Working expectations for design graduates

Published:  September 18, 2015
Heath Campbell



Tobias Blackwood, Aspect Studios
Chris Harris, Draw Studio
Jess Matthews, Jess Matthews Design
Daniel McKeating, Studio Lost and Found
Kate Pullen, Kate Pullen Draws


If you’re unprepared to dig into the design industry, the first few years after graduation can be difficult and, by difficult, I mean soul crushing. You doubt yourself. You even doubt your choice to become a graphic designer in the first place.

“The transition from uni to industry is tough! There’s no point denying it,” says Melbourne-based hand-lettering wunderkind Kate Pullen from Kate Pullen Draws.

“I still have trouble maintaining faith. It’s something I’m working on – having faith that this is the career path I should be pursuing, faith that my work is worth chipping away at.”

Kate Pullen Draws

Kate Pullen Draws

Faith is a fickle beast. We all have our crises, sure, but it’s how we deal with them that affects the direction of our design journey. Chris Harris from South Australia’s award-winning Draw Studio reflects on his time after graduation. “My first two years basically consisted of putting myself out there, getting rejected, learning and repeating the process,” he says. Harris’ journey speaks to the importance of perseverance, and the willingness to learn and adapt even after formal learning stops.

Jess Matthews from Jess Matthews Design adds to the discussion. “It wasn’t an easy road [after graduation]; it’s very frustrating to repeatedly hear feedback such as, ‘We think your work is great, but we’ve decided to go another way’.

“I was fortunate enough to get a permanent, well-paying job with a positive and supportive team, where I have learned so much more than I could’ve ever imagined. I am a better designer for it. I believe what you get out of an experience is equal to what you put in,” adds Matthews.

Perth-based Daniel McKeating, creative director at Studio Lost and Found, reflects on the importance for design graduates to have a personal brand, while also understanding when to listen to the priorities of potential clients.

“You do have to get out there and make some noise. I think this is important for any designer. You have to think of yourself as a brand and you’ve got to be clear about what makes you different as a brand. One of the best things I think I’ve learned – and it’s something I’ve carried with me my whole career – is to always speak in terms that matter to the other person and not to yourself.”

Tobias Blackwood from the Melbourne office of Aspect Studio speaks to the alternative routes to scoring paid design work:

“Post-graduation, I was mostly working in hospitality and picking up freelance work through my networks from work, and that was enough for me. I actually scored some good projects through working in non design-related jobs and meeting loads of different people,” he says.

When you eventually land your first design gig, your pay rate can vary wildly, from much lower than expected to (less often) higher than expected. Sometimes the work you do in your first job may not match your expectations, but if you feel like a valued member of the team, you can still get much out of the experience.

Jess Matthews Design

Jess Matthews Design

“I was very lucky in my first design role. I had creative freedom, and a varied collection of projects and responsibilities,” says Pullen. “To be honest, I was mostly incredibly grateful to have been given a job at all.”

“As a graduate, money wasn’t my main motivation, so when that chance finally arrived I was more excited for the opportunity to work for a studio getting paid to do what I loved,” agrees Harris. “I can see how that can be a vulnerable place to be, but looking back, I also see it as quite a vulnerable position [for a studio or client] to take on a graduate.”

Blackwood adds, “I’d have earned much more working full-time in hospitality or retail [than through these freelance gigs]. But it was better to have the job than no job. Besides, I felt valued and actually, to be fair, I was probably paid equivalent to my skill-set at that time.”

Draw Studio

Draw Studio

This brings us to the hot topic of the internship, with Matthews echoing her earlier thought that you will only gain as much as you give.

“Time constraints and sheer volume of work is one of the major reported differences between study and industry. This difference alone comes as quite a shock to many students,” says Matthews. “I completed a few internships and did lots of work experience during my studies, none of which were paid. This was always clear from the start though; the entire experience was very clear from the beginning. I had many positive experiences interning. I always made sure I asked lots of questions, asked for extra projects, and really tried to absorb myself in the industry while I was there. I think this kind of organisation and communication is key. Remember to ask for feedback. Asking specific questions will enable you to get really in-depth and useful answers from your mentor, which will be incredibly beneficial to your learning and development.”

Pullen adds, “I took part in the AGDA mentorship program twice and definitely received invaluable feedback and mentoring.”

Placements and mentorships can offer exposure to the business of design and to the pace of the marketplace, as well as giving graduates hands-on experience applying strategic thinking using the tools and techniques of their trade. More importantly, graduates can learn things about printers, suppliers, program shortcuts and industry lingo they’d never learn in the warm cocoon of university.

This AGDA Presents article first appeared in the August/September desktop

Thumbnail image by Kate Pullen Draws.

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