My last design-related post, entitled “10 Easy Secrets to Quickly Become a Great Designer” was really well received. It seems that people appreciated the practical advice and tactical approaches I offered on the subject. Due to the popularity of that post, I thought I’d write a follow-up article on taking the next logical step on the journey of creative professionals. Most of the info out there on beginning a career as a creative professional is high-level fluff that’s perhaps inspirational and looks nice enough on paper, but can really be a challenge to distill down to an actionable plan. That’s where I come in.
Step 1. Stop Making Excuses, Cultivate a Real Desire to Succeed
Retreading a bit on the theme of my last article, there’s a lot of talk out there about the poor state of the economy and the lack of jobs for creative professionals. I’m going to be frank here for a moment—forget about all that bullshit. The economy (or current state of it) is neither the question nor the answer. As of late, it’s served nicely as an excuse for those with mediocre performance and downtrodden attitudes, who are in all actuality frustrated with their own marginal efforts to succeed. The fact of the matter is, there are jobs out there and waiting to be filled. There is a huge need for qualified creative types who do great work. So get the idea out of your head that it’s the economy’s fault and accept the truth—that if you are both technically and creatively skilled, ambitious, and professional—you will be able to easily get the job you want.
Want it, more than Anything Else
The first step, and perhaps the most challenging of all, is to truly make up your mind that you want to succeed. That’s what “cultivate a desire” means. You may think you’ve already done this, but you probably haven’t. It means that you want it, that you really, really want it. That you literally become obsessed with it. It may sound extreme, but that’s actually the way most behavior change begins. The human brain is powerfully habitual in nature and to change its course, to pivot behavioral tendencies, takes an extremely strong mental desire. I’m not talking about an “it would be nice if” kind of desire, either. I mean you literally want it enough to need it. Want it enough to take real action, on a daily basis, towards achieving it.
I’ll give you an example from my own life. Right now, I’d like to lose a little weight, maybe 5-10lbs or so. But I don’t really want to lose the weight, do I? Not really. If I did, if I truly wanted to, then the desire would be strong enough to motivate me into real action. My ass would be out jogging or exercising right now, instead of writing this blog post. Sure, it would be nice to lose a little weight, but what I really want right now is to spread my knowledge for the good of others and thereby establish some credibility in my niche. That’s what I really want, as evidenced by my actions in sitting here and writing this post.
You need to cultivate that same desire for getting a design job. You need to make that desire so great, that it supersedes all other desires you may have and therefore forces action. What would you rather do right now, get a design job or go to the bar? Get a design job or watch “Keeping Up with the Kardashians?“ (I don’t ever recommend that unless you hate yourself.) Get a design job or [insert your favorite leisure activity here]? In all 3 questions, if you want to succeed, the answer must be the former. If it is, you will naturally take action towards getting your dream job, as opposed to those other activities. Napoleon Hill, author of the timeless self-help novel “Think and Grow Rich,” calls this the “transmutation of desire.” Call it what you want. It’s that continual action that will eventually lead to you achieving your goal.
Methods to Motivation
How do you get obsessed? One highly effective way, especially for visual thinkers such as artists or designers, is to envision yourself achieving your goal. Imagine what it will be like once you reach your goal. Imagine yourself as a successful designer working at a job you enjoy. Think about the pride and happiness that will come with that achievement.
Another good method is to talk to those who have already achieved what you desire. Preferably someone you like and respect and know personally. Chat with them about their methods for achieving success and imagine yourself taking those same actions. Put yourself in their shoes, and tell yourself you can be like them. You can do it too.
Step 2. Get the Piece of Paper
Okay, here’s my one caveat. The title of this article reads “…Quickly Get a Great Design Job”. “Quickly,” as it’s used here is a relative term. I mean quickly in relation to where you currently are in the chain of steps required. Therefore, quickly can mean anywhere from 5 days to 5 years.
Design School: The Lowdown
Now that that’s out of the way, brace yourself, because I’m going to give you the dirty details on design degrees, the stuff no one else wants to talk about. Yes, I know it’s expensive. Yes, I’m aware that the value of a college degree is perhaps on a downward slope and has been called into question in the media as of late.
Let me make this clear, I believe it is almost impossible to achieve a desirable design career without a legitimate degree. I didn’t say impossible, just damn near. If you’re already an experienced designer with a solid resume and a history working for good companies, then maybe you don’t need one. But then, if you fit that description, why the hell are you reading this article? For everyone else, the stats speak for themselves. One in four adult Americans now hold a bachelor’s degree of some sort, one in two an associate degree. That means the competition for professional positions of all kinds has never been fiercer.
Because your competitors will certainly have it, regardless of how good you are, you’re going need a degree to even make the cut. It’s an instant qualifier (or disqualifier depending on how you look at it). Employers see it, if nothing else, as a symbol of dedication, perseverance, and an indicator of quality of character.
The following is a real-life example as explained to me by a real-life Creative Director. If he’s looking to fill a position and there’s a 10-foot-high pile of resumes sitting on his desk, he’s not going to have time to look at them all. The ones without a degree go right in the trash, the ones with associate degrees have a disadvantage to those with bachelor’s, and the bachelor’s from reputable schools with highly-regarded art or design programs have a leg-up on the other more generic bachelor’s. Once resumes are pruned for quality, then and only then is it time to look at portfolios. Remember, these are just my experiences people, don’t kill the messenger.
But if a degree nowadays is a way to get your foot in the door, remember that that’s all it really is. It’s not a magic bullet for success. It puts you at higher odds for getting called in for an interview/portfolio review, it does not necessarily make your portfolio good enough to get the job. That takes hard work and dedication in developing the skills you need to be competitive.
On that note, I would also recommend being very selective about the school you choose. A few candid words of advice—forget online and accelerated courses that offer “certificates of completion” as well as for-profit schools or technical school programs. In fact, forget online programs altogether. For the most part, they’re a gamble and a potential waste of time and money, because they may not regarded as credible by the marketing and advertising industries. Community colleges are okay, but again, remember that a bachelor’s degrees will always trump an associate.
Best case scenario, go for a 4-year degree in design or a related field such as advertising, interactive design, or print media design (BFA), and this should come from a school with a reputable design program. Be aware that most serious design programs are highly selective and, in addition to requiring excellent previous academic performance, ask you to complete some form of an art test to gauge your raw potential before granting admittance into their program.
A more successful path for some might with limited time or resources may be two years at a community college to receive your associate degree, and then 2 more years at a 4-year university to obtain a bachelor’s. This is the approach I took, and I couldn’t recommend it more. It was advantageous because in my experience the 2-year college seemed to do a better job teaching the technical aspects of the job, such as computer programs and file preparation techniques. The University on the other hand, did a better job of teaching the aesthetic principles of high-end design, and at preparing me for the job interview process. The one warning I would give to you about this method is to be sure to investigate your target 4-year university’s policy for accepting transfer credits from 2-year schools BEFORE enrolling in either. Some have a very strict policy for transferring credits, which in turn forces students to repeat many courses.
You Get What You Give
Remember that, despite everything I’ve said here, when it comes to a formal design education you only get out of it what you put into it. If you spend all your time in school doing keg stands in frat houses, you probably won’t graduate with the greatest grades or nicest portfolio. You may have the degree and eventually get the interview, but you probably won’t get the job you really want. Your skills won’t be where they need to be and your portfolio will reflect that. On the other hand, if you invest the time, money, and effort into the right education, you’ll not only get the job but you’ll deserve it and be qualified for it too.
Step 3. Get Good, Really Good.
Easier said than done? Perhaps. But it’s common sense and should without saying that if you want a good job, you need to be good at what you do. Notice also that I said “good”, not “great.”
So what does “good” mean? Good means having quality original work that’s better than the majority of the competition. I consider myself “good,” not “great” … yet. You don’t have to be the greatest designer in the world, but you should be pretty damn good. I would say that starting off, your skills should put you somewhere in the top 20%. That’s good enough to get you a good job at a solid company doing real design work and not “production art,” which is lower paying and more technical in nature—it’s what a majority of mediocre designers can expect to obtain. How do you “get good”? One way that works for many is to go to school (see step 2). Also, make sure you’re proficient in the relevant creative applications, such as Adobe Creative Suite. Mastering the technical aspects of modern design is a huge part of the job. Although knowing keyboard shortcuts in Photoshop won’t make you a “good” designer, it will make you a fast one and efficient one.
I won’t belabor this point much here since it’s not the focus of this article, if you want more recommendations for how to develop your skills quickly and effectively, check out the precursor to this article “10 Easy Secrets to Quickly Become a Great Designer”
Step 4. Create an Awesome Portfolio
Obligatory Soapbox Speech: You need a portfolio. It needs to be online, regardless of whether or not you do web work. Why? Online portfolios have become a staple of the creative job application and screening process and employers have come to expect them. Your portfolio can be as simple or robust as you’d like, but it should definitely be cool. That is, it should be original and it should reflect your creativity and personal style. After all you are a designer, right? It should be you.
How to Get It Up: (Your portfolio, man! Not the other thing).
If you don’t know how to code and have no clue how to make a website, you still have options. You can hire a developer to execute your design/concept. You can purchase and customize a CMS template, such as WordPress, Joomla, etc. If you do not do web work and are not trying to sell your web design skills, you can get away with using one or more of the many portfolio networks out there, such as: Behance, Creative Hotlist, Coroflot, Professional on the Web, or Creative Shake, where all you have to do is upload pictures and descriptions of your work and the web app automatically makes it look all neat and pretty for you.
In addition to your work, your website/online portfolio should also contain certain key elements. Your resume (downloadable), a high-level list of your skills, and a brief bio on you should all be included. And for the love of God, please don’t password-protect it. I just don’t get why people go through all the work of creating a site, to limit its exposure to only people they know. That’s the opposite of what a website is for. It’s dumb. Don’t do it.
Get a “Real” Portfolio
This might be hard for some of you interweb geekophiles to grasp, but you need more than just an online portfolio. For in-person interviews, you should really have a physical portfolio prepared as well. Your physical portfolio doesn’t have to be exactly the same as your online. In most cases, it should actually be smaller. Under 10 of your best, most professional work.
This is especially true for those who do print design. When it comes to print design, the tactile experience created by such things as paper choices, folds, die cuts, and varnishes, just doesn’t come across through an image. So be sure to have final, assembled versions of your best print pieces for your interviewer to handle and inspect. Your print portfolio should be packaged together neatly in some sort of container, it could be binder, a briefcase, or just about anything. Get creative, but remember that presentation is JUST as important as the work itself. If you go into the interview with your beautiful work as a loose stack of flimsy printouts, “you’re gonna have a bad time.”
If you’re strictly a web or digital designer, it still doesn’t hurt to have portable portfolio for interviews. This could be a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation of your designs, or as simple as a collection of bookmarked sites ready to open on a laptop you bring for display and discussion. Again, get creative while keeping your presentation neat.
Step 5. Create Awesome Promotional Materials (The Icing on the Cake)
Here’s a secret about interviews; you can make a huge impression by doing something so awesomely stupendous, that they literally can’t forget you. It doesn’t have to be anything too grandiose. Most job seekers don’t do shit, so any extra effort you put in will put you above the majority in the employer’s mind. All that stuff above is expected. It’s what gets you in the door. Below are the real differentiators. This is the stuff that separates good from great.
Custom Logo, Business Cards, Letterheads, and Envelopes
This is almost a must. Create a logo for yourself, it can simply be your name and your title, or you can get more creative and make something else up to represent you and your design. Both are acceptable. Whatever you do, make it good. Extend that brand design onto your business cards, letterhead, and envelope designs. Make it all as unique and creative as you can. Put your resume on your custom letterhead. Get it all printed out at a real printer on good stock — not inkjet, not shitty laser prints on cheap paper from Fedex office. Some good (and cheap) online printers I’ve used are PSPrint, and UPrinting. For a more “artsy” experience, check out moo.com. These printers are almost always running a sale of some sort, and if they’re not, you can always hit up Coupon Cabin or RetailMeNot for some coupon codes.
Create Your “Clincher” Promotional Piece
If at all possible, create a custom-designed print piece to promote yourself. Think of it as your own mini press kit, all about you and what you bring to the table. It can be any shape, size, and layout. Consider designing it in such a way that it’s easily printed in medium to large quantities and can be assembled quickly and sent along with your cover letter. It could even be a self-mailer.
You can use it to integrate your other marketing materials into a neat little package that’s easily assembled and mailed. For example, you could make two slices in which to securely hold your business card. You could integrate your resume directly into the design. You might also include some biographical information on you and include pictures of your work. You could even include a CD or flash drive with examples of your work on them. Be sure to also include a link, maybe even a QR code, to your online portfolio.
All in all, you should make it as unique and eye-catching as possible. Make it so when an employer sees it, they just have to open it. You might be thinking “sounds expensive.” I assure you that the initial investment to produce the final piece will be more than worth it when you start turning heads and the calls start coming in.
Create a Gift or a Keepsake to Leave Behind
If you’re not a print designer and don’t have the means to create a promotional piece, or if you want to take it a step further, you can also create a customized keepsake to leave behind as a gift. It should be something novel and fun, something that will float around their office and keep reminding them of you, something that will spark discussion between them and their coworkers. It can be as big or small as you like; anything from a funky pen or stress ball, to a candy box with some sort of conceptual tie-in to you. There are all kinds of vendors out there who can put your logo on just about anything, so the possibilities are really endless. The goal, however, is the same. Keep them thinking of you and not the other guys.
I remember reading about a guy who literally custom-painted his Volkswagen Beetle and then filled it with copies of his work and business cards and parked it outside of the agency where he wanted to work. He left it there for days. Extreme? Perhaps, but it worked. I hope you get an idea of the lengths to which people are willing to go to express their creativity, devotion, and uniqueness in order to get the job.
Step 6. Write a Killer Cover Letter “Shell”
We all know that cover letters are most effective when they’re tailored to fit the particular company. You don’t want to send a generic letter out. It’s a waste of time. Employers can smell these “one size fits all” cover letters a mile away and frankly, may find it offensive that you didn’t deem them worthy of a real letter. In short—it’s not a good idea. But writing custom letters can be extremely time-consuming, especially when you’re trying to write multiple letters for multiple jobs in a single setting.
What you can do is save time by starting with a customizable template or “shell,” which includes all the stuff that doesn’t change about you (i.e., your background, education, skills, etc.). You only have to write this once and after that, you get it all for free.
Within your template, add built-in areas for customization. These areas are where you should include custom value propositions based on the specific needs of company that you’re targeting. These could be “I think I’m perfect for [company name’s] [job position] role because I can [specific value statements relevant to company]” or “I have experience designing for clients in the [specific industry] and know I can assist [company] in [accomplishing goals of interest to specific company].”
When answering these built-in questions, remember to always be as specific as possible, and to make it about what you can do for the company, not why you’re totally awesome and why they should totally hire you (although you probably are). Make it about them, not you.
Before beginning to customize your letter, you should always do little research on the company to which you’re applying. Visit their website and learn about their product or service or which client’s and market they serve. Google them for PR and news related their recent activities. Learn about their company mission and take into account the general tone of their marketing materials. Are they light-hearted and playful or serious and professional? Keep this in mind when writing your letter and try to synchronize with it.
Step 7. Create a System for Quickly and Consistently Seeking Out and Securing Interviews:
If You Build it, They WON’T Come…
So you’ve got a kickass online portfolio, resume, and promotional materials? Big deal. That’s only half (or less) of the battle. Your materials, while requiring occasional maintenance and updating, should be approached with a “set it and forget it” mentality. Their purpose is to establish credibility and to get you work. Once they’re complete you should focus almost exclusively on getting interviews. Below are some methods for finding jobs:
Use All Major Job Sites and Search Niche Job Boards
There’re the big boys like Monster and Indeed. There are also niche job boards specifically created for designers and developers like Authentic Jobs, Smashing Job Board, and more. More and more large design blogs are creating their own job boards, so be on the lookout for those as well.
When you sign up, be sure to specify exactly where you’re interested in working, and exactly what type of work you’re looking for. Be as specific as possible here to avoid wasting time reading through job descriptions that aren’t for you. Set up email alerts from all the job sites that offer it and voila! You get jobs, laser cut to your desired location, requirements, and qualifications, delivered to you as often as you like.
Craigslist is Your Friend, Use It
I’ve had great success seeking out both fulltime and freelance work on craigslist. Craigslist is great because you can use it to catch new work as soon as it becomes available and get your materials in first. Timeliness is huge when it comes to getting the job because the typical job poster gets inundated with responses very quickly and will usually never get through all of them. Here’s how to use it effectively. Go to the craigslist area-specific boards for all locations in which you’re interested in working and perform the following steps for each:
- Open the “creative” categories under the “services,” “job” and “gigs” sections, each in its own window or tab. (It’s important to search all 3 because oftentimes job seekers post their jobs under the wrong category, or under any one of the 3, so searching all 3 is a good way to ensure you don’t miss anything.)
- Do a search under each tab using keywords for the job you’re searching for, for example “web designer” or “graphic artist.”
- Bookmark each search results page for each category, and organize them all under one folder in your bookmarks menu called “craigslist jobs.”
- Now whenever you want to search craigslist for work, all you have to do is go to “bookmarks” in your browser menu, go to your “craigslist jobs” folder, and select “Open all bookmarks in new window/tab.” All of your job searches for all categories and locations will now instantly pop-up in their own window.
- Using this bookmarks system, you can easily perform quick job searches on a daily basis and you’ll always be one of the first to respond to new posts. It’s easy and effective.
Get on LinkedIn, and Join Some Groups
If you don’t have a LinkedIn, get one. It’s often the first stop by employers when researching candidates because it’s easier than explicitly asking you for all of the information. And while everyone knows that LinkedIn is a great tool for networking, are you effectively utilizing it in your job search? There are job boards on LinkedIn within specific niche groups. Join LinkedIn and join some discussion groups related to design and designers. You can receive daily or weekly updates that include relevant discussions and job postings.
Check Your Local Paper
Though it’s not very sexy or high-tech, it’s still a great place to look for work. If you don’t already get it, you don’t have to buy it. If your paper is free online (as some are) you can look there. Or just breeze through it the “Help Wanted” section while you’re out and about at your local store or gas station to see if there’s anything of interest.
Target the Place You Want to Work
The best way to get a response from an employer is to respond when they’re actively seeking a designer. But that doesn’t mean you can’t seek them out, too. While it’s a long shot, if they really like you and your work, they might be tempted to bring you on — even when they’re not hiring — or keep you in mind for when they are.
So how do you get their attention? If you followed Step 5 of this article, you should have some incredible promotional materials — send them your stuff! Snail mail them a package complete a custom cover letter, resume, business card, your awesomely creative promotion piece.
Step 8. Be Willing to Go Where the Work Is
For many this won’t be an issue. For some, it will. Creative jobs, especially the good, decent-paying ones, are typically located in and around metropolitan areas for obvious reasons. Depending on where you live, especially if you live in a rural or economically depressed area, you may need to relocate. You sometimes have to go where the work is. It’s that simple. I realize that it’s kind of common sense, but many people for one reason or another, aren’t prepared to do it. Let me ask you this, what’s more important, living close to home or having a job that doesn’t make you want to kill yourself? How about a job where you get to release all that pent-up creative energy? Or better yet, a job that you actually like, maybe even love? It’s possible, but it might not be possible where you currently live.
Your Awesome Job isn’t as Far Away as You Think
Most of the time you won’t have to go too far to get where you need to be, the closest small to medium city will do just fine. If you live in the U.S. that’s probably no more than a 1 hour drive tops. Start sending your resume there now, don’t wait until after you relocate. Since it’s not too far, if you snag a job you’ll be able to move quickly. The relatively close proximity also means that you’ll still be close enough to make regular visits home to see Mom. So bite the bullet and make the move. Or don’t, but don’t expect the jobs to come to you. Enjoy your career at Grandpa’s sign shop.
Step 9. Don’t just Go for Your “Dream Job”
Apply for lots of jobs, at lots of places, in lots of different industries. Remember, you’ve got to start somewhere. Besides, have you ever considered the possibility that perhaps your “dream job” isn’t what you think it is? You may be pleasantly surprised by great offers from amazing companies in industries you never would have imagined working in. I know I was.
Bigwig Agencies with Pool Tables and Pinball Machines
With regards to your “dream job,” here’s some news for you. The place where you want to work—everyone else wants to work there too. When I worked at an ad agency in Pennsylvania, we were literally bombarded with resumes and promotional materials from designers, almost on a daily basis. The truth is that those “Madison Square” style ad agencies, the kind who have Pepsi and Starbucks on their client list, are never really “hiring.” They never have to. They have extremely low turnover to begin with and when they do need someone, they’ve already got months or maybe even years of resumes and portfolios to sift through.
Small Fish, Big Pond
If you are going to “get in,” it’s going to be at an “entry-level” or “junior designer” position. A job where you’ll likely start-off having very little responsibility or creative freedom, and a paycheck to match. I’ve heard stories from peers who’ve gotten jobs at “big-city” agencies. They sit in their little cubicle all day being spoon-fed one miniscule project per week with heavy oversight from a superior. They finish it in a day and then spend the rest of their time surfing Google. I’m sure that some day these incubating young creative minds will get their chance to shine at the giant agency. But is that really your idea of a “dream job?” Not mine. I’d much rather have more freedom and creative authority at a smaller company.
Now, let’s get something straight. I’m not telling you not to shoot for the stars or not try for your preconceived “dream job.” I’m simply asking you to understand the realities, and be flexible enough to adjust your goals accordingly. If your work and work ethic are phenomenal, you can get your high-profile job and the prestige that goes along with it, it just might not be what you thought.
Step 10. Learn How to Interview Well
You get the call. You got the interview. Now what? Don’t count your chickens, there’s still plenty of opportunity for you to screw this up.
Don’t Wait Until the Day of!
Truth be told, your interview begins long before you’re sitting in the hot seat. Before the interview, research the company you’re interviewing with, take notes so you’re familiar with them and their business. Prepare a few questions for them in advance, so when you get the inevitable “do you have any questions for me?” you have something to say and don’t look like a dummy. Also, you should always be prepared for the “What’s your greatest strength?” and “What’s your greatest weakness?” questions. Interviewers often use these to try to trip you up, so decide what you’re going to say in advance.
Show Up and Go with the Flow
On the day of the interview, be sure to bring a bottle of water with you, as you’ll probably be talking a lot. Always play it safe and overdress. Be confident and friendly. Try to build rapport with your interviewer by showing humor and relating to them. Look around their office for a “small talk” conversation-starter, such as a picture of their family pet or the banner for a sports team they like. Be friendly, but let them lead the conversation, answering their questions as thoughtfully as you can.
When it comes time to show your portfolio, try to take the lead. Some interviewers will try to grab it from you and flip through it at their own pace. If at all possible, avoid this by initiating the action yourself. Position your portfolio away from you and facing your interviewer. Talk about the premise and goals of each piece and how you accomplished them. Talk about the rationale behind your concepts. If possible, hand things off directly to the interviewer, allowing them to examine it while you’re talking. Wait patiently until they are through, while answering any questions they may have, then move on.
Be Original, Be Unique, Be Yourself
All in all, the most important thing to remember is to show your personality and be yourself. Remember, they know you’re a creative person by nature. They’re not expecting to interview a librarian or a scientist; they’re expecting to interview a designer. So be professional but don’t be boring—be unique, be likable, be funny, and be creative.
Bonus Step: Follow-up!
If you’re not immediately offered a job after an interview, don’t give up. Be sure to send a thank you letter soon afterward. This ideally should be sent snail mail, not email. In your letter, mention specific things that you learned and liked during your interview. This shows that you actually paid attention and cared about the particulars of the company.
After a week or so, if you still don’t hear anything, give them a call. Tell them that you’re just following-up and that you’re still interested. Tell them that you’re wondering where they are in their decision-making process. If they say, “It’s ongoing,” ask them when you should try back again.
Being prepared for the entire job-seeking process, complete with the right materials for each required step, is critical to success. Don’t half-ass it or your mediocrity will be your demise. If you follow the steps above in the order presented, I promise you that you can and will achieve your goals. A fun and rewarding design job is not a far off dream, it’s an attainable reality. Soon enough, you’ll be creating beautiful work at an awesome design job and letting your creative juices run free.
What Do You Think?
Do you have anything to add to my steps? Is there anything you disagree with? If you have any additional tips, suggestions, or questions for me about getting a great design job, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.