Landing your dream job requires a mix of skills: diligence, hard work, experience, enterprise, good fortune, networking and the ability to work as a team player. Landing a job with a top design agency requires all of the above, and sometimes much, much more.
Design is an increasingly competitive industry fuelled by a deluge of new graduates each year. According to recent Design Council figures, there were nearly 57,000 students in design education in 2003/2004. However, the good news is that while the top jobs are hard to come by they are within reach, thanks to a particularly vibrant sector where, according to Design Council figures, smaller young businesses now excel, thereby creating more great opportunities to land your dream job with one of the many up-and-coming studios. Although the specifics vary from company to company, successful studios share common needs and beliefs. Find out what design studios want from new employees and you're half way to achieving your goal.
What are they looking for?
Ajaz Ahmed, co-founder and chairman of AKQA, the award-winning global interactive agency, is well positioned to offer advice, being typical of the top forward-thinking agencies many aspire to work for. The fundamentals? An ability to create great work, build a strong body of work, inspire and be an effective team player are central to a successful career at AKQA.
"Anyone who shares those beliefs and values, who wants to build a strong body of work and be part of a team with some of the best people in the world is the kind of person that will fit in well," says Ahmed. "We have people from different backgrounds, different countries and different age groups in each of our locations around the world, and hopefully they have joined AKQA to do the best work of their careers and enjoy their time with us."
Tom Evans, creative director at independent creative digital consultancy Mook, looks for similar qualities: "Good design and creativity is a given. Outside of that we look for maturity, passion and dedication." Rob Corradi, creative director at Preloaded, which lists the BBC and Coca-Cola among its clients, agrees: "We're always on the look out for people who are clearly passionate about the digital medium. The job can be stressful and involves long hours at times, so it's important to 'want' to do it rather than just see it as a job."
For Nat Hunter, managing director at design company Airside, the right personality is important. "Stalkers are scary and arrogance is always offputting. We like people who have good solid thinking behind their work and can talk clearly about their ideas, because our work is very ideas-led."
Beyond passion, enthusiasm and being a team player, software skills are very important, but not always vital to a successful job application. More important, says Chris Hassell, director and co-founder of digital agency Ralph, is the willingness to learn new ones. "We look out for people who have taught themselves the skills they need to get the job they want to do. University or college is good, but they don't necessarily teach you the skills that are useful in the real world," he says. "They have to have the 'I want to do this because I'm interested in it' attitude, as opposed to 'this is just a job to me'. Software skills are important, but if people have the right attitude then they can usually pick up new software pretty quickly."
Know your market
One potential way of finding your dream job is by using one of the many, mainly London-based, recruitment agencies for creatives. "We might go to Represent, a great agency that knows everybody and is good at matching designers with the right agency," says Hunter. Evans, however, offers a word of caution. "Word of mouth is definitely better for the employer because recruitment fees are expensive. Most people use both. Choose carefully because their reputations and contacts vary widely."
Mark Begley, head of digital creative at recruitment agency Major Players, believes focusing your aspirations is central to a successful career. "The creative industry is massive, so you must be realistic about where you are in the industry and know what direction you want your career to go in. This will give you and your recruitment consultant focus, without which you're searching for a needle in a haystack."
Juliet Ripley of Corps Business, which supplies training and recruitment to media, advertising and design industries, offers more advice. "We see hundreds of CVs and portfolios every week and candidates have to be outstanding to even get a look in. It is imperative to research the company that's recruiting to make sure the portfolio is relevant and try to match their style. Demonstrating that you would fit easily into their way of working is absolutely vital."
Ripley is another who believes good research is central to securing your dream job. "Pick your company, research what they do and match their style," she says. "Many large agencies will say on their website what they do and what they are looking for in applicants. Candidates must follow their guidelines when applying. If they don't then they will not even look at their work, however good it is."
Major Players and other similar recruitment agencies should offer you advice on earnings, as well as monthly timesheets, PAYE, holiday and sickness pay when the position is temporary or freelance. Negotiating a living wage can be problematic in an industry where some are seemingly willing to work cheap to secure that foot in the door. Top jobs don't always equal top pay, but don't undersell yourself. Again, ask around - if you have been working in the industry for a while you should have built up enough contacts to be able to put a monetary worth on your creative talents and negotiate if needs be.
Newspapers and trade magazines, including Design Week, are a good source of job ads and ballpark figures for assessing current salaries, benefits and industry trends. "Understand and know what's going on in your industry," says Begley. Many recruitment agencies offer mailing lists to keep you updated, while company ads both in print and online will spell out the specific skills and experience required. Read them carefully as they may offer the clues that will unlock your dream job.
The internet has also opened up the job search significantly - you can search for your dream job anywhere. Newstoday (www.newstoday.com) lists thousands of vacancies for free via its excellent 'Employment Channel'. Online forums and blogs also play their part in finding that ideal job, and can be a good source of insider gossip and potential tip-offs.
Word of mouth is still central to finding the right job, so get yourself seen and raise your profile, either by getting out and meeting people or via the internet. We all make acquaintances throughout our working life, so where possible put feelers out and make sure people know you are potential employee material. "Be focused and determined, network like crazy, it's often who you know not what you know," says Mark Begley. Remember, if your current employer is low key with modest ambitions it doesn't mean you have to hide your talents accordingly.
"These days many people who join AKQA will have their profile on a social network, keep a blog or do a podcast, so they send us links to those as well as their portfolios," says Ajaz Ahmed. If you feel less than inspired by your current predicament, find time to work on your own projects, rediscover old skills, invest in new ones, enter competitions, set yourself challenges, get noticed. "Generally, people who clearly experiment in their own time with new tools and trying new techniques are the people who stand out as the ones with the most potential," adds Rob Corradi.
Maintaining an excellent portfolio and presenting your work in a clear, concise, professional manner is key to landing your dream job. Designer, consultant and writer Adrian Shaughnessy knows the value of great presentation. "The way you present your work is as important as the work you show. You can have a great portfolio of work, but if you present it badly, it won't get noticed."
Presentation is paramount right across the board and, as Juliet Ripley suggests, it can often let graduates down. "Good design graduates are pretty hard to come by. Most have mediocre design abilities and this is often demonstrated by their CV, presentation and portfolios."
Debate surrounds the best way to showcase your work, but in design less is often more, so if in doubt leave it out and only include your best work. It's crucial that creative applications are just that - creative and original. Don't go for something novel unless you're pretty sure it hasn't been done before, and usually much better. And remember, don't ever rely on a spellchecker when sending a letter or email. The creative mind will often race ahead of the hand, so grab a friend or colleague with a fresh pair of eyes to double-check all your paperwork. Mess up here and a prospective employer may never even see your portfolio.
All companies will have internet access, so increasingly a web presence is important, especially if you cover a multitude of skills not best served by a traditional 2D portfolio. It's also an extremely convenient way for a prospective employer to check out your talents. "Employers need access to your up-to-date portfolio, so online folios are probably best as they are easily accessible and can be used not only to show your commercial work but as a way of demonstrating your creative potential," says Begley. "Some of the best people we have hired have simply emailed us with a note and links to their work," Ajaz Ahmed concludes.
Looking for a change in direction? These sites will show you the way
A very useful place to start, with a creative search engine of over 20,000 companies.
This site will help you climb the ladder from a middleweight to a senior position.
Recruits across London's leading design, digital and marketing agencies, offering both freelance and permanent opportunities.
Online directory of UK design consultancies backed by Design Week and Marketing Week.
Supplies freelance or full-time creatives for the design, advertising, corporate, retail, publishing and reprographics sectors.
DESIGN STUDIO PEOPLE
Promises a professional, no-nonsense manner looking at long-term goals of both job and applicant.
Corps specialises in providing recruitment, training and design services to the creative community.
London-based career management consultants. Register via its website for job alerts.
Established in 1989. Specialist recruitment for design and art direction, digital and new media.
Promotes excellence in the graphic design community by nurturing talent and sourcing permanent or freelance positions.