Grad things. Job things. Life things.

by Jack Curry. Average Reading Time: about 13 minutes.

Recently, Mike Monteiro—he of the “Fuck You. Pay Me” school of design—did a nice little write-up about job searching / interviewing for recent grads.

While all of Mike’s points are spot on, I couldn’t help but feel that they are from the viewpoint of a person that’s used to hiring in his own particular way, not necessarily someone who’s been spending all their time looking (and as a result, has been exposed very recently to a bunch of different interviewing styles & practices). I feel this topic would be better served with a view of both sides.

Earlier this year I was contacted by my alma mater about the possibility of giving a talk in the spring about some things I’ve learned & experienced as a recent graduate. The event ended up not happening (thanks state school funding!), but I figured that I have this litany of things compiled, why just let it sit and rot? Some points echo Mike’s write-up, but I suppose that means I was onto something when I started putting this list together.

And so, for recent grads that are finding themselves being flung out there into the world of design hiring, I humbly present a list of:

Things to do, things to expect, and things to remember.

1. Things To Do

Network like business cards are crack and the design world is your dealer.
The network you build is absolutely instrumental in your career. And while—as Mike notes in his write-up—the nature of networking is kind of shmoosy, you still end up meeting a lot of cool people, some of which eventually can turn into friends.

So attend conferences (especially while you’re still in school and can lock in a student rate), go to AIGA (/IDSA/IxDA/AIA/pick your acronym) events, hit up studio tours, any workshop that looks interesting. Always be on the lookout to expand your network. And on that note…

Carry business cards. Always.
You never know when the opportunity to make a connection might present itself. Some of the places I’ve been asked for my card: the subway, the bus, coffee shops, waiting in line for a burger/pizza/coffee, the book store, in airports, in airplanes, at the museum—the list goes on. Design your cards, get them printed, don’t leave home without them. But of course, you need to be able to point people to your work, so…

Get your portfolio website up. Now. The sooner the better.
Your portfolio is probably the only thing that prospective employers will look at; it’s likely your one and only chance to show them a glimpse of yourself. Get some projects up there, and populate it with work early & often.

Also, a quick opinion on physical portfolio books: a waste of time & money. All of my interviews have been just me presenting my site from my laptop, and giving more insight into the process and context to my work. I’ve organized the content on my site like I would stack a deck for a presentation; this way, I can just sit down and scroll through it as if it were just another PDF. Of course if you have your heart set on a physical book, by all means have one made up. However, my guess is that you’ll use it once or twice then consign it to a dusty corner of your apartment.

One caveat to the all-digital route: never assume they’ll have an open internet connection. The vast majority of places will, but in many offices they’ll have to hunt around for a wireless password, etc. which can steal away a lot of time. I always try to have a backup option at my disposal, whether it be a local copy of site / the media, or a mobile hotspot of some kind that I can fall back on.

Applications are for suckers…
…most of the time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve gotten plenty of interviews from applying online, but more often than not interviews come from personal referrals (see: Networking). Sometimes this can come in the form of someone forwarding your info, but other times you might have the good fortune of having the contact info of someone fall in your lap. Email them. Be straightforward, let them know you’re interested in what they do, and try to point to a couple projects of yours that might be of interest to them. Do this even if they aren’t hiring. It’s better to get a meeting that may lead to something down the road than not get a meeting at all (again, see: Networking).

You may think this is akin to skipping the line, but the fact of the matter is this: if you don’t do it someone else will. That person will end up getting a meeting, and your online application will sit unseen in a digital file cabinet.

Read and write.
Read. I’m serious, read anything. Fiction, non-fiction, technical books, graphic novels, pop-up books—anything. Be a sponge. It’ll keep you sharp and engaged, as well as the usual trope of expanding your worldview and whatnot.

Write about things that interest you. It can be a critique, something you’ve noticed out in the world, or even just about your own work. On that last note, the more you can articulate your work on paper, the better you’ll be able to articulate it in words during an interview; it’s a feedback loop that will help you to better present yourself.

Write about your goals. You don’t have to have some ten-year master plan, but start thinking about what it is you want to be later in your career. It’s mostly a simple exercise, but if anything it’ll give you a better idea of avenues you’d like to pursue in life (maybe, then, it’s not so much writing about “goals” so much as it’s writing about “vision”).

•     •     •

2. Things To Expect

Your resume will always be printed at an interview.
This might seem like a “duh” kind of statement, but quite honestly I was surprised the first time I walked into an interview to find that my interviewers had printed copies of my CV in front of them; I just assumed they would look at it digitally and that would be that.

So with this in mind: design your CV well. Also don’t try and be cute with non-standard sizes because every place is going to print it on letter-sized paper.

School is slow. The world is fast. Very fast.
When you’re in school you get an entire semester to think about two or three projects. You have the luxury of time; to be able to explore options, think things over, rule out all the roads you don’t want to go down.

The work world? Yeah, not so much. Some projects might be structured in such a way that you have the luxury of time, but in many cases you might have a few days—a week at most—to do your explorations, nail down a solution, and get things produced. Of course, this way of working is never ideal (and many design directors that I’ve discussed this with concede that a project can always use more time), but neither is the world in which we live.

Bottom line: things are going to move fast—much faster than you’re used to. Be prepared to react.

Figure out how you work best.
Is it in a group? Is it in isolation? Inside a coffee shop, or sitting on a park bench? Figure out what makes you tick. For instance, I usually get my best ideas while taking a walk or when I’m making a cup of coffee. Some of my best ideas occur to me in—banish the thought—the shower (if only I could do all my brainstorming in the shower; I’d show up to all my meetings smelling awesome).

One mistake I made in one of the first places I worked was that I stayed glued to my desk, and somehow expected that design inspiration would appear in front of me and trickle down into my arm, through the mouse, and onto the screen. So I ended up sitting in one place for a long time doing mediocre stuff. What I should have done was gotten up and walked around the block, or poked around to see what the other designers were doing.

Only you know how you generate ideas the best. Try to integrate these ideation strategies into your workflow.

Have personal projects / learn new things outside your concentration.
Learn stuff like CAD/CAM, handskills, woodworking, coding / devleopment, etc. Many times, learning a new skill can actually make the stuff you currently do easier—for example, my very basic 3D modeling skills can be used to generate perspective drawings (this is mostly because I suck at dimensional drawing). School gives you a lot, but it certainly doesn’t give you everything—you need to be curious all the time about new skills and opportunities to learn.

Learn how to think for yourself.
Sometimes—depending on where you’re working—you might be the only graphic designer on a team. This can be pretty daunting early on in one’s career, and can lead to you either being overworked, or your opinions being steamrolled.

One thing I’ve learned is that you need to be able to stand back and assess the situation logically; you need to learn how to ask the right questions. For instance, who is the target market? If the project merely being pitched internally to a client, then who is going to be in the room? What are their personalities, what are their preferences? Ask these kinds of questions to help guide you in figuring out what it is you need to be doing. Furthermore, asking good questions shows your team that you’re engaged and thinking critically.

Learn when to take directions and when to direct.
You may find yourself being directed by someone outside of the discipline of graphic design. Now, senior designers of any type—graphic, industrial, interior, environmental, interactive—have more experience than you, full stop. And while they’re doubtless extremely talented people, their skills may not necessarily lend themselves very well to visual communications; while you may be a “junior designer”, graphic design is your area of expertise. So if you’re finding that “being directed” isn’t working out very well, try asking questions and making informed suggestions that begin directing the conversation.

Your body will start to utterly fail you in the next few years.
In your early- to mid-20s, you’re physically elastic: your hangovers subside by the middle of the day, can pull multiple all-nighters with ease, and any bodily injury resolves itself pretty quickly.

This shit does not last.

Do yoga, ride your bike, walk a lot, adopt better posture, whatever. We’re in a profession where chronic pain is pretty much a fact of life—things like carpal tunnel become looming threats when you’re sitting at a desk for 7+ hours a day. Speaking of sitting, that crappy Ikea task chair you’ve been using all throughout school? Shitcan it immediately. I threw out my back just a couple months after I turned 25, which I mostly attribute to bad sitting habits, coupled with horrendous posture. Once your muscles start failing you like that, it’s difficult to bounce back. So while a good chair will set you back $900+, it’s much better than chronic pain in the long run.

Take care of yourself. Your health is not something to be cheap about.

•     •     •

3. Things To Remember

The first 6 months are an extra opportunity…
…maybe. I don’t have any solid evidence that this is the case, but I noticed that for the first six months or so out of school interviewers & potential employers seemed super eager to help me out. People were very generous with their time; sitting down over coffee and imparting advise, meeting with me to see my work, etc. I can only surmise that they were remembering themselves as young designers, getting out of school and lining up interviews; it felt like a lot of them were trying to pay it forward. Don’t abuse this goodwill, but don’t fail to take advantage of it while you can, either.

Always be honest.
Don’t embellish or fudge anything that you’ve done. This is especially important with team projects: if you did the logo / lettering / packaging / etc. for a project, say so in an interview. But also be sure to point out what other people did. The last thing you would ever want to do is get hired for something that someone else on the team did and not be able to deliver.

Internships are important for experience. Do not pass them up.
This one might be a bit more for students that are a year or two away from graduation. However, given the dearth of junior designer positions that are currently out there, this can apply to recent grads as well; just because it’s an internship doesn’t make it any less valuable (again, see: Networking). Also, most junior designer positions require 2-4 years of work experience up-front, so internships can be integral to this work experience requirement.

(A quick aside on that last point: this is something I still don’t quite get—normally someone applying to a junior position has very little work experience, so how is it that employers require that their entry level staff have several years of practical experience? Put simply: how are we meant to gain experience if no one will give us a chance to gain experience?)

Everyone is just a person.
The world of “superstar designers” has put many well-known designers in this rarified atmosphere that makes them seemingly untouchable by us mere mortals. The way that some designers are talked about: you get the feeling that the ground should shake when Michael Bierut enters a room, or that rosy-faced cherubs accompany Stefan Sagmeister where ever he goes.

This kind of thinking can lead many younger designers to not even think about contacting these “gods of design”. But they’re just people, like you and me—they might be busy, but they aren’t untouchable. So if you admire someone’s work, write and let them know. If you want a shot at interviewing with them (or their team), throw in links to some of your projects. You’ll be surprised who writes back.

•     •     •

(Some Extra Bits & Bobs)

You don’t get what you don’t ask for.
People—your boss, the design firm you want to work for, clients—are not clairvoyant. They don’t read minds. So if you want something, you’re going to have to ask for it. If you don’t ask, the answer will always be “no”.

Stop asking for permission.
I only just recently came across the work of Joseph Campbell, and some of the stuff he has to say about society and taking responsibility for oneself truly resonated with me at this stage in my life.

In this particular video, he talks about exactly that:

“We—until we’re pretty well along; 12, 13, 14—are utterly dependent on our parents and on our society. So a psychology of dependency is developed; a psychology of submission, asking for approval, expecting reproof, and all this sort of thing. But how are we going to break out of that psychological bondage into self-responsible authority; courage for what our thoughts are, and our life? This is the problem of killing the infantile ego—which is one of dependency—and coming into a mature ego of authority.”

So as a generation, we’ve been brought up to constantly ask permission to do something / seek approval / look for kudos rather than just doing our own thing in our own way.

Stop it. Stop asking.

Start doing.

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