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Tips for Landing Your First Design Job

Tips for Landing Your First Design Job

Landing your first design job is always the hardest. Here are a few pieces of advice for students and people looking to get into the field for the first time.

Portfolio Advice

Everyone has a different idea of what makes the best portfolio. For a design student I would suggest trying to create 18 pieces you feel could be portfolio-worthy, and narrow it down to 8-10 pieces for the final portfolio, based off the feedback you receive. 

Tell A Story With Every Piece

You want to be able to talk for at least 5 minutes about every piece of work in your portfolio. You may never have to speak this long, but what you say about your work can sway a potential employer. Just laying your work out there and hoping someone likes it, is going to make the job hunt that much harder. When you get the chance to show a potential employer your work demonstrate your design knowledge by talking about the desing process.

If you had to use a logo that wasn’t particularly well done, explain that, and how you were able to work with it. Explain that in your student project you had these restrictions, and this timeline to come up with specific deliveribles, and why you make these choices. The potential employer may still not like the piece but when you put it in context they can at least see how you came to the decision to create it the way you did.

Demonstrate Your Ability To:

  • Take design direction
  • Work within a deadline
  • Work within the guidelines
  • Be flexible and creative with the constraints you were given

Be able to talk about why you made certain design decisions, and the process you took to get to your final piece. Showing off great work is good, but explaining how you got to that point is even better. It demonstrates that you can think critically, you actually did the work yourself and that you considered all the options before choosing this design path.

Not everyone is going to like your work, you just need one person to love it.

Remember, that design, especially in the eyes of designers is incredibly subjective. Don’t take any one person’s opinion as the absolute truth. In order to get your portfolio ready to show potential employers, you want to get it in front of as many designers as possible.

Call or email some local designers and see if they would be willing to take a look at your portfolio. Have all your previous teachers take a look at it as well. The more advice you get the better. If every person says they don’t like one piece, you may want to remove it, or you might want to come up with a memorable story about why that piece is still in your portfolio.

You will quickly discover that 2-3 pieces are your best work. There may be 5-6 so-so pieces, and a few throw aways. Then there are a couple pieces that people are on the fence about.

If you get one raving revue about a piece and a couple negative comments, go back in and work on these ones. These pieces are what will set your portfolio apart, if you can make them shine. Anything that brings a strong response, can make you stand out. You already have your best work for the beginning and end of your portfolio, now 1 or 2 of these pieces will help to get an emotional response from the interviewer.

Being Original but Rough is Better than being Complete but Safe

One of the problems I see in design portfolios is students latch onto a particular style that they like and try to emulate that in their work. It is fine to experiment and try to do things that you have seen, but the most important thing is to show your own sense of style. Not your personal style, but that you can come up with original ideas and concepts, that don’t look like Apple, or Nike or some other brand you like.

It is easy to emulate something you see but it is another thing to come up with something new. A portfolio of polished yet safe pieces won’t allow you to stand out. If you really want to get attention from your work, and get a job with a really innovative firm, take some risks and do something original. Not everyone will like it but if you can demonstrate your raw talent, you have a chance at landing a great job.

Your Personal Brand

  • Elevator pitch
  • Business cards
  • Printed Portfolio
  • Website
  • Resume
  • Letterhead/Thank You Cards

Above all else, you want to maintain a consistent brand. Your brand is your biggest portfolio piece and what distinguishes you the designer, from your competition. Most of your other pieces are one page, but with your branding material you can demonstrate how you put together the whole package. Your design pieces: business card, print portfolio cover (if you have one), website (if you have one), resume, and stationary/thank you card should all be top quality and build off of each other.

That means a consistent use of color, font and style. The two areas I would spend particular attention is to your letterhead and resume. These will be the first things potential employees will see.

Landing A Job Is A Full-Time Job

If you are finishing up school or looking for work full-time, make sure to treat it as a job. Spend eight hours a day working.

If you are still a student, spend that time creating new work, and revising your current projects, so that you have great portfolio pieces. The more work you do the more pieces you can choose from.

If you are looking for work, spend your day writing personal emails to potential employees, searching for and submitting to job opportunities, writing thank you cards to the people you have interviewed with.

Hopefully some of this will help you think about improving your approach to landing a design job. If you have any advice, because I know I didn’t cover half of it, leave it in a comment below.

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Couchable is a web design blog created by Tyler Herman. Not really updated anymore because I'm busy doing freelance design work and busy launching my little WordPress theme shop Real Theme Co. You can read a little more about my at my personal site