very publicly. It can be scary putting your work out there but it’s something you have to get accustomed to because you never know who’s reading it. A good example: In 2009, I was three days into a Nike contract when I got called into my department manager’s office. I thought I’d done something terribly wrong and was getting fired! Instead, he said he’d recognized me from my blog and wanted to know if I’d be interested in permanent positions.
If steady work doesn’t pop up right away post-graduation, your blog can be a great way to drum up freelance work. And who knows, you might be so successful at it that a full-time job becomes a fading memory. Oh, and don’t forget to share those in-progress snippets on dribble and your glowing final outcomes on Behance.
Graduates, I know it’s not easy but view each opportunity (no matter how small) as a learning experience and with time, your path will unfold. Good luck on your new, exciting journey!