Advice to design graduates.

So it’s nearly the summer, the final major project is handed in. The past three years of working your ass off, being hungover in class and hours wasted watching The Chase have all boiled down to now. Time to get a job.


It’s a simple idea isn’t it? You apply to a vacancy, bag yourself an interview. You rock up to the swanky design agency with your design portfolio, still fresh faced and bushy tailed and land yourself a junior role. Easy!

If only it was that simple.

There’s so many sources online, blogs to read and advice to take in. I thought I would offer my take on landing your first job and hopefully this will help you on your journey.

“Do not seek praise. Seek criticism.” –Paul Arden

The first thing is the portfolio. It’s probably full of university work, open briefs and on the surface looks solid. Depending on what role you are applying for then try and tailor the portfolio to showcase you and your work.

When looking at design portfolios, I look for a broad collection of work, which emphasis on skills and shows you can be flexible and apply yourself to varied projects and the ability to work with differing brands and in various styles.

  • Composition and layout of your portfolio. It needs to ensure the work speaks for itself. Each project should contain a brief overview, consider things like tags, Typography, branding, print for example. Having a little bit of an explanation or context to the project helps the viewer understand it. You won’t be able to give any rational or talk them through your thinking.
  • The way work is presented. Dropping an email or website design onto a Macbook screen, might look nice but don’t repeat this on every page. Can the viewer clearly see the content ‘on screen?’ So many times I see a desktop website design plonked onto a iPad because it looks cool. It’s not a true reflection of the design. The fonts are too small and isn’t optimised for that device. This applies to mock ups of magazine spreads, books, business cards. They look great but too much can spoil a portfolio. Consider mockups from above so the work is still very much the main focus, they need to add to the experience and not detract from it.
  • Is it a mobile design? Have you viewing the design on screen to get a sense of sizing? (Adobe Device Preview is a great little app to use. Download the app on your phone, connect to your Mac, Wi-Fi or with a cable and then the design will be displayed in real time on your phone.) The amount of times I see a desktop design resized to fit on a mobile device. Text, buttons, menus are too small etc.
  • Remember to add contact details too, I’ve lost track of the number of times that portfolio’s lack contact details or social media links. Try and get an email address that reflects professionality. firstname@gmail.com is fine if you can’t get firstname@yourdomain.com. A hotmail account you set up when you were 15 isn’t ideal.
  • Include your CV too. Ideally on the first/second page. Most agencies will want your CV on a word doc, fine they can have it, but as a creative there is nothing more off putting than a 3 page word doc. Try and be concise with the information, list key skills, education, relevant jobs/experience, (Being a waitress for 6 months while in 3rd year, in my opinion isn’t relevant) along with software knowledge. Plus, you’re a designer right, so make it look pretty.

Seeing university work is great, it shows your ability to think creatively, try something new and experiment. Something that when you work in the industry you don’t have enough time to do, especially with client work. When I’m looking at portfolios I usually ask the designer to show me an example of personal work. It can be something that isn’t deemed appropriate for the portfolio and not client or university work. It could be a silly little series of character designs, a rebrand of your favourite sandwich shop or the start of a new font.

I’m a big fan of continued learning and developing my skillset as a designer. I spent most evenings setting myself little challenges, learning a new skill, a new programme, some shortcuts or simply playing. The freedom to try things out, break Photoshop by pushing it to the limits is refreshing and helps me stay sane as a designer.

“Design is so simple. That’s why it’s so complicated.” –Paul Rand

People talk about a skill gap within the industry, which I’ve experienced to a point. I was luck enough to graduate from the BA Hons Illustration course from Falmouth, which was very techincal and focused on traditional ways of working. Life drawing, painting, colour and composition. There wasn’t a huge focus on digital and using the Adobe suite. I’ve had to learn everything I know, and teach myself. Nowadays there is so much out there to help with learning, Lynda, Skillshare, Adobe training, there is no excuse. Now I’m not expecting recent graduates to be a whizz on the complete Adobe suite but a good solid knowledge of Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign will help massively and ensure you can hit the ground running.

I’ve seen more and more designers come into the industry insisting they are ‘Digital Designers’ yet struggle to use Illustrator or don’t understand the principle of designing to a grid. They lack a basic knowledge of print design, artworking — colour separation,working with bleeds, colour modes, resolution etc. My advice is to learn as much as your can from your peers, your tutors, friends and work placements.

Which leads me perfectly onto the subject of work. Now imagine you’re the Creative Director at a company and you’re recruiting for a junior design role. You have two candidates, both have solid portfolios, one graduated 6 months ago and has worked at a bar and doesn’t have any new work to show whereas the other also graduated 6 months ago but has been into numerous agencies and completed a few internships and placements. Who would you employ? It’s a no brainer.

As a graduate nothing is stopping you emailing marketing and advertising agencies and offering your skills and enquiring about placements. Especially smaller in-house agencies, most will be happy for the help. If you’re struggling to find contact details or hear back then arm yourself with your portfolio, grab a box and doughnuts and start knocking on doors.


I could talk for hours about this subject but the above pointers are hopefully enough to encourage you to get out there land your first job and take over the design world. If you want to chat, or ask me some advice, drop me an email: aaron@aaronmillerillustration.com

Good luck and godspeed.

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