27 ways to land your first job in Graphic Design + How I did it
How I broke into design
“Why haven’t you done your maths homework?!” That’s what I’d be asked most evenings during my formative years, when I’d rather create new Transformer characters, or design new Nike Air shoes. The ability to create something from nothing and then give it personality and style was what captivated me.
During the last years of secondary school, my art teacher would let me skip other classes so I could perfect my sketching and design skills.
Thanks to being the youngest of three children (and thus being a master manipulator), I always had an excuse ready for when other teachers would ask why I’d missed their lesson.
“Although I had a wide range of interests, a career in art and design was my destiny. Until I met a careers advisor…”
My grades across all subjects were slightly above average, apart from Art & Design, where I excelled and would transform into a miserable brat if I ever achieved anything under an A grade. Although I had a wide range of interests, a career in art and design was my destiny. Until I met a career advisor…
On one particular day, pupils were invited to meet a careers advisor who would help us choose the right path when going out into the big wide world. I was ushered into a small room and met by a very bland looking middle-aged man, with a dull grey suit and a tone of voice to match. To me, my path into design was clear so I didn’t expect much help. Despite hearing my obvious enthusiasm, he dismissed my life ambition as quickly as he could roll his eyes. He told me – with absolute certainty – that I’d be wasting my time pursuing design as there weren’t any jobs or money to be made in the industry. He and other influential figures in my life proclaimed that I should follow my Sister, who excelled at all things academic, and become a manager at a leading bank in London.
And just like that, my entire career had been decided for me.
I decided (with rose-tinted glasses on) that I could make money in a standard business role and fulfil my creative dreams during my evenings and weekends. Oh, how naive I was.
I secured my first job as a production coordinator at a food and beverage trading company overlooking Tower Bridge. On my first day, I arrived wearing an ill-fitting grey suit and a carrier bag containing a just-ham sandwich and a grey umbrella. My careers advisor would’ve been so proud.
It became clear pretty quickly that there was no future for me in this industry. Any idea of fulfilling my creative dreams during my evenings and weekends were dashed by a job that drained my creative juices and demanded late nights to meet deadlines. The final nail in the coffin came when the MD would regularly send me away to a tiny, dark room alone to gather samples of citric acid which could be used to clean his yacht.
My time wasn’t completed wasted though. Not that it didn’t feel like it at the time, especially when I was being made to earn my stripes through some excessive delegation from senior colleagues who spent their afternoons in the pub. But thanks to a good work ethic and actively seeking advice from mentors, I climbed the ranks and became a manager soon enough.
Whilst I was busy wondering what education I was missing at university, I developed important, real-life skills in the workplace, where it mattered. Managing and motivating colleagues, building relationships, meeting deadlines within set budgets and problem solving helped build the foundations for running my own business later down the line.
Despite the promotion, I remained unfulfilled and I decided that my job would have to suffer in order to achieve my dream. I enrolled at the London College of Communication and took a series of courses in the evenings that would span across 3 years.
My eyes were opened immediately as I stepped through the university doors. Incredible designs, created by students, adorned the walls and provided me with a huge sense of inspiration and purpose.
“Each of us had experienced an unfulfilling career and were desperate for change.”
I met other students in a similar position to my own, who wanted to escape other careers and venture towards something creative. We shared a drive stronger than many students who take the 3 year degree in graphic design; each of us had experienced an unfulfilling career and were desperate for change.
It was during these classes that I learned the fundamentals and principles of good design. I’ll forever be thankful to the amazing lecturers, particularly to Paul Chamberlain for his seemingly unending wealth of knowledge and his willingness to share it, both in the lecture hall and in the pub.
One of my finest moments as a designer (even to this day) came during the end of year exhibition, where the best designs throughout the year were showcased to the university and public. I was shocked to find my poster layout promoting the London Olympics given a feature, receiving praise from some respected figures at the university. My work was now adorning the same halls that had so inspired me when I began the course three years prior.
That sense of achievement and pride was nothing I’d felt before; I wanted more of it!
I gave in my notice (a bit too proudly) and quit my role in food and beverage distribution and looked to the future with excitement and eagle-eyed focus.
I deleted my very corporate CV designed in Microsoft Word and set about creating a CV and portfolio that would attract a creative director. Whilst some recruiters were confused and possibly put off by my unconventional career path, I landed a role in production and design at a leading promotional merchandise company in Shoreditch.
It felt like I’d been adopted by a family rather than enduring the standard awkward greetings on a new employee’s first day. This friendly, outgoing and ambitious team, coupled with a creative role gave me unbelievable satisfaction. Plus, there were wasn’t a grey suit in sight!
Starting a design job in a promotional merchandise company wasn’t a conventional route into a design career. But then, I hadn’t followed a conventional designer’s career path. However, creating artwork and managing the end-to-end process developed that sense of responsibility for managing the client’s needs. I had the opportunity to produce innovative designs and creative promotional merchandise for major clients that helped develop my role into a senior creative and management position.
“I created my own degree”
Despite being guided to a different career path and some long hours learning graphic design, I’m thankful that I went the extra mile to achieve my dream. It wasn’t the conventional or recommended path. In a sense, I created my own degree through learning key soft-skills in the workplace during the day, whilst mastering graphic design in the evenings and weekends.
The common advice is to encourage young designers to enrol at university, which I wouldn’t argue with. My point is that there are other ways to be successful in design, especially in the modern age. Some of the largest global businesses are recognising that candidates with hands-on experience through online courses or similar methods can make the same impact as candidates with a degree. Google, Apple and IBM are amongst an increasing number of companies who no longer require applicants to have a degree. Having that work-place experience, becoming multi-skilled, developing people and management skills will help future proof your career in an age where gains in technology are at such a pace that great design skills alone won’t stop you from becoming obsolete.
An easier and more effective way of reaping the same benefits of my journey is to apply for an internship, whether you’re at university or not.
One incredible reward of an internship is that you have the opportunity to learn on the job, with an experienced designer to guide you. Learning by ‘doing’ is quicker, easier, for most of us and means that repeating the same skill next time isn’t as intimidating. You’ll feel a greater sense of achievement completing a real-life project and grow in confidence with every successful task. Becoming a skilled, reliable and integrated team member could even bring you paid work from that company, or at least a glowing reference.
Sometimes you don’t know how far you’ve come until you look back…at your Inbetweeners haircut whilst listening to some garage classics. The journey is different for us all, but the secret to achieving my dream was pretty simple. It just takes an open mind, a passion for creating, perseverance and above all, self-belief!
27 ways to land your first job in Graphic Design:
Deciding who you want to be is often not an easy decision for most of us. You may have a passion for design, but how do you go about making the jump? If you’re a budding designer, here’s my advice to securing your first graphic design job:
Starting from the bottom
- There is no golden ticket into this saturated field: you must have a strong work-ethic, with the passion and imagination to get yourself noticed.
- Career Change: if you’re thinking about switching careers from an industry that seems completely untransferable, it’s not too late. You may be unaware of several skills that’ll help you in design, which may put you ahead of other candidates, such as the ability to confidently pitch to clients.
- Understand Graphic Design: well duh! There are some great courses on Udemy and Skillshare at amazing prices. There are also plenty of free tutorials available on YouTube.
- It’s ok to be rubbish: be prepared to be absolutely useless when starting something new. This’ll help you develop patience and appreciate the mastery you’ll pick up in the long term.
- Buying design equipment and software is a necessary evil: fear not! There are savings to be made. You can save around 65% on the Adobe Creative Cloud Student Subscription. Also check out Quidco for cashback on Adobe subscriptions and stock images.
- Mean business: if you pursue a university degree, find courses or mentors who can teach you key business skills that’ll help you transition into the workplace.
- Get organised: with so many channels available to promote yourself, organising these promotion tactics can be daunting. Set yourself achievable goals and give yourself a deadline for each. For example, learn a new software skill by the end of the month. Use a notebook to write down your plan of action, or setup a free account with Trello to organise tasks.
- Create Pinterest boards: create your own Pinterest boards with designs that’ll help with inspiration for your next project. Examine what makes it a good design to help you understand the principles of design.
- Look around you: Don’t rely solely on the internet for creative ideas. Look for inspiration everywhere you go and from everyone you meet.
- Break out of your comfort zone: mastering one skill or piece of software is definitely a good thing, but getting out of your comfort zone and learning something new will develop confidence and provide more opportunities for future employment.
- Get out there: the self-taught route can be a lonely experience. Join local groups and find other designers who can share experiences and skills. An accountability partner is a fantastic way to keep you motivated and on course.
- Build on the relationships you already have: send a DM to your social media contacts and look for opportunities. Be friendly, whilst getting to the point.
- Imposter Syndrome: most of us encounter this, normally early in our careers and especially if, like me, you haven’t followed the traditional route into design. Take a moment to appreciate what you’ve achieved, the positive feedback you’ve had and stop comparing yourself to others.
- Understand User Experience (UX): as a designer, it’s important to put the customer first, by knowing how to design products with good usability and user pleasure.
Do the work!
- Create a portfolio: To land that first role in design, you won’t get anywhere without a portfolio. Display only your best work, explain the challenges you encountered and the process of how you reached the final design. Proof-read the portfolio and covering letter and ask someone else to check it as well.
- Free work: A very controversial topic, of which there are many opinions. I believe that whilst you’re starting out and developing a portfolio, it’s OK to offer cheap or even free work. However, make it clear to the client that you’ll be charging your standard rate for future work. As you start to show your worth and your demand rises, don’t undervalue yourself or your time.
- Share your work: whether it’s on your own website (which we’d highly recommend), Behance, Dribbble, social media or Youtube, get your work out there. This is a great way to build followers and get seen by employers.
- Give value: this may be difficult when you’re starting out, but simply sharing your process can inspire others. We have a free stock photo section on our website, providing free images for blogs, social media and anything else. This increases traffic on our website and increases engagement with customers.
- Are you listening?: before you start creating what you think will be a great design for your portfolio, take time to understand the brief, how the design will best connect with audiences and ask questions if you’re unclear.
- Sign me up: subscribe to blogs from brands that you love: Take note of why you’re attracted to them and what elements of their marketing make you want to engage with them in the future.
- CV: Businesses advertising for designers often receive hundreds of applications, so it’s vital that your CV is on point. Keep it within a double sided A4 sheet. Ensure to include the following details – Full name, Job title, Contact, Objectives, Skills, Work Experience, Clients, Achievements, Qualifications and Interests. There’s no need to add your age or photo. Spelling check it, then save it as a compressed PDF and ensure all the hyperlinks work.
- Don’t blanket-mail portfolios: Decide who you really want to work for. Tailor your portfolio and covering letter to the job you’re applying for. Applying for a designer role at a magazine company? Showcase your best layouts and demonstrate you understand typography. If there isn’t a contact name on the job description, phone the company and find out who will be managing the vacancy. It adds that personal touch and will help you get noticed.
- Internships: As mentioned in our blog, internships are a fantastic way to develop your design and soft-skills under the mentorship of experienced professionals. Check out The Dots, Rate My Placement and Inspiring Interns for the latest placements. Once you’ve secured an internship, make yourself indispensable by doing everything asked of you. Roll your sleeves up and check if there’s anything else you can do to help the team. Going above and beyond will help you stand out and make you a valuable asset. Your team will know you’re there to learn, so don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- The big interview: Before an interview, exceed expectations by doing your homework on the company and the person interviewing you. Go the extra mile by thinking of ways in which the company can improve. For example, is there a section missing on their website that would really benefit their business. And of course, arrive early, look the part, sit up straight, speak clearly, be polite and ask questions.
- Tell your story: The presentation of your portfolio needs to be clear and engaging, whilst explaining the challenges, the process and outcome. Rehearse this at home in advance, as this’ll help your story flow on the day and help you gain confidence in your story. You need to believe in your own work – no one else will if you don’t. It may sound obvious but make sure that everyone can see your work during the presentation – this is your time to impress. Above all, be yourself!
- Sh*t happens: There will be some obstacles along the way. Clients or employers will reject your design or application. Stay calm, keep trying and learn from your experiences. Remember, design is a very personal preference and you can’t please all of the people, all of the time.
- Prove it: you’ll want to promote your soft-skills within your application or interview. It’s all well and good mentioning that you’re a troubleshooter, or team-player, but this’ll mean nothing without good and relevant examples.
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James Dawson is a graphic designer and illustrator based in Brentwood, Essex. He’s the founder of JD Designs, with customers including Facebook, FC Barcelona and University of Oxford.