Graduated. Now what?

Graduating and finding work is difficult at the best of times. I graduated aged 27, with a first, and with life experience that gave me many skills around resilience, networks, social skills and understanding of the business world. It wasn’t a recession, and it wasn’t a pandemic but it was still extremely tough to find work; so my heart goes out to those who are looking for work right now. I wanted to share some of my story in solidarity with the many graduates that are feeling uncertain about the world of work and design. It will be challenging to find a role, but if your heart is in it, you are good at what you do and are prepared to work hard and learn – you can make it work. How do you navigate the road ahead?

Mandy Barker

In the April before I graduated I knew I wanted to be based in Newcastle, so I started looking at the studios and finding out who’s work and ethos I admired. I quickly made a shortlist (although none of them were hiring at the time). I found out the direct name of people I needed to see, found out their direct email (if it wasn’t publicly available I would call the studio) and emailed them/called them to say I would be visiting Newcastle on a certain day and could I meet them for a portfolio review. I got 5 meetings. I set off at 6am from Scarborough and spent the day visiting the studios including Jump, Sumo and Wonderstuff. It was a knackering day, but even just getting in front of people and getting known was a good place to start. At times I got harsh feedback on my portfolio (but learnt a lot-do not be precious about your work, unless you have evidence for every decision you’ve made on a project) which made me see it differently and make it better.

Apart from these 5, there were a LOT of studios I got in touch with and didn’t hear a thing. Zero. Zilch. People are busy, particularly small businesses. It’s tough.

The studio visits didn’t turn into anything, so I stayed in touch whilst I continued to job hunt. I signed up with some creative recruitment agencies (last thing I wanted to do but I needed a job), and got a job as an In House designer for a software company. This got me to Newcastle and got me a wage so I could still look for studio work. My plan was to stay in house for a maximum of 6 months, so I could learn some basics of the real world vs design at uni (it’s very different: tight deadlines, pressure, fast work and all the things that go with design-meetings, presentation, admin, print management, art working-the quicker you are aware of this the better). I knew if I stayed longer than 6 months it may be even harder to get a job in a studio, as in house is a very different world.

Within those 6 months, I kept in touch with the studios I loved. I was very persistent. I sent mailers and checked in every now and again. I sent a poster in the post to the studios I admired, that I screen printed with a play on a song saying ‘it’s only graphic design but I like it.’ Think about things that will make you stand out. Not just a CV. CVs are dying….they all look the same and have no personality. You’re creative so show your skills, try something new! Also think about it from a business perspective, what personality traits do you have that can help the studio grow, think differently or be better? Try and get this across.

6 months in, I finally saw a job advertised in a studio I loved. Even though I had stayed in touch I hadn’t been sent the job spec (it’s up to you to keep your eye out, business owners do not have time to keep referring to portfolios-be proactive. I applied, of course!

I finally got an interview, I had 2 (one seemed more of a personality match and the other more skill based) I also had to complete a creative task designing an editorial layout. It was stressful and a late night as I really wanted to impress. I did it and got the job. I feel part of this was down to persistence, keeping touch, passion, and showing personal projects in my portfolio that showed I was interested in life and the world-not just design.

So how do you get noticed, during a recession, when jobs are being cut and more people are applying? Be yourself, think about what you want, make sure design is what you really want to do. That your heart is in it. Show that and fight for it. If the studio doesn’t have a role, see if you can get an internship, if they don’t do internships see if you can do some freelance. Both are an excellent way for them to get to know you.

Once you land the job in a studio, that is a challenge in itself. Learning is accelerated, you start to realise what’s important and what isn’t. But that’s another blog in itself which we are brewing.

Recap

  • Don’t be precious about your work – your portfolio should always be improving, don’t let it sit and stagnate
  • We see a lot of the same work in portfolios, the same subjects, the same mock ups. Try to be different-don’t be scared to shake it up
  • Build relationships-get to know people in industry, it’s a small world and it’s easy to say hello
  • Show you care about what they care about (and make sure you actually do-don’t ever force that people will see straight through it)
  • Have a personal approach. Do not use ‘sir/madam’ – that’s the worst!
  • Communication is key. Design is communication. So if you get the email wrong you could jeopardise any chance to get a role with that studio in the future. Make sure you have the right tone in your intro email, it’s very easy for an email to come across as arrogant which doesn’t set the best first impression
  • Think outside the box – everyone is sending CVs/portfolios by email, but studios want to know who you are. What’s your personality, will you fit in with the team, do you have a purpose and world interest? You want to be in the creative industry, make sure you stand out!
  • Don’t just think about design in silo, what else can you do that will impress studios? Business acumen and networking go a long way…
  • Don’t use the same portfolio work as your peers. We see the same work, the same skills, the same approach…
  • Don’t stop learning after you graduate, even if you can’t get a job. You learn much more in the real world, be inspired everyday. Create a project. Do an exhibition. Invite studios you love. STAND OUT.

What I would recommend for those graduating:

  • Constantly review and revise your portfolio
  • Attend portfolio reviews
  • Bigger studios are much more likely to be able to offer the support a placement student/graduate will need as they have much more time and resource the bigger the team
  • Check out Ladies Wine and Design Newcastle and other support/peer groups
  • If you are wanting to be in a small studio, show a range of work and specialisms; including print, digital and brand. It is also important to show you have some commercial work/client handling.
  • Don’t instantly dismiss in house design – it is great for experience. Look at in house opportunities, there may be more opportunities here within the current climate
  • Try and get personal freelance work, this will give you experience particularly working to a deadline and with clients

For further reading, read Kat’s blog on graduating here https://sailcreative.co.uk/lifes-not-always-plain-sailing/

A few of our recommended books I have used along the way:

  • Failed It
  • Feck Perfuction
  • Show Your Work
  • Don’t get a job…make a job
  • Know your onions
  • How to be a Graphic Designer without losing your soul

Good luck! I know how difficult it is, but remember life is a journey, work hard and make things happen, say hello, and always always learn – be a sponge.

Mandy x

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