The scary thing about our industry is that while there are more creative jobs than ever before, the competition is fierce. Since I started the professional creative community The Loop, incredibly talented juniors are always asking me for tips on how to get that all-important foot in the door.
To be honest, there is no single thing that will land you that dream job. But after compiling tips from creative directors, creative companies, recruiters, industry bodies and lecturers, I now firmly believe there is a combination of steps you can take – a secret sauce in a way, that if you check off, will guarantee you’re leagues ahead of others vying for your dream gig.
BEFORE GRADUATION – GET PREPARED
If you’re a student in your final year or a junior looking for that elusive first job, before you even start applying for jobs, it’s best to get all of your ducks in a row. Before graduation, make sure you allocate enough time to work on your portfolio, cover letter, website and identity, as it is a massive project in itself, but I guarantee it will set you up for life.
Work on personal projects
One of my all-time favourite quotes is from Micah Walker, creative partner at The Monkeys: “If your portfolio reflects nothing personal, then it might as well be someone else’s.”
All the creative directors we’ve worked with have been massive fans of portfolios that include self-initiated personal projects. These creative directors review hundreds of portfolios and, if they only include responses to university briefs, they start looking a bit samey. Including personal projects in your portfolio will not only help your portfolio stand out, but will show that you’re a self-starter who’s passionate about design. Below are some top tips on how to get the ball rolling on personal projects:
- Enter competitions – competition pieces are a step above student work. If you don’t win, at least you have some great content for your portfolio. If you do win, it’s an amazing way to get your work and name out there. Fantastic competitions include SOYA (Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards), NewStar and Positive Posters, but there are loads more.
- Ask a creative director for a brief – contacting a creative director that inspires you, and asking them for a brief, is not only an amazing way to challenge yourself creatively, but if they like your response, they may even offer you a job.
- Help out a friend or family member – friends and family always need creative services, be it designing their wedding or party invitations, an identity for their business or a new website. You’ll not only get fresh content for your portfolio, but also win major brownie points in the process.
- Collaborate – find a group of university friends you love working with (or approach people you respect) and start collaborating. Come up with your own passion project – be it an exhibition, a zine, a product promotion or a short film – and work together on bringing that idea to life.
- Create a personal identity – let’s face it, your own brand is the most valuable brand you’ll ever work on and one of the only projects you’ll have complete creative licence over.
- Do an internship – internships are an amazing opportunity to get real-world experience, build up your portfolio of work and make contacts that can last a lifetime. If you are at university, ask if they have an internship program. If they don’t, lobby for one! Also, more and more job boards have internship roles appearing.
Get your portfolio shipshape
A well-crafted portfolio is a gateway to opportunities. Essentially, it’s your calling card. The better the portfolio, the juicer the role.
- Get organised – throughout university, make sure you compile all your briefs and projects in one spot; it will make it so much easier to organise your portfolio when the time comes.
- Keep project and brief notes – a well-written project description that allows companies to understand the brief and constraints is a really important component of your portfolio, since you’re not always present to explain. So, when you complete each project, keep a written overview of the brief while it’s still fresh in your mind. Trying to remember what you did, and why, a year ago can be a massive headache.
- Revisit old student briefs – revisit old student briefs you enjoyed working on, but could have done better. Spruce them up with your newfound knowledge and feedback from your lecturers and friends. Employers will never know it’s your second cut.
- Cull, cull, cull – don’t worry if your portfolio isn’t bursting at the seams. While it may be tempting to add filler content, less is actually more. Remember the average quality of your portfolio is brought down by your worst projects, so culling your portfolio back to your best projects only is definitely the way to go.
- Give credit where credit is due – if you’ve collaborated on a project, it’s great practice to credit those you worked with. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it also gives more credibility to your own portfolio.
- Get your work professionally photographed – a beautifully shot portfolio will enhance your work. Poor photography can ruin a great piece of work.
- Include a resumé – in many of the larger companies, it is human resource managers who will do the first cull of the portfolios, not someone within the creative department. So, even if your work is incredible, you may not make the shortlist unless you give them a feel for your background and experience, including where you went to university, your skills, past employers and clients.
- Proof read – it’s a really obvious one, but often gets overlooked. When you apply for roles, make sure you pay attention to detail. Companies are looking for reasons to cull the huge number of portfolios that hit their desk each day. So don’t give them one.
- Attend a portfolio masterclass – sometimes it’s hard to take an impartial view on what should and shouldn’t be in your portfolio. That’s why we started hosting Portfolio Masterclass sessions, an in-person opportunity to get your portfolio reviewed by leading creatives.
Now you’ve got an amazing portfolio raring to go, it’s time to get busy promoting yourself.
- Create a website – get a website up and a domain name. The best domain names include your full name. Unless you’re a dab hand at coding, don’t worry about building your own website. Simply use a website building tool. My favourite is cargocollective.com, which is really easy to use and customise.
- Create a free profile on The Loop – this really is the best way to get your portfolio of work online and in front of the best collaborators, jobs, companies and clients. For tips on how to get the most out of your profile on The Loop, simply download our student info pack: theloop. com.au/campaigns/student_briefing_pack.pdf.
- Submit your work to blogs and publications – getting featured on blogs (such as Australian Infront) or in publications (such as desktop, the Semi-Permanent book or Curvy) is an incredibly powerful way to build recognition.
- Create business cards – now you’ve got an identity up and running, design and print some personal business cards to hand out at graduation shows, conferences, events and interviews.
- Create a physical portfolio – things are starting to move online, but the more traditional employers still want the tactile experience of viewing a physical portfolio at interviews. When it comes to printing your portfolio, every senior creative I’ve worked with has had a firm opinion on design: keep it simple… your work should be given centre stage.
Network your socks off
The contacts you make as a junior can last a lifetime…
- Immerse yourself in creative events – including gallery openings, workshops, talks, networking events etc.
- Attend creative conferences – they’re not only great for inspiration, but a fantastic opportunity to network. Great ones include agIdeas, Semi-Permanent and Vivid Ideas.
- Make the most out of your graduation show – graduation shows are an incredible opportunity to come face-to-face with leading creative employers. It’s all too tempting to hang with your mates and celebrate the end of year, but try to come out of your comfort zone and network with people milling around. They could turn out to be your future boss.
- Join AGDA (Australian Graphic Design Association) – get access to industry events, news and promotional opportunities. It can be a bit pricey, so only join if you can afford it.
The all-important cover letter
Cover letters are a pain, but can make all the difference.
- Create a template – before you graduate, get a really great template together that is easy to customise.
- Make it relevant – in each cover letter, include a section where you talk about the role and why you’d be perfect for it.
- Praise the company – every employer wants to hire people that are passionate about their work and brand. So, take a couple of lines to reflect on how amazing their company is and why you’d love to work for them.
- Design it – 95 percent of cover letters are written as a really boring Word document. If you want to stand out from the crowd, a well-designed letter, including your personal identity, will put you leagues ahead.
- Keep it short – employers are time poor and have hundreds of applications hitting their inbox, so you need to keep your cover letters short and sweet. A good rule of thumb is to time yourself reading the letter; if it takes over a minute to read, edit it back.
- Don’t forget your contact details – I can’t tell you how many amazing cover letters I’ve received that forget to add contact details. So make sure you include your name, email address and website etc. Employers need to know how to find you.
AFTER GRADUATION – TAKE A BREAK
So now you’ve got all of your ducks in a row: a kickass portfolio, resumé, cover letter, online portfolio, a website and a couple of internships under your belt, what’s next?
- Take a break – you’ve got the rest of your life to work, so enjoy your last days of freedom. See friends, party, travel, volunteer, chill – whatever floats your boat, you’ve earned it. It’s also great preparation for that all-important first gig, as you’ve got the freedom out of your system and you’ll be ready to throw yourself into your career.
- Check your emails – make sure you check your email regularly. There would be nothing worse than coming back from an amazing break and finding that you’d missed out on that dream job offer.
TIME TO LAND THAT DREAM JOB
Applying for roles
- Set up job alerts and apply – hit jobs boards, like the one on The Loop, and set up job alerts and start applying.
- Pay attention to the details when applying for jobs – it’s really important to read job descriptions carefully and check if an employer has, for example, specified what type of portfolio they want to see. If an employer has asked to see an online portfolio, make sure that’s what you send, and not a pdf or Word document.
- Personalise your application – when you apply for jobs, make sure you direct your application to the right person. Don’t just address it ‘Dear Sir/Madam’. If you’re not sure who the right person is, simply call the company and check, they won’t mind. Don’t forget to include your cover letter.
- Re-engage with contacts – email past contacts you made while interning, at events or at conferences. Let them know you’ve recently graduated and ask if they’ve heard of any great roles going.
- Keep in touch with your lecturers and career advisers from university – many creative companies ask universities for advice on their star performers, so keeping in touch will ensure you’re top of mind.
- Research companies and hit them up directly – research companies you’d love to work for and drop them a line directly to see if they have any roles going.
- Keep interning – unless you’re one of those lucky graduates who lands a job straight out of university, keep interning while searching for jobs. You’ll keep your skills fresh and, if you make a good enough impression, the internship could evolve into a full-time gig.
- Get creative – two candidates recently landed jobs at DTDigital by holding the domain names of the city’s top creative directors to ransom in return for a meeting with them. They then showed up at a number of agencies, including Whybin\TBWA, DDB and Clemenger BBDO Melbourne, with a camera and wearing balaclavas, to present their portfolio. And while I’m not advocating trying the same stunt (it’s been done, so don’t go there), it does prove that coming up with a unique and innovative way to get in front of a company can work.
Preparing for interviews
Spending time preparing for interviews will not only improve your chances of landing the job, but will also reduce the nervous energy that builds up before an interview.
- Swot up on the company – before interviews, research the company. Who are their clients? What are their areas of expertise? The more you know about the company, the more the company will believe you really want to work there.
- Prepare questions – prepare some questions to ask at your interview. Employers will invariably ask if you have any questions during the interview; getting a blank response simply shows you’re just not that interested.
- Know your audience and plan your wardrobe accordingly – before you rock up for an interview, get a feel for what kind of environment they work in: formal, or informal. Believe me, there’s nothing worse than turning up for an interview in a suit if the person interviewing you is in jeans, and vice versa.
- Prepare physical examples of your work to bring to the interview – during an interview, if you’re showing a print piece in your portfolio, studios like it if you bring a copy of the actual piece with you, as it gives them something tactile to relate to.
- Write a script about each project – communication in an interview is key. Employers don’t want to just see your project; they want to understand your thinking behind it. A top tip is to draft a script explaining each project ahead of time, which you can read just before an interview to refresh your memory. It will take the pressure off big time.
- Be passionate and let your personality shine – I recently presented alongside the amazing Chris Doyle from Interbrand and he said something that really stuck with me: “I meet lots of great designers, but not that many great people.” In the end, companies are looking for creatives that will work well in their organisation, so if you’re not friendly, passionate and personable, they’ll simply hire someone else.
- Be humble – don’t say you’re a great designer, say you want to be a great designer. Employers are looking for team players that they can mould, not people who think they know it all. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, if they get a feeling you’re going to be a pain in the arse, they won’t hire you.
- Leave a calling card – an employer may see as many as eight people in a day while interviewing, so all too often who they interviewed tends to blur. Leaving behind a calling card is a great way to refresh an interviewer’s mind when they come to reviewing candidates, be it a business card or a piece of your work. The wonderful Jeremy Wortsman from The Jacky Winter Group has gone as far as to say he’d hire anyone who brings him muffins… magic!
- Follow up straight after – when you get home after the interview, drop the person that interviewed you a note to say how lovely it was to meet them; it’s a nice touch that shows you’re not only passionate about the role, but efficient and professional.
- Ask for feedback – if you didn’t get the job, spin it to your advantage and ask for feedback. It will help you better prepare for the next big interview.
THAT FIRST GIG
So you’ve landed that all-important first job, but that’s not a reason to take your foot off the gas. Quite the reverse in fact. First jobs are invariably not all you dreamed of; essentially you’re doing the donkey work that no one else wants to do. But work hard, be professional and soak up as much as you can and you’ll be promoted before you know it.
- Read – check out books like How To Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul.
- Find a mentor – identify which person in the office you aspire to be like in five years’ time and ask them to be a mentor; they’ll be honoured and you’ll get someone to lean on if you need it.
- Make yourself indispensable – take on every task with open arms and ask for more if you have down time.
- Be a sponge – you’re there to learn, so lap it up.
- Be lovely to everyone – unfortunately, not everyone out there is nice, but don’t make enemies, they can last a lifetime.
- Take it on the chin and get on with it – you’re not going to love all of the tasks that are given to you. Unfortunately, that’s the reality of work, but be enthusiastic about everything, work hard and always wear a smile. The more you jump to every task, the more you’ll get to work on the fun stuff.
- Be part of the conversation – don’t be afraid to ask questions. Talent only takes you so far. Being passionate and a real contributor will take you the whole nine yards. There’s always a fine line between passion and arrogance, so learn to get a feel for how people react to your suggestions and adjust accordingly.
- Work your socks off – it’s a simple equation: the harder you work, the faster you’ll get promoted.
- Ask for feedback – the more you ask for feedback, even if it’s negative, the faster you’ll grow as a designer. If you come to work every day with a big smile on your face, work hard, seem genuinely eager to learn and make yourself indispensable, your boss will be more inclined to help you get to that next level.
Thumbnail image: P.J. Onori, from The Noun Project.