One of the most common questions I am asked by prospective designers is how to best get started in the design industry. While I enjoy replying to everyone individually, I’ve decided to put together this page to answer all of the basics:
- Your portfolio is a whole lot more important than your résumé. Whenever I’ve had to fill a design position, I’ve always gotten tons of résumés and ended up going straight to URLs without even looking at the education or other qualifications of the applicant first. There are just so many people in this industry who are “all talk” that I’d rather hire someone whose stuff looks great but maybe hasn’t had a chance to go to a great college or work at a great company yet. The best thing you can do for yourself, résumé-wise, is to put together a nice one or two sheeter and offer it online, complete with sample URLs. That way, you make it very easy for whoever will be evaluating you as a prospective employee.
- With regards to your portfolio, spend every spare minute of your time on it. Nothing impresses me more than a clean book filled with thoughtful work. It doesn’t matter how big your clients are… only how good your work is. You should create imaginary clients if that allows you to flex your design muscle. I would rather see a beautiful poster for an imaginary band than a lackluster design project for a big company like Boeing. In other words, you will never be judged on the size (or existence!) of your clients â€” only the quality of your work.
- Consider volunteering your services for pro-bono work around the community to get your name out there. Pro-bono work is great because since you’re doing a public service, you are often given more creative freedom than you otherwise would be. Also, it’s a great way to meet people in the local design community. One of the first pro-bono projects I involved myself in was the Seattle Show â€” the annual advertising and design awards for the Seattle area. The Show needed a site designed every year to support the awards, and by taking care of this, I was able to meet and work with a lot of creative directors, art directors, ad agencies, and design firms around town. It has been a great networking opportunity and it only takes up maybe 40 hours of my time every year.
- Networking is just as important as any step you’ll take in your job search. When I was in business school, I was kind of “anti-networking”. I wanted to get a job after college based solely on my own skills and experience without the help of “being a friend of someone at the company” or “knowing someone who knows the hiring manager”, etc etc. The reality of the situation though is that in the end, it is people who will be hiring you, so you must meet a lot of them and be nice to everyone along the way. Word of mouth is the strongest form of advertising, and you want to be in a position where your name will come up in the correct circles whenever there’s a great project to be done around town. Early in your career especially, you should also concentrate on being very easy to work with, rather than necessarily producing what you consider your best work every time. For instance, if you’re doing a project for a client and they ask you to change something in your design, be flexible. Concentrate on pleasing them and making them feel like they are part of the design process rather than pushing your own preferences through, even though you know your way is probably better. I’m a pretty dogmatic person sometimes and it often takes a lot of self-control to let clients have their way, but it usually pays off in the end.
- Before you decide where you want to work right out of college, decide where you want to be, ideally, in 10 or 15 years. Once you do that, you can work backwards and decide what steps you can take today to get yourself on the right path. For instance, let’s say you want to be running your own design school in the South of France in 10 years (I do!). In order to do that, you’ll need to know French, be very familiar with the educational process, have a good amount of money, and a host of other things. Maybe that means your first job should be designing and running the web site for some sort of educational institution. Or maybe it means doing some pro-bono work for a local French community group. If you aren’t sure where you want to be in 10 or 15 years, you should just concentrate on working at a place where you are surrounded by people you can learn from and people you can network with in the future. Local design firms and ad agencies are great places to start, even if you take an entry-level production job.
- You should definitely definitely definitely have your own web site when looking for a job… even if it’s just a one-page résumé you’re putting online. It is so cheap to create and maintain a web site these days that it’s pretty much a no-brainer. In addition to letting you circulate your name and qualifications worldwide, it’s also a permanent e-mail address for life, which is important. So, for instance, you’d be permanently reachable through firstname.lastname@example.org instead of having to rely on a hotmail address. It comes off as very professional and shows good thought and consideration.
I’m always happy to answer any further questions people might have with regards to getting started in this industry, so if you don’t see what you are looking for here, please feel free to drop me a line.