Upgrade your design employment prospects

What kind of qualities do you need to become a creative director and propel your career into the stratosphere? It's not just design chops, that's for sure…

Just what exactly is it that makes one designer more employable than another? What is it that makes one CV stand out from the pile on a creative director's desk? What factors make for a sky-rocketing career path and see some designers shoot to creative director status in a few years, while others slug it out in front of a Mac for decades? It's not just creative skill, that's for sure – we've all been guilty of bemoaning the creative director who rarely opens Photoshop. The truth is that success at the top boils down to a lot more than longevity and a familiarity with the Layers panel.

The good news is as long as you have your verve, with the summer lull on the horizon, this is the time to strengthen your CV, design portfolio and personal brand with the extra skills, experience or qualifications you've gained.

So what creative x-factors are employers looking for? What further spokes should you be adding to your design wheel to make your CV shout out from the rest? Remember, it's just as much about attitude as it is about skills and experience. These are changes you can make now to help set the stage for future success. Whether you're a graduate entering the industry or a seasoned professional looking for a career lift, never lose sight of the fact that paying attention to your CV, folio and broader professional and personal experiences can help you accelerate up the career ladder.

Attitude is all

Above all else, when it comes to securing a role, attitude can go as far as any knockout folio. Most people we speak to in the industry – who also deal with recruiting – underline the fact that people skills, leadership qualities, and a drive to learn and develop can be as valuable as creative expertise itself. In short, if you can't express your ideas with energy and commitment to the people that matter – and see them through to the conclusion – there's little point having the idea in the first place.

"I think being a person who is always hungry to learn makes you a more interesting human, and definitely shows your willingness to adapt to projects and different work environments," says Jessica Hische.

Hische is both a creative and an employer. Her client work includes projects for Wes Anderson, The New York Times and Oxfam, but it's her side project work – which includes the websites Daily Drop Cap and Don't Fear The Internet – that she advocates as being most beneficial to her creatively.

"You never know what a seemingly different skill will bring to your current work. I love to learn about fields that are adjacent to mine because it makes me a great delegator. If I understand web design and how it works, I can use those skills not only to help myself, but also to help others find the eople they need for a project."

It's about you

In the business world – and let's admit for a minute that the creative industries are a business – the most appealing personality traits for potential candidates are well-known. According to a 2014 Universum (the Stockholm-based employer branding firm) poll, professionalism (86 per cent), high energy (78 per cent) and confidence (61 per cent) are the top three traits employers say they are looking for in new employees.

If a potential employer sees that you have the skills and experience to carry out a design role, then showing you have leadership qualities and other appealing traits can lift you above your fellow candidates. Glenn Tutssel is executive creative director and chairman of Brand Union, and has been responsible for launching the careers of dozens of creatives, including Jonathan Ford and the team behind Pearlfisher. He says creative expertise is a prerequisite for the design industry, and a can-do attitude and energetic personality are just as critical.

"Honesty and integrity [are important]. The problem – and also the strength – of our industry is that few people truly create, but a lot of people take the creative credit," explains Tutssel, whose career spans stints as creative director at MP&P, where he worked on brands including Shell, BP , Royal Mail and Rank Xerox before establishing Tutssels and Brand Union, where clients include Channel 4, Absolut and Vodafone. Enthusiasm counts for 99 per cent of his career advice, but that's not always easy to see from a CV or portfolio.

"As well as the ability to solve a brief, present complex ideas succinctly and lead people – the ability to manage a team and direct people is a real skill – presentation skills and people skills are valued, too," continues Tutssel, who is also an external lecturer at several London art colleges and an advocate for nurturing creative talent. "Awards make a difference," he adds. "But great work that you can claim as your own, rather than just being in the same studio when it was done, will command a bigger salary – [although] you have to live up to it!"

So what else can you do to ensure the full extent of your personality and professional temperament are noted? You could volunteer your skills, take on charity or collaborative work and show you have a creative streak that runs deeper than a time-for-money attitude.

Self-initiated work is key to this. Side projects show you're not just creative by profession, but driven by an energy and aspirations that are non-revenue based, too. A self-initiated project is the perfect means of testing the waters of a new career choice. If you're a designer with an interest in videography, your own project will give you the creative scope to learn and grow, without commercial client pressures. It's important to remember, then, that any skills or experiences you collect add to your existing skills on your CV – they don't replace them.

"Don't feel pressured to start a new career, which feels like you're starting from scratch," says Hische. "You can take the work you currently do and start pushing it in a direction you're looking to pursue. If you already do graphic design and want to get into illustration, start incorporating your own illustrations into design pitches. If you want to get into film-making, begin by making small film projects about your own work or about people around you, and let it grow from there. Once people see your skill, which has been developed to the point where they feel confident in hiring you, your portfolio will shift dramatically over the course of a year or two, until suddenly you wake up and realise you've become a film-maker."

Promo yourself

It's obvious advice, but it's always worth remembering that your portfolio shows what you can do, while your CV shows you're capable, experienced and qualified enough to do it. So how do you go about telling the people who matter that you've upgraded yourself? When applying for a role at a new agency or studio, you'll normally be asked to submit a CV, covering letter and portfolio link. Each of these needs to do a particular job, and while the specifics of how to construct a blockbuster portfolio are numerous (try Computer Arts' Portfolio Handbook for starters), it can be easy to overlook the importance of a good covering letter and a well-structured CV.

For creatives, a list of achievements and personal accomplishments should be included in your CV. Pick examples that call attention to work experience where you've worked independently or driven a project without the guidance of direct leadership. In your covering letter, present examples of your work that show how you've saved, created or achieved things in a previous position, and how self-motivation was critical to that success. "Work experience in a similar environment or company is vital – and this needs to be backed up with examples of work," says Jo Burthem senior consultant, Graphic Design, at the creative sector specialist recruiter Studio Source and Lipton Fleming.

Burthem specialises in placing creatives in new roles, and understands intimately the wider personality and professional traits employers often look out for: "Business acumen is important, as well as resilience and the ability to take it on the chin when necessary," she says. She also mentions the importance of diplomatic skills, which involves "coaxing people around to your way of thinking in a gentle way."

Personal interests and hobbies are areas Burthem thinks have taken an unfair pounding of late. Lots of online advice recommends that creatives should tightly edit the hobbies and interests sections of their CVs. In these areas, creative employers are looking for two things: problem-solving ability and an ongoing dedication to learning. Why? Because employers want adaptable employees who will grow in their roles.

Such types of experiences don't have to revolve around your creative skills, though. You might volunteer at a local youth club or charity, be involved in a community art project or enterprise, or perhaps you play sport at the weekend. All of these achievements elevate your professional standing even if none of them seemingly involve professional creative output. If your CV says you coach a local youth football team, it shows you take a personal responsibility for your community and its needs – you'd do the same in the workplace. An interest in travel, foreign languages and international development doesn't just mean you like a holiday: it shows you're keen to improve yourself and benefit from new experiences.

"I like to see a CV that attests to an individual's drive and general interests. Have they set out to achieve something regardless of financial or professional gain? Does this show problem solving? Self-motivation? Self-sufficiency?" asks Burthem. Many of these attributes are more valuable than experience or skill, but showing them to potential employers – or even existing employers, should you be looking for a pay rise or promotion – requires different skills and executions entirely.

Self-promo

Of course, all of the above needs to be communicated, and that boils down to self-promotion. Whether your intention is to get a pay rise, a new job or to solidify your existing creative reputation, a regularly updated folio is important. And for new graduates entering the industry, it's absolutely crucial.

"For a designer starting out, self-initiated work should be a mandate," says Mitch Paone of DIA, the New York-based brand consultancy. "To rise above your peers at that point in your career you need a body of work that stretches far beyond the classroom. Side projects show that someone really cares about their craft to the point that they are willing to sacrifice downtime to push their creative skills."

Paone continues: "As a new graduate, the only way to skip the first rung on the ladder is by having a larger and more thoughtful portfolio. This can only be done by relentlessly working on outside-of-the-classroom projects. This is where most of the creative education and discovery is made. To truly find your creative point-of-view you need to be constantly experimenting and challenging work beyond what is expected."

This point is picked up on by Tutssel, who says that while adding experience and skills to your CV is important, it's your folio that defines your creative output: "Creatives are judged on their creativity and there is always someone out there with more skills – ideas make the difference."

Words: Tom Dennis Illustration: Luke Brookes

This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 229.