This post offers useful, honest and actionable tips to help you land your first Junior Graphic design role or internship. 20 design graduate tips
This post is here to help
Finding work as a fresh-faced young Graphic Designer can be a challenge! This post has been written to offer assistance in your journey to landing that desired role. By hopefully following these 20 graduate designer tips it will push closer to finding your goal into becoming an intern or a graduate designer.
As for my credentials; I have both been a design graduate and manager in charge of hiring interns and graduate designers. This post will cover what the company looked for (my previous role), what ‘I’ looked for and what I wasted my time doing in the beginning when looking for work.
My credentials to clear up
1) I’m not Neville Brody, or Saul Bass.
2) A lot of this experience comes me and my former colleagues
3) The rest is taught
4) The rest of it is from first-hand experience.
20 detailed tips for landing that ideal creative role :
20 design graduate tips – in stages
Part 1 – Getting Into Mindset – It’s a job in itself.
1) Be positive, and stay positive
There may come a time in your search for work where you will feel down in the dumps, the worst thing you can do if you really want to be a Graphic Designer is throw in the towel too early on.
Some graduates manage to find a jobs as a designer straight out of University. Others will land roles off the back work experience, after 4 months of applying, after 400 applications or after nearly 10 months! Keep going, and push forward. No two people are the same and your journey could be different. This post may help with your portfolio
2 ) Don’t Waste (too much) Time With Recruiters
I put a strong emphasis on talking to a lot of the recruiters in London at the start, believing they would find my next all-star job! Generally speaking, recruiters don’t manifest results if you are a graduate. I will assume, they are more preoccupied with landing the roles for higher-paying jobs and getting a larger commission – I’m not sure exactly.
Bottom line, I spoke to many creative recruiters for jobs that didn’t exist or didn’t come to anything. The few that were useful gave some interesting advice, others almost destructive advice.
Try here instead – YCN
3 ) Keep Bettering Yourself
This follows on from “wasting time”. Sitting on your computer watching Youtube videos about cute cats jumping off of furniture isn’t going to land you a job. Make good use of your time by researching companies, learning the nuances and shortcuts of Photoshop and Illustrator or consider learning a coding language. The more skills and worthwhile projects you have in your portfolio, the closer you will come to landing you first ideal role.
4 Imagine Your Ideal Role
For me, this was the trickiest part of finding a role and I feel that my portfolio, although diverse could have been considered convoluted. You want your portfolio and visual language to be in tune with your first full-time job. In hindsight, I had no idea about what type of job I wanted! I just wanted a creative job. If you don’t know, consider working backwards – what jobs don’t you want?
Here is a scenario.
Joanne was a diligent and hardworking student that tried her best at University. She was fresh-faced graduate full of hope and aspirations, she assumed it would be a breeze, she was a top student and she – like others – would just step into a creative role. But it didn’t come as easily as expected.
Why? Because, its not all about grades and portfolio, it was about finding a professional job match. Joanne had an artistic lean in her portfolio. She became a book designer.
Craig, he was great with branding, liked to skateboard but hated reading books, his persona and portfolio was all about skateboarding. Craig was a fresh-faced graduate designer and he applied to the position advertised for a ‘Book Designer’ – that’ll will do, he thought. “I need a job so I will just go for it”. He didn’t get that role for graduate book designer… but he did get the role working for a Skateboarding Label.
Is there a grain of truth in the above scenario’s? A bit. And maybe these fictional graduates lived happily ever rafter because they found a good job match.
5 ) Your Portfolio and CV are not speaking to each other
If you are struggling to get a job, or get shortlisted, it could be a case that your portfolio and CV don’t match up!
I have read a great CV’s, useless CV’s, silly CV’s random CV’s and just obscure and irrelevant. You CV needs to be applicable to the role and the contents of the portfolio should reflect at least some of the information in your CV, spelling, and typos are only the beginning. You need a CV and folio that match each other and will help to put you ahead of other applicants. Controversially, I will say make a killer portfolio first and write the CV second.
6 ) Right place at the right time | luck and availability
Sound like a cliché? It is! But it also very true. You can be a ridiculously talented designer with a great portfolio, but if you are not in the right place at the right time then you won’t get the job. Roles can become available due somebody leaving, maternity cover, looking for contractors for specific tasks or the company is expanding! Be on the job boards, be ready and be available.
7 ) Businesses Aren’t Charities
When I first started trying to land my first job, my CV and covering letter didn’t bring anything to the job. Without really saying it, I expected the role would just land in my lap as I was a shiny new graduate – graduating or passing you course is just the beginning and employers smell your un-jaded optimism from a mile away.
With my begging letter (covering letter) at the ready, it said far more than what was written on the paper. Between the lines it said :
“please give me a job, I have nothing to offer, and you will be doing me a favour by hiring me… please do me a favour! I need experience.”
Explorers, directors and seniors designers need more than this. A CV saying that you need something from them as opposed to offering all of your energy and bustling talent is just selling yourself short. I wish I could go back and tell myself this.
Some kind souls took time to answer my queries and offer advice but most of the time they ignored my queries. You need to bring your ‘a game’ to the team, you will be hired to do a job and do it well. Hiring managers are looking for potential and you are brimming with it – remember? Bring your best.
Aside from drawing attention to the blemish of inexperience, employers will know you are a graduate just by looking at the graduation dates. Focus on what you can do and do well.
Companies won’t hire you out of pity
Part 2 – Job Preparation
Preparation is key.
Looking at the points before have you picked you ideal employer or type of job?
Are you considering how your portfolio will align with your ideal role?
If you don’t have a clue what you ideal role is, don’t threat! I didn’t either! A good way of assessing who your ideal employer could be is by working backward. Ask yourself : What would you hate to do? This will narrow you options, and consider your first steps when looking for work.
8 ) Design Portfolio
This shouldn’t even need to be a point but I have run interviews where ‘Graphic Design Graduates’ came to a creative design interview without a portfolio… or anything to show for that matter. To begin with, that applicant was relying on my memory (my poor memory) and hoping that I could recall everything in their portfolio, at least they got dressed! Turning up to a graduate position without anything wasn’t ideal for a couple of reasons:
1) Did their college or institution not make the designer create a portfolio?
2) They should want to put their best foot forward.
3) This is a chance to discuss their best pieces of work! To really shine!
4) Dozens of other applicants will turn up with a portfolio and it is VERY a competitive market.
“Ah it will be ok not to have a portfolio, I am the best designer of all of them” – chances are there will be many good designers going for that position, especially in London.
There were times when we would get over a 100 applicants. Hoping an employer will remember your best work is putting you, as the applicant, at a huge disadvantage – you are a Designer, as general rule, you need something to show.
Having a professional portfolio displaying your best and treasured work – especially for print roles is a must in my opinion.
Below are some key points which I have collected together from interviews and sharing information with Creative Directors and MD’s :-
- Put your best pieces of work at the front and at the back, a strong start and a strong finish.
- Try to include relevant pieces of work for the job role.
- Keep improving your portfolio, offline and online.
- Avoid rubbish work : if you have a ‘live project’ where you had to use ‘Comic Sans’ for the local church poster, leave it out of your portfolio. Putting a low-quality project in your portfolio will undo all of your hard work. At most, just mention in your CV about a live project – if your gut and design sense tells you have added an terrible project, you probably have.
- Add as much ‘good’ quality live work as possible. Work experience goes a long way and ‘showing’ that you have this experience reinforces trust and credibility.
- I have always used an A3 professional portfolio since graduation. I’ve seen others use archival boxes also which look good. I would personally avoid an A2 ring-binder portfolio, they are too big and and says ‘art college’ to me. It’s all about impressions.
Your portfolio needs to reflect you as a professional, you’re not a student any more… sorry to remind you!
9 ) Digital Portfolio
Before an employer looks at your ‘physical portfolio’ you are going to need a digital portfolio, a website, or something online so you can make that initial first impression or ideally all of the aforementioned in order to help grab their attention. Whether it is a compressed PDF or something on Behance, get your work online. When creating your digital PDF portfolio, keep it a small file size, anything above 10 MB may get rejected with inbox limitations.
10 ) Your Design CV
You NEED a CV. Don’t rely on your portfolio to do all of the talking as employers will want to see where you have studied, what you have studied, when, your skills and so on. Employers and hiring management are looking for relevant information, they are looking pieces of information and that will help recruit the ideal candidate for the role. If your CV is irrelevant, thin, too much or riddled with typo’s you are lowering your chances of being selected.
Handy CV notes :
- Don’t create your CV in Word. You are a designer, put some style and class in it.
- Remove irrelevant job experience. Art Directors, Seniors Designers etc, are not interested in your paper round from when you were 15. You won’t be delivering papers in your internship or graduate design role.
- Make it easy to read and skim. Hiring managers are in a rush and they are also human… make your information snappy and easy to navigate. They might be reading a lot of CV’s and by the 70th applicant, the focus can start to go out of the window.
- Use your CV to sell you and reinforce your absolutely killer portfolio!
11 ) Covering letters
Covering letters are where I have seen some of the biggest mistakes. Keep it polite and acknowledge the job listing. You can sniff a ‘copy and paste’ email from a mile away as it seems to ignore all of the points in the job listing. But if you do ‘copy and paste’ make sure to add name and don’t leave sentences like this.
I would like to apply for the position of … as believe I could bring something new to the team.”
I have seen a letter with the “…”still left in. I don’t think they cared much about the job, maybe they were tired!
12 ) Portfolio & CV are inline
I’m going to let you in on secret, after reading so many CV’s for the creative intern roles at my former company, I stopped reading the CV first!
Why? I have taken the time to read CV’s in past and individuals can talk the talk but can’t walk the walk or so the cliché goes. In essence, they bigged themselves in CV and when I looked at the portfolio(s)… Wow, that’s awful
Now that isn’t me bashing Graduate Designer, not at all, I’m not actually convinced they studied design, unless it was at the school MS Publisher 1995. That CV was created by somebody that didn’t have clue about design. I felt ‘had’! The covering letter and CV were so convincing when I opened the digital PDF Portfolio, I was shocked. Imagine reading an epic CV and then you click onto a digital PDF that looks something a 12 year would create .
Trouble is, I had already wasted my time reading a borderline deceptive covering letter and CV. I will have to see the good and assume they were very optimistic and deluded. They Certainly were not a designer, but they sounded like one.
What could I do to with such an individual? Time is very precious in a busy commercial environment. From then on : folio first, glance at covering letter, good! Go back, read.
Part 3 – Uncomfortable & Unspoken Realities
I’m going to spill the beans on things outside of your skills, CV and portfolio that could have an influence on your being passed over. Some of these are opinions, others are first-hand experiences as an applicant and other little ‘gems’ from behind very closed business doors.
Hopefully, the points in this section will be both helpful to you and make me hated by recruiters and companies – good!
Spilling the proverbial design beans…
13 ) Your Uni, School and background can influence your selection
When having a conversation with another Senior Designer I was surprised when I heard a couple of things.
According to the designer, at a certain establishment, they checked the following :-
- Where applicants had studied
- Secondary school and GCSE’s – ‘secondary school and GCSE’s?’ – honestly.
You cannot choose your past and where you went to school as a teenager. Back in school, I didn’t know what I was going to study afterwards, nor would I know that being at that school could have an influence. Believe it or not, I think there is a certain level of elitism in certain establishments that goes beyond your accomplishments and attainment, sadly…
But you should choose your future.
14 ) Geography – you live too far away.
This is both from personal experience as an applicant and an employer. Recruiters and employers can sometimes see ‘where’ you have applied from. So if you are looking for a Job in London for argument sake and you are based in Northern Scotland – certain jobs websites tell the recruiters and prospective employers where the application came from.
How do they know and why does it matter?
It shouldn’t but it will be counted against you regardless, I will come to that. I have experimented with this by accident I the past. On my CV I wrote that I was currently living in London, I was staying in London on and off but not living here. On my CV it stated that I currently lived in London. I applied for a role through a website and a recruiter rang me the following day.
“So your CV says, you live in London, but your application came from Cornwall?” or similar words.
How did they know and why did it matter!?
It matters. This problem, among many as a graduate was more of a gulf than a hurdle. I didn’t understand why geography should matter if I wanted to apply for the position, they were interested before I told them where I was from. I can recall being told a couple if times after the initial telephone interview with the recruiter that I was too far away for the job – despite being willing to pay for a ticket in an attempt to get a job! As time went on I ran into this a couple of times. Mostly from recruiters.
Recruiters want to make money quickly, and sadly if they find another eligible graduate for the position that lives in or around the city they will get the first pick, it can be as simple as that.
My previous boss also favoured locals as it was convenient. I tried my best when possible to favour, passion, talent, work ethic, and a cracking portfolio when selecting a candidate – geography was irrelevant to me perhaps I was also motivated by an emotional ideal. I remember how many times I was thrown on the heap before I could even finish saying the sentence
“I am from Cornwall…”
This comes from the perspective of coming to and living in London. How to vault over the Geography issue:
- Persist and keep applying.
- Be patient
- Find a friend or relative to stay with whilst you look.
- Look for more creative jobs that by pass-recruiters where you feel less like a slab of design meat.
– Last point here – DO NOT RUN UP A DEBT!
15 ) You might not get the most fun tasks
As a graduate you may be given some repetitive or smaller jobs – that’s just how it is. But you should use these to your advantage, do a great job, do it quickly and use these tasks to make an impression! You might also get a great reference from your employer at the end. When handing out these tasks I would also mix them in with more interesting and conceptual tasks.
Part 4 – Design Tips | Employers Perspective
I will now write of what I, and my fellow colleagues looked for when at the interview stage of recruiter a graduate.
16 ) Character
Good portfolio, an active mind, somebody who will do the tasks. We would recruit someone with flair, a graduate that would be able to apply their skills to the brand and be part of the team.
In a highly sociable office / studio I would have to gauge how you, the applicant ,may interact with me and the rest in the team and how they might react to you. I could be away, in a meeting or really busy. If I left you as the Junior or Graduate alone with a sales manager would the office combust because he asked you to help implement an email sig for example? Knowing the personalities of the office how would you react to person A, B who you’d work with every day. We are people after all and not all people get along. Making the wrong match In a work environment could cost the company money
There is more to an interview than just a Portfolio and CV.
17 ) Ask questions, show interest.
Another thing that doesn’t appear to be mentioned much in other interview or advice articles. An interview is not only about you being interviewee, it’s also about you and the company. If I have a discussed potential project coming up in the future it is nice to see if you are actually interested in the role or topic. So asking more about the projects, the role, the progression are are worthwhile questions to ask when it comes to making that first impression.
18 ) Your ‘Interests’ on your CV
Why did this matter to me and the company? It’s not a huge point but as strange as it sounds, if I was interested in the candidate’s CV, I would look at their hobbies and interests to see I could find any relevance to the role.
If the candidate mentioned that they were interested in ‘tech’ games, gifting, arts and crafts, etc it, it could have been a tipping factor for taking more interest in them as I would be aware of the type of project in the pipeline. Not only that, I would consider the following based on your interests.
A – You would be more interested and passionate in a project if you were already like it as a hobby.
B – More likely to come up with vivid and strong marketing and product ideas if you already had some background knowledge on the topic.
It’s a piece on the CV that is often taken for granted, but as person recruiting for an intern, freelancer or potential graduate designer I would look!
For an actionable tip, perhaps write a bit about yourself, love computer games or books? Write it. You could find a company, agency or publisher that is looking for someone with a love for what you do. It’s a potential spot to add ‘icing’ on the cake.
19 ) Commercial experience will put you a an advantage.
Relevant experience more so. Seeing that you have already worked on commercial design projects, even be it for family and friends, will still offer transferable experience. If you can find freelance work, or work experience in your local area this will put you at an much bigger advantage when it comes to landing your first graduate designer role! To find thes jobs look in local papers, social media, talk to friends, Google, Jobs boards.
Conclusion : Tip Summary for Getting a Graduate Design Role
Ok that might be a lot of action to undertake in a short period of time but hopefully, now that you have read this article, you will leave this page feeling prepared and motivated to smash it and get the job. Here is a condensed summary.
- Make good use of your time.
- Be prepared, have you portfolio and CV ready
- Remove irrelevant information from your CV
- Create a portfolio that is applicable to your ideal role
- Get as much experience as possible!
- Work on personal projects and keep bettering yourself
- Try to network with companies, directors, charities, etc – focus much less on recruiters
- Keep checking jobs boards
- Show interest in the role if you get the interview
As a closing note I have decided to add a little personal message from me – a small piece of my career journey from back in the day which shows I am human, just like everyone else. Here is a story from one of my less than ideal interviews.
The less than ideal interview
After applying for a job for a ‘Junior Designer’ I found on jobs board, I landed an initial interview with a recruiter. I had my portfolio, CV and smile ready. When asking the recruiter for tips – I asked the question along the lines of ‘would the employer want grow and improve the website?’ I was keen, eager and naïve. I wanted to bring my passion to the company. After looking at the website and the branding I made some notes – taking into account that the recruiter also thought It may be a good idea to share these ideas.
With my mental notes scribed neuron juice onto my frontal lobes, my enthusiastic nature and my slick black portfolio, I was ready for the interview.
I sat down in front of 2 people, A Developer and his Manager I will assume.
I mentioned some ‘technical issues’ with the main website (being a website designer role – sort of – I though it would help) little did I know… That the person who built the website, tech issues included, was sat in front of me – in front of his Manager! The damage was done.
I had in inadvertently bruised this Developers ego without knowing or meaning to, I just wanted to point out tips to improve the website.
I didn’t get the role – he hated me, a lot!
The gentleman who had built the page probably came away from the interview squirming and I had put my foot in it by offering my ‘positive ideas’ for improvement. I was a fool, it was never meant to be and hey-ho I went onto other interviews.
Lesson : watch what you say, and be very mindful who you are talking to. Don’t accidentally ruffle too many feathers in an interview.
Further to this job, it wasn’t quite as advertised, it wasn’t a creative role. I was going to copy and past text into ‘mailshots’. Recruiters and job listings can have a sneaky habit of ‘fluffing’ up job descriptions.
I think I was happier not getting it, or so I tell myself.
So, don’t worry about the bad stuff, good will come along!
20 – Big Last Point – Stay Positive
GOOD LUCK GRADUATE DESIGNER!
Thank you for reading this post another handy post – creating a graphic design portfolio