green dice sixesImage credit: Thinkstock.

It’s tough. Very tough. And there is a truth in the fact that only the toughest survive. The lazy ones fail. You need to be proactive, no-one is going to call you. You have to make your own opportunities, make your own destiny. Your success is in your hands. As is your failure. But here are a few tips. Most are based on the very basics of marketing. Many are common sense. Sometimes you just have to think like a creative director (CD) and then you’d wake up to what motivates them.

  1. Never send out blanket ‘Dear Sir’ emails. Total waste of time. Personalise all communications and do your homework. Know about them and their company and work. Quality is better then quantity.
  2. Do something that will get a CD (or senior) to really want to see you. They are time short so can’t see many grads. Like any good design or advertising, it’s all about impact. They are looking for the ones that stand out.
  3. You are not God, yet. Never tell them how great you are, “hot talent,” you aren’t. Not yet. You are fresh but green and making claims you are great makes you look arrogant and deluded. They already have great people working there, so why will they hire you? Mainly because you are cheap, work hard, and have potential.
  4. Be different. So many books are all the same. Colleges turn-out sausage factory students with the same work. Blame the bean counters in Whitehall. Bin it. Start afresh and make the work yours. It should reflect your values, approach and style, not your tutors. Be employed for who you are, not who the college wanted you to be.
  5. Work hard. Really hard. You’ve been in cotton wool land for three years doing no real work with no real pressure by our standards. This is the real world. You need to work harder, faster, and all-hours. And never use Facebook at work. Friends, socialising, all comes second.
  6. Forget money. If you land a job, great. Most will spend months, maybe years doing unpaid or poorly-paid placements. It’s not the money but the work that really matters. Get a job in a bar or pizza joint. You’ll need it.
  7. It’s not just about the work but about people. You need to engage future employees, be nice, listen, be humble, take advice. Never argue or be arrogant (as an employee the boss’s word is king). You need them more than they need you — the pool of talent for employees is very big. Make them like you. We want nice people with potential talent. Once you’ve seen someone, try and keep the connection going, come back, build a relationship.
  8. Think of yourself as a brand. You need to be remembered. What will they remember you for? What defines you? If you have it in you, do something that defines you. Invent something, develop a unique skill, get noticed for something — it creates a talking point.
  9. Action. Try and get a second interview. Ask to come back when you’ve renewed your folio. Ask about work experience. Ask for honest feedback or how you could make the grade to get a job there.
  10. Remember, it’s a very subjective world and some will love your folio, some will hate it. The better it is, the more polar the response. If everyone just likes it then it’s average.

Chris Arnold
Founder & CD, Creative Orchestra
(Former CD Saatchi & Saatchi, Draft, STH, Feel, Alliance…)

Chris is author of Ethical Marketing and the New Consumer: Marketing in the New Ethical Economy, available on

More help for design graduates from Lee Newham with these CV tips and design interview tips.

Other posts you might find of use: what graphic design schools are lacking, and self-employment advice for designers.

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August 10, 2010


I read somewhere that a design grad simply researched the names of the Creative Directors of the top 6 design agencies, then created a Google Adwords campaign with their names as the keywords. When they searched themselves, it came up with, “Hello, searching for yourself is fun. Hiring me is fun too!” with a link to his portfolio… It worked apparently.

I’d agree with all of these points, but with point 6 beware.

It’s not one way. A company has to like you, respect you and value your work, or, more importantly, MAKE YOU FEEL VALUED. Work placements etc are great, but don’t let companies take the p*ss. And your first job, make sure it’s somewhere good, but again try to make sure you aren’t paid a wage lower than you can live on. It’s not ethical or fair while the boss is driving around in a Porsche.

Good design companies respect their employees. And vice versa.

I agree with the comment above. I’ve worked at some companies that did not value their employees, and this caused the quality of work to suffer.
I would also like to add that graduates should not rule out the possibility of becoming self employed from the get-go. It’s much harder work, but you have the advantage of being ‘fresh’ and unshaped by the agencies.

Good article, it’s always interesting to see the different advice everyone provides for recent grads or students looking to get their foot in the door.

It’s tough getting hired by a design agency alright. I got myself a job teaching design at college level instead and I recently started up my own design business running “20%” (read: a lot more in reality, hehe) to keep myself up to speed in the field.

A really good thing about being a designer, something I emphazise in my teachings, is what Sedick said above. It’s like everyone is waiting for that moment when they get hired… but a designer doesn’t need to be dependent on anybody if she sets her mind to it.

From own experience the initial investments aren’t that rough, and it’s not that expensive running your own business, at least not if you’re running it from your living room like I do ;]

David: Ordered your Logo Design Love last night, waiting for it to arrive… very curious about it, and how your work on identity will turn out.

I don’t recall being given much good ‘real world’ advice in any of our classes, Dave – do you? Apart from our Graphic Design lecturer telling us it “Wasn’t all cocaine and fast cars” But that was hardly advice…

The single most important thing I’d say relates to everything Chris Arnold said: THINK. And never stop thinking and learning. Common sense is not as common as it seems…

So students have to be talented, likeable, hard-working, humble, subdued and need not complain about humiliatingly low pay and get a second job in a pizza joint, only to be chastised later for not designing all hours.


They can take their talent, work hard, be realistic and humble about their skills, never stop learning and start working for themselves right away.

We all agree students need to learn from more experienced professionals but surely not from pompous, corporate big shots like Chris Arnold.

By the way, someone tell him that websites with splash pages and music that starts automatically are annoying, childish, unprofessional and very typical of pizza joints.

David, I hope you post YOUR advice to students next time. That’ll be a fetching read I’ll pay attention to.


I agree with #3 especially, but I disagree with #6. I feel it’s slightly out of sync for a Creative Director, who presumably earns a good salary, to essentially say “This is not a profession; you do not have the right to earn a living.” I know designers are not investment bankers, but we’re not volunteers either. Designers in a position to hire should pay good money for good talent. (Demanding good talent is the root of the other 9 points, methinks)

In my experience, there was the hard way (getting that first job) and the harder way (learning to freelance).

Trying to freelance when you’ve never really worked in the field is a very difficult proposition. Unfortunately for me, the design school I graduated from didn’t give much in the way of business direction for freelancing and I got taken to the cleaners quite a few times. Eventually, I got better at it and learned which jobs were worth taking, who to trust and how to negotiate. These skills are a tall order for someone just starting out, especially when you’re trying to get your design skills honed as well.

My advice is to freelance if you must, but work very hard at getting a full-time position at a design firm, ad agency or in-house agency. From there, with some stability, you can learn how things work from a business, account management and design standpoint and plan your next move. You can learn great things from your colleagues on what works and what doesn’t.

One of the most important things that you need if you’re going to freelance is contacts. Vendors, account people, other creatives and business people are all contacts you can meet in a much quicker fashion when you are working for someone else.

With a regular job, you can work on improving your portfolio for that place you really want to work for–and do it right. Or take the valuable skills you learned from your days of full-time employment and venture off on your own.

He’s right in many cases. Young designers, fresh out of school, their portfolios often do look the same. You’re educated in a bubble, and it’s rare that any work truly stands out.

Unfortunately, this is advice for only one path. The path of “I’m a student, now I’ve graduated, now I will apply to jobs”. The creative industry doesn’t work that way. Sometimes it does, but it’s a lot more about having fun, doing great work, and meeting cool people.

Don’t be discouraged by established creative directors telling you that you have to be a slave to this industry. You don’t have to “pay your dues” and work for 5 years as a waitress while doing design internships. If you truly don’t care, then maybe that will happen, but if you love this industry, don’t settle for what he’s talking about.

Design on your own time, make your own projects, your own websites and posters. Join groups, meet your idols on Twitter, read books. Never stop learning, and have fun doing it.

Yes it can be hard to get a full-time job at an agency. But it’s easy to find small gigs, better yourself, and better your portfolio. Find clients, find partners, make jobs for yourself.

The more time you spend working in a restaurant, the less time you have to improve your work. There are plenty of ways to make art and get paid, don’t get locked into the “graduate then apply” scheme.

Anyway, I guess I just thought this sounded a bit negative. Even if the industry is indeed pretty rough at first.

Whether a grad has a design or any other degree the challenges are the same for everyone. Personally, I’d recommend working while going to school. Get a job in the industry and study at night and weekends. Learn the business and build a network, then go after your dream job. I’ve had the pleasure of working for top design firm(s) while in college and was able to transcend that work experience and my degree into an agency position. PS: forget the UNpaid internships, everyone deserves to get paid a decent wage! There are numerous not-for-profits that need creative services.

I say this to every graduate who asks for advice; I find it more impressive receiving a CV from a personal account such as rather than

Be prepared to find that a project that might have taken you three months at Uni will probably need to take a few days, along with everything else you’ll have on your plate.

And don’t forget that it’s one of the coolest jobs you can have.

This guy is clearly British. No American would say “Never argue or be arrogant (as an employee the boss’s word is king).”

Ummmm… no. In America, at least, when the boss has a stupid idea, you TELL HER. Push back is the best way to improve the company/business/design/service. Sure, arrogance is one thing, but I say if you know that their decision is wrong, the BEST thing you can do is to push back, argue (with respect), and NEVER EVER take their word as king.

Some of these points are just really absurd and paint an awful picture. If I were a student ready this I’d be crapping my pants. Luckily, the real world isn’t this arrogant, at least not the good agencies. I personally can’t respect any CD or agency that expects me to put my family, friends and personal life second. That’s bullshit really and no designer should have to deal with that kind of attitude, unless of course you have no respect for yourself. Ignore that a find a place that offers a good quality of life, not a place that will work you all night and weekend.

Also, when you get to the point where you have a family to take care of, it is all about the money. When I was younger, it was all about the work for me, but I realized that you have to make some big personally sacrifices to work om the good projects. At the end, it wasn’t worth it. It’s also bad advice to say that you shouldn’t expect to make a decnt living, even when youre starting off. The sooner you value your time and work, the better. Don’t get me wrong, at first you be making six figures, but also don’t work for peanuts. You should make enough so that you don’t have to work at a pizza joint.

Most of the points in the article are good ones but number six really struck a nerve. This guy makes it sound like you need to sell your soul just to be a great designer. Of course you have to work hard if you want to succeed but I don’t subscribe to the view that an inexperienced designer should allow a design agency to take advantage of them. You should be paid a fair wage that is in line with the quality of your portfolio. You should also not be afraid to voice your opinion even if it defers from your CD. Design is not just about going with the flow, you need to have your own view of the world.

I wonder how Chris Arnold came to be a CD though, with a website that looks terrible, lacks imagination and with work that is less then inspiring.

I thought 6 was a little odd also, hardly inspirational advice suggesting you’ll likely have to work for free for a few years to make anything out of it. Spec work anyone?

Sorry for the second post, but I thought this was funny. This is the opening few paragraphs on CO’s “why hire us” page.

“To be honest, we aren’t the kind of agency that most Marketing Directors would like.

We’re challenging, non conventional and sometimes uncomfortable – especially when we push them to the edge of the curve.

Our number one reason for not winning a pitch is “we aren’t ready for you yet.””

So working for them is terrible, and most directors wont like them… Great.

Wise and accurate words. I’d summarize my experience this way: always put forth your full effort. Don’t give up, and trust your instincts. Keep learning — it is a life-long pursuit.

Nothing is better than doing work that you truly love.

Another great article David,

I wish that when i graduated i read a realistic article like this. Instead i was wrapped up in the university cotton wool, and once propelled into the world of work, i didn’t have any clue of where to start or what to do when i was getting rejected for jobs due to a lack of experience, and it was for a junior position, and i was straight out of uni, what did they expect!!

I’m sure this article will give graduates more insight and direction than i had.

Whilst I didn’t like point number six either, it’s an attitude in design and ad agencies that I’m not completely unfamiliar with – particularly ones where either the sales people rule the roost (and who usually view the creative staff as little more than skilled labourers) or ones that regard themselves as the hottest studio in town, head and shoulders above everyone else.

My advice? If you encounter an agency or studio endorsing point six – go somewhere else.

The advice in the other nine points was generally sound, though.

Yes, when your passion becomes a job, don’t let your creativity and individuality be ruined by your boss or your client.

You are the surgeon (designer) here, and not the patient. A patient (client) never tells the doctor where to operate.

This is not arrogance but expertise. This is what you have spent so many years training for. It is the graphic designer’s responsibility to thoroughly explain the theory or concept behind a work, and not to just do what the client want. “I want to use the color ‘Gold’, because it looks expensive!” This is what I often heard from a client. Gold isn’t exactly the right color to use, for a company promoting ECO friendly is it?

My advice to new grads is that don’t fall into the trap of ‘Real World Graphic Design Industry’. Be confident, be flexible on suggestions and new ideas, stand as firm as a rock behind your principles… be humble and learn as much as you can from your new job! Don’t let other people’s mistakes become your role models, acknowledge them and make it better for your own business! If you are treated with disrespect, paid poorly, quit your job as this company is not worthy of contributing your precious life to. Be creative, be different, become good at what you do, and love what you do.

Thanks for sharing, David.

I graduated last year and have been working freelance, although I’m about to begin job-seeking. No idea what to expect but there’s some good tips from Chris Arnold.


Unless you’re going way out of your way to optimize for SEO, accessibility and portability (and I have never seen a student do so), an all-Flash site says “I don’t really understand the internet” and “What’s an iPhone? I’ve been in a cave for 4 years.” Not to mention: “My education is a few years behind the times, I’ve never really heard of jQuery or XHTML, but I’d sure like it if YOU could teach me.”

For several years all-Flash been passé and to do it now really stands out as dated. Virtually all of the effects and techniques that required flash can now be done in a standards compliant way. You may not be expected to develop your own designs, but all-Flash tells me you haven’t been exposed to contemporary development and so don’t understand its implications and would likely design problems for the developers.

If the firm you’re approaching does any web design, don’t make this mistake.

Lots of useful points for those looking to work at a traditional agency, but it paints a bleak picture of the industry as a whole. There are so many opportunities for in-house designers, freelance designers and other types of design-related positions that don’t fit the traditional model. I would encourage students to develop a variety of skills in areas that interest them.

For those who don’t want to go the traditional route, I’d tell them to explore industries of interest (health care, education, publishing, etc.) and find companies and organizations that need someone with their skills. If they can write well or provide other marketing expertise, they will be invaluable.

As someone right in the middle of this battle for a FT design job, I find some, but not all, of this advice to be accurate. Maybe it’s a difference in markets (USA vs UK), or maybe it’s just the lack of perspective on the current economy in this list. I’m not sure.

I’ve been doing everything known to man, including most of the stuff on this list, to land that FT design job for the last year. The junior positions just don’t seem to exist right now, and those that seem to exist have well over 100 applicants. The market is just saturated and those agencies have less clients at their doors. The creative staffing firms I’m working with feel it, too.

#4 Being “different” is great to an extent, but to be marketable you’ve also got to show you can do the corporate clean look. I think showing both your unique style and also a more corporate look is probably better advice.

#6 — This attitude, in my opinion, just degrades the industry as a whole. Expecting designers to work for free or little pay continues the trend of people expecting more spec work and ridiculously low wages from the industry as a whole…. what a terrible thing to say. There’s a reason that the big design organizations have a stance against this kind of thing.

#10 — Sorry, but some designers work really is just amazing to everyone. It’s rare, but it happens. Maybe this guy doesn’t browse around enough?

Maybe the best advice for graduates right now would be to take another job to pay the bills and find volunteer work for non-profits or family to expand their books. I landed a great paying client by doing just that. Then apply and apply and apply again to staffing agencies until they call you in. Once you’re in, you’re likely to keep getting work.

I can understand why many are disagreeing with point #6. It’s not an appealing scenario. But when I think back to my early twenties, I had a similar experience to that described. I needed to supplement my unpaid-internship with a second job waiting tables.

Granted, I didn’t have the strongest portfolio — far from it, or the brightest-looking future, and many of you won’t need to do likewise. But at least if you’re prepared, it won’t come as a shock.

Martin, thanks a lot for ordering my book. I hope the shipping doesn’t take too long.

Hamish, some of the classes were useless. And a few lecturers weren’t much better. Great times, though.

@Antonio: Totally agree with you. this is not always the case and but there are also nice people.

Just remember that sometimes you will prefer to work for less money in order to get quality projects that will help you later. your manager knows it, so never work for free.

Although I dropped out of school before finishing, I found success by just working. If I didn’t have a client, I would work on my own projects to keep myself fresh, but also to build my brand. Having a portfolio consisting of only grade average school work will get you no recognition – there are just too many competing designers with the experience.

But slowly, as I worked on my own projects, others began to take notice. I printed up business cards, then eventually dove in by registering a trademark on the name I wanted and declaring it a sole proprietorship. The uniform feel of my brand now felt larger, more professional – to me and to my clients, although the aforementioned was probably of better service. Every job I did, I did well. And my customers returned the favor with repeat business and referrals. When work was short, I would do my damnest to fill the time with networking and pitching my business, no matter where I was. Every 30 or so people I spoke to would result in one or two projects, but that was fine. I went from being a nervous kid with only question marks, to a pretty well equipped finance manager, designer, and most surprisingly, speaker.

And today, as non graduate, I own a small but successful web company, and am employed by a Warren Buffet-held company on the side. I make well into middle-class pay, and am very excited about not just my work, but my future.

Just keep focused on the business, stay in love with the work. Do that, and I can promise no matter where you end up, you’ll be happy. Oh, and paid.

Wow are there some angry but deluded young people about. I am shocked (and ashamed at my generation) for some of these comments. Dave I’d take the whole thing down as these fools don’t deserve any advice than the address of the nearest unemployment exchange, where I imagine most will stay. Our generation have been called the “spoilt generation” and we are acting like it. Lazy and over expectant. Chris has shared with us advice from the industry, and he’s obviously very experienced and has more awards than any student has. If you don’t like it at least be polite not arrogant and rude and judgemental (“when a grad thinks they know it all then they lack any real judgement” was my old tutors warning). It is obvious that some of you will never get to work in the ad or any creative industry with an attitude like that. Ready dave Trotts piece about being humble, or do you think he’s a pompous corporate pratt as well, along with Droga, Henry, and the rest? Ref no 6, many of my friends have had to take part time jobs to be able to do placements. Get real. Wake up and smell the coffee. At least Chris is one of the few creative directors who care about encouraging young talent.

Thanks for the comments (and a few insults – I’m just the messenger though). Let me clarify #6. Firstly, we are talking about the ad industry, not design or digital.

By the way, my friend’s daughter has just graduated in Costume Design. A top designer told her, “you’ll never earn enough money alone in this profession so I’d think about what other job you are going get to support yourself.” So adland isn’t unique.

I use to be chair of the Creative Council (I also chaired the Agency Council) so was able to get the views of many CDs. I’m sorry to say that most creative directors found getting budget to pay work experienced tough. NABS wanted agencies to try and pay a min support fee of £150 pw (£600 pm) and we tried to encourage agencies to do that, but many didn’t. A few were more generous. (£250 pw) but only a few.

Do the sums. If Agency X is taking on 4 grads at £250 pw, that’s £1000 pw which is £52,ooo per year – a lot of dosh and what you’d budget for an experienced young team. See why it’s hard to get the budget? Even at £150 pw it’s over £31,000. Agencies are not rich anymore, alas. We have up to 20 young creatives! After tax and running costs, that’s a lot of business you need to feed mouths.

A few years ago now, before the recession, in association with D&AD we surveyed the industry and headhunters. What we discovered was shocking. It was taking the average grad 2 years to get a job! Quicker in below the line. (18 months). No idea what it is in design. And there were over 100 people hunting one job.

I know of one top creative ad agency that is rumored not to pay anything for the first year. Grads even get to sweep the floors. But young creatives will bite their arms off just to work there. When supply is bigger then demand, market forces means the most eager will undercut.
Is this exploitation? Or opportunity for grads? It’s certainly not new in the creative industry, the story of the runner, post boy, delivery boy slowly making their way up is old.

In Spain one company charges fees to work there. And has a waiting list. In some ways it makes more sense paying an agency than a university to teach you the business. This is also being discussed in the US, and is being driven by students not agencies because of high college fees. I could see this happening in the UK, placement years being treated like a post grad year. You get real experience, the agency get’s income, more grads get into more agencies. A self funding apprenticeship. Controversial I know but that’s how economics works.

Sadly most agencies are run by accountants who aren’t interested in investing in our future talent. They only see a cost not an investment.
When I was at Saatchi’s the FD cut all budget for placements and we were left with two options, take no one on or take them on for no pay. I wanted to give young creatives experience and work for their book, which is worth a lot.

Many agencies are run on very tight financial grounds (especially those in the large media groups) and justifying budget to take on grads is not easy. It’s not the same as getting budget to hire a young team. Most CDs I know work on very tight departmental budgets.

Another issue is that the recession has given us a surplus of experienced junior creatives who are competing with grads.

It’s tough for everyone. And just for the record most of us don’t drive Porsche’s, that was the 80s and 90s when adland was cash rich. If you’ve invested every penny into starting up an agency, a not for profit one I should add, you usually drive an old car, pay yourself little and work all hours to earn enough to share around the table.

At Creative Orchestra we try and give young creatives opportunity, responsibility and they get great work out. We treat them like grown ups not kids. We back their ideas. We give them real life experiences. We share all income across staff (after the bills have been paid). It’s a form of fair share. They get a lot. We are the only agency with that dedicated ethos in the London ad scene, and the world’s only not for profit ad agency.

And as for our website and our work (many award winning) – well that’s subjective. Most agency sites are dull and very safe. I personally I hate blog like ones and agencies that have a twitter. One thing we do know, our site’s helped us win some great clients. Whatever you think, it may not be targeted at grads, but it does appeal to the people we want, clients looking for a creative agency. And does it matter it uses Flash? Not at all, sites aren’t about showy technology but ideas, engagement and information working together. Technology is a tool not the idea. Our SEO is very good by the way.

As for music, I got a call from New York, seems our sites being passed around because of the music., never underestimate novelty! And as we well know from years of industry experience, music is a key element in TV ads, so why not websites?

Reading comments, I agree that maybe starting up as a consultant is a good idea, though would encourage small cooperatives as sharing problems and supporting each other is essential. I think we all have to be more entrepreneurial these days, and grads included. AKQA started that way.

My final comment is, yes it’s a tough world and sounds depressing but in a strange kind of way it means the best will fight through and real talent will surface. No one can afford to hire average anymore, so best of luck to everyone and don’t give up hope. My career was no walk in the park, you never stop fighting forward. Life is a journey not a destination, as they say (yep I know that’s a real cliche to end on).

Very good article again, David. Actually I’m being impressed by some of the advices listed above since these are times when people focus mostly on work and don’t enjoy life so much. I find it interesting that Chris Arnold mentioned about ‘investing in future talent’, it’s something agencies worldwide should consider.
Thanks for the read!

Some interesting comments here. Be Unique. I’m about to move into the third year of a design for digital media course.

I think one big thing is to remember never to get too offended with critiscism of your designs. I’ve worked with several designers and a couple who have had real issues with people not being impressed with a mock design we’ve shown them!

This is an interesting and insightful posting David as it allows designers who work in or have worked in design studios to voice their opinion about what it was like to start out. More-so, it gives graduates true insight into real world business.

I believe Point six can be a double aged sword. While graduates are keen to get their foot in the door (and through it), its also important they get treated with respect and are valued. Also it takes time before that designer to get upto speed with the studios working practices, learn the computer and business processes, etc. I think if an agency has a moral compass they should at least pay for transport costs such as a bus/train pass. They should give the young designer a number of targets for progression and development and review them every three months with financial incentives to follow.

When I started out in this industry, my creative director gave me some simple advice, ‘work at a design company for six months, if you don’t like it or they don’t treat you right – move onto a company that will’.

Interesting article; it’s a real reality check to a lot of students, not just from graphic or communication design, when they graduate and realize that the dream job isn’t just waiting right there for them. I can vouch for it!

What does give me hope is the fact that Chris Arnold was a CD at Saatchi and Saatchi, yet his new company Creative Orchestra has one of the most amateur looking sites I’ve ever seen with a pretty weak portfolio to match.

Interesting read, although doesn’t fill me with much confidence. I’m willing to work for free and I’m willing to have a part time job so I at least have some sort of income. I do not think this is fair or right but I am willing to hold my tongue and just get on with it. However, it is very difficult when I simply cannot find anywhere to work part time in my little town, I cannot afford to move because, well I have no income and I cannot afford to travel to work placements or interviews because again, I have no income.

I’ve had design companies approach me and offer me a placement on a graduate scheme only to simply lose contact just before it is set to begin and then ignore my e-mails when I try to find out what is going on. And that is not fair, I am treated like dirt because I am a mere graduate.

I find Thom Walter’s comments quite amusing however as he says “If you don’t like it at least be polite not arrogant and rude and judgemental”. Yet his whole post is impolite, arrogant, rude and judgemental. He is insulting people and saying it is wrong to insult people. This is one thing I do not understand.

Anyway, I will continue to design because it is what I love, I will continue to feel inadequate because it seems like some sort of right of passage I have to go through before people will start treating me like a human being. And I will be grateful for any tiny opportunity I may get. I’ll get there in the end and I hope I will remember what it’s like to be a graduate, how it feels and not treat people how I am being treated at the moment.

And then I will write a long blog post. On exactly how I made it in the design industry, how many times I failed, how much my confidence got knocked but there will be a happy ending and hopefully that blog post will inspire young people to not give up and give them real advice. And I mean real advice on exactly how to get a job as a graphic designer. Watch this space.

The reality is, once you’ve graduated from college most graduates are not ready to hit the ground running to be productive and profitable for an agency/design studio. There is so much to learn – and not just about software packages. And the trouble is, when you are a graduate, it’s often the case that you don’t even know what you don’t know. I’m not being insulting, just stating a fact. Your advertising/design qualification is just the very beginning. Think of your first 3 or 4 years in the industry as a kind of apprenticeship. Though I’m sure there are exceptions to that.

Someone just the other day was complaining how hard it is out there for graduates to find design jobs. Yes, I know it’s hard. I asked a few more questions though, and these 2 graduates had the expectation of getting ‘a good job’ in design. Fair enough. Who doesn’t want a good job? But if you can’t get a ‘good job’ are you willing to do a crap job in the industry just to get your foot in the door? (I’ve even had to do that mid career after a long break due to a health problem nearly 10 years ago)

So my advice to them – based on my experience – was to get any kind of bottom of the rung job in an agency and work their way up from there. Why? Because in that kind of situation you will get to learn from creative directors/art directors sometimes with decades of experience. Spending 6 months or a year working under the guidance of a top creative is way more valuable than 3 or 4 years in college.

Or make your own opportunities to learn and be remembered by the people that hire as someone who is hungry to learn. When I graduated in the 90’s, it was hard getting work in this industry too. I approached various agencies and after several months of persistence formed a mentorship with a creative from a top agency in Australia. He was generous enough to give me about 15 minutes of his time every 2 weeks or so and would give me real world creative briefs to work on. He’d send me away and I’d come back by the (strict) deadline with my concepts. You can’t buy that kind of experience – at least not yet, anyway.

@Laura Williams I’m in the same situation. I graduated 2 years ago and still unemployed. However I do unpaid work for non-profits to keep sharp, to gain experience, and to get a reputation. Many days I feel like I’ll never be able to live off from graphic design but I’m too stubborn to give up and I’m very persistent. I don’t mind starting from the bottom. Add the pressure from your relatives to change career cause this is a dead end (don’t blame them for thinking so) and it is all very difficult.

This advice is crazy. Why not be honest and say ‘Employment prospects are dismal.’ Go and study something that pays a living wage. I cannot understand the mentality of working for free to gain experience in your industry. Graphic designers have some pride in your profession. Or is it not a profession and your talent, training and professional knowledge is worth peanuts.

Hi, I’m a recent graduate from college and I find this advice from a seasoned professional to be discouraging, however, I understand to humble myself and to work hard doing what you love. I believe that we are making “looking for a job” in a creative field too complex. The best advice I’ve learned is to produce great work that you’re proud of and keep adding to your portfolio (golden ticket). However, If I have to take more courses, teach myself to gain more knowledge, look for more unpaid internships to gain more experience, then so be it. It’s ultimately about building strong relationships and creating work that makes an impact. I’m sick of trying to please others, just pursue my passion. I understand that it’s unfair to some but hard work pays off more than complaining. It’s simple: “Do not give up and sell yourself short.”

Everyone’s complaining about #6, but #6 is just realism. I have more of a problem with #5. What kind of Kindergarten PlaySchool college did you all go to? In college I had to work hard, fast, all-hours, and did more work than I ever have in my life. I had no social life at all. This was a typical day for me: Attend classes all day, then attend club meetings/tutoring sessions/other BS after class, rush straight from there to my job at a fast food joint, get home from said job at midnight and start working on projects and homework assignments, work all night eventually falling asleep at my computer for about 2 or 3 hours, wake up and repeat the cycle again. I would have to skip meals, skip showers, skip sleep, just to get all my work done on time. And no pressure? The pressure was to get high grades and to actually graduate, so that I could eventually get a good job and afford to pay back my loans. I was not given a free ride or any help from mommy and daddy. I learned during my first semester of college that having a social life and that having hobbies outside of work and class wasn’t going to be an option.

I’m not saying that being a freelance artist isn’t hard, but to say college didn’t do anything to prepare us for the real world must be some kind of joke. Maybe your college didn’t, but mine certainly did.

Wow, I’m surprised there are so many other people reading this article in recent years, especially Jenni who was here only a month ago. If you ask me how I came to this post, I couldn’t even tell you. As a recent grad now struggling to find full-time employment, I’ll tell you what has and has not worked in my experience.

Be different. Be original. This is the only area of design that’s related to other forms of art. And it’s the most important. Any client I’ve gotten or creative employment I’ve scored has been because I’m different from other designers. I’m far from the best of the best, obviously since I’m just starting my career, but I often get comments about my art basically saying, “I’ve never seen anyone do work like that before.” Nobody will hire you because you’ve got pretty designs. I’ve spoken to creative directors who hired people with average portfolios, simply because they were the right fit for the role and put in more work.

Apply like a madman. Go to Indeed, Craigslist, etc. Apply to graphic design positions every 3 days. You will get in contact with people. You will. Sometimes they’ll offer shitty pay, sometimes they’ll ask you to come by and you’re too far away, sometimes they stop responding to you. It happens to all of us.

Stay away from creative staffing. I cannot stress this enough. These people are like telemarketers. They’ll call you a million times, a new recruiter each time promising a position, then never get back to you. Their field is just as competitive as yours. I’ve had four creative recruiters promise me a position and then never get back to me, even after multiple calls and emails. That’s an entire rant in itself. Stay away.

Realize your education meant nothing. You got a degree. Good, now you’re on your own and have the bare minimum qualification. What matters is working your way up from the very bottom, climbing out of the mud. Education might be incredibly difficult and demanding, but you really don’t learn much about the professional side of design and being a business person. In my experience, I’ve only taken one graphic design class that involved business, out of seven available design classes in university. You’ll often read about needing to network (sorry, fellow introverts!) or be a salesperson, but I think it really just comes down to having a professional mindset. If you don’t know yourself, your style, your worth, and aren’t both humble and determined simultaneously, you won’t get very far. You are a creative professional. Act like it.

Be able to explain your process. If you do get an interview by some miracle, be ready to talk about work you’ve done, whether it was fake work or for a client (do not put school projects in your portfolio). Your personality, skills, and experience are important. However, if you can’t explain how you solved a problem, you aren’t worth hiring.

Think of it this way. Yes, the field is fucking saturated with designers. We’re all trying to make it. We heard about it in formal education, but we didn’t understand the dismal reality. Employers are reading through resumes and scanning through portfolios for no more than 15 seconds per applicant. If you want to stand out, a combination of luck and skill are both required. Anyone who says otherwise is naive or lying. Be the absolute best you can and you will succeed, one step at a time.

Thanks a lot for sharing your experience, Tom (and Jenni, and others I never acknowledged). I hope the job search works out well for you.

In case you missed it, Chris Arnold added a lengthy comment in the thread above, answering some commentators and expanding on his advice.

“…yes it’s a tough world and sounds depressing but in a strange kind of way it means the best will fight through and real talent will surface.”

Hey David, if you recall, I emailed you a while back with some specific questions. You gave fairly good advice, such as being more “useful” with design and having a stronger presentation, and it helped me get the best design job I’ve ever had. I’m not writing this comment to gloat about my luck, but I think I can offer some additional advice to those who are still struggling with employment, if anyone is still stumbling upon this article.

As a risky move, I completely redesigned my portfolio from having a few categories here and there to several lengthy projects which included my process. It’s all step-by-step branding stuff, with a mix of advertising (print) and product design. Essentially, I presented myself as a knowledgeable “visual marketer” and now I have a job that involves visual marketing.

Like I stated in my previous wall of text, being the best “fit” is more important than being the most experienced, even if they overlap sometimes. That’s why having a strong presentation, confidence in your interview, and a heavy amount of luck is required to get a solid design job. The company president interviewed many people and said, by far, I was the best fit for the role. It didn’t matter to him if I had 5 years of experience or 25, or if I had list of 100 client references. The point is, my work benefits his business, and doing that work for the business benefits me as a designer.

I’m not advising anyone to do branding if they truly have no interest in it. I certainly had no desire to brand several months ago (and never even learned about it during my university years). But as David told me, be a useful and practical designer. Don’t just show you can create a nice, clean composition. Show how you are useful from a business perspective!

Trust me, you are not “selling out” by doing this. That was my mistake for a long time. I have a background in fine arts (painting, ink, charcoal, etc.) so the work I did in university was a digital interpretation of an abstract and expressive style, combined with the usual categories: posters, brochures, web content, packaging, and so on. I figured, if I ever attempted “clean and simple” work, I’d never distinguish myself as an individual artist and would never get hired. That’s incredibly false.

The truth is, a lot of designers aren’t doing the clean and simple business approach. They are not visually marketing or being useful. Yes, it is damn hard to get a design job and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying, but I guarantee if you look at the portfolios of your old college friends (assuming they’ve only graduated maybe a year ago), a lot of their work is saying, “This is what makes me unique!” as opposed to, “This is how I can benefit your business and I am confident about it.” Perhaps your portfolio is like this.

Imagine you are the employer. Do you want to hire someone who is trying to stand out, or do you want to hire someone who is confident in their skills to develop a professional image for you? You want to be taken seriously. You want to have an image/aesthetic that not only looks great, but also communicates to your audience. You want someone who understands business!

Oh, and I should add that, yes, it is important to be different, as I said in my other post. I hope that wasn’t confusing or contradictory. But my point is, you can be different and useful/clean/simple/corporate/business-oriented at the same time. Your style will stand out in your presentation.

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