The creative graduate's guide to success

Photo: iStock

Another summer, another slew of graduate creatives is released onto the jobs market. This year’s newcomers are already clambering to stand out from their peers, to make it in design, illustration, animation and other creative industries – and to avoid the fate of the five-and-a-half million 15- to 24-year olds currently without a job in the EU. 

Despite the pervasive economic gloom, it’s an exciting time for graduates, claims James Hurst, head of digital at Figtree Creative Network ( “I’m a little bit envious of the opportunities that are open to graduates today,” he says. “These are tough economic times, but for graduates today, there’s so much they can do in the world of design and illustration, that the cream is really rising to the top. If you work hard, you’re talented and you have a good point of view, there’s tons of work out there. You just have to accept that sometimes it will not come looking for you, you just have to be creative and look for it.”

In Hurst’s spirit of positivity, and in defiance of the economic doom-mongers, here are some of the questions graduates will be facing along their initial career steps, along with expert advice from creative industry veterans to help them answer them – and hopefully secure a glittering career. 


Eken Andrade Vanor by Transfer Studio

Choosing between secure, gainful employment or the ebb and flow of a freelance life can be one of the main challenges for graduates, one that often depends on personality and preference, as well as their creative field. 

As Valeria Hedman, creative director at Transfer Studio (, explains: “Not everyone is made for the freelance life, with its recurring risk-taking, uncertainties and self-directed day-to-day, and find it very hard to sustain over a longer period. Try both.”

However, employment offers value experience and can give you a more representative insight into your chosen profession. Richard Barnett, producer at Trunk Animation (, points out that a full-time job assisting or being a runner in an agency or production company can “help you understand how everything works and open your eyes to new possibilities and build contacts.”

And while freelance will often pay more, you’re unlikely to get the right support and training, argues Ian Hambleton, creative director at agency Studio Output ( “Often the pre-conception is that you’ll get lots of variety but it’s more likely that you’ll do lots of the grunt work on projects and get treated pretty poorly,” he says.

Nonetheless, in the current economic environment, it’s potentially a good market for freelancers, as companies rely on an ad hoc workforce to deal with increased workloads. 


Cher Lloyd album design, by Studio Output, with illustration by Good Wives and Warriors

A good portfolio should show the depth and breadth of your ideas and design work, as well as your technical ability. Spencer Wilson of the Peepshow Collective ( advises: “You want to make work that’s different or unique to you and make sure you stand out”. 

One of the biggest challenges is editing your portfolio. Five examples of your best work will make a better impression than a hodgepodge of varying quality. “Don’t chuck everything in there,” warns Studio Outputs’ Ian. “Present your best work, not just everything you’ve done.”

Presentation and layout are also key – don’t forget to include your name and contact details on each page, for example – and you should be aware that it’s much easier for potential employers to get to know your work without a face-to-face meeting, thanks to the internet. The work therefore needs to stand on its own and tell a story, Benjamin Tomlinson of Poke ( points out. 

Finally, don’t assume that employers want to receive or look at your work. Always make sure you call or email beforehand to check whether it’s okay to send in your portfolio, so you don’t make a nuisance of yourself.


Yeti by Transfer Studio

If you’re not getting any positive responses to your carefully edited portfolio, it might be time to pep it up. One way of doing this is to produce some self-initiated work, especially if it’s driven by a unique idea. “If you have an idea, don’t wait for someone to ask you for it, don’t wait for a lecturer to give you a brief and a deadline,” recommends Richard. “Think of a novelist, they have an idea and they get on with it. Half the time the only obstacle is yourself.” 

In addition, many designers advise getting some real-life experience, by taking on projects for friends and family, rather than sticking to your own work. “You’ll be surprised at how challenging and interesting this can be,” says Transfer Studio’s Valeria.

Working in a real environment for a paying client provides good pressure, agrees Rob Coke, founding partner at Studio Output. These projects are often preferable to personal work, which can seem like mere vanity pieces. 

If you’re tempted to embellish some of your work experience – talking up your involvement or fudging the lines of what you have achieved – you should beware. “The industry is small and it doesn’t take a big effort for a potential employer to check someone out,” explains Rob. “Trying to blag anything at student or graduate level to someone who’s potentially employing you (and who will have a good few years experience on you) is pretty stupid – you will get found out.”


Matt Dent won a Royal Mint competition to create new designs for seven coins 

“You should never work for free,” says Poke’s Benjamin. “You have to have confidence, and you’re sending the wrong signal if you agree to work for free.”

Paul West of Form ( is also adamant that working for free is a bad idea, as you can quickly loose your bargaining power. “How can you start a good relationship when you’ve just done everything for free?” he asks.

The decision about working for free is a nuanced one, and particularly tricky, concedes Trunk Animation’s Richard. “If it’s a project that you want to get involved with, and that you’ll enjoy the experience and learn something on the journey, then sometimes payment is not the most important thing,” he says. “We all get involved in projects where the idea is worth more than we’re getting paid, and you never know where things lead to”

However, Richard stresses that “once you’ve worked free for someone once, when they call again, ask what the rate will be. As a freelancer don’t be scared to chat about money, and don’t leave it too long to invoice.”

Realising that not all work is charged equally, is another important lesson. “Some commissions allow us to work on less financed projects and this requires experience and good management,” explains Valeria of Transfer Studio. “Get into the habit of asking more experienced designers how and what they charged for a certain job.”


A still from a short film by Trunk Animation for TWLV. It was directed by Layla Atkinson and Sebastian Baptista

The concept of networking often attracts bad press, but whatever you call it, meeting people and making the most of your contacts is crucial to developing your career.

“If networking is a dirty word, then I am very, very filthy,” explains illustrator Lizzie Mary Cullen ( “I love networking, because I love talking to people. And that’s what it is. You don’t have to do the hard sell. People remember you, not the crap your trying to palm off on them.”

Graphic designer Matthew Dent ( believes graduates should embrace networking. “Many people get their first placement, first freelance stint and first full-time job through personal contacts,” he points out. “Begin making contact with people as soon as you can; squirrel away business cards and email addresses – you never know when they’re going to come in handy.”

Going to the right events, such as D&AD talks or lectures should be on every graduate’s list of priorities, and meeting people on a social level can be invaluable. “If you meet someone socially, you’re more likely to get to know – and like – them,” says Benjamin. “Email can sometimes be quite cold, and you don’t get to know someone’s personality and how creative they are.” 

There is, however, a difference between shamelessly exploiting contacts and making the most out of connections, warns illustrator Spencer. 

Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn't affect our editorial independence. Learn more.

Read Next...