Computer Arts

Design graduate's survival guide

This summer thousands of new design graduates are flooding into the industry and competition for jobs has never been so intense. Lawrence Zeegen has some survival tactics to help you swim rather than sink.

It's that time of the year again. The next couple of months will witness a deluge of graduates entering the industry. Every bright young hopeful will be eager to make the right impression and get on the first rung of the ladder of success. In 2005 the Higher Education Statistics Agency reported that almost 57,000 students were enrolled on design courses nationally; arithmetic suggests that approximately 19,000 new designers emerge annually.

Staggering, isn't it? So if you're straight out of college and competing to stand out from the pack, here's some advice that should help you get that first job.

1. Welcome to the real world
Understanding the industry

Before firing out emails, sending out CVs and cold-calling prospective clients, think long and hard about the best place for you within the design and creative industries. Do some research and do it well. You want to be an art director? Find out the difference between an art director in an ad agency and one in a magazine publisher. You want to be a graphic designer? Well, what type of studio? Research companies that fit the vision you have for your work and career. Don't approach packaging studios with a portfolio of publishing work - you'll be wasting your time, and theirs.

2. Getting a foot in the door
Placements and internships

The very best way of getting started is to undertake placements - smart designers began the process as students, not graduates, but it's never too late. Don't look down on placements because you work for free - the reward will be getting your name and portfolio about town, as well as valuable work-related experience and a true insight into designing in the real world. And placements can often develop into paid positions.

Be organised, be positive, be committed and be confident. You'll also need to be flexible, as you could end up working on a range of projects - perhaps researching for other designers, helping to create presentation boards or generating ideas.

3. Making the right impression
Job applications and interviews

Finding the right job isn't easy. However, you can improve the odds by making sure you're in the right place at the right time with the right portfolio. While it's true that some designers pick up their first job upon graduation, the statistics are far from promising. According to a National Employee Skills Survey, only 39 per cent of new appointments are filled by graduates - the other 61 per cent are recruited from within the industry. You're going to have to find a way into this exclusive club.

Applying for the right job requires top-level research techniques. Start by knowing where and when the best jobs are advertised. Often word-of-mouth insider info beats ploughing through the design press and online recruitment ads - many companies only resort to placing ads when this kind of informal trawl has failed. Placements can be a crucial source for studios with a vacancy to fill.

If you are looking at job ads, then read the job spec and the requirements carefully. If a company specifies three to five years' relevant experience, don't waste your time - pursue other avenues. Approach companies that you respect and ask if you can drop by to present your portfolio and discuss your work. Even if they don't have any suitable vacancies, this kind of informal advice session may pay dividends when a job does come up.

When it comes to making contact, whether it's by email, letter or online application form, make sure that every single word, sentence and paragraph is read through numerous times for poor spelling and incorrect or incoherent grammar. Don't just check on screen, but print the document out too - you are looking to work in communication design, so make sure you are communicating effectively! Take special care with your CV.

If a company wants to see you and your work, then there is something that they like the look of, so be positive but be professional too. Research them before you arrive; anything you find out on the day should only be the icing on the cake. Never, ever be late - if you're hideously early then walk around the block, but if you arrive five minutes early then you may get the opportunity to check the place out as well as leaf through any press books, normally laid out in reception to impress clients.

4. Make international connections
Networking without borders

With the UK economy apparently in free fall, what better time to start looking for opportunities further afield? Networking on a global scale isn't tricky these days with a plethora of blogs, wikis and websites widely available, but why not go one better. Rather than spending the money on a new tent and a ticket for a rain-sodden summer festival, trade up and fly budget to a design conference. Make new contacts, add to your CV and meet with representatives of international design organisations to boot.

5. Going global
Working abroad can pay off

International study trips and exchange programmes have given many former students a flavour of the opportunities abroad. A number of UK design schools and the general design scene are held in high esteem internationally, so it's relatively easy to get access to companies - assuming work permits and local employment restrictions aren't an issue.

Moving from Dalston to Dubai may not be plain sailing, but the potential rewards and career prospects can outweigh the drawbacks. As with any new initiative, plan carefully and get advice from others who have taken the same route.

6. Succeeding at work
Becoming irreplaceable - make every day at your new job count

Landing a job might be first and foremost in your mind, but keeping it and getting the utmost from the experience has to be the next challenge. Make every day count. Consider just what you would like to take from the company - that's not what you can half-inch from the stationery cupboard, but what you can learn and achieve. If you're clear about your goals, you'll be sure to make every moment matter. Seize the initiative; show willing and be eager to learn. Arriving early and staying late demonstrates determination, but working effectively during office hours can say much more. Great designers have lives outside of design too!

7. Think ahead
Career planning

It is never too early to plan a career. Forward-thinking might help you reach the boardroom a year or two early, but most dream jobs have an uncharted career path, so it makes sense to have a plan. Speak to design professionals about their own pathways, read interviews and profiles, look at the projects that helped break your own design heroes - how can you learn from their pearls of wisdom? Take stock every few months of your achievements, keep your CV up to date, and maintain a real interest in what other designers and studios are doing. The next move up the ladder may be sooner than you think.

8. Be yourself
Finding your own style

However much you're inspired by your design heroes, resist the temptation to mimic their work. Those who cash in on a particular look or fashion in design are less likely to stand the test of time. Design studios, at least the best ones, are always on the lookout for free-thinking creatives whose flair and personality are evident in the work they produce. Finding your voice or visual signature may not come easily, but ensuring that you're creating design solutions that are truly your own should be your ultimate goal.

9. Gain new skills
Lifelong learning

Design education isn't always crucial for gaining employment within the industry; in fact a Labour Force Survey a few years ago suggested that only 41 per cent of designers hold a degree or equivalent qualification. So, how are the others getting the skills they need? Lifelong learning must play a part - open your mind to the fact that each and every project should deliver a range of new skills. Fine-tune your production skills, learn how to deliver great presentations - whatever you're involved in, make sure you excel.


The perfect portfolio
A portfolio should be an extension of your personality as a designer - it has to chart your past, highlight your present and inform your future. Anyone viewing your body of work should be able to comprehend your take on design, visualise your aspirations as a designer and get a real flavour of what motivates and interests you.

Putting together a portfolio that pushes all the buttons isn't easy, and the process has to remain under review throughout your career - so be sure to update your portfolio regularly. They come in all shapes and sizes, and whether online or printed they need to show your passion as succinctly as possible. Select your work carefully and review your choices. Are they your best pieces? Do they talk to the viewer effectively and communicate what you wish to say?

Resist the temptation to chuck all of your work into ring-bound plastic sleeves. You are no longer a student, you're a professional, albeit one looking for a job. Invest in your portfolio wisely. You'll live or die by the quality of the work within, and by how it's presented.

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