Just graduated in graphic design, illustration, animation or interactive design? Laura Snoad offers practical advice to help you find that first job or freelance work.

So you’ve nailed your dissertation, prepped for your degree show and you might have even had chance to slip in a quick internship, but now it’s time for the final – and most important – hurdle: making some money.

There’s no avoiding the fact that it’s a tough time for graduates. Unemployment levels are still growing in the UK and the creative economy isn’t exactly buoyant, but at the same time, it’s challenged today’s students to become broader designers.

Nic Roope, creative director at multi-disciplinary agency Poke, suggests that this broader job description is certainly something for new grads to get excited about. “There are so many more opportunities, especially in digital, than when I started,” he explains. “In these emergent areas there’s more to solve and less precedents to draw on, so fresh talents really have an advantage as they’re not prejudiced by their experience and bad habits.”

For VFX graduates, and graphic, motion and interactive designers, the industry tends to lean towards cutting your teeth at an agency – but don't discount at freelance career (which is the norm for animation and illustration). For more on this path, read our guide to setting up freelance.

How to prepare your portfolio

For freelancers and in-agency designers alike, getting your portfolio in front of the right people is the first big task. A self-promotional mailer, with your personal stamp, contact details and a good helping of thought is the recommended route as, for those wanting to get a full-time role, the aim is to open up a dialogue that will lead to a face-to-face meeting. 

“It’s not about doing something elaborate or expensive, it’s about being memorable,” says GBH creative director Mark Bonner. “It’s the things that I’ve thought are just so charming I couldn’t possibly throw them away that end up keeping my attention.”

Ron Lim, the US-based creative director of international design powerhouse Attik, suggests you should focus on concepts rather than execution when working out what to include in your portfolio and what to ditch. “Any student can do a case study about a branded app they’ve made, but it has to be an app consumers want,” he argues. “Leaving school with a good-looking book isn’t enough. Anyone can put lipstick on a pig. Make sure your portfolio has great ideas.”

These T-shirts were designed by Attik as part of Coca-Cola’s 2010 World Cup campaign

Interactive agency Poke’s Christmas time installation for Foursquare, which created a downpour of snow whenever someone checked in at London’s Rivington Street

In terms of presentation, Poke’s Nic suggests uninvasive simplicity is best. “Design it so people like me can rip through it to see if there’s anything there or not,” he advises. 

As well as doing an edit of your portfolio to ensure it’s full of show-stoppers, it’s wise to tailor what you tout to potential employers to match their agenda. First, it’s important to think about where you might fit in, suggests AllofUs head of visual design Jem Robinson, and judge agencies on three things: their work, personality and ethics. Her advice is to target about 40 studios and hone your approach for each, talking about their latest projects and keen interests in a short, well-written letter or email, rather than sending out millions of generic mailouts.

“This is where being a bit of an investigative journalist comes in handy,” Jem explains. “If you’re keen to get a job at a specific place, find out through social media who works there, what they are interested in, and what the common themes and threads between the people that work in that office are. It’s borderline stalking, and you definitely need to keep it to LinkedIn and Twitter, not Facebook, but you can easily learn about what makes people tick.”

The added benefit of this research-come-stalking is that it holds you in good stead once you’ve finally caught a creative director’s attention. Paul Reardon, creative director of Sheffield-based studio Peter and Paul, stresses that the key to an impressive interview performance is passion and the ability to explain your ideas. “There are many students that can’t really talk through their work – or ours for that matter.” A lot of the time Paul is also looking for the character of a person, not just their strength as a designer. ”

“When I’m looking through someone’s portfolio with them, I always look for something I can give them a bit of creative criticism about,” says GBH’s Mark. “A lot of people come to us and think they’re the finished article. You have to be able to take criticism and I often test that.” 

A packaging and branding campaign for Puma by GBH

GBH gave Beverly Hills’ SLS Hotel a monkey-inspired identity

Successful interview techniques

It’s not always chat about your design work that’ll get you noticed. Charlie Mawer, executive creative director at Red Bee advises you to talk about your passions, or the area of your life that is most interesting – even if it isn’t directly related to the job. 

“Remember that the people doing the recruiting are probably slightly bored having seen a bunch of people, so if you can capture their imagination, it will stand you in much greater stead. My first job at the BBC owed as much to my time teaching Romeo and Juliet to township kids in South Africa, as it did to my three years in advertising.”

Another thing to remember is that an interview is a two-way process. Use it to scrutinise the agency, think about whether you like the people and the general vibe, and get a feel for what it would be like to work there, advises Attik’s Ron Lim. “You don’t want to accept a job only to regret doing so.” 

Both Charlie and Nic believe you should be open-minded about taking jobs you’re offered, even if it isn’t the dream role you have in mind. Charlie says: “The reality is that even with the best research in the world, you will only know one per cent of the available jobs that are out there in the world, and the best way to discover more is to just start work, as it will throw you into experiences that in turn will open up other careers.”

But what should you do if that job offer, perfect or otherwise, remains illusive even after six months? VFX studio MPC’s head of 2D Bill McNamara suggests trying to find a more experienced person in a position you’d like to be in and talking to them. Not only will it build your confidence, but it might give you some valuable insight that might just give you the inside track when you go for your next interview. 

AllofUs’ Jem Robinson advises against working for free, and suggests finding a small project that can act as a calling card. After graduating, she moved back to Doncaster and landed a gig at the County Council creating promotional work for a grant-funded fine arts group. “It wasn’t glamorous stuff, but it taught me how to manage content and deal with printers. There are loads of projects like that which you can volunteer your time to. That sort of work is far more valuable than sitting in the corner of some studio doing picture research,” she recalls.

Still from Sony’s Cat and Mouse ad. It was produced by Wieden+Kennedy, RSA London, MPC and Baillie Walsh

AllofUs’ airport interactives transform the faces of passers-by into works of art as part of a digital campaign for Ballantine’s whisky

Once your foot’s in the door, probation periods are not only an opportunity to show you new employer what you’re made of, they can also define what kind of designer, and person, your new colleagues perceive you to be – a judgement that will shape your future career. Charlie says: “Don’t wait to be told to do stuff, or always ask for permission. Just make stuff happen. Remember in the end that you are being paid by clients now, so showing an awareness for their problems, challenges and customers will get you far.”

Defining your role also means making sure that others don’t take advantage of your newbie status. Try to foster a healthy working schedule right from the start, suggests Jem, so that people don’t see you as the person that always stays late. Not only does it give the impression that you’re on top of your work, but it means your contribution is noticed when the team has to stay late to pull together before an important pitch or deadline.

“Watch out for not being properly credited for something that’s your idea or design,” says Charlie. “Credit is currency in our world, and you should fight like mad to make sure your contribution is properly recognised.”

Stories of success

As well as speaking to leading creative industry figures about what the best approaches for new graduates, we also wanted to talk to those who've joined the industry in the past few years – and who've made notable success of their careers already – about how they made their way. Discover their stories through the links below.

Brinley Clark: designer at The Partners

Jacob Stead: freelance illustrator

Martin Craster: freelance motion designer

Natalie Suthons: motion graphics artist at Red Bee Media

Oliver Caiden: compositor at MPC