Computer Arts - Design Graduate Survival Guide
Computer Arts
August 2008

Design Graduate Survival Guide

For thousands of design graduates, this summer will be a battlefield. As credit crunch competition for employment heats up – Darwinian evolutionary theories ring truer than ever. Lawrence Zeegen sets out survival tactics…

It is that time of the year again. The next few months will witness a massive deluge of design graduates flooding into the design industry. Each bright young hopeful will be eager to make the right impression, get a foot in the door and another on the first rung of the ladder of success. The Higher Education Statistics Agency reported, in 2005, that almost 57,000 students were enrolled on design courses nationally; simple arithmetic demonstrates that approximately 20,000 new designers emerge annually. Staggering isn’t it? So, if the fittest survive, how best to keep ahead of the pack and snare that first job, and then keep it…

1. Welcome to the Real World
Understanding the Industry
First things first – don’t waste time. Before firing out emails, sending out CVs and cold-calling clients, think long and hard about where you’ll be best placed within the design and creative industries. Do some research and do it well. You want to be an art director? – Find out the difference between an art director in an ad agency and one in a magazine publishing company. You want to be a graphic designer? – For what type of studio? Research companies that fit the vision you have for your work and career – don’t approach packaging studios with a portfolio of publishing work, you’ll be wasting your time and there’s!

2. Getting a Foot in the Door
Placements and Internships
The very best way of getting started is by undertaking placements – smart designers began the process as students not graduates, but it is never too late to get started, even if you are a late-developer. Don’t consider placements as working for free; the reward will be getting your name and portfolio about town – you’ll also pick up valuable work-related experience and quickly get a real insight into real world working.

Be organised, be positive, be committed and be confident – you’ll need to be flexible, potentially working on a range of different projects – perhaps researching for other designers, helping create presentation boards or generating ideas. Check your ego at the door, roll your sleeves up – placements can often become paid positions.

2. Making the Right Impression
Job Applications and Interviews
Finding the right job isn’t easy, but you will have to go find it as it won’t find you, so start at least being in the right place at the right time with the right portfolio. Admittedly, some designers pick up their first job upon graduation, but the statistics don’t weigh heavily in favour of this scenario – only 39% of new appointments, explains a National Employee Skills Survey, are filled by graduates – the other 61% are recruited from within the industry. You’re going to have way in to this exclusive club.

Again, applying for the right job means top-level research techniques. Start by knowing where and when the best jobs are advertised. Often word-of-mouth insider-info beats ploughing through the design press and on-line recruitment ads – many companies only resorting to placing ads when they can’t locate the right person from an informal trawl first. Placements can be a crucial source for studios with a vacancy to fill.

If you are looking at job ads – read the job spec/requirements carefully – if a company specifies 3/5 years relevant experience; don’t waste your time or there’s by making an application, pursue other avenues. Start by approaching companies that you respect and ask if they might offer you an opportunity to present your portfolio and discuss your work, they may not be looking to hire right now but perhaps in the future they’ll remember you and your work. Asking to drop by for an informal short advice session with your portfolio may pay dividends in the future – planting seeds good and early is the key here.

When it comes to making contact via email or letter or simply filling in an application form or completing your own CV – make sure that each and every word, sentence, paragraph and statement is read through numerous times for any poor spelling or incorrect or incoherent grammar. Print it out and read it through again – remember you are looking to work in communication design – are you communicating successfully?

Get an interview and get ahead – if they want to see you and your work, then there is something that they like the look of, so be positive but be professional too. Turn up early, walk around the block for 10 minutes, if you need to, but never ever be late. Be informed, arriving 5 minutes early into reception may just give you an opportunity to check the place out as well as leaf through any press books, normally laid out in reception to impress their clients. But again, research the company’s work before you arrive, any further info on the day should only be the icing on the cake…

4. Going Global
International Opportunities – From Conferences to Organisations
With the UK economy apparently in free-fall, what better time to start looking further afield for opportunities… Networking on a global scale isn’t tricky with the plethora of blogs, wikis and websites but why not go one better and for the equivalent price of a rain-sodden summer festival ticket and the price of a damp tent, trade up and fly economy on a budget airline to a design conference. Make new contacts, at the same time add to your CV – and also meet with representatives of international design organisations to boot.

Working Abroad and Implications
International design school study trips and exchange programmes have given many students a real flavour of opportunities in working abroad. UK design schools and the UK design scene are held in high esteem internationally – so getting access into companies, assuming that work permits and local employment restrictions aren’t an issue, is occurring more and more.

Making a move from Dalston to Dubai may not initially be plain sailing but the potential rewards and relative career prospects can outweigh any issues – as with any new initiatives, ensure that you plan carefully and get advice from others that have taken the same route…

5. Succeeding at Work
Becoming Irreplaceable – making every day at new job count
Getting a job might be first and foremost in your mind, but keeping the job and getting the utmost from the experience has to be the next challenge. Make every day count. Ensure that you consider just what you would like to take from the company, and that’s not about what you can half-inch from the stationary cupboard, but about what you can learn and achieve. If you are clear about your goals and your aspirations, you’ll be sure to make every moment matter. Take the initiative; show willing and be eager to learn. Arriving early and staying late demonstrates determination but working effectively during office hours can say much more. Great designers have lives outside of design too!

Career Planning
It is never too early to plan a career – forward thinking might help get you into the board room a year or two early, however most dream jobs have an un-chartered career path so it makes sense to have a plan. Speak to design professionals about their own pathways, read interviews and profiles, look at the projects that helped ‘break’ your own design heroes – how can you learn from their pearls of wisdom? Take stock every few months of your achievements, keep your CV bang up-to-date, and maintain a real interest in what other designers and designs studios are doing – remember the next move up the ladder may be sooner than you think…

6. Be Yourself
Finding your own voice/style/visual signature
However motivated you might be by your design heroes and their advice can often be worth it’s weight in gold, however resist the temptation to mimic their work. Those that cash in on a particular look or fashion in design are less likely to stand the test of time. Design studios, at least the best ones, are always on the look out for free-thinking creative designers with their own flair and personality evident in the work that they produce. Finding your voice or visual signature may not come easily, but ensuring that you are creating design solutions that are truly your own should be your ultimate goal.

Life-long Learning
Design education isn’t always a crucial aspect in gaining employment within the design industry; in fact a Labour Force Survey a few years ago suggested that only 41% of designers hold a degree or equivalent qualification. So, if not all designers are being trained in art schools, what are the skills others are employing and how are coming into play? Lifelong learning must play a part – opening your mind to the fact that each and every project should deliver a range of new skills. Fine-tune your production skills, establish better verbal presentation skills; whatever your bag – step up to the mark, and beyond.