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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Related, from the archives: graphic design interview tips.