It is tough being a grad. There is a social expectation that you find a job as soon as you graduate. This expectation is supported by overly-worried parents, competitive friends and your own comparison to other designer’s career trajectories. For me this meant that my self-worth was tied to whether I could find a job at a studio or not. It was an awful, desperate, unrealistic way of living. I know I’m not the only one who has ever experienced it.
Here are ten tips for design grads looking for a job in the new year based on the lessons I’ve learnt during many job searches over the past 4.5 years as a commercial designer. My hope is that you’ll view your job search as an opportunity to get a realistic picture of the design industry and grow your saleswomanship/salesmanship skills. All effort you put in never goes to waste. Even the rejections. Trust me.
1. Be fucking brave
Visibility is one of the biggest things that will help you land a job. This means that you need to be prepared to do what scares everyone else, because it will favour your odds.
Never be afraid to ask for what you want. You may not get it, but at least you are practicing.
Go up to employers at design talks and introduce yourself without a friend in tow or a beer in your hand. Rock up on the doorstep of an agency with your heart pounding and ask for five minutes with a key member of the creative team (note: make sure you know their name and have a back up). Be warm. Talk to them as though they were your friend not someone you are trying to desperately impress.
Call studios that have no job listings, demonstrate a genuine interest in their work and ask to show HR and a senior member of the creative team your portfolio. Call EVERY studio that you send an application to within a week and ask them if they’ve chosen a candidate and whether they recall seeing your folio.
Teaching yourself to be brave will always serve you further down the line when you’re getting the job done.
2. Don’t be too fussy, just get some experience
All of the cool small studios that design the stuff you like are often two people working in a small room with sexy furniture. You will not find many of these places looking for a junior designer. Often they do not have the resources to train you, they do not have the processes in place for you to follow, and they may have never had the responsibility of mentoring and directing another person.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t apply for these studios. It means that you need to set realistic expectations and not be too snobby about where you work. In your early days, any commercial experience is good experience. Look for places that will teach you the skills that you are interested in developing. You can be picky later on once you’ve developed these skills.
3. Don’t compare yourself to others. Keep your head down.
When I was putting my portfolio together post-graduation, I would constantly lapse into a state of despair and decide that my work was not good enough. This made the already tedious task of collating my book so much more difficult.
I’d been exposed to a constant stream of eloquent, beautiful work at design conferences and online, and instead of praising these incredible examples of human skill and creativity, my habitual response was to feel inadequate and jealous.
I generally find that comparison is the fast track to unhappiness. No one ever compares themselves to someone else and comes out even.
We need to stop comparing ourselves to people with 15 years more experience then us or those prodigies five years younger then us. They worked hard for the skills they have. What we can learn from seeing beautiful work is that we have a standard to aspire to be like and surpass only if we are willing to put in as much time, devotion, failure and self-discipline as our peers.
4. Invest in your own portfolio
I always used to complain to my mum that I needed to design something akin to a magazine of my work just to apply for one job. Don’t take it personally, you’re not the only one that has to do it. No one gets hired in this industry unless they have a portfolio that they’ve put a good amount of time, love and finesse into. It could take you weeks to put one together and you will constantly change it.
Some of the best advice I received for creating a professional portfolio was during a one-on-one portfolio meet-and-greet with James Noble, founder and creative director at award-winning agency Carter Digital. He advised me to look at the agencies I admired and take cues from how they presented their work. He also recommended to use mockup templates to create insitu artwork (i.e. present your work in the context it is seen).
5. Look for good people who will recognise your contribution
When you land a full-time role you will see the people that you work with more than your family or your lover.
Give yourself a huge life advantage by actively looking for good people to work with rather then places with free booze and a pool table.
These are the people with great work ethic, a positive attitude, awesome communication skills, tangible passion and immense talent. You will learn so much just by sitting next to them.
Good people will also recognise and reward your contribution, which is so important because recognition is the number one determinant of job satisfaction in the Australian workforce according to a 2013 Roy Morgan study.
6. Interview the people who interview you
One great way of gauging whether an employer will treat you well is by asking questions about their workplace culture. A sexy website full of awards only tells you so much.
It’s hard to know what to ask when you first start out, so here are a few things I’ve learnt to ask at an interview (preferably after they’ve seen your work).
• On an average day, what time does everyone leave the studio? Why?
• What is the workplace culture here like?
• What value do you see me adding to the team at this studio?
• I’m looking to develop skill X, are there people here who can help me develop skill X in order to become a better designer?
• If I were to be offered this position, what kind of salary/hourly rate would I expect to be paid? Does this include superannuation? (Note: Never be afraid to talk about money, even if it feels awkward. If you’re afraid to talk about it, very little will come your way.)
• Why should I want to work for this studio?
7. Understand when it is hiring season
Don’t quit your casual job because you think you might get hired tomorrow. Peak hiring season is not until around mid-February and just before the end of the financial year. You could get hired anywhere in between. Allow yourself to have a good summer free of despair. You don’t have to take your foot off the pedal–put your portfolio together, send off applications, definitely sign up for LinkedIn, put your work on portfolio sites–but also remember that rest is an important part of the design process. Don’t stress about having a job lined up the day after you graduate.
8. Find out your market value
Most entry-level design positions are only offering around $35,000-$45,000 salaries, which is very low compared to many other industries. The trade-off should be that you get a lot of hands-on experience and mentorship. These two things are very valuable at the start of your career.
If you’re considering freelancing to get your foot in the door, talk to people about what type of rates you should be charging instead of Googling them. Rates on the net are too broad and not specific to the skill sets you have.
It is very empowering to become comfortable with talking about money.
Call up a handful senior creatives that you’ve interned with, interviewed with or the ones that lectured at your design school. Tell them that you’re not yet comfortable with talking about your pay since you’re only starting out and would like to ask their expert opinion about what hourly rates you should be charging. Be polite. Tell them what skills you have. They’ll understand what you’re going through.
Also, give recruiters a call, keeping in mind that they charge fees on top of your day rate so may offer you a figure that is slightly lower. Ask them what variables influence your pay such as market-specific experience, holiday loading, extra skill sets etc.
9. Understand that people will hire you if they like you AND your work
What is going through the mind of a lot of interviewers as they talk to you is whether you’d be the right cultural fit for their team. In other words, would they like to have you around day-to-day. Your personality is something that you contribute to your job, so express it at interviews and in the correspondence you send off to studios.
I’ve had employers tell me that something I wrote in an email made them want to meet me. I’ve had employers tell me that they put me forward as their number one candidate because of my portfolio and my personality.
Communicating your personality to an employer provides such an advantage.
Wear clothes that express who you are. Write genuine, idiosyncratic cover letters that no one else but you could write. Make small talk about your interests as you walk to the interview room. Create leave-behinds that are unique to you. I once left a purple Japanese Kit Kat with the incredibly talented creative director Chris Doyle and he remembered me because I created a unique association.
Be polite. Be diligent, but don’t allow your personality to be weighed down by the formality of job application.
10. It can take a LONG time to land a job. Be patient.
The fairytale scenario for job hunting is to skip the process altogether and get hired at your grad show. This has only happened to two people I know out of my entire creative industry network. I have very talented friends who’ve taken two years to find their first full-time, studio gig. After graduation it took me five months to find studio work again despite having four great employers on my CV and commercial experience.
How long it takes you to land a design role is not a reflection of your talent, but a mixture of your visibility, skills, likeability and market demand. Getting all of these variables to sync up is not a simple equation but one that you can actively increase your odds in.
Hero image via Agnes Studio