The creative graduate's guide to success

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Lizzie Mary Cullen’s mural was commissioned by Harvey Nichols

It’s so easy to put together a slick website without any coding or technical knowledge, that having an online presence these days is a must. “It’s an absolute disgrace if someone has nothing online, or a website is ‘in-progress’ or not ready,” says Rob. “Tools like Cargo [Collective customisable websites] are incredibly easy to use, even for the most traditional illustrator or print designer.”

Getting basic information right is a no-brainer – as illustrator Lizzie puts it, “for the love of God, make sure your contact details are easy to find”. But having a decent online presence is also about marketing yourself, something graduates increasingly need to consider. 

“There are many talented people out there, and one of the first skills you need is to be able to sell yourself,” says Riccardo Giraldi, creative director at multi-disciplined production company B-Reel ( 

Thinking about your own brand and your core strengths can set you apart, believes Form’s Paul, whether those strengths are an in-depth knowledge of youth culture or an obsession with san serif typography. “You need to think about how you want to be perceived and how people perceive you at the moment,” he explains.

However, even though an online presence is a minimum requirement, it’s by no means enough. Poke’s Fred Flade points out that in a deluge of Cargo websites, graduates need to do more to stand out, whether that’s through a well-crafted and succinct email or other methods. 

And rather than a slick website, The Partners’ ( Stuart Radford says: “What I want to see is stuff that’s exciting because it’s a new way of thinking or a new interpretation of something. I want to be challenged by stuff that’s more engaging.” 


Olympia West Hall brochure cover and centre spread foldout by Form. Photography by Matt Chisnall

Getting a first interview or client meeting can be the biggest, and most daunting, hurdle for a graduate. Entering awards and taking part in showcases such as D&AD’s ( New Designers provide a swift leg-up, as your work will be seen by industry veterans and opinion formers. 

Illustrator Lizzie says she found one of her biggest clients at New Designers, and urges everyone to apply. “Don’t sit back after you graduate and expect it to come to you. Believe me, it won’t,” she advises.” You can be doing the most shit hot work, but if no one can see it, then why are you surprised no one’s calling?”

If applying for a job, you will have to ditch the scatter-gun approach. You’re better off concentrating on the companies you really like, advise Benjamin and Fred at Poke. “The biggest turn-off is when you get an email that has clearly been sent to everybody in the industry,” explains Fred. “I want to work with people that clearly understand what Poke does and what our clients are. It shows that they’ve done their research.”

Being innovative can also help you stand out – in the past Poke has received applications parcelled in bespoke videos or a handcrafted packaging, for example. “It feels incredibly lazy if you get the usual blurb and a PDF. It’s boring, and as a graduate the last thing you should be is boring,” agrees Stuart Radford at The Partners.

James Hurst of Figtree Creative Network believes that work will come “if you believe in what you do and work hard at it, and it’s genuinely interesting”. “People will get excited about what you’re doing and they’ll want to work with you,” he says. “And I’ve seen that borne out in all manner of different disciplines.”


Tomorrow logo from The Partners

A first client meeting or job interview is all about common sense. “Be on time, research the company and the person you are meeting, and be yourself”, seems to be main thrust of advice. “Some meetings will go well and you’ll just click with people, some won’t,” explains Richard. “But always be pleasant, smile, mind your manners.” 

If you were thinking of grabbing a Marks & Spencer suit or investing in that Oswald Boateng three-piece, you probably don’t have to bother. “I don’t think you need to worry too much about how you look, as long as you look half-way respectable, I don’t think people are too fussed,” advises The Partners’ Stuart.

Avoid showing the same work in the meeting you’ve already sent by email, and include information on insight when presenting projects rather than just the execution, Benjamin Tomlinson adds. Taking a potential employer on a journey when presenting work can be very effective.

As a freelancer, when meeting a potential client for the first time, don’t act too needy, warns Lizzie Mary Cullen. “This is hard, especially when they’re a massive client,” she says. “Tell a joke; but not too many. And stay away from laughing hysterically at your own joke.”


The Queen Diamond Jubilee from The Partners

While a job can offer professional experience, now might also be a good time to take risks and hold out until you secure your dream job. Studio Output’s Rob nonetheless advises taking the first job that come along, “because who knows if another one will come along, and generally, some ‘live’ experience is better than no experience at all”.

Stuart disagreed and suggests hanging out for the dream job, even in the face of uncertain economic times. “It’s really important where you get your first job,” he advises. “If you’re really into ideas you need to go to the company that’s into ideas, if you’re into beautifully-crafted typography then you need to go to the company that does that.”

Once you’re stuck in the wrong place, getting back on track becomes difficult, he adds. “As soon as you start earning money, you get used to earning money, so it’s really hard then to go back to a position where might have to earn less to get the right job.”

Graphic designer Matthew agrees that even though competition for work is fierce, your first job should define your specialty and focus your style. “Ideally, the first job will be in an environment that allows room for you to make your own mark on the studio’s creative output, and filled with individuals that can help nurture your creative development,” he argues.

As a freelancer, on the other hand, it’s worth considering the first opportunity on offer, believes Richard. “If you have to leave a project half-way through, you can always find a replacement if something bigger and better comes along,” he says. “But always help your client move on with their project, don’t burn bridges, be professional and honest. And if you’re going to screw the whole project if you do leave, then you have to honour your commitment. They were good enough to give you a break, respect that.”

And if you still haven’t found the right job after six months, and a less than ideal job comes along, take it, recommends Benjamin. “Any experience is good experience. Just because a company is not a big name doesn’t mean you won’t gain valuable experience. It’s also about contacts, so any job is useful.”


This image from Form was used in Lettuce’s Autumn/Winter 2012 catalogue. The photography was by Sarah Cresswell

The dos are just as important as the don’ts when it comes to making an impression in your first job. The basic tenets include: be on time, work hard and be enthusiastic.

“Be professional, if you have a deadline, hit it, don’t make excuses. Work hard, be pleasant, and always work with a can-do attitude,” advises Richard, but don’t “say yes to everything, that doesn’t help anyone, temper that with keeping everyone in the loop, and when things can’t be done, share it with the team.” 

Graduate upstarts who don’t know their place seem to be a particular bugbear for many experienced designers. “Don’t go in expecting everything is going to revolve around you, because that never works,” argues Form’s Paul.

“Bowling into a studio like you’re the don and throwing your weight around is an instant no-no,” agrees Richard. “There’s so much to learn. Diplomacy is paramount, ideas and egos are big in the creative industries, and many have been on the end of an ear bashing after interjecting at an inopportune moment. Stand back, watch, listen and learn, it’s amazing how much info you can gather, then once you understand your role, work as hard as you can.”

Graduates should also realise that they hold a potent trump card. Their fresh ideas are invaluable, explains Fred, and their professional naivety can count in their favour. “The fact that you haven’t got commercial experience should be a benefit from an agency’s point of view. Often it’s a breath of fresh air when young people come out of college – they offer a different viewpoint on projects.”

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