How to shine at your degree show

It’s that time of year when the student show season is upon us. The work is done. Your portfolio content is created. And now comes the hard part (yes, you heard me) – now you need to make the most of it all.

I’ve spent many years (15 since I had my own graduate show) scouting graphic design degree shows to find the best talent to join us at Design Bridge, where I'm a creative director. Year on year I’ve seen the same mistakes repeated, but have also seen just what it takes to stand out and make those all-important first steps into a successful design career.

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So if you’re genuinely keen to get a job in the industry, but struggle to even imagine how to go about it when show time hits, here are my top tips for standing out for all the right reasons in the coming weeks and months.

01. Signpost yourself

Know this: The big degree shows will be uncomfortably crowded. It’s essentially a cattle market, and that can be intimidating and overwhelming for both student and potential employer. From my perspective it’s tough to physically spot the standout work and even trickier to identify who was responsible for it.

The most valuable advice I can give is to clearly label your work with your name and have your contact details available RIGHT NEXT TO IT (ideally in the form of a simple business card).

Label your work, but also point me in the direction of the corresponding portfolio, which should also be clearly labelled and easy to find. As basic as it sounds, so many graduates neglect this simple step. You’re hoping to work in the communications industry, and this is your first test – get it right.

02. Get talking

Bite the bullet and get chatting to people

OK, deep breath. Now comes the part that, for many, is the most terrifying. During the show itself, no matter now scared you feel, force yourself to talk to people. Ask them questions, show them your work and show them your enthusiasm. I know how nerve-wracking it can be – I was too scared to speak to Mary Lewis when I saw her perusing my own degree show, and that lost opportunity to talk to an industry icon still haunts me.

So trust me, relax. We are all just looking for a pleasant chat with pleasant people, nobody’s going to get hurt. All you need to say is ‘Hi, nice to meet you. Can I take you through the rest of my portfolio?’

Don’t miss the chance to talk to industry professionals. Even if it leads to nothing, every chat is an opportunity to learn, build your confidence and get noticed. So smile, clear your throat and bite that bullet.

03. Keep it simple

Time to get brutal. If a piece of work requires an accompanying written essay in order for someone to understand it, the design is not immediate enough. And in the hustle and bustle of this environment, people won't have time to read much.

Keep your portfolio simple and effortless. If you don’t like a project, take it out. It is far, far better to show fewer projects than to show work you’re not happy with. Think of the benefits; this means never having to apologise for a project, losing that knot in your stomach as you present it, never having to feign passion for something you never really liked that much anyway.

If you are showing it, believe in it. This confidence will shine through and act as a huge selling point for both your work and you.

04. Put everything in its rightful place

Put your best work front-and-centre

This is essential – you must think of your portfolio as the best story you’ll ever tell, so order is key. Put your favourite work at the beginning and the end. It’s an age-old trick, but these are the pages that the human brain is programmed to remember.

Plus, starting with a project you love will boost your confidence and give you the buzz you need to keep going. Then finally, end on a high note with another killer piece of work that will leave them hungry for more.

Spend some valuable time on what goes where in your portfolio. Run through it a few times to see what works, and if after one run through something doesn’t sit quite right, change it. You’ll see it improve with every run-through. Take a look at our tips for curating a creative portfolio for more guidance.

05. Keep a bit of rough

When we’re looking for people to join us, we love to see how you think, so it’s good to keep some rough workings in there as clues to the type of designer you are. These can be bound together and tucked into the back of your folder, should anyone want to see them (they will). 

Seeing the multitude of other avenues that you could have gone down with a project, or the effort you put into the crafting and thinking, is often a joy to behold. For us it’s like ‘the making of’ and is so interesting. In the real world, this is what day-to-day designing is all about, so embrace it, because we do.

06. Do your homework on agencies

If you get invited in to meet an agency (and well done if you do), get researching. Take the time to study its work, its ethos, its approach. Know who you’re hoping to work for and why – don’t just turn up with your fingers crossed that they’ll like you. 

Better yet, get ahead and arm yourself with this knowledge on the off-chance that you’ll bump into someone from one of your dream agencies at your show. Life has a funny way of ambushing you, so be prepared.

07. Remember that you are your best asset

Agencies are after people whose personalities fit their culture

At the risk of sounding like a careers adviser, be yourself and let your personality come across when you meet agencies. Great work is, well, great, but everybody is fundamentally searching for people they would like to work with. They're looking for people they’ll be sitting alongside, the people they’ll be directing, not just people with a thorough approach to layout. 

Even if your work isn’t perfect for a particular agency, if you are the right personality fit for the team you might just find you’re the kind of person they want to spend time with and mould into their next big thing.

08. Embrace your nerves (they’re just adrenalin in disguise)

Of course, you may feel very nervous about a degree show situation. You’re human. The best way to deal with your nerves is to remember that they’ll be perceived as a positive thing. You see, your nerves show that you care, that you’re passionate about the opportunity and that you’re taking the whole thing seriously.

It can be off-putting if someone is over-confident to the point of cockiness. It’s far preferable to meet people who realise that they don’t yet know it all. I certainly don’t – I’m still learning every day. I still get nervous, and when I do, it’s always a healthy reminder that I love what I do.

09. This is your chance, take it!

Your degree show can be a great stepping stone on to bigger and better things

Getting a job is often about being in the right place at the right time. But that time might come after a period of uncertainty, hard graft and lower pay.

Yes, ideally you’re looking for a full-time job, but if you’re offered a work placement at an agency that you admire, you should take it if you possibly can. It’s your chance to prove yourself, and at your next interview people will be impressed that you’ve been recognised, that you’ve gained some experience, and that you were willing to do the work. Who knows, you could even tease out some recruitment rivalry.

On any placement you’ll learn the ropes, meet people who might champion you even years later in your career, and you’ll get your hands on real-life projects. Just say yes and see what happens.

10. Smile and enjoy

Get stuck in and take pride in your work

This is a big time for you. You’re leaving years of student life behind and entering the big, wide world. The hard graft of completing your project work is over, but the really exciting stuff is just about to begin. So have fun seeing your creations displayed for all to see. You deserve a drink and a moment to celebrate, knowing that right now, this moment, is one you'll probably never encounter again.

So get stuck in, take pride in your work, and be energised by all you have ahead of you. You may not come out of the student shows with a job – not everyone does – but you’ll come out with plenty of tales to tell, and hopefully a few business cards, too. Believe me, it’s all going to be just fine.

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