Seven essential tips for design graduates

The transition from the fluffy, technicolour, dream world of university to the thousand yard stare of the real world is as much daunting as it is exciting for the young design graduate. The fact that graduates are emerging into the most difficult economic light in recent memory has only increased competition in a smaller creative jobs market. Depressed? Don’t be!

Remember you’re looking for work in the most creative, technology and innovation driven industry on the planet. The web is going to be one of the crucial factors in the creation of new jobs, niches and markets that drive economic recovery. A career full of as yet unknown opportunities to devise, design or develop. Optimistic? You should be!

Of course, optimism is something you and every other graduate have in spades, but how do you embark on those first tentative steps with success? There is no cheat sheet to finding your first creative job, but a tight game plan certainly helps.

1. How to get that interview

There are a multitude of channels to search on and offline for creative work. Leverage the tools and networks creatives already use to your advantage: search the creative ‘scene’ in the location you want to work. Forums, meetups and socials are fantastic places to network without the pressure of an interview situation.

Even when you do leave, many universities have an in house recruitment service that will continue to support graduates up to three years after graduation. It’s in their best interest to find you work as a graduate of their institution. Build up a relationship with your point of contact, think of every interview as a pitch. It’s all good practice which will help you eventually bag your first graduate role.

Established agencies such as Precedent have a dedicated Twitter channel for available and upcoming positions

2. Into wilderness and the golden window

Most universities do a startlingly poor job at preparing you for the transition from the ending of your student life to the beginning of your professional one. They cover the basics but getting that CV up to scratch and building your portfolio online is only half the battle. You’ll need to hit the ground running to make the most of your ‘golden window’ – the first year after you graduate.

In this first year you still have the ace card that reads ‘just graduated’. Use it to its full effect; don’t waste this year working your old bar job just to tide you over. Do something relevant – freelance, explore personal projects anything that will keep you focused creatively while you find your first job.

Misspend this ‘golden window’ and you’ll not only find an additional fresh batch of rival graduates next year but also potential employers asking probing question about your unexplained extra year out of industry.

Tip by Mark Baillie, senior designer, Precedent Edinburgh

Personal projects can be whipped up in a few hours and are great for mates and exposure

Personal projects can be whipped up in a few hours and are great for mates and exposure

3. Be your own worst critic

You’ll never have as much time or support to develop your portfolio and creative process as you do at university. Capitalise on that before you leave this valuable network or peers and tutors. It’s difficult to comprehend now, but when the uni bubble finally bursts you’ll realise just how much support you had!

It’s important to be objective and self critical about your work. Don’t settle with filler in your portfolio; showcase only your strongest work. It’s always quality over quantity – you’ll be able to present and defend your most confident work robustly and effectively at interview. Don’t be over precious – If your showcase end of year project shreds at interview use that criticism constructively and positively. Industy isn’t as polite or accommodating as your favorite tutor so get used to being critiqued and learn to roll with the punches.

Tip by Emma Lawton, designer, Precedent London

Precedents Ed Richard uses his portfolio as an outlet for both his professional and personal work

4. Does your face fit?

Remember in an interview situation, it’s not just your portfolio that is being assessed. Every agency has its own personality, process and objectives. The team at Precedent is critical to its success. Your interviewer will be looking to see what makes you tick, if you share the same ideals, passion and enthusiasm needed to work within the team. Ask the right questions, research the nature of the agency beforehand and be positive, engaged and listen. The right attitude can make all the difference even if you don’t have the most appropriate portfolio.

Tip by Andrew Lang, designer, Precedent Perth, Australia

Make a list of your favourite agencies and and check their vacancies daily

5. Work fast, work smart

Time is money and efficiency will help make you competitive. Know the tools of your trade. Master shortcuts, maximise efficiency in your workflow when using software. I’ve known friends to land their first junior job on the strength of their portfolio only to fail the probation period because their workflow just wasn’t fast enough. You’ll need to be able to produce creative work with not only speed but also precision. This will give you a noticeable edge in the workplace, and don’t worry if you’re no Photoshop ninja yet. It will come with time, and the pressure of real deadlines!

Learn keyboard shortcuts and time saving techniques and level up to a photoshop ninja

6. Money isn’t important

At least not initially. You don’t have a family, house or anything really to bankroll or lose just yet. For now you should priorities experience over financial reward. You might be working waiting tables but in your spare time build that portfolio. Take on worthwhile projects that have little or even no financial reward, it’s all exercise that will keep your creative skills sharp and you engaged. After all we do this because it’s our passion. Do not go into an interview expecting a generous basic first salary. Agencies hire graduates because they’re cheap, enthusiastic and, most importantly, brimming with potential. With experience and progression will come remuneration. Earn it by producing work that excites you, build your profile and portfolio. In time your confidence and credibility will afford you opportunities to advance within the industry.

Tip by Tom Nurse, designer, Precedent London

7. No surrender!

Persevere. Looking for a job is your full time job. Be proactive, positive and creative and you will eventually be noticed. Tailor your application, CV and portfolio to each specific agency. Never send a dispassionate generic resume. Do your research, and don’t feel afraid to develop your own novel approach. We’ve all heard about the guy who created a Google ad words campaign that targeted the names of six leading creative directors. If you have an idea that will get you noticed by the right people, ensure it’s innovative and delivered effectively.

Tip by Luke Smith, designer, Precedent London

‘Why didn’t I think of that!’ Why don’t you? Sit down and crunch some ideas…

There you have it. Use these pointers to develop your post uni plan of attack. The web will continue to innovate and expand, with technology reaching ever deeper into people’s lives. The future is going to be devised, designed and developed by people like you. Excited? You should be!

If you’re a graduate looking to get started in the digital world, take Mark’s advice and get in touch with Precedent. If you think you’d fit and you’re creative, we’d love to hear from you. Contact Keith on

And if you've recently applied for a new job, check out these tips for design interview success over at our sister site Creative Bloq.