How to get your first design job – Features

If you’re finishing up university studies and looking to land your first job as a creative or designer for a creative studio, then it’s worth reading the following advice from leading agencies in the US & UK. You may be searching online job boards for your dream role already, but you’ll also need to consider reaching out to agencies on your own accord, applying for paid internships and seeking professional advice on your portfolio.

Stepping into the real world of work has always been daunting, now more than ever as we head into a new recession thanks to the ongoing pandemic. But, if you know how to be confident and back up your design processes, then exciting opportunities will soon present themselves.

We asked designers, managers and founders of leading brand/advertising, design, digital and creative agencies including Jelly, Vault49, Grey London, Imagination, Fred & Eric, Straight Forward Design, Landscape, Design by Day, Gallium Ventures, and Havas London to share what they’re looking for when hiring a graduate in 2020. You’ll learn where you should be looking for job openings, what to expect from the recruiting process, how to prepare for interviews and presenting your portfolio, if internships are worth your time and and what not to do during job hunt.

If you wish to jump down to a particular topic, click below:

The ‘New Normal’ gives new opportunities
What are agencies looking for?
How to prepare for an interview
Is an internship worth your time?
How to impress an agency at your graduate show
Here’s what not to do
Take off the pressure and add on the patience

How to find a job

Before applying for any job, make sure you have a taster of your work already prepared online – a dedicated website or a profile on Behance or The Dots is a good place to start.

There are a number of online job boards you should be checking for potential openings, as suggested by agencies. We’ve listed these below. It’s also important to follow agencies you’d love to work for on social media, as vacancies are usually advertised there as well. But don’t just stop there, as Vault49 design director Kervin Brisseaux reminds us.

“First and foremost make certain that the company you’re looking at is currently hiring,” says Kervin. “You won’t know for sure unless you check their website or send an email.”

It’s largely on grads to take initiative and put themselves out there – the best jobs are rarely advertised, says Simon Manchipp, founder and executive strategic creative director at London design agency SomeOne.

“If you can demonstrate a can do attitude and tread the line well between being super keen and being super annoying you’ll very likely get the chance to work with the company of your choice,” says Simon.

“Choose wisely. Those first few jobs are quite possibly the most important as they will begin to guide your future choices.”

“Do the work up front to look for studios that you’re genuinely interested in, where you think you’ll learn the most, and have an idea about what you might be able to offer their team, whether that be specific skills, work ethic, or perspective, etc.,” adds Adam Weiss, founder and creative director of Landscape.

Online job boards:

Don’t expect to receive feedback after applying for a job

As painful as it is, you may never hear back from an agency after applying for a position. But don’t take this personally – you need to learn to grow a thick skin. Design is a desirable sector, and the number of jobs available against the number of people who want to work in an agency don’t quite match. Most agencies will try to reply to as many applications as possible, but it’s not always possible.

“I think recruiters always mean well, and would love to be able to give feedback to everyone who applies for roles, but the reality of a crowded job market doesn’t always allow for this,” says foundation manager at D&AD, Hilary Chittenden.

Design by Day’s rebrand for Bolton’s Octagon theatre

“I would, therefore, always recommend following up with an email. It’s important to understand where you need to develop, but also it’s worth asking if they are aware of any other opportunities that might suit you better. It’s a small industry and people have lots of connections.”

It’s worth sending a follow up email if you haven’t heard back after a week, in case your CV and portfolio slipped through the cracks. But don’t be shocked if no one replies to that one either.

Alternatively, if you’ve managed to get through to the interview stage, then Studio Output managing director Dan Moore says you should expect feedback.

The ‘New Normal’ gives new opportunities

It may seem like the end of the world with COVID-19 running wild, but a lot of the agencies we spoke to are keen to remind grads that the ‘New Normal’ we find ourselves in also offers new opportunities.

“There are a few tough setbacks for students in the aftermath of COVID,” says Laura Jordan Bambach, CCO at Grey London. “Losing physical grad shows means it’s harder to get noticed and to network with potential employers. At a time when the brakes are going on business, many of the traditional routes into agencies via placements or internships are also on hold.

“But there are also massive opportunities: you can now apply for jobs in other cities and countries without having to travel for interviews or potentially even roles. The creative community has pulled together and there are loads of agencies and groups offering book crits etc.”

“As a society, our adoption of digital has progressed beyond all expectations in the last three months,” adds Jiri Bures, executive creative director at Imagination. “This will inevitably have an impact on the way we engage with brands. As a result, this also means global experience agencies will be actively looking for grads with a digital-first approach to their work, and a passion for new and emerging channels and hybrid experiences.”

“There are industries that are really thriving right now: Collaborative tech, health & pathology, home & garden, supermarkets and more,” lists Angela Roche, creative director and co-founder of Design By Day. “Do a bit of research and find out which agencies work with clients in those industries. They are more likely to hiring and have job security should there be another wave of the virus.”

That said, don’t make your portfolio too current as a result of everything that’s going on.

“Please don’t have a book full of topical COVID-19 ads!” plead Thomas Worthington & Greg Ormrod, creatives at Havas London.

What are agencies looking for?

The first thing you’ll be presenting is your portfolio, so make sure you’re offering something different. Include examples of self-initiated projects and a range of original ideas; ultimately you can be taught technical skills on the job but agencies want to see your ideas; if you’ve entered industry awards or worked on competition briefs, definitely include this in your portfolio too. 

“We have always had just two criteria when looking for a placement team: Do they have good ideas and are they good people?” Thomas Worthington & Greg Ormrod tell me. “That’s it. Killer strategies you can’t argue with, articulated into great end lines. That’s what we’re after. And you have to be nice too; life is too short and pitches are too long to work with dickheads.”

Secondly, it would be wise to show in this day and age that you’re all set up for a design-from-home situation, as Kervin Brisseaux tells us.

“It’s always been important to show a breadth of work that conveys an aptitude for building brands or conveying illustrative concepts through your process,” Kervin says. “A new unexpected quality is the ability to work remotely. It’s a hard thing to quantify without trial and error and, in most cases, it’s a new workflow for companies needed to develop in order to thrive in the current market.”

“By showing the ability/experience to work with a team on a deadline from home and even experience working with a range of platforms and software will tell any future employer you will be a benefit to the team,” agrees Heather Delaney, managing director and founder of Gallium Ventures.

Managing director and founder of Gallium Ventures, Heather Delaney

“The twist in ‘the new normal’ is to ensure your portfolio presents well over Zoom or Skype and that they are comfortable doing this and the portfolio flows well  —  practise, practise, practise!” stresses Mike Foster, founder and creative director of Straight Forward Design.

“Graduates should also consider, as we have all learnt, that there is a need to be flexible and open to change in the way in which they work. For instance, there will be new tools to learn as agencies deploy collaboration tools to recreate pinboards, the Blu-Tack and Scotch tape of a real studio!” 

Digital Arts agrees, having put together a list of remote design tools recently.

Practical Portfolio tips

Meanwhile, visual director at advertising agency Anomaly Clara Mulligan wants to see grads push the boundaries of design, “not copying every pretty thing on the internet.”

“Show me thinking. Show me that there was a problem to solve outside of just aesthetics. Show me ideas. Don’t show me gimmicks or trends.”

This can be achieved by showing your visual language, as Jelly head of illustration Nicki Field explains.

“Clients need to know who you are and what your style is, in order to know when they have the right brief for you. Make sure there’s a strong thread running through of work that feels uniquely ‘yours’  —  don’t let applying or showing context to feel employable overshadow that.”

“At a glance we’d want to see a cohesive creative style,” says Maggie Rogers, creative Director at Fred & Eric. “Quality over quantity: we’d rather see one brilliantly executed piece of work, than a jumble of different styles. However, be confident to throw in a few wild cards if you think they are brilliantly executed or super creative.”

“The difference between a good and a great portfolio aren’t the ideas themselves, but the empathy within them,” believes Laura Jordan Bambach. “Do your research and know who you’re trying to connect with, and where.

“At Imagination we’re always looking for portfolios that demonstrate a proactive and entrepreneurial spirit,” says Jiri Bures. “Technical skills are very important, but curiosity and a restless need to create or problem solve are absolutely key.

“For creatives, an understanding of storytelling and conceptual ability is also important. As always, real-world project experience is a plus. However, projects that exhibit a clear thread from insight through to the idea or proposed delivery are key to delivering the best work. Stand-out portfolios tend to demonstrate this understanding.”

Fred & Eric’s Tipping the Scales project for NSPCC

Agencies believe its important to put across a strong sense of who you are – your personality. Also show an agency that you have some understanding of the direction you want to go in.

“If you want to go in to branding, make sure you have some strong examples of this. If you want to be a digital product designer, make sure your work reflects this. It sounds obvious, but is often overlooked,” says Hilary.

Most importantly, tailor your portfolio to match the agency you’re applying to work at.

“Your folio needs to align with your studio’s folio – a folio with niche arts and culture projects doesn’t fit with a studio who create big entertainment brands,” says Studio Output design director Johanna Drewe.

Adam Weiss nicely sums up most of the above in what Landscape is looking for.

“How they operate as a team-player, think about personal responsibility  —  those are critical to working remotely and really the key traits we look for in candidates.

“Specifically for us  —  a strong, baseline typographic sensibility, an interest in digital experiences, and experience with emerging tools are all things we get really excited to see. And a sense of current zeitgeist without ascribing to it blindly: That is, are they in touch with the current prevalent visual vernacular enough so that they can create work that will be both deeply expressive and resonate broadly? How is this person using what they know to make an experience, or brand, or moment better?”

How to prepare for an interview

There’s no fixed process after you make it through to the interview stage. Often agencies prefer to take you for a coffee or pint and a chat if lockdown rules allow it; other times it’s a more formal situation. But the most important way to prepare for a face-to-face meeting is to research the agency. Have a look at projects on their website, know what they’re about, and why you want to be part of it. Make sure your portfolio is up to date, and tailor it to the company you’re meeting with. Also have a few questions prepared so you sound keen and interested in the agency.

Leave your ego at the door, says Clara. Think about why you design, your career ambitions and what you’re interested in outside of work. You’re a multi-faceted person so don’t be afraid to show other passions.

“Come to present your work. Come with an agenda around what you want me to see, rather than have me sift around your website until I see something interesting. It’s your interview, design the way you want me to interact with the work,” she says.

Equally, Hilary says to start with a strong project and end with a strong project.

“Keep it concise. Explain the problem, your solution and your execution. Remember, no one knows your work better than you, so have confidence in this.”

At SomeOne, Simon says they take a casual approach.

“We want to drop the nonsense and tricks normally associated with formal interviews and get to know people, ideally as quickly as possible. Then we have a better idea of how things might work out.”

Image: Getty

Similarly at Studio Output, the first round of interviews generally involve talking through your portfolio and your background. However, in the second stage they ask more specific questions to learn about how you’d respond in particular situations.

“Think carefully about what projects you want to share and talk through and make sure there is a point to each slide. You’ve made design decisions for a reason – tell us what they are and ensure the projects are relevant to the studio and job you are applying for,” says managing director Dan Moore.

Design director at Studio Output, Johanna Drewe, offers some practical advice for the day of an interview.

“On the day, get to the interview slightly early to ease yourself into surroundings. Dress according to your style, but also to the weather and the journey in – and get to know what nerves do to you and how they manifest themselves physically (for example do you sweat, drinks loads of water, speak quickly, look down, mumble).”

Finally, Angela Roche reminds us that an interview is not a one-way street.

“Grads ,  remember you’re interviewing the employer too! Ask questions, try to get a feel for the agency culture and make sure the agency is right for you.”

Is an internship worth your time?

Essentially an internship is always worth your time, but they’re not compulsory. Not all internships are paid (unfortunately), so be realistic about your financial position. If it’s impossible for you to afford unpaid work, then don’t be afraid to start applying for full time roles straight away.

The main benefit of interning is the ‘try before you buy’ experience – it gives you a chance to understand the types of roles available and the culture of an agency before completely committing to one. Internships are basically about forming relationships and gaining real work experience, and the agencies you’re wanting to work for should offer paid internships, such as Wolff Olins and SomeOne do.

“Studio experiences are invaluable to understand the environment and culture and how a graduate would fit in, whether they would like the atmosphere, respond well to direction and feedback as well as the different project processes and team sizes a studio will have,” says Studio Output design director, Stewart McMillan.

Studio Output designed the branding identity for BBC Sport

But it can be tricky – some internships end up turning into extended placements when in fact the agency should be recruiting junior roles. So it’s important to make sure you have a list of exactly what you want to experience as an intern, for example, shadowing a pitch, improving your skills on certain software or understanding a different role.

If you’re not gaining experience or meeting people that inspire you, then it’s time to leave, says Clara. Internships are designed to stretch you, so be conscious of the difference between feeling uncomfortable because you’re learning, and feeling uncomfortable because it’s not a good fit.

“We love the Poverty Pledge and believe that you should be paid for your work – at least the London Living Wage,” says Hilary. Find out more about the Real Living Wage Pledge here.

How to impress an agency at your graduate show

The common theme of expectation surrounding your grad show whether virtual or physical is to show passion. Have a clear creative curiosity which can be seen through your work and personality.

“Have a hunger to push the boundaries of graphic design and commercially driven communication,” says Clara.

It’s also important that you’re available – recruiters or art directors from agencies will want to meet or video call you; it’s hard for your work to stand out on its own.

“Hearing you personally explain your work is way more valuable than reading about it online,” says Alison. “Don’t be afraid to stand near your display and chat to the people looking at your work.”

Alison Haigh worked with Brian Boylan to build a brand strategy for Fortnum & Mason

Try not to compare yourself with others at your degree show or on your university’s website.

“Focus your energy on what you need to do to get the job that is right for you,” says Alison.

“You don’t have to spend your savings getting over the top business cards produced. I remember re-purposing old screen print tests to create some budget friendly cards for my show.”

What not to do

Have an open mind when it comes to opportunities and job variations; don’t miss a job opening because it’s not at your ‘dream’ agency.

“My first job was working at at a ‘no name’ agency in my home town. Because it was a no name agency, I had to dig myself out that no name hole, but equally as an intern I was doing all the illustration for an animated commercial. As an intern you’d never get that exposure by going to a big agency,” says Clara. “I learned a lot from that. Getting experience is key – even if you can’t get that big name straight away.”

Always send in your portfolio as well as your CV, and give your application care and attention.

“A designer who makes it hard work for us to look at the work is frustrating and time consuming – stay away from a folio site with passwords, or sending loads of individual PDFs or files,” says Stewart.

“Don’t just send a Dropbox link, or a generic email with other studios on the list.”

“Leave out the weak protects as they’ll pull the strong ones down,” adds Angela Roche, “(and if) sending over a portfolio via email, keeps the email snappy, two sentences at the most — no one wants to read an essay!”

Image: Getty

Bring something that’s tailored specifically for the interview, such as something to leave behind. Don’t expect the agency to have already seen your work, even if you’ve sent it as email. Show up on time and assume you’re being introduced for the first time.

“I want to know that you want this job and that our agency isn’t just another name on the list. Tailor something just for us, bring a leave behind, do something that shows that you care about this interview,” says Clara.

Expect to guide the interview, don’t ask the agency what it wants to see. You tell the stories you want them to hear.

Take off the pressure and add on the patience

“I really feel for 2020 grads, who through the disruption of their final term, may not have experienced that final creative discovery through their final project or the catharsis nor opportunities that a final show can give,” says Jelly’s Nicki Field.

“It will have an effect. I’ve steadily noticed there seems to be an increased pressure on grads to automatically ‘make it’ nowadays in the last few years regardless  —  Instagram culture combined with rising uni fees adds pressure and expedites the ‘readiness’.

“What I think is so important to remember, especially for 2020, is that it’s only the start of your journey into a creative career. Take the time you need to work out who you are as a creative and the right path for your work  —  it doesn’t happen overnight nor do the opportunities. It’s okay to make ends meet anyway you can, as your creative work won’t necessarily unlock this for you right away. Taking your time, doesn’t mean you’re failing. Take that pressure off yourself.”

Related: How to run a remote design team

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