I have former college design students who are yet to find a job. But, I also have many former students working successfully in the design industry. What makes one student succeed where another fails? Much of it has to do with the choices they make while they are still in school.
This article is for students looking to land a job in the design industry after college graduation. I can’t guarantee that these tips will get you your dream job right out of school (everybody has to work their way up), but I can tell you that they will put you leaps and bounds ahead of your classmates who don’t follow these six easy steps.
1. Study Hard. Do Well in Your Classes.
I know what you’re thinking. Duh. What original advice. But don’t leave yet.
For designers, it’s even more important that you do well in your classes. Yes, there are the usual reasons you want to succeed in school: it is helpful if you actually learn something while you are there, you’re going to be in debt for the next 30 years (unless you’re lucky enough to have rich parents) so you had better come out knowing enough to land a job to pay off your student loans, and it’s just plain insulting to anyone who can’t afford an education not to do your best.
But there are other reasons too.
First of all, it is incredibly important that you impress your teachers. Why? Because design jobs don’t just drop out of the sky. Your strongest link to the design industry at this point in your life is your teachers. If you were a teacher, and you had a friend who was hiring, what kind of student would you recommend?
Be that person! Be on time. Do your work, and do it well. Pay attention. Be interested. Go above and beyond. I walked out of college with a job. Why? Because my program director recommended me to a friend. I may have been a nerd, and people may have laughed at me for putting in too much time on my projects, but I’ve been a designer since graduation, and I got my start from a college referral.
It’s not just about impressing your teachers. The goal of your school projects is to create your portfolio pieces. And, your portfolio is what is going to make you or break you on a job interview. If it’s not good, you’re out. Do good work and take your projects seriously so that you can have a strong portfolio right out of school.
2. Listen to your Teachers
Another no-brainer? You would think so. Your teachers are teaching for a reason. They know stuff. One thing I can tell you for sure as I look back on college is that the classes that I thought were the most boring (and the classes where you may tend to tune out or drift off) were the most important. Listen up, take notes, and ask questions.
When is it most important to listen to your teachers? When they are giving you constructive criticism. If you are lucky enough to have a teacher who takes the time to look at your project and explain what you should have done differently, take advantage of it. If they tell you that you should be using different fonts, trying different color schemes, or working differently to balance your layouts, take their advice and redo your projects according to their suggestions. Is it a lot of work? Yes. Will it mean that you have better portfolio pieces when you start interviewing? YES!
One of the hardest things about being a designer is learning to let go. You have to learn quickly that as a designer, you are not designing for you. You are designing for someone else. You wouldn’t want to hire an interior designer to come into your home and decorate in THEIR favorite colors and textures, would you? The worst thing you can do is become too attached to your design work. If a teacher tells you that something could be better, listen to them. Don’t argue. Don’t assume that you are right and they are wrong because you LIKE your design. It doesn’t matter what you like. It matters what is appealing to the general public, what is appealing to your clients, and what will be appealing to the professional designers that will be interviewing you after school. Make the changes, and know that you can be confident that your work is ready to show on job interviews.
3. Do Your Research: Know Where You Want to Work
There are many different areas of concentration in the design industry. You can work in advertising, package design, print, web, animation, 3D, multimedia, programming…are you seeing what I mean? How are you supposed to prepare yourself for any of these jobs if you don’t know which one you want?
Do your research. Find out which types of companies exist in the area where you live (or where you want to live). It won’t do you much good to concentrate on becoming a game or character designer if you don’t have any game development companies in your area. Read their websites and find out everything you can. Which companies sound interesting? Call them up! Ask if you can come in to visit, or if you can just ask some questions over the phone (many will even be happy to answer your questions over email, but it’s even better if you can create a relationship in person or over the phone. It may result in a job lead after graduation!). Just tell them you’re a student, and you’re trying to decide which field of design would be best for you. Ask what kinds of skills you would need to work in a company like theirs, what types of portfolio pieces they would like to see, and what types of duties a job there calls for. You’ll find out that the dynamics of an ad agency are completely different from those of an animation studio or a web development company. Which environment do you think you would like most?
You don’t want to just take the first job you are offered out of school. If you plan well, you’ll be able to start in an entry-level position in the field that you choose, and work your way up to your dream job, and maybe even your dream company. It is very hard to jump from concentration to concentration in the design field. Usually, if you start out working for a newspaper or magazine, you will continue to work for newspapers or magazines throughout your career. If you start in web or video, you will probably always be in web or video. That is why it’s important to find out what you like now, while you’re in school.
Once you decide what your dream job is, find out as much as you can about the requirements for that job. Then, plan your electives around that job. Don’t take yoga or watercolor because it sounds fun or easy. Take something that will benefit you in your job search. Take the prepress class if you want to work in print, take the extra programming class if you want to work in web, and take the sculpting class if you want to do character design for video games. Choose wisely, and you may just have an edge over other recent graduates competing for the same job.
4. Expand your skill-set
Even though it is important that you have a career goal in mind so that you can plan your classes, it is also important to realize that sometimes having additional skills will make you more marketable. You also want to be somewhat realistic about what types of jobs are available, and how hard it is to break into some industries. For example, I might LOVE working in Photoshop (who doesn’t) but the chances of my getting a job airbrushing models in Photoshop all day is probably pretty slim. So, I had better expand my abilities to include more marketable skills such as InDesign and Illustrator. Perhaps I want to be a print designer. As a young person, you have to be aware of the lagging print market. Things are moving quickly toward web and multimedia platforms. It’s fine to concentrate on print classes, but try to work a couple of basic web design classes in as electives. It will give you something to fall back on, and it will make you more desirable as a new hire.
Whatever you do, just don’t be scared of the unknown. I always stayed away from programming because I was so comfortable with programs like Dreamweaver and Flash. But, after learning HTML and CSS, I’m able to create more reliable, controllable websites. I’m going to work on learning PHP next.
As a designer, you’ll never stop learning. If you hate school, and you hate books, this may not be the field for you. Design programs are constantly updating to newer versions with new tools and new capabilities. Programming languages change continuously. There is always something to learn, and clients are always asking for something new. You will spend your life expanding your skill-set (if you want to stay on top of things in your job), so you may as well start now. Don’t box yourself in. Enjoy the opportunity to learn new things.
Out of school, the bulk of your portfolio will be student work. That’s fine. But, there is nothing like real-world experience to impress a potential employer. If you have a few freelance projects in your portfolio, a company will know that you can work with clients, follow a project through from beginning to end, and deal with the problems that arise on the way. They will have a greater confidence in your skills, and as long as your clients were happy, you may end up with a couple of nice letters of reference to show off.
So, how do you get freelance work? Volunteer! Will you have to work for free? Probably, yes. Will it be worth it? Definitely, yes.
Now, I am NOT an advocate of students doing free work. In fact, in most cases, I’m absolutely against it. I don’t agree with wealthy companies using design students to get free work when they can easily afford to pay salaries. I also don’t agree with greedy start-up companies that drain design students of their time, taking their focus off of their studies and their schoolwork, promising them something better when the company “takes off.” Please stay away from people like this. They will try to bully you, they will make empty promises, and you may not even end up with a decent portfolio piece to show for it in the end.
So, when is it okay to work for free? When it’s for someone you like. Or, when it’s for a not-for-profit company or charity. Go back to your old high school. Maybe they need someone to design basketball programs or theatre posters. Help your Aunt Mary-Lou with a logo for her new hair studio. Go to the local animal shelter and see if you can design some brochures for them, or ask the local fire department if they would like you to design the posters for their annual fireman’s ball. Ask them for two things in return: at least 5 samples of the end product, and a letter of recommendation (assuming they liked working with you). These types of projects not only make you feel good because you are helping someone that needs and deserves your help, but you will also be creating some really nice portfolio pieces, and gaining lots of professional experience.
6. Don’t Take a Break after Graduation
I know too many talented students who don’t have jobs today just because they took time off after graduation. Whether it was to improve their portfolio, or to make some extra money, by time they were ready to jump back into the design world, they had been left behind. Programs upgrade quickly, and things change fast. It’s important that you start your job hunt right out of school, and don’t give up until you find a design job.
Don’t put yourself in a place where you need to finish your portfolio after graduation. Take my advice from #2 and when your teachers give you creative feedback, make the revisions to that design piece right away. If you can, show it to your teacher again to see if he or she has any more suggestions. Once it is instructor-approved, you know it’s ready to show in your portfolio. Do this throughout your college years, and you’ll be ready to interview the day you graduate.
Do you need to earn some extra cash right out of school? Perhaps the entry-level design positions that you’re being offered won’t pay the bills? Unfortunately, most entry-level positions won’t pay anybody’s bills unless they are still living at home.
If you have to support yourself or a family, don’t just drop design to make extra money after graduation. Get a weekend job (such as bartending or working retail) to make up the extra cash, and take an entry-level design job during the week (I worked 2–3 jobs for a while myself). If you are dedicated to your job, you’ll be surprised how quickly you can move up the pay scale. Or, if that is too much, go ahead and take the high-paying factory job during the day, and find a part-time design job three evenings a week. At least you’ll be adding to your experience level, and adding professional pieces to your portfolio so that later you might be eligible for a higher-paying design position.
If you want to work in the design field, you can do it. But, there a lot of people out there trying to be designers, and not everyone is going to make it. You have to work for it. And, the sooner you start, the better your chances. I hope that you’ll do your best to give these 6 tips a try. I think you’ll be happy with the results.
Hey there experienced designers, do you have any advice for our student readers?