David Airey is an independent graphic designer working with companies of all sizes since 2005.

On finding design work in a new country

In this post, Romanian graphic designer Iancu Barbărasă shares the story of his 2010 move from Bucharest to London, and how he found design work in his new home.

Iancu Barbărasă business card

The good, the bad

Moving from one country to another isn’t easy, unless you’ve just won the lottery. The good news is graphic design has become an almost universally spoken language all over the globe. It’s almost impossible to tell the nationality of a designer just by looking at his or her work, unless it’s expressed deliberately. This means that, in theory, you could do just as well in New York, London, San Francisco, or Sydney. The bad news? It’s hard to get your foot in the door as people are still reluctant to trust foreigners, even when your work is good enough.

The approach

When I decided to move from Bucharest to London, I knew I was taking on the world’s best. There are around 46,000 designers in London, so competition is fierce. My first task was to research the “enemy.” A year before moving, I subscribed to Design Week and began to read the Creative Review blog on a daily basis. I was familiar with superstar agencies of Pentagram and Wolff Olins calibre, but I would’ve been naïve to think I could get a job at such companies so soon.

Knowing who’s who, even at lower levels, was a must. The Design Week’s top 100 provided a good start, and relentless reading of other articles and blogs helped me build a list of companies I thought I’d enjoy working with. I wrote emails to more than 200 of them, regardless of whether they had openings or not, each time trying to find who the creative director was and writing a little about their company so the email wouldn’t look like a mass-sent one. The strategy was to ask for an interview, not a job, and as most designers are helpful people, that was harder to refuse. This approach would get me far more than a chance for a job: I’d be meeting the right people, learning about their companies, getting good advice, sometimes even some freelance work.

Iancu Barbărasă
Photo by Noctvrna

Creatives in general tend to move around in rather small, everyone-knows-everyone types of communities. Make friends with a few and you’ll soon know most of the others. And most importantly, you’ll be among the first to hear when somebody’s looking for help. Blogging helped me a bit, but Twitter was by far the most useful tool, as people on Twitter don’t mind if you reply to them out of the blue. If you’re interesting enough, they might reply back — soon, you might just have a new Twitter-friend. It might seem like a long shot, but trust me, it works. For example, Mr Spiekermann was kind enough to say he likes my website.

I’ve also applied to more than 300 jobs posted on boards such as Design Week’s, but almost all of these are placed by recruitment agencies who very rarely consider someone with less than six months of UK experience. They also tend to focus more on people with known studio experience in their CV. Only a few recruitment agencies would recommend you solely based on the strength of your portfolio. Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try — you might just get lucky.

The results

I got my first UK freelance project after a month. It was small, but I was working with one of the well-known UK designers, who was also very kind to introduce me to a few other established designers. Before moving, I had emailed him, asking if he could find the time for tea and advice. He was very busy then, so, instead, he asked me if I could help him on a small identity project. Of course I agreed. I’ve learned this way that it’s all about finding the courage to ask. Or, as Jay-Z says, “You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.”

The second UK project came after two months, another collaboration with a creative director (meanwhile I was busy with a new client from back home and also helping my former employer — it always helps to leave on good terms). He got one of the emails I’d sent to many London design companies. As he was setting up his own business at the time, he needed help on a pretty big project. We met for a chat and he was very glad to find out that we had a similar, rational design approach. I worked with him over the next six months, learning a lot on a very interesting project, designing the identity of a publisher and its four different newspaper supplements. So four months after moving, I got a three-month contract and another freelance project. Six months after moving, I got a full-time job with Appetite, a top 100 agency based in West London. Two years later (after moving), I’ve quit my job and gone freelance again, this time working on one of the biggest rebranding projects I’ve ever been involved in, all thanks to another creative director I met because of my initial emails.

Iancu Barbărasă logo

What I’ve learned

It’s all about patience, perseverance, and the courage to ask. Luck plays an important role as well, but just as inspiration has to find you working, luck has to find you looking. You still need a good portfolio, of course, but that’s just the starting requisite, as London’s full of good designers. Write and talk to as many people as possible, be helpful and nice and people will remember or even recommend you. And it’s always a pleasure to hear from somebody you’ve just met that they’ve heard good things about you.

You can learn more about Iancu Barbărasă on his website, and by following him on Twitter.

Related, from the archives: graphic design interview tips.

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15 appreciated comments about “On finding design work in a new country”

  1. Just want to thank Iancu for his insight. Really great advice, and as I am currently trying to relocate to London myself I found this article very insightful.

    Cheers.

  2. Great post Iancu! Love the advice about asking for an interview instead of a job position, I will try this approach myself as I am a student designer coming to end of my course and now looking for an internship or a job placement.

    Many thanks.

  3. That’s very true.
    When I first came to the UK in 2004, I made so many applications but all were regrets in reply. Some mainly because I had not secured a UK driving License.
    Then came this job on the evening telegraph, about six months later, I immediately called and I was told they had taken enough people for the interview. I was quite humble and requested a tour of the company and made it clear from the word go that I had never worked as a designer in the UK before, and would like to see around. The boss agreed to give me a tour on a saturday a week later. I made it count! He was well impressed with me and said I will also be shortlisted among the others. Three days later he narrowed down to 12 and I was still among them, then 6, then 2. I finally got it.
    It all started with a simple tour request. I tell everyone to always try. You never know where your luck lies.

  4. Good to know that other designers are answering your emails, and good tip for asking for an interview, too! Thanks for sharing your experience, this will come in handy.

  5. Thank you all, I’m glad my experience is useful for you.
    Good luck!

  6. Thank you for sharing your story and advice, it is very refreshing.

  7. Great article thanks, Iancu.

    I’ve had great success, also, in the past with emails by asking for an interview or even an informal chat. It seems to get rid of the preasure which is put in place when asking for a job. Less black and white and, as Iancu says above, harder to decline.

  8. So inspirational! Thanks! I moved to London from Australia as a junior designer and found it rather emotional trying to get a design job. In Australia the first job I applied for I got (as a junior) and here in London I found myself applying for 50 times as many jobs to even get an interview. Eventually I got the 5th job I applied for but had to take a pay cut. Although the experience I believe will pay off and in the end, I’m still doing what I love. All a bit of persistence in truth!

    “Just as inspiration has to find you working, luck has to find you looking.” I love that line!

  9. Very inspirational as well. I guess the story shows that if you really want something, there is no stopping it. I used to live in Romania and the people there are hard working. I am glad you have reached your goal in life.

  10. Thanks for reading Sean. I wouldn’t say that really wanting something is enough. You have to be good at it too, or, better said, you have to have the potential to be good at it. Sir Ken Robinson makes a very good point when saying both he and Eric Clapton got a guitar when they were five, but it only worked out well for Mr Clapton from that point of view. Perseverance might be 90%, but without that 10% or less of talent (or inspiration), the other 90% would be worth nothing.

    Also thank you for praising the hard working Romanians — too bad you don’t usually hear that in the news when our country gets mentioned.

    Best wishes,
    Iancu

  11. You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. Love it! Great story.

  12. Hey guys,

    I’m a graphic design student who is about to graduate. I currently have an internship and have been asked by various people to work on freelance jobs with them. I am moving from Sydney (Australia) to the UK (London) next year and am super excited to get over there and experience the design first hand. I am, however, extremely nervous about not being able to find work. It’s not that I’m not good enough because I can certainly design and push myself to deliver the very best from each brief, although I am afraid that when I won’t find work I will start to freak out when companies don’t respond.

    Thanks to everyone who has posted to this thread, it has definitely motivated me to get over there even more.

  13. Hi Aaron,
    a good idea is to keep working remotely for your Australian clients after moving to London, this should keep you going till you find work with London agencies or clients. Of course, some savings would be great as well, London rents are quite high (young people usually share apartments).

    Good luck!
    Iancu

  14. I’m very interested in the journey you went through in order to become employed in the UK. I’m also interested in working in the UK as a designer after I graduate college. I’ve done some research and it seems that as an American it’s extremely tough to get a job there unless you have a job that is on the “UK National Shortage Occupation List” for the Tier 2 visa, or if you are a highly skilled entrepreneur or investor. Graphic design is listed on the jobs needed, but they are specifically looking for designers of “2D/3D computer animation for film, television or video games.” I noticed that the UK visa laws were tightened in 2008. Any tips you can offer would be great.

  15. Hi Linn,
    paperwork wise, it wasn’t that hard for me, as I’m a European citizen, but I did have a few restrictions, which I’ve passed by applying to the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme. If there isn’t something similar for US citizens, and you can’t find any other way (some companies offer sponsorships and / or paperwork support, if they want to hire you), you could try doing an MA in the UK, London or other city. As far as I know, it’s a lot easier to get a work permit for any UK graduate.

    Hope this helps, best of luck!
    Iancu

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