Advice for Recent Design Grads on Finding Your First Job

Let’s just get this out in the open—most recent college grads are awful at interviewing.

In the last decade, I’ve interviewed over a hundred designers, many of them recent graduates, and I’ve hired about a dozen of those designers across three agencies. I own the most recent of these, Station Four, where I act as creative director to a team of six designers at a company of fifteen digital strategists, developers, and designers.

The surest formula for giving a great interview is coming in with a ton of experience, confidence, and not ‘needing’ the position for which you are interviewing. As a recent college grad, it’s likely you don’t have any of these things. With that in mind, let’s look at some real ways you can find a foothold into your chosen profession.

You’re Gonna Get Googled
When an applicant contacts Station Four, the first thing I do is copy and paste their name into Google. Well, maybe I pull up their portfolio first (you do provide a portfolio link, right?!?), but shortly after that, I’m doing a deep-dive into Google to see what kind of dirt I can find. And don’t think for a minute that this is unique to me—almost every recruiter and hiring manager today is doing the same thing, so I highly recommend you do the same research on your own name and any variances. At the very least, make sure your Facebook account is locked-down tight—that posts you intended for your friends’ eyes only aren’t actually available to the public.

Conversely, it will be beneficial if you have a decent social footprint. When I look around and don’t see any trace of someone on Facebook, LinkedIn, Dribbble, Behance, or Twitter it makes me think that the person (a.) might be a ghost, (b.) changed their name after committing some unspeakable crime, or (c.) just isn’t really that connected or engaged. And in the design community, connections are important.

Pro-Tip: Like many, at Station Four we rarely post job ads. Instead, we stalk social networking and portfolio sites for potential candidates. So, do make sure you have a solid presence out there!

The Web and Social Media Should Be Your Friends
The vast amount of data that exists on both companies and individuals is actually something you should leverage during the interview process. For example, before walking in to an interview with me at Station Four, you could learn who our portfolio clients are and the work we’ve done for them, who our employees are and a little of their backgrounds, who I’m connected with on LinkedIn, and even if my two-year-old son is adorable (hint: he is). I wouldn’t expect you to memorize everything—that’d just be creepy—but you should certainly understand our business, our culture and some of the things we do in- and outside of the company…because we tell you on our own website.

Resumes Usually Don’t Matter (Unless They’re Horrible)
Maybe I’m being naive, but I’m sure I’ve hired people before without ever seeing their resume. Most resumes don’t really help me out much—especially resumes from recent grads. The exception is when they’re really bad. And as designers, there is absolutely no excuse for you to be represented by a sloppy resume. Keep your resume simple and professional because there is a particular audience for them (e.g., recruiters and larger corporate HR folks), and save the designer stuff for your online portfolio. Speaking of your online portfolio, I recommend avoiding canned portfolios, such as popular WordPress themes. Your portfolio is your chance to shine…don’t leave that up to another designer.

Your Degree Doesn’t Matter, Sorry
It’s true. The degree usually doesn’t matter unless you’re after one of those giant corporate gigs. That’s not to say that the skills you acquired while chasing your degree aren’t valuable; they are. You’re in the real world now and a college degree doesn’t make anyone entitled to anything. It’s a harsh world and you’re only as valuable as how much money you can make for someone else (or yourself). That’s a shitty way of looking at it but, on the flip-side, we get to create that value by making cool stuff, drawing pictures, and working with all different types of clients—so it’s not all that bad.

That said, don’t rely solely on the projects and skills you developed within the program. Propose a redesign for Facebook and post it to your Dribbble account; develop an ad campaign for Trek Bicycles; participate in AIGA shows; try to make a responsive website using Bootstrap—there’s never a lack of opportunity to get better and grow your portfolio.

A Designer’s Job is Communication
Design is visual communication—but that’s only a portion of a designer’s job. The ability to communicate written and verbally is crucial in determining strategy, presenting designs, and generally working within a design department. Professional and clear written correspondence is important as is your ability to talk design. Through the portfolio review process you’ll get some great experience talking through your work, but keep practicing. Successful designers can justify their decisions to others and are excited about their work.

Pro-Tip: Be enthusiastic about your work! Don’t just walk potential employers through your portfolio; tell stories—why you designed the piece the way you did and what led you there.

Talent and Skill is a Given. Passion and Energy are Key.
A quality portfolio is a must. Without that, all of the advice and tips in the world aren’t going to help out all too much. When I interview a recent grad, I’ve usually already seen their portfolio and know there is some level of talent there. What I’m trying to determine is the interviewee’s potential. No matter how talented, any recent grad has a whole lot of growing and learning to do. The people who can do that successfully love their craft and are willing to work hard on their own in order to hone it. When you interview, knowing which designers you like, what industry sources of information you regularly read, and having opinions on design trends let the interviewer know that design is more than just a job or degree for you.

Good Agencies are Always Hiring Talented People
While this is always true in a sense, it is especially true as the economy continues to recover and agencies are swimming in work. There’s never a point where I would say, “I don’t think we need another talented designer on the team.” If you’re good, people will want to talk with you—don’t wait to respond to a job post. Send your portfolio around, call around places you’d like to work and see if they’re hiring or interviewing. They may not be able to hire someone that day, but if you’re talented, good agencies will keep you in mind and think of ways to bring you on board.

Interviews are Opportunities to Make Friends
Depending on who you’re interviewing with, I encourage you to view interviews as networking opportunities. When a young designer interviews with me—even if I don’t bring him or her on at that time—they have an hour to sit and present and become acquaintances with an agency owner, who they could very well run into again at an AIGA event or similar. There have been many times when I’ve decided that someone might not be the best fit for Station Four, but have referred them to business associate or client that has an opportunity that makes more sense. Moreover, someone who might not be an immediate best-choice, may be down the road. In fact, some of our current team members here at Station Four were interviewed two or three times over the course of a few years before joining our family. The bottom line: always be networking!

Flattery Might Get You Somewhere
I’m not immune to flattery, interviewees that come in praising my agency’s work definitely start on the right foot. If you’re really excited about an opportunity, make sure you say it. I like hiring people who really want to be part of our team, and the only way I know that is when applicants tell me.

Your Early Jobs are Crucial
Unlike many, I believe that the jobs you take on early in your career are even more important than the eventual pinnacle of your career. The damage you do to your professional development and education by working for companies that don’t allow you to grow, learn new or even industry-standard techniques and best practices can be severe. Don’t pass on seemingly low-ladder offers waiting for that dream job, but don’t give up looking for it either. A couple of quick moves early in your career isn’t going to be a huge black mark on your work history.

One of the biggest things recent grads have going for them is that they’re affordable to employers. You’re usually coming in at, hopefully, the least amount you’ll ever make professionally. As time goes on, you should receive raises, which is good because you’re getting older, taking on more financial responsibilities, maybe starting a family…you get the point. The thing is, I find that even in awful jobs where your skills aren’t really growing, you’ll still find ways to get those raises and increased responsibilities. This cycle can create a trap whereby when you finally do find your dream job—where you could really grow your skills—your income requirements are too high for someone with your actual knowledge base.

Get Out There
A lot of interviews and hires are the result of a referral from a friend or a friend-of-a-friend. So go make more friends! If you’re looking for a job, your biggest resource is your network. You grow your network by going to industry events. AIGA is a great resource and hosts several events each year. There are also AAF (ad), JAMA (marketing), PRSA (public relations), and a host of young professional events. Introduce yourself, try to let people know you’re looking, and don’t over-promote. If you have fun and make new friends, a lot of other things in life tend to fall into place.

Station Four is based in Jacksonville, Florida, creating marketing strategies, designing websites, creating applications, and building brands. Station Four is a sponsor of AIGA Jacksonville’s 25th Annual Portfolio Review Weekend.

By Chris Olberding, Creative Partner & CEO of Station Four
Published April 8, 2014