Design jobs: How to find and get your first graduate job

Image: iStock

Just graduated in design? To help you secure that first job, we chat to Fiasco Design co-founder Ben Steers, Wolff Olins Senior Designer Fleur Isbell, SomeOne co-founder Simon Manchipp and Taxi Studio founder Spencer Buck

So, you’ve checked all the right boxes, perhaps even with creativity and flair: you’ve made it through design school with pride, obsessed - possibly too much - over your portfolio, and now you’re probably bored of working for free. But jobs are proving to be an elusive prey.

Everyone bursts with enthusiastic, often conflicting, tips on how to get your first post. For example, some people will tell you to work for free. Others will tell you to never work for free.  

There isn’t one well-trodden path into the world of employed design, but many, often surprising trails. At least everyone at least agrees that it's undeniably tough to get a graduate job, let alone in the cramped, but buzzing design industry. Great.

Ben from Fiasco Design puts it best: “Degrees in the creative arts are so popular that every summer thousands of graduates leave university looking for work in the creative industries. So how do you stand out from the crowd and land that first design job?”

Thankfully, from making the first approach to that dreaded final interview, here's expert insight from people who have not only been exactly where you are, but have succeeded and now sit on the other side of the interview table. 

How to find and get your first graduate job: making the first move

First thing’s first, the simple stuff: you’ve got to know where the jobs are – and spot them before they’re gone.

Two great tactics to start you off are the obvious ones: massive job databases, such as Hiive and The Dots, as well as scrolling your favourite design agency's websites for the latest opportunities, which is often more effective, as it cuts out the middleman. But you can probably do those two well enough on your own. 

A trickier, but more rewarding approach is the coveted ’putting yourself out there’ (aka number one advice from any concerned relative). But, er, out where exactly? Fleur, ex-intern and now senior designer at Wolff Olins, recommends attending networking events, crammed with expertise, debate and opportunity. And, often, booze.  

“I immersed myself in everything I thought I might want to do, and took up every opportunity I could,” says Fleur. “So if you like the idea of working for a company or a brand: go to their events, ask a question or two and make sure you introduce yourself.” 

After chatting to staff of a design magazine she wanted to work for, Fleur was offered an internship. That it turned out not to be for her doesn’t matter: she gained both experience and a sharper understanding of what jobs do actually fascinate her.  

Of course, it won’t always go that smoothly: it didn’t for Fleur and it probably won’t for you. Many people you chat to will offer you nothing, not even advice. Some will ignore you.

But a trickle of conversations might flow to something great - and the more conversations you have, the heavier the flow. Looking for a job can't always directly involve getting a job, but exposure to design will make you a better designer (which I’ve heard employers are fond of). 

Though networking can sound mysterious and only achievable with magical powers, it really is only chatting to people. You know that one person who always has the best connections? Well, between that fabled coffee with Creative Director of Prestigious Design Agency and that spontaneous rapturous speech at a networking drinks, is a hell a lot of hard work, strain and, most importantly, mistakes. 

If you’re experiencing bumpy networking, don’t give up, says Fleur. “One of my first internship mentors told me this and it was the advice I really needed at that time. I had actually had to send him my portfolio a number of times before he gave me the change to work with him; it proved to me that persistence pays off.” 

And, second, don’t be afraid to ask for advice (we all need to sometimes). “So many students I meet,” continues Fleur, “are scared to send their portfolio or that first email before it’s immaculate, but getting started is more important. You learn faster if you get going earlier. And you’ll probably be surprised how keen creatives are to help out graduates, even if it’s just a meet up to help you craft your portfolio.” 

Even if you ask what you think is a dumb question, people are much likely to offer the job to you - the eager creative at their latest event - than a stranger.

Image: iStock

“A friend of mine used a great technique to snag the job of his dreams,” says Simon from SomeOne. “He simply found out where the agency went for after work drinks. And went there on a Thursday evening. After a couple of visits he found himself chatting the creative director and before he knew it he was working on a hit project in the agency.” 

Conversation starters never go amiss – that is, if they start the right conversation. In another great story, Simon remembers a creative struggling to land the job of their dreams. “One afternoon,” says Simon, “the creative director in question got a call from reception. They had found his wallet.” In the wallet was the creative director’s photo card and business card.

The creative director recognised it wasn’t actually his wallet. “Intrigued, he went through the items in it. Alongside the photo card and business card was a cutting about Blade Runner, his favourite film. And a post-it note simply saying 'remember to call Jimmy' and a phone number. He didn't know a Jimmy. But called it. And spoke to a budding creative who had tried to get in touch but had been unsuccessful getting some time to talk. He got the interview. Got the job." 

Sometimes being there in person is not as easy as you’d like. Not all fledgeling designers live in a capital city, after all: your home might even be in small, far-flung towns more likely to hold a competition for the biggest turnip than a design conference (the horror). 

But you’ll still need to get someone with power to actually look at your work (and no, your mum doesn’t count) – which is admittedly a little trickier over the internet or by post, so you’ve got to make sure that you catch their attention.  

“Submit a 'creative CV' backed up with an exemplary body of work that best demonstrates why a creative director should consider hiring you,” advises Taxi Studio’s Spencer. “Creative CV direct mail desk drops are still to this day the best form of approach in my view. If your approach is any good, you’ll bypass any agency ‘filters' and you’ll get under the nose of the creative director for sure.” 

Ben agrees that convention is not the way to guarantee a design job - but persistence, passion and dogged enthusiasm is. “At Fiasco Design, we get on average 3-4 emails a day from designers - grads or otherwise - looking for work. We also get work in the post on a weekly basis. 

“What we won’t look at are generic email: ‘To whom it may concern…’ blah blah blah , with CVs in Word and an attached PDF or better still, a link to Dropbox. Quite frankly, this shows a complete lack of consideration towards who you’re contacting and is likely to result in the email being trashed. 

“Find out as much as you can about the studio and person you’re contacting. Address the email to the right person. Design an HTML email using a platform such as Mailchimp so that when it lands in someone’s inbox, bearing in mind that someone might get 100+ emails a day and be very busy, they sit up and take notice. 

“Include clear links to your portfolio - this should be in the shape of a website - and a CV, also on your website. Make the job of viewing your portfolio as easy as you can for people. This’ll go a long way. 

“If you’re lucky enough to then hear back from a studio, make sure your email responses are well written and professional. Include a branded email signature in your replies. Don’t take 24 hours to reply and keep responses short and succinct. Don’t prattle on about how your days going or try to make small talk. Again, senior people at design studios are busy.” 

Treat a job advert as a design brief in itself by showing your creativity, work ethic and enthusiasm. If you’re a designer, why is your CV a black, white and in Microsoft Word? Be visual and show off your skills. And you don’t want a missing full stop to ruin hours of work: a simple way to avoid basic errors is to get someone to read through everything before you send it. 

How to find and get your first graduate job: online presence matters 

As Ben said, a shoddy portfolio and presentation stinks of shoddy design, whatever the actual quality of your work. With the overwhelming number of sites offering to help designers at all stages at the career, there’s no excuse not to have a gorgeous online portfolio.

But it’s hard to know which ones site should choose to host your work (though our best portfolio websites feature might help you there). 

There is no single best site to host design work, just as there is no one best style of design - and people will have differing, contradictory opinions. For example, while Ben advises going for platforms such as Behance “which have a large and active community,” Fleur doesn’t care: whatever you do, she says, make sure the site compliments your work.

In fact, using a number of different sites could improve your online presence to avoid overcrowding the important bits: the visuals. “Have a blog and website where you can show more detail and step-by-step progress,” says Fleur, “then your portfolio can be more concise and clean.”

For Spencer, it’s best to avoid the big sites completely. Unlike ben, he sees them as dull: “I'm sent links to a thousand Behance sites a month and frankly I rather like it when someone's bothered to make something less off the shelf.” 

All that disagreement is confusing, but that's reality, particularly within desig. To succeed in an industry that revolves around perspective and user needs, ensuring your profile is true to your work, clean and simple, and as easy to understand as possible is key – even if someone, somewhere might hate the site you host on. 

In fact, employers are more interested in how  you’ve used a tool rather than the tool itself. Whether you’ve set up camp on Behance or your own domain, “don’t just post your work, engage with the community and be part of the conversation,” continues Spencer.

“Spend time making sure any work you put up looks the bomb. It’s definitely a case of quality over quantity. If you’re unsure over whether you should publish it, then it’s probably not good enough.” 

What about Twitter, Facebook and Instagram? Other than keeping up-to-date with cats and great one-liners, you can use them for your career too.

“Imagine yourself as a brand,” says Spencer. “What are your values, what do you stand for and what do you want people to think and feel about you? Once you determine those values and behaviours, stick as closely to them as possible, then review your last year’s social media ‘contributions’. Do they all stay true to you and your beliefs?” 

Spencer is a fan of social media, only if - like everything else - it’s used well. “I get a lot of student’s approaching me via LinkedIn and Twitter, and some direct emails… but very, very few adopt a creative approach, which is a missed opportunity to make a great first impression.”

If used well, social media can give you access to designers and agencies beyond your normal reach, from a different perspective - as well as a following of your own. So, consider ditching personal accounts, tailoring them more towards design or separating the business and personal online.

After all, adds Simon, “we’re in the communications business. And we have a visual bias. So if you’re not on or interested in at least one social media channel, I'd be surprised. It certainly wouldn't mean you fail to get an interview. But you'd need something special to replace a certain fascination with the billion conversations going on around us daily.”

Each employer will approach social media differently. Some might not even Google your name. But it seems bonkers to do anything other than keep your social media fresh, without fault and engaged with the design industry. . As Simon says, “it stands to reason that you should exploit as many avenues as possible to get your work noticed.” 

How to find and get your first graduate job: perfect your portfolio

Now you’ve got your work snug on the internet, stop to think: is the balance of work right? Have you shown off your whole range of skill? Most importantly, have you done yourself justice? Before pretty much anything else, your success rides on your portfolio - and your portfolio’s success rides on its content. 

Crafting great pieces requires work, mistakes, and more work. Whether its finding internships in the summer, squeezing in side projects or trying your luck in design competitions to build a diverse portfolio of work, Ben thinks that “being pro-active from early on will give you a head start over your peers.

“Not only will you have experience of working in an agency but you’ll have a portfolio that consists of both uni and real world work. This sort of thing will go a long way when looking for a job.” 

If you don’t have time or resources for internships, side-projects or competitions, don’t worry: you should have a selection of work big enough to fill a portfolio from your studies. In fact, probably too much work. “Don’t put every single piece of work that you’ve ever created in there - keep it to your top projects,” says Fleur - or run the risk of your worst work damaging your best. 

It’s tempting to tailor your portfolio to agencies you’re applying for – and don’t get me wrong, research is always good – but a logo design agency, say, is interested in talent, not endless logo designs. 

“It’s always better to show a good range of work,” says Fleur. “Show a bit of working on the projects you’re most proud of - especially ones where you can show a range of skills and real passion.

“As a student you have a lot of freedom, so have some fun and always be ambitious – a bit weird and crazy is good too because that work is always memorable!” That might include a particularly dazzling design, a totally new medium or a bonkers idea. Or all three. 

“One of our previous interns swallowed a camera and filmed his insides for a project,” remembers Fleur. “What was especially interesting to me was his thinking behind the project; he was genuinely considering an important human issue and approaching it a unique way.” 

For Fleur, beautiful work is great – but even better is beautiful work that “combines different techniques and processes for a purpose”. And she stresses that last bit: a gorgeous design with no purpose is going to become flimsy under stress (aka any questions involving ‘why’). 

“Graduates that aren’t afraid to try things and be experimental with a purpose always stand out. Having a strong idea and story behind your work that shows how you solve problems with creativity will demonstrate how you personally get into the depths of a project.”  

More practically, when it comes to creating a quality versus quantity standard for your portfolio, Spencer has an easy-to-follow rule guaranteed to impress him. “I expect to see at least three knockout pieces of work, one of which should be a ‘job winner’ aka the piece of work that’s so brilliant, it makes you wish you’d done it.  

“I then expect to see a minimum of 5 other pieces that - although won’t quite hit the benchmark of the ‘job winner’ - demonstrates that you are consistent in your level of thinking and execution.”

How to find and get your first graduate job: the interview 

Image: iStock

Let your work do the talking, sure, but when you yourself talk, “don’t be a dick,” says Spencer. You’ve done the hard bit now: you’ve managed to not cock up the creative director’s name over email, your social media is free of drunken, condemning, embarrassing photos and your portfolio shines. 

 “If you’re a dick, your portfolio counts for nothing. One observation I’ve made over the past 20 years is that the best people in this industry are also the nicest. There’s no room for prima donnas at any level in at Taxi Studio.” 

Hopefully, Fleur’s advice – be yourself – doesn’t conflict with the mantra ‘don’t be a dick’. You are the person your interviewers are looking to be spending a hell of a lot of time with - and they want to know whether they’ll get on with you. As well as someone who's 100% not a dick, they'll be looking for enthusiasm.  Remind the probably tired interviewers why they entered the industry in the first place.

Offer glimpses of your actual personality - you know, the one you’re usually told to bury under a tight suit for job interviews. If you’re not comfortable in a suit, don’t wear one – and, if your interviewers are from any normal design agency, they won’t be either. Be smart, well-presented in something that is ‘you’.

“Your personality, opinions and particular passions are what make you stand out so show me those. A strong voice always stands out,” says Fleur. “Try not to let the people on the other side of the table intimate you. Remember that you are interviewing them as well to see if this is a place you want to spend your time and effort.

“You really don’t need to know everything. Instead, be clear on your interests and passions and have a think about where you might stand out from the competition,” continues Fleur. “What is it you would like to be known or remembered for once the interview is over?”

Passion is great. Messy, vague, undirected passion, not so much. Just using the word passion repeatedly (like I am), not so good either. Practising in front of the mirror might not be the best look, but the results will be if you can talk concisely and thoughtfully about your work, where it went wrong, as well as right, and how you've grown. Interviewers are more interested in the process than the finished product when it comes to both you and your work.

If you’ve included that kooky side project in your portfolio, that might be what gets you hired. You’re at your best when chatting about what you love. And that’s unlikely to be a conventional design, but some edgy, possibly hidden away project that runs the risk of you being branded as crazy.  

It is simple, but takes work to execute well: research, research, research, be daring and be interested. And remember that you’re still allowed a personality; it is, in fact, encouraged. 

Ben agrees that you should just be yourself. It may be cliche advice, but is so for a reason. “Don’t try to impress,” he says. “Show passion for what you do and enthusiasm about the job. Be prepared for questions and have questions lined up at the end.”

How to find and get your first graduate job: have a safe journey  

Unfortunately, there are some exploitative jobs out there (check out our feature on companies who tried to exploit designers and artists) and, as a possibly desperate graduate, you are a prime catch. Mostly these include working for free. 

“Getting experience through interning can be really valuable, but if you’re working on client work, you should be paid for your time. No two ways about it,” says Ben, who acknowledges there are always going to be agencies who think it’s okay not to pay interns.

“If you spend a week in an agency for work experience, working on self-initiated projects, then don’t expect to get paid but this is a great opportunity for you to get a feel for agency life. Soak it up and learn as much as you can whilst you’re there.” 

Image: iStock

Ultimately, it’s up to you: just know your limits, be careful, and know your worth, and that you are trained and valuable. “There is a real feeling of desperation when you’re starting out and if you’re able to flip your mind-set to 10% desperate and 90% passionate and excited, then you’ll spot quickly what’s taking you in the right direction for you and what isn’t,” says Fleur. 

Though much of the design industry, and Digital Arts, sees this as outdated and exploitative, many think it’s fine to give away your expertise when you’re starting out – if it means you have fuller pockets later.

If you feel your job is damaging or wasting your time, quit. It’s less scary than you think. “You have time on your side right now so you should have the lowest fear factor of anyone,” says Fleur. This is not all-or-nothing. Jobs are quittable, applications are retractable and there are plenty out there. Don’t sell yourself out. 

Spencer takes a simple line. “Do not accept unpaid internships or work experience – agencies that do this are unethical, and you’ll hate working for them. Remember that you are a professional, qualified creative practitioner. You deserve to be treated with respect. And you deserve to get paid for the work you do.

“The ideal environment will see you working with great people who produce great work for great clients. Simple." 

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