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Advice to Young Designers

Every now and again we get an email from a graphic designer seeking advice who just graduated from college. I try to reply with a few thoughts and have to quickly get back to work. After doing this many times, it got me thinking… I should make a blog post about this and get it all down in pixels. So here it is. A few random thoughts and things both Kyle and I have learned along the way. Hate it, love it, share it or save it. My intent is to help any young designers who are looking for a bit of guidance.

1. Sell yourself without selling yourself.

If you’re a graphic designer trying to get a job or freelance work, it’s extremely important that you have a website. Your website is your marketing tool. Before you start designing it, ask yourself some questions. What do you want them to know in the 2-5 seconds you have their attention? What project do you want to make sure they see? What’s the one thing you want them to take away from your site? What path do you want people to take as they click around? Think about the way you’re talking about yourself and your work. If you want to narrow in on a specific niche, then make those projects the most prominent and write your profile in such a way that speaks to it.

One of the biggest downfalls I’ve noticed with portfolio sites is that designers will post their work and say nothing about it. Or just give it a title. Employers and clients want to know the details. What was the assignment or goal of the project? What was the idea behind it? What inspired it? If these details are missing, then it’s just a pretty picture that may or may not be remembered. Showing that you had a strategy and solved a problem makes everything better.

Do you want a portfolio site, but don’t know how to code? No worries. Build your website with a service like WixCargo Collective, ProSite or Squarespace. What’s great about these services is that you can customize the design with endless options, use your own domain name and make edits to your site whenever you want. All for $12 a month (or less).

It doesn’t have to be fancy either. A designer and friend of mine, Drew Rios, has one of the smartest approaches to his portfolio site that I’ve seen. Here’s what it looks like:

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He only has this landing page that he designed and built. He clearly shows his name, what he does and how to see his work. The brilliant part is that he links out to different apps that do all the heavy lifting for him so he can easily make updates AND get his work on more public platforms. His design work links out to his Behance portfolio and his photography work links out to his Tumblr blog. He also links to his Dribbble, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram accounts, as well as his email address. It’s so simple, so incredibly smart and a great use of technology.

Once you have your work online, create a Pinterest board for your portfolio and pin each image to that board. When people repin your work and it starts to spread, it will draw more traffic to your site which bumps you up in the search engine results. We’ve gotten a few new business inquiries from having our work on Pinterest so there’s probably some headhunters or employers on there digging around too. Your next job could come to you!

2. Put yourself out there.

Even if you have a website and have cold emailed all the studios you know and love, that may not be enough. What has helped me in the past is getting my portfolio on some of the job-hunting websites like Behance, AIGA, Dribbble or Krop. These sites offer job postings for people looking and people hiring… which is great because you can search for jobs and be searched for by employers. Some employers go to these talent pool sites looking for the right fit. This makes it much easier on you because employers will have seen your work, read about you and liked both so much that they will contact you. All you have to do is be nice and show up for the interview.

One thing that I don’t suggest doing that a lot of people recommend is to email your hopeful future boss and invite them to grab a coffee and get to know each other. This has become the thing to do and everyone is doing it. The people in those positions don’t have the time to do this with everyone who asks and to be honest it puts them in an uncomfortable situation to say no. It’s become the norm so much that the invitation doesn’t have the same power that it used to.

Instead, try to meet that person in other ways. Maybe email them and ask if they have studio tours available or if they’ll be giving a talk locally anytime soon. Or if you see them at a design event, don’t be shy. Introduce yourself. Any of these avenues will make a much better impression.

3. Find the right fit.

Interview the employer just as much as they’re interviewing you. We all want the person on the other side of that conference room table to like us and our portfolio, but it’s just as important that you like them and what their company stands for. At the start, it’s easy to take anything you can get and I know sometimes you have to do just that to pay the bills. Eventually, when you can be pickier, it’s important to work for a company and people that you respect. If it’s a design firm or an ad agency, really look at their portfolio and ask yourself if that’s the kind of work you want to be doing. If it’s a company with their own products or services, ask yourself if this is a product/service that you are excited about and want to see succeed. If the answer to these questions is no, then you will most likely not be happy working there. Find a company that inspires you, whether that’s through their design work, product, service, philosophy, or outreach efforts. If you’re excited about the company and feel nervous to get the job, then it will be a great fit.

When I landed my first design job, I was just happy to be designing. I wasn’t too fond of the design work in their portfolio, but I thought I could go in and make a change. I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to change anything and we just had a different design aesthetic. The art direction given to me resulted in producing the same kind of work that I didn’t want to be doing.

4. Know what you’re worth.

Sometimes knowing what salary to ask for is a stressful guessing game… and employers can sometimes leave the ball in your court. Thankfully, the AIGA put together a Salary Survey where they gather data from other creatives in the industry, and more specifically, in your same role and area of expertise. It’s a good guide to reference what the average salary is for your role.

Salaries and paid time off can usually be negotiated, but it’s different for all positions and companies. Positions are sometimes slotted with a pre-determined budget, but sometimes there’s a salary range. In my experience, I’ve been able to negotiate starting out at a certain salary, with the stipulation that after 60 days, my salary will go up X dollars. Another time, a position I interviewed for was offered to me at X dollars and I asked for $1,000 more. After getting the job, my manager said that if an employer really wants someone, they’re not going to lose them over $1,000. I’ve also had friends who were able to negotiate their number of vacation days if they felt the salary was slightly lacking. If you’re not sure what to do, your best bet is to use common sense. Feel the situation out and see if there’s some wiggle room. Just remember to do your homework and know what you’re worth.

5. Do more.

It’s easy to fall into the autopilot trap and just do what you’re told. Sometimes we don’t feel like it’s our job to do more than this and if we did, we’d be stepping on toes. But employers usually like hearing ideas. If you’re given a project and you think there’s a better solution, say something. If you have a better idea, suggest it. This not only makes your employer feel like you’re really caring and thinking about the project but more importantly that you care about seeing your company succeed. I’m not suggesting that you approach your employer as if your idea is better than theirs. Or to challenge their ideas with every project. But if you see something that can be improved, don’t be shy.

In order to be good at what you do, you have to work hard. Put in the extra hours and make it as good as it can be. Do the effort and you will benefit from it. Constantly improve your craft and challenge yourself to do something that makes you uncomfortable. Trying something new and pushing yourself is what makes us grow as designers. Some of our best work comes out of it.

6. Make friends.

Get to know people in your design community. Get off the computer and connect with people in person. Go to AIGA events, STA eventsCreativeMornings talks or become a volunteer for a local art/design organization that needs help. Immerse yourself in the culture and learn from people who have been in your shoes. Don’t go to things just to network—go because you want to learn something and you genuinely want to be there. I guarantee you will get something out of it. Surround yourself with like-minded people who have a similar passion, who you respect and look up to, who challenge you, who help you and who push you. Make something with a group of designers that you love and respect. Share it with the world. See what happens.

Look up the people you admire on your social networks and follow them. Look up the people they follow. These sites are all about sharing, whether it’s news, events, new work, job postings, thoughts, etc. It’s a great way to learn something new, get involved, and meet people.

Expanding your network is the best way to get your foot in the door of a new job. Employers tend to first seek out referrals from trusted sources or they will headhunt people they’ve had their eye on before opening a position to the general public. So the more people you know, the better your chances are of having your name passed around if a position opens up. Of course, you have to be the right fit with what they’re looking for and a portfolio that impresses them. But having a good network conquers half the battle.

7. Stay positive.

Having a positive attitude is so important. Your personality and attitude are just as important as your portfolio. The way you react to a situation or critique is just as memorable as your work. There will always be good and bad projects, good and bad creative directors, and good and bad clients. People will love your work and others won’t. You’ll write a heartfelt email to a potential employer and they won’t respond. We all go through it. You have to not let it get you down.

I think a lot of us want to have the best title at the best job and we want both right out of school. At least I know I was this way. But, I quickly learned that there are about 40 years in the average person’s career and you can’t get everything you want in the first 5. Or even 10. And what if you did? Life would just get boring. What matters is that you do what makes you happy. It doesn’t matter who you work for or what kind of projects you work on. As long as you’re happy. If you aren’t, then it’s time for a change.



Written by Kim Knoll, Partner and Creative Director at Knoed Creative in Chicago.
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Related articles:
5 Ways to Attract Your Own Clients by Knoed Creative
Advice for Emerging Designers via AIGA