“I Wish I Knew That Before I Created My Portfolio!”

10 Tips for Landing Your First (or Next) Design Job

Ring goes the school bell! Education Month continues here on the ADC Blog, and we reached out to the ADC community to ask teachers, mentors and all-around educators (official or otherwise) to share the tips and tricks that they teach in the classroom.

Our next feature is by Denise Anderson, Assistant Professor and Senior Portfolio Coordinator​ for the Robert Busch School of Design at Kean University.

Whether you’re starting your design career or updating your book for a new position, these ten items will assist you on the road ahead:

1. Back up your work. Right now.

Each semester, I inevitably have at least one student who tells me in panic, “My hard drive crashed and I’ve lost everything!” There’s no justification for spending months, or even years, creating a body of work and then risk losing it to a virus or hardware failure. Several (free!) online tools, including Dropbox and your school Google Drive account, make it easy to back up your work. Adobe Creative Cloud subscribers get free Cloud storage. Or, if you can’t trust yourself to back up your own files, buy an external hard drive and let Apple’s Time Machine do it for you. CDs and memory sticks work in a pinch, but should not be considered a long-term solution. I recommend storing your files in three separate places, and one should be off-site, in case something happens.

2. Your portfolio is only strongest as your weakest piece.

The object of “The Weakest Link,” a TV game show that was popular a few years ago, was to earn money by building a chain of consecutive correct answers, and the metaphor works here. To land a design job, you need to create a strong consecutive body of work. You can accomplish this through:

  • Consistency. Does the website you created include a master grid on every page? Are typeface styles consistent throughout your branding project? Does the ad campaign you designed have diverse pieces that still feel like part of the same family? An art director can quickly assess a designer’s ability to make connections both aesthetically and conceptually. Those connections speak volumes about a student’s design sensibility and sensitivity to details.
  • Believability. Creating brands that are smart and with heart can be challenging, but you know you’ve created something believable if an art director looks at your work and has to ask whether it’s a an actual product or business. The brand stories you invent should seem real, meet the needs of a plausible audience and connect emotionally to the viewer. Think in terms of practicing for the real world.
  • Process and prototypes. In a world of digital assets and social media, it’s refreshing to see and touch something real. Include your preliminary sketches or word maps, especially if your process for developing an idea is rich, or your packaging or book design is well constructed. A physical examination of your work can help an art director determine your ability to create prototypes and your attention to detail. If you are attentive to your own personal work, you will be attentive to client projects.

3. Include five integrated campaigns. Eliminate two.

Art directors are busy and want to quickly get a sense of a student’s body of work. They don’t have time to waste, so edit your projects to display the strongest and most cohesive work in your digital and/or print portfolio(s). Transmedia storytelling is a good strategy for connecting your ideas across multiple print and screen channels, as long as you select the appropriate applications for your integrated brand campaigns. Remember, it’s not necessary or even desirable to include every design school project you have ever completed in your presentation portfolio. Save a few things to display on your website only, which will augment your portfolio, such as illustrations, a series of book covers or smaller brands that don’t need to tell a big story. Whichever projects you select, choose wisely.

4. Include personal projects.

Many good designers graduate every semester, so how can you stand out from the crowd? One way is to include projects that fire your passion. If you’re an illustrator, challenge yourself to do a daily illustration and create a blog/social media page about it. If you have an interest outside of design, turn it into a design project, such as a book about your recent trip to Machu Picchu. Personal (or passion) projects not only communicate your ability to design, but also share something intimate about who you are. This kind of personal revelation can connect a reviewer to you, and inspire them to refer you someone who is hiring even if they’re not, or serve as a conversation starter in an interview.

 5. Let your work speak for itself.

Gone are the days when the only way to get a job is to drag a large print portfolio through a revolving door and into a crowded elevator for a meeting with a creative director. Much of what you do will be viewed on websites when you’re not around, so it’s essential that the work speaks for itself. The viewer should not have to guess why you selected an image or chose a particular application format to convey your concept.

 6. Focus on the work, not on the presentation.

An art director will see right through the slick Photoshop effect you’re using to mask a feeble effort, which is to say that no amount of “seasoning” will spice up a bad concept or design. Your portfolio is all about your ideas and how you execute them through your projects. An art director should remember you for the content of your book, not the dazzle of your fancy graphics. Use the following criteria to determine if you’re likely to engage an art director’s attention. Your work should be: (1) distinctive; (2) cohesive; (3) relevant; and (4) memorable. Be honest with yourself. If something is not your best effort, embellishing won’t help. Leave it out.

7. Let a professional photograph your work.

Photographing your work is more difficult than you think. Most students know little about proper lighting and or how to art direct the presentation of their own work. An art director, who is accustomed to professional photography, won’t be able to appreciate the work due to poor quality of the images. Yes, there are some exceptions of students being able to do it well, but in most cases, hiring a professional or bartering with a friend studying photography is the way to go.

8. Focus on your presentation.

I know I just said don’t focus on the presentation, but only because you need to create a solid book of work before you go out to market yourself. A beautiful type treatment, unusual color palette or well art directed photo will certainly get noticed, but a paying job will be elusive if your presentation skills are weak. Also, your ability to market yourself and your brand will be under scrutiny because the art director wants to know how you will handle presenting to clients.

9. Ask for advice. Take the advice.

Don’t just listen to your professor, but also to your mentors, colleagues and other design professionals. You may find that their recommendations have a common thread. Until you really know what you are doing, give their suggestions a try. It doesn’t take much time to flush left some text or try a new typeface in a logo. At the end of the day, you’re the one who makes the final decision.

10. Design every touchpoint.

Design is way of life, not just a profession. As a seasoned designer, I intuitively design everything— how I hang the toilet paper (under), what stamps I use on an envelope (thought provoking images) and what color rooms I live in (a green kitchen makes me happy and want to cook more). As a student, you need to design every touchpoint, any point of contact between a job and yourself, for two reasons:

  • To brand yourself. Every single touchpoint you create is part of the story about YOU, whether it’s a handshake, a quiet conversation, or how you arrange your spoon and cup at the coffee shop. Each is a window to your unique qualities and design sensibility. A talented illustrator can add illustrations to his brand solutions. It may not be unique, but it will shed light on your style and, coupled with your design aesthetics, may mean you’ll be the candidate that stands out.
  • To pass the test. An art director who receives an email link to your website, your business card or your resume by mail cannot help but grade, even subconsciously, your proficiency in layout design, typography and color. If you’re deemed a good designer, and “pass the test,” your name will likely make the list of designers under consideration.

Yes, the road from student to professional designer can be challenging and uneven, but having a well-defined personal brand and a professional portfolio will make your journey much smoother, and in many cases, give you a good head start over the less prepared. For designers, there’s no better apparatus for communicating your passion and confidence than a well-designed personal brand and cohesive, professional book of work. Remember, your portfolio is an organic, fluid, and evolving representation of your work and personal brand. It needs nurturing and frequent updating as your skills and experience evolve.