From landing your first job to setting up on your own, the Digital Arts guide has all the help you need to launch your career in design.
Graduating is an exhilarating time, but it’s also a scary one: there are few bigger reality checks than stepping out of college for the final time and into the ‘real world’.
However, if you needed a further sharp shock, try this: because of the horribly competitive nature of the design industry, if you’re starting to hunt for a job now, chances are you’ve already left it too late to scoop up a plum job – because there aren’t many out there.
The harsh reality is that, although design is a creative, hugely appealing career, it’s not to be entered into with your eyes closed.
Succeeding takes determination, dedication and outstanding ability. In fact, senior design industry figures believe the first important step any design undergraduate should take regarding their future is to be honest with themselves about whether they have what it takes to make it.
“It’s so competitive now that they’ve got to make sure that they really want to do it, because it’s really difficult,” warns Ben Casey, a member of the Design Skills Advisory Panel, set up jointly by Creative & Cultural Skills and the Design Council.
Casey, who is also a part-time professor of visual communication at the University of Central Lancashire, adds: “They’ve got to make that assessment for themselves. Maybe halfway through their course they should be asking themselves if they are going to make it as a practitioner. There are other opportunities – in design management or teaching.
"They’ve got to be realistic. But once they’ve decided to go for it they’ve really got to go for it; there can be no half-measures.”
As head of design skills at the Design Council, Lesley Morris is ideally placed to understand the challenges facing newly qualified designers – after all, they’re the designers of the future.
She explains that a key issue for the Council right now is “thinking about the design industry of the future and making sure we have enough of the right sorts of creative people going into the industry.”
With this in mind she warns: “Not all design students are going to become artists and designers, because there are not enough jobs.”
Morris reminds young designers that, as well as designers, the design sector needs “brilliant design managers and people who can work in design businesses in lots of other roles”.
Young designers, she insists, should not feel they’ve failed if they do not land the role that they expected. Better, she points out, to be a brilliant project manager than to struggle along, or fail altogether, as an average designer.
Morris also observes that a grounding in design can prepare students for a life in other sectors. “They can go off and do any other kind of job, but use some of the creative thinking and design processes in other ways.”
Here endeth the reality check – this feature is aimed at graduates and undergraduates who are certain that a life of design is for them. What follows is advice and practical pointers from senior creatives and successful freelancers to help you on your way. Good luck!
While talent is vital if a newly qualified designer is to stand out from the crowd, it’s not enough by itself to secure a first job – it must be underpinned by grit, self-belief and dedication.
One recent graduate who displayed all of these qualities is Christina Wilkins, a 23-year-old recent graduate from the London College of Communication, from which she gained a 2:1 in graphic and media design.
Wilkins is already ensconced as a junior designer at London-based agency Crumpled Dog Design (www.crumpled-dog.com). She says she landed the job by being “proactive and organized” – right from her first year of study.
“I knew through friends and tutors that there was only a fraction of the jobs compared to graduates, so in my first year I started the ball rolling by having my CV prepared and shoving it under the nose of a guest speaker after his lecture.”
That speaker was Crumpled Dog’s Richie Manu, who liked Wilkins’ CV so much that, within a few weeks, she had secured a portfolio meeting.
She went along, presented her work, and was offered a two-week placement for the university holidays.
“I got on well with the guys there, and made the most of the placement by taking in as much as I could. They liked what I did, and offered me freelance work in the summer and other holidays before graduation,” she says.
Take the fast track
Richie Manu believes that freelancing offers a good route into the industry. “Offer your services at a competitive rate to prospective employers to cover annual leave and holidays,” he says.
This not only gives both parties a chance to check each other out but, “you may even find out that a particular area of work is not suited to you, and that you want to try other companies.”
As for securing freelance work in the first place, Manu’s advice is straightforward: “A link to a Web site of your work is also a big advantage.”
For Wilkins, freelancing for Crumpled Dog led to a permanent position as a junior designer when she left college. Her experience has taught her that the foundation to success is to “take extra preparation time, use your initiative, do your research and have confidence in yourself”.
She adds that, if your goal is clear to you, “you have to go out and grab every stepping stone that will help you get it.”
Perhaps a more common approach than freelancing for racking up valuable real-world design experience is to secure a work placement, because placements are an integral part of many design courses.
Ben Casey, a design professor and co-founder and creative director of Manchester-based agency The Chase (www.thechase.co.uk), says industry placements can be a big advantage, “as students can learn from this, and also meet people in the business”.
But he adds that – even with a portfolio full of work done while on placement – “more than ever you’ve got to be good”. Casey believes the timing of placements is important.
“Work placements are probably best done in the summer between the second and third years, when the student can be of some use. They’d still learn if they were to do it much earlier, but they’d not be able to contribute as much.”
Placements are also available for graduates, but Casey points out these can be tough on graduates from outside the capital. “The industry is heavily concentrated on London, so they’ve got to somehow come down to London and stick at it, and get as many placements and as much experience as they can.”
Proactively sourcing work experience is another way students and graduates can help their cause but success here can be almost as difficult as landing a job itself.
The secret, says John Corcoran, director of Wire Design (www.wiredesign.com), is to “look very early, use any contacts you have, be keen to do anything and prove that you won’t need much managing.”
Making them pay
While a vocational calling drives many young designers – it’s about living the dream, after all – to a student surviving on a loan and a bar job the earning power of designers is an enduringly popular topic. But strangely, it’s a subject that design colleges are often loath to embrace.
“The biggest and most popular concern [among the students] was salary,” reveals Christina Wilkins. “Knowing what to expect as an acceptable wage was a mind boggle, as everybody has different skills, styles and ability.”
When Wilkins asked a tutor what the average graduate salary was, the figure she was quoted was £4,000 below that cited by a salary survey in Design Week. Because she was about to graduate this discrepancy worried her.
"I had no clue about which was the more accurate [figure], and I worried about being laughed out of the room [during a job interview] or being snapped up because I was so cheap.”
By way of current salary guide, John Corcoran – a member of the British Design Council’s Design Skills Advisory Panel – suggests a figure of £18-£22,000, but adds that this can vary: “like footballers, some of the best young people can start much higher.”
The successful graduate tends to be the one who casts his or her net the widest, which means targeting industry events as well as design firms.
One of the leading showcases for young designers anywhere is the D&AD New Blood Exhibition 2008 (tinyurl.com/66qo2g), which is held at Earls Court, June 23-25.
The exhibition is the annual show for members of the D&AD University Network, and is seen by the industry as a recruitment fair for would-be creative practitioners.
Another event is New Designers (www.newdesigners.com), a graduate design showcase that runs from July 3-6 and July 10-13 at London’s Business Design Centre.
New Designers will see some 4,000 graduates present their ideas in every design discipline – from graphics to contemporary applied arts. Typically, it attracts the attention of buyers, galleries, commissioning agents and prospective employers.
Choosing your field
Which area of design to focus on is another concern for newly qualified creatives, but Richie Manu’s advice is to leave such decisions until you’ve been in the job market for some time.
“It’s not until you’ve gained professional insight and immersed yourself in a creative environment that you’ll become aware of the true requirements and demands of a particular role.”
Christina Wilkins can vouch for this: “Having been through that scary process of my first interview, getting a job and working full-time for the first time, I can say I’ve learnt more about the challenges of entering the industry in the past 11 months than I would have from 11 years of studying graphic design.”
But it’s not just design disciplines that young designers have to choose between: they must also come to a decision about which sector they’d like to work in.
Would they prefer to work for an agency, or in-house in a large company? Would they rather be freelance, or in the art department of a magazine?
Corcoran points out that different sectors demand unique traits. “Agencies are probably looking for someone who can manage themselves, who is flexible and a better communicator, while in a corporate environment the candidate probably has to be easy to manage and rigorous."
There are two things recently graduated designers need to master to succeed in the job market: first, how to land face-time with companies, and second, how to capitalize on this.
The starting point is to not make silly mistakes, such as misspelling the creative director’s name. This may sound like superfluous advice, but it’s something senior creatives say happens with alarming regularity.
“Not making silly mistakes is important,” stresses Ben Casey, co-founder and creative director of Manchester-based agency The Chase. Another no-no cited by Casey are CVs “that tell potential employers nothing about the person”.
Interviews for creative positions inevitably centre on portfolios, and being able to discuss your work in a compelling and insightful fashion is the most certain way of guaranteeing you make a good impression.
Richie Manu, who is creative director of London-based creative agency Consurgo (www.consurgo.co.uk), as well as working at Crumpled Dog, says that even if a portfolio fails to tick all the boxes, the candidate can still transform this into successful interview “if they have a clear passion and enthusiasm for design.”
It works both ways, he explains: a stunning portfolio counts for little if the candidate is unable to clearly communicate its contents.
“Oral presentation of a portfolio is often an overlooked quality. Unless a designer can talk their way through their portfolio then even a gleaming portfolio with top brand-names doesn’t hold much water.
A good portfolio runs the danger of being [a collection of] unimpressive samples unless they can be expertly narrated with good insight into actual project involvement.”
He adds: “Professionals also want to see how deeply involved you were in a particular project, so it’s best to be up-front about your active contribution to a particular project.”
Casey advises that securing more than a single meeting with a company increases the chances of success. “If you get an opportunity to show your portfolio then ask them for a brief so that you’ve got an excuse to go back and see them. Always look for ways to keep the door open, and get to know them.”
John Corcoran, director of Wire Design, believes that the most successful candidates are able to think on their feet and discuss their work in a fluid, non-formulaic way.
“I think it’s best to come with a flexible portfolio, so that you can react to the requirements of the interviewer. Fixed narratives can be painful.”
He adds that “sound communication skills, an eagerness to listen and learn, a bit of humility and a lot of talent” will also take you a long way.
Corcoran says that another highly effective approach is to leave the interviewers wanting more. “Keep it short and exciting, so that you get [interviewers] to ask you for more. Be receptive to the interviewer, and make [the interview] a conversation.”
Nick Wylie, creative director of Bristol-based multi-discipline agency Jump Media (www.jumpmedia.co.uk), complains that many candidates have not researched the company. “Often, they have no idea of our core areas of work. This is both embarrassing for the student and demonstrates a total lack of common sense.”
Casey agrees that employers are looking for keenness, energy, “and a willingness to go that one step further”. He adds: “A bit of flattery always goes down well, too, such as telling us that you liked a particular piece of work we did.”
Corcoran has the final word: “Oh, and tell them that you are willing to work your nuts off for hardly any money. Once you’re in there, you can quickly prove your worth.”
A portfolio is an extension of your personality and a reflection of your skill as a designer – get it wrong and your search for employment is doomed from the outset.
Quality and discretion are the watchwords when constructing a winning portfolio, whether the medium is print, online or PDF. “It’s all about showing new ideas, excellent drawing and graphics skills, and an almost obsessive passion,” says John Corcoran, director of Wire Design.
He adds that few newly graduated designers’ portfolios meet these requirements, “so it’s exciting when you find one”.
Richie Manu, of Consurgo and Crumpled Dog, says graduates should strive to include ‘real-world’ design solutions in their portfolios, and not just college work.
“They could benefit from putting in real jobs. College projects are great but only demonstrate an ability to respond to a brief set under different conditions to real studio scenarios.”
Among the most common failings, says Manu, are portfolios “with very little in them and very little to say”.
Even worse, he believes, are portfolios bloated with work: “It’s best to keep a portfolio to a length that won’t bore the interviewer. Keeping their attention, and engaging and maintaining their interest is important.”
Print portfolios still play an important part in job seeking, but Manu says that they have to be presented smartly and professionally. He adds: “Print portfolios can also be presented digitally.
Nicely taken shots of print projects that are presented perhaps in PowerPoint or as a Flash presentation can be effective, and more interesting to the viewer.”
For an online portfolio to be successful, it must fulfil one criterion above all others: usability. The fast-track to failure is if your online portfolio sports broken links, fails to work on a certain browser on a particular platform, or has other glitches.
Typos and illegible text are further surefire routes to oblivion. Remember: your portfolio is the only thing viewers will know about you as a designer, so if it’s broken or shoddy then no creative in the land is going to embark upon a journey with you.
Economy of navigation is the key, because it shows you have considered the user experience – a fundamental quality of any design solution.
This means that elaborate Flash intros are out; busy creatives will move on to a rival graduate’s portfolio rather than wait for your showy intro to load.
“A Web-based portfolio should demonstrate creative ability in as few clicks as possible,” stresses Richie Manu. He adds: “If the viewer has to trawl through pages of waffle before they get to see any samples of your work, they’ll be put off. The key is to engage the viewer as soon as possible.”
Manu advises that a ‘recent projects’ link is a simple, effective way to show current work.
Portfolio Dos and Don'ts
- Always look to include ‘real-world’ work – undertaken while on work experience, for example – as well as college pieces.
- Show a maximum of six pieces of your best work, and, where possible, tailor these to the viewer.
- Show a variety of work. If you have only print or online skills you’ll be less attractive to an increasingly multi-channel design industry.
- Include one piece of personal work – it’s another way of demonstrating your skill, and shows you work for pleasure as well as gain.
- A print portfolio should be small enough to pass around a boardroom table.
- Use quality materials for mounting and printing, and use a sticker to mark the front, so you open it at the right end.
- Whether print, PDF or online, don’t over-design your portfolio. It’s your work people want to view – and quickly.
- Make PDF portfolios backwards accessible to version 5.0 of Acrobat, otherwise some recipients may not be able to open it.
- Avoid CD-based portfolios – they’re too easy for agencies to lose.
Going it alone
The prospect of striking out by yourself as a freelance, or forming a business partnership, is thrilling but not without its risks. It’s certainly not something that inexperienced designers should consider without a structured game plan.
For many creatives, taking the plunge follows years in the industry. Peter Ward and Neil Quiddington are partners in Bristol-based design consultancy Four-Letter Word (www.fourletterword.co.uk). With over 20 years’ experience as graphic designers, Peter and Neil formed the brand-development agency in 1999.
He explains the allure of running a company: “You’re answerable to no-one, and that gives you the creative freedom you might not get as a freelancer. It also gives you the stability which freelancing doesn’t necessarily offer.”
A vital part of forming a successful business partnership is choosing the right partner. “I think it’s important to choose a person that you know well and that he or she is the type of person you know you can work with,” says Peter.
"It’s also useful if the other person has complementary skill sets, so that by joining forces you’re maximizing the offer to your prospective clients.”
Spread the word
Finding those clients is the next step, and Four Letter Word’s marketing strategy was based on word-of-mouth and networking via friends and family.
“This still remains a good way of generating new work,” says Ward. “Recommendations from existing clients are also very useful.” Other means of promoting their services include e-marketing campaigns to a selected database of companies. “We also get a number of enquiries through our website,” says Ward.
“We employ a search-engine specialist to achieve high rankings on certain key words in the major search engines.” Approaching companies in the sector you’re experienced in is another tactic Ward recommends.
Pete Burrows (www.pb-d.co.uk) spent more than seven years managing a creative studio for a blue-chip company before turning freelance. Starting from scratch meant that he had to be canny when finding work.
“Try unconventional ways to reach potential clients – keep your ear to the ground and also read the business press for potential business opportunities. "For example, if a local business is moving premises they may need their literature updated, a corporate identity revamp or even an advertising campaign promoting the move.”
He adds: “I also have my portfolio on my iPhone, so it doesn’t matter who I’m with or where I am, I always have my portfolio with me.”
Designer and artist Angela Shawcroft (www.alfdesigns.co.uk) turned freelance after working in a firm of litho printers – and made “a few costly mistakes initially” by advertising in the wrong places.
“It generated no work at all,” she admits. “To be honest, the best thing I’ve done is build my own Web site and register it with every relevant free-listing directory I could find,” continues Shawcroft.
“If you’re connected to a UK freelancers or small business directory site you’re in the right place for anyone looking.” She also volunteered to design several calendars for charities. “They usually allow you to advertise free as a thank you, so you get your name seen all year round.”
Most importantly, though, Shawcroft believes leaving clients with a good impression is an unbeatable form of marketing. “They will recommend you, and that’s the best networking I know.”
One thing few colleges or workplaces teach is how to deal with clients – so if you’ve not had experience of dealing directly with clients, how do you learn how to behave, what to say and how to negotiate with them?
Pete Burrows says that “there’s no quick way to learn the agency-to-client role” and that the best thing to do “is think about how you would want to be treated if you were the client”.
He feels that a lack of client liaison experience can be a “major hurdle” for inexperienced designers who have turned freelance.
He adds: “It’s all about communication. Whenever I meet a potential client, I always assume they know nothing about me, so I have a two-minute presentation that covers who I am, what I do and what my business can do for the client.”
Peter Ward says: “I don’t think there’s an established etiquette or way of behaving, as all people are different. You can tell very quickly what type of person they are and how they’d like to conduct their business relationships. I think the main thing is to be true to yourself, and honest and fair, because most people see through fakes.”
Freelancing: the basics
The idea of going solo appeals to many creatives, but as with anything, poorly laid plans are sure to come crashing to earth: there are many practicalities to consider. Not least of which is where to set up – at home or in a rented office?
For Four-Letter Word’s Peter Ward and Neil Quiddington, an office was the better choice. “I think it’s better to be in a commercial area close to your clients and transport links. We chose Clerkenwell, as we felt this was the up-and-coming area for the creative community.”
For freelance designer Pete Burrows, though, an office wasn’t an option – even with six months’ money behind him before turning freelance. “I set up at home to reduce monthly operating costs, as I couldn’t guarantee regular money every month.”
Managing finances might not have the allure of knocking out work for clients, but you ignore this aspect of running a business at your peril.
“Neil takes responsibility for the general financial side of the business,” says Ward, “but we also employ a very good accountant who looks after us.”
He also says that it’s worth signing up with a professional body, like the Chartered Society of Designers (www.csd.org.uk) or The Design Business Association (www.dba.org.uk), as these will often offer business advice to members.
Freelancer Pete Burrows says that it’s crucial to keep on top of invoicing: he invoices all work by email the same day it’s finished. “I have a couple of clients that give me several projects every month, so in this situation I will invoice them at the end of the month on a single invoice, with all the projects itemized. This saves a lot of time on admin, so I can spend more time on working on paid work or looking for more work.”
Freelance designer and artist Angela Shawcroft admits she struggled with finances at the outset. “I was trained in fine art and then design, not business studies, and I was terrible at pricing; I undervalued myself. But I learnt to bill better with experience – and with advice from a very honest client. I’ve tried to look at what other local designers charge and used that as a starting guide.”
Burrows feels that, ultimately, the demands of freelancing mean “preparation and planning is a must”. He adds: “Make sure you are financially, mentally and operationally ready for the leap.”
Finding work through agencies is a popular route – in particular for illustrators, whose line of work lends itself neatly to agency representation. When looking to join an agency there are a number of basics that you need to bear in mind to maximize your chances.
One important rule of thumb for graduates is to not jump straight into searching for agency until you’ve secured commercial work for yourself, because agencies and their clients prefer people with live experience of handling briefs.
Even so, freelance designer Pete Burrows says agencies are inundated with freelancers of “varying experience,” and that “even with my 17 years’ experience in the creative industry, getting work from agencies can be an uphill struggle”.
Burrows advises signing up with as many agencies possible, emailing them your weekly availability a week ahead of time and contacting them regularly by telephone.
He adds: “Another important thing when dealing with agencies is never turn down any work. If you do, you’ll be put to the bottom of the priority list for any future work.”
He also warns that some agencies “are more interested in filling permanent roles then assigning work to freelancers,” and says you need to make it clear right from the start that you’re determined to stay freelance.
One rule for seeking representation is to target only suitable agencies – after all, an agency that does children’s books is no good if you’re building a name in street art-inspired styles.
To make initial contact with an agency, don’t send unsolicited work by email, but rather, a short covering note with a link to your Web site. The key thing in the hunt for an agency is to be true to your own creativity rather than mimicking styles or following whatever look is trendy this week.
Advertising, especially, is full of clients seeking a unique look, which means it’s the ‘big idea’ that’s important, not how that idea is styled.
A.k.a’s comercial succees can be attributed to his ability to make inanimate objects appear fresh, as shown in this US Ford ad.
Jimmy Turrell recently won a job with Japanese electronics firm Kyocera. He says that in interviews, “I try to explain each piece of work thoroughly while still trying to stay succinct. Be yourself and be passionate about your work when you’re presenting – it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and start waffling.”
Sebastian Lester (www.seblester.co.uk) knows that a portfolio Web site boasting clean, economic navigation and a careful selection of work won’t harm your chances of catching an employer’s eye or winning freelance clients, as in his type illustration portfolio site.
Peter Ward, co-founder of Four-Letter Word, says that when they launched the company he and his partner limited the risk they were taking: at the time they didn’t feel going into partnership was a risk. “We only borrowed £10,000, and felt that if it didn’t work out we could always go back to freelancing.”
Pete Burrows says that his seven years’ experience in corporate graphic design was helpful when going freelance.
Freelance illustrator a.k.a. represents himself in the UK, largely through his Web site (www.aka-illos.com). For work in the US, he’s represented by agency Shannon Associates (www.shannonassociates.com). This piece was created for Urban Scene nightclubs.
Main feature illustration by Singgih