Fortunately, I attended a college where their main goal was to set you up for life after college. Everything I created throughout my college career was meant to be a tool that I was able to use in the real world. Aside from learning art theory and how to use software tools, we were taught how to market ourselves every step of the way.
Which is more important: a fun college experience, or living financially secure for the rest of your life? Clearly, we all want a secure future and the only way to do that is to strive for success while in college. This isn’t about eliminating Friday night beer pong from your agenda to study, it’s about finding time to implement what you are learning in college to the real world while you are still in college.
I can’t guarantee these suggestions will land you a job right out of college, but I can tell you that they won’t hurt your chances of doing so.
- Freelance. Freelancing is a great way to build your portfolio while you are still in college. Future employers really don’t care that you graduated with straight A’s. They want to see what you are capable of as a designer. Many design students aren’t really sure what they are worth while still in school or how to find freelance work. The value of a designer has many different factors, such as educational background, real world experience, years of working as a professional in the industry, and design capabilities. Taking those factors into consideration, it is ok to freelance for other forms of payment while in school. I often worked with professional athletes throughout college, and would trade design work for shoes, year supplies of energy drinks, and clothes. (Energy drinks were a great form of payment for a teenager going to college for 40 hours a week.) The best way to find freelance work in college is by keeping it local and through word of mouth. Go to your favorite burrito restaurant and offer them your services. Restaurants always have different specials hanging up in their windows, so why not trade them a flyer for a couple free meals. Anything beats cup-o-noodles! Perhaps you are at a concert and you know that one of the local bands playing doesn’t have artwork for their CD or a website. Approach them and offer them your services for a small fee or other forms of compensation like free concert tickets.
- Intern. It is extremely important that you intern while you are in college. Even though many interning positions these days offer hourly pay, a good amount of these positions are still unpaid. Could you imagine being a college grad living on your own and working 8 hours days for free? That’s not a very pleasant thought! If you can’t find intern positions while doing job searches, try contacting local companies and let them know you are interested in doing an unpaid internship with them. Choose the company you want to intern for wisely and go there every day with a smile on your face, willingness to learn, and your best foot forward. Don’t let the fact that you aren’t being paid discourage you. You would be surprised how many companies notice the drive and dedication put in by their interns and because of this, end up hiring interns for design positions within the company as soon as they graduate.
- Show off your talent! Employers always want to see real work from real clients in your portfolio. Yet, if you are called in for a job interview and your prospective employer is aware that you are straight out of college, show off your skills! Create mock companies and brand them by creating their identity and all of their marketing material. It is ok to include personal work in your portfolio if you don’t have a big collection of real work, but choose it wisely. Don’t put a picture of your dog in your portfolio that you made green in Photoshop. It may be impressive and amusing to you, but it is an amateur move to put work in your portfolio that doesn’t involve much design, skill, thought, or meaning.
- Have a portfolio. All of this talk about creating work for your portfolio and I haven’t even talked about the importance of a portfolio in general. Your portfolio can be your make it or break it tool. Some may consider it old school, but have a portfolio book. Before I graduated college I went to an art store and bought a black portfolio book with clear sleeves and printed out what I considered my best work at a local printer and placed my work into my portfolio. To be able to sit with a prospective employer with your work in front of you and explain the meaning of your work and why you did this, and used a certain color really shows off your knowledge and understanding of effective design.
These days the internet is everything. Have a portfolio for yourself on the web as well. If you ever apply for a job over the internet it is ideal to have a web-based portfolio. Some positions require that you just attach a PDF of your work or provide a website through e-mail. You can promote yourself much better through a website. By having your own website it gives prospective employers the chance to view your work and learn a little more about you on a personal level.
It’s not the size of your portfolio, it’s what you put in it. I have had many recent design grads ask me if they should put a good amount of mediocre work in their portfolio or a small number of well-designed pieces in their portfolio. I always tell them to go with a small number of well-designed pieces. You are only as good as your best, so why display anything less than your best?
- Market yourself. The best way to get noticed as a designer is to market yourself. Earlier I talked about implementing what you are learning in school to the real world while still in college. They teach us in design school how important logos and marketing material can be to a company. Fact is, these things are just important to us when job hunting. If you don’t plan on going the freelance route after college it is ideal to market yourself, as yourself. Don’t get fancy and disguise yourself as a company and promote yourself as ‘The Best Design Services Ever!’ Instead, use your real name and your job title. How simple and professional does: Joe Smith, Graphic Designer sound? It is ok to have a different website name that may reflect your personality as well. Just because you are selling yourself doesn’t mean you have to have a domain such as joesmith.com. My site name, VelvetAnt was originally just the name of my site, and later I evolved it into my way of marketing myself as a small company to pick up freelance work.
- Don’t be cheap! If you want to land a good job you must market yourself professionally. Buy an actual domain name opposed to just heading over to freewebs.com and creating a home page. If you decide to make a physical portfolio book, buy a good looking book. There are so many out there that you can find great deals. I recommend buying a portfolio book in person opposed to over the internet. It is good to be able to hold a book in your hand test out its weight, durability, and decide what material you want to go with. Decent portfolios can range anywhere from $40 to $500. Print out all of your work on card stock or better. Your work isn’t flimsy, and your paper shouldn’t be either. If you want a prospective employer to view you professionally and put together, make sure you display your work that way.
- When do you want to start looking for a job? You want to start looking for a job when you have all of your marketing material and portfolio’s finished. Landing a job is a time consuming process. I have spent hours applying for different jobs over the internet and following up on leads. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t receive an e-mail or phone call for a position you applied for. Companies have so many possible designers applying for the same position that it is hard for them to e-mail every single person back explaining to them why they are going with another designer (though that would be nice). Apply for more than one job at a time. It isn’t unheard of for people to apply for 5 or more jobs a day. Applying for multiple positons with different companies gives you a better chance of landing a position. It is quite the process of landing your first job, and because of this you want you start applying for jobs and going for interviews about 6 months prior to your college graduation.
- Be creative when applying for positions. Do you know how many cover letters and resumes that look the same are being sent for the position you are applying for? It is always important to research a company before applying. It is really impressive to employers when you know a thing or two about their company. Let them know that you think their company is kick ass and how much you love their work ethic. If you are applying for a job over the internet and it is OK for you to send them physical mail, try sending them a small and uniquely designed booklet of your work with your resume attached, or an interactive version of your portfolio on a disc. If you don’t hear back from anyone regarding a position you applied for, follow up. E-mail them a week or two later asking them if they have gotten all of your information smoothly and if they have any questions for you and include your resume and link to your portfolio again.
- If you have landed a job interview you are on almost there! Holding job interviews is one of the last steps and the make or break it step of the hiring process. If an employer has called you in for an interview that means the position has been narrowed down to you and only a few other people. Look good, smell good, and be cheery! Always shake the interviewers hand and keep eye contact. Even though they may have your resume printed out, hand them another one. There is always some sort of comfort found by both the interviewer and interviewee when making some kind of personal connection. Try to connect on a personal level with your interviewer, and I can’t say this enough ‘Don’t lie! Be straight forward with your skills and capabilities. If they ask you if you are efficient in flash and you have never opened the program a day in your life, don’t say yes and then run out to the book store and buy every book under the sun about flash.
- Follow up! After an interview, ask for a business card from the interviewer. This way you have all of their contact information. As soon as you get home either e-mail them thanking them for their time and the opportunity, or run out to hallmark and purchase a thank you card to send to them. If you want to go above and beyond, you could always create something like a custom thank you card you have designed specifically for them to send by mail.
The most important marketing materials a designer straight out of school can have are business cards, a logo, and a web presence. You never know who you might meet in your every day endeavors, so always carry business cards on you that consist of at least 2 different ways to contact you. Don’t just give someone your business card and expect to have an e-mail Monday morning stating that they want to hire you. Get their card as well. If you don’t hear from them within a week, take it upon yourself to shoot them an e-mail offering a friendly hello and the reason why you are contacting them. Don’t beat around the bush with a bunch of small talk. Be direct with them about your reason for getting in touch with them. This shows confidence and determination.
I wish I could tell you to follow all of these tips and you will land your first job with no problem, but in the end it is up to you how you present yourself and how good your work is. Landing your first job in the real world is a very exciting accomplishment. A designer’s first job isn’t always glitz and glam and it probably won’t be everything you expect it to be. We all have to start somewhere, so don’t be upset when your first job consists of saving out Photoshop files as PDF’s and managing files. It is astounding how quickly a designer can move up within a company as long as they are dedicated and eager to reach their goals.