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By Laura Howarth

Breaking into the design industry

Last Updated 7 Nov 2019

If you’re a designer straight out of university, or a self-taught creative seeking to break into a career in design, it can be difficult to know where to start. It’s a tricky industry to get into, and there always feels like a shortage of decent junior designer jobs. Getting your foot in the door is the hardest part. It can seem impossible to know where to begin, so here are a few ways to get started.

Your Portfolio

Your portfolio says a lot about you and what you know about design. It’s there to demonstrate what you’ve learned and how you showcase it. Are you a brand identity designer? A logo designer? Or are you a jack of all trades? When applying for junior roles, a specialist skill isn’t necessary, although it can help to have areas you’re really passionate about. It can really work to your advantage if you have a variety of work as opposed to focusing on one type of design.

When employers are looking for a junior designer, they’re (mostly) realistic about what the level of experience they expect. You don’t need to have a huge Nike campaign under your belt. It’s better to have three to four solid projects that are well thought out, with your process clearly shown.

Employers seeking junior designers should be able to tell what sort of level you’re working at just by looking at the first couple of pieces in your portfolio, so make sure you’re focused on quality over quantity, and you can explain each project in detail to the interviewers.

Self Taught vs Education

These days there’s a lot of pressure to go to university and get a degree. The emphasis at school is always on furthering your institutional education, and it can make you feel like you need a university degree to get any job at all. However, design is a creative industry. It can certainly help to get a degree or diploma. More time in formal education helps you build valuable connections, and gives you time to focus on creating and improving, but it’s not essential. Many successful creatives – graphic designers included – are self-taught. It takes a little extra motivation and sometimes more time, but it can be a better fit than university for a lot of people.

Most employers in creative industries look past paperwork and recognise that having a degree doesn’t guarantee potential or skill. They’ll be looking instead for an eye for design, for creativity, versatility, and talent. This is why a lot of designers are self taught.

Be Brief

It’s common for graphic design roles to give you a brief as part of the interview process. I’ve had to complete one before being offered an interview, and also before being offered my second interview. It’s your chance to shine and put yourself ahead of the competition. It also lets the company know what level you’re at and if you can follow a brief. Also, a second interview isn’t uncommon, so if you’ve completed a brief and have been offered a second interview, make sure you can talk them through your work.

It’s important before fulfilling the brief that you know at least a bit about the place you’re applying to work. Unfortunately many employers less experienced in design will confuse what they like or don’t like with something being good or bad. Whilst your portfolio and interview will demonstrate your personality, taste and skill level, the design brief is the place to play up to the company you want to work for. Have a look at their website. If they’ve got case studies or examples of the work they’ve done, check them out. Don’t copy, but definitely make sure that your design brief is on the same level as the work the company does.

In-house vs Agency

If you’re applying for jobs as an in-house designer, your work will be focused on the company you work for. It’ll be about their brand – print work, digital ads etcetera. For small, independent or growing organisations this can involve a lot of work on visually establishing the brand. For larger companies, unless they go through a rebranding process, it’ll be about using your skills to design pieces that fit with that already established brands.

A graphic design role with an agency, however, will be completely different. Whilst you might do some work for the agency themselves, like logo design, the work will vary with each client. You’ll need to be versatile and imaginative and able to adapt to vastly different brands. One day you could be designing a website for a tech company, then you could be working on packaging for a beverage company.

It’s important to know what you’re looking for, and which environment your skill lends itself to.

Play Nice

After the interview process, it’s out of your hands, right? Well, not 100%. You can still continue to make a positive impression even after you’ve left your interview.

After the interview, send an email thanking the interviewer for their time and their consideration. This helps you stay fresh in their minds even after they’ve spent the day interviewing other candidates. Some people use this email as an opportunity to offer more work that wasn’t included in their portfolio. This is a practice that many employers expect but that is rarely mentioned when people talk about how to apply for jobs.

When you find out whether you’ve got the job or not, it’s important to take the result in your stride and respond to any feedback in a positive manner. If you’ve not got the job, the company will most likely email you, in which case it’s always good to ask for feedback and to thank them again for their time. However if they went through an agency, you’ll most likely get a call. If this happens and you don’t receive an offer, remember to be polite and to ask for any feedback. A lot of agencies work together or run in similar circles, and many local agency directors know each other. If you’re not right for the role you’ve applied for but you make a positive impression, you might get recommended to other agencies, or even have your CV and portfolio passed on to others.

Get to Work

The most important thing to do if you’re trying to break into the graphic design world is just. keep. grinding. Whether you’re getting freelance jobs left and right or just working through personal projects, every single piece of work will help you improve and be another string to your bow. You don’t have to be working with huge brands to be producing quality work. You just have to be practiced and passionate.

Happy designing!


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