Advice for Graduates

Graduation rules.

It’s the grand culmination of delayed gratification: a lifetime of academic rigor rewarding you with an open door of opportunity. It’s pure elation cut with relentless optimism. Excitement multiplied by confidence. You are unstoppable, on top of the world, and hopefully still a little drunk.

But as thrilling as it is, the euphoria inevitably dissolves. The party winds down, the dorms release their captives and the campus slowly retreats to a quiet state of hibernation. Reality generously clears the brush from the trailhead and you see, if not yet fully, the path laid before you. Riddled with forks and dead-ends, it isn’t easily navigated, and the only map you have is the twitchy compass of your own intuition.

On one hand, there’s the good news: never before have designers (of any kind) been more integral to molding the culture in which they live. Companies like Apple and Nike have spent the last three decades conditioning the public to crave creativity — to want it, to need it. They did the hard work for you. They pushed the wagon to the top of the hill, and now we get to ride it down the other side.

On the other hand, there’s the bad news: a lot of people want a seat on that wagon. More than ever before — maybe even more than it can safely hold. Securing the spot you want means forcing your way through the crowd, throwing some elbows and, if necessary, wrestling the last person standing in the way.

How do you make sure you aren’t standing in the dirt watching it roll by?

Strike While The Iron’s Hot

Momentum is a force to be reckoned with, and it applies to more than physics. Avoid the urge to “take some time off” (that booze cruise will be more fun with a salary) and stretch the adrenaline from your Senior Show as far as you can. Waft in the inspiration and knock out some cover letters before it wears off. There’s a confidence rooted in coming off four long years of personal design evolution; let it carry you through the next few weeks. But don’t get hot-headed: assume that the Design Director who handed you her business card also gave one to six other people. The quicker you act, the more sincerely you demonstrate your interest in the position and the better your chances are of beating Timmy to that open spot. Timmy’s a douche anyway.

Don’t Let May Day Signal Mayday

For the most part, graduations occur over a pretty standard period of a few weekends. Employers have May circled on their calendars for a reason; they’ve got their hawk eyes narrowed (for interns or otherwise) and you want to be poised to cruise into their periphery. Assuming their talons ensnare you, have a plan should a potential discussion come into play. The nuances of mastering a job interview are enough to constitute an almanac, but a couple of universal guidelines apply:

  • Know your work inside and out. Re-remember why you made specific typographic considerations or chose a certain format. An interested employer will want to discuss projects that caught their eye: they want to make sure you can do it again. Focus less on describing what the project is and more on the process by which you conceptualized the final outcome. Bring up that brick wall you ran into and then show them how gracefully you scaled it.
  • Have questions to ask back. A new employee is an investment; design studios are banking on your dedication to their company. Expressing genuine interest in their work culture, project schedules, client presentations and concepting process are all indications that you’re going to hook them up with some serious ROI.
  • Consider and determine your start-date availability, future travel plans and willingness to relocate prior to the interview. In the time that you’re “getting back to them on that,” the hawks are already circling another meadow.

15 Seconds of Fame

First impressions are everything. Curate your portfolio as carefully as you would a mix tape for that girl in your Lit class (“Creed? How did that get on here!?”). Whether hurriedly scouting over their lunch hour or foraging through application submissions, employers have a very limited amount of time to spend looking through portfolios. You’ve got fifteen seconds to snag their attention, so make it count:

  • Trash the trash. Weezer’s Blue Album had maybe ten songs but, let’s face it, they were all solid. A small portfolio of immaculate work trumps a mega-site that begs you to sort out the mediocrity from the gems. This is true every day of the week, ten times out of ten. It only takes a few bad projects to rust the chrome off the good stuff. Think of it like those mixed bags of Halloween candy: you don’t want to be the kind where you’re digging through six pounds of lemon drops to find the last piece of chocolate. You’re 100% cacao or you’re on clearance come November.
  • Be versatile, be original. A brief scroll through Dribbble will yield a hundred logos for coffee shops, letterpressed typographic slogans and movie posters that have been predictably deconstructed into vector objects. Even if your iterations of these things are leagues better than the next guy’s, you still have a site full of the same stuff. As a student bound to the curriculum of your professors, there’s admittedly a certain degree of inevitability regarding what you produce. But: those limitations only reach as far as the classroom door. If there’s a project you want to do, that you know will diversify your body of work and give you an edge over your peers, then do it. Having a (good) project under your belt that none of your classmates do is like bringing a shotgun to a knife fight. Pull the trigger on those ambitions.
  • Photograph your work (and not with your iPhone). As pervasively simple as it is, a JPEG comp simply doesn’t hold a candle to a real image. Not only does a photograph add visual tactility to a piece, it proves that you actually made the thing and offers you a chance to supplement the work with a little photo art direction. Just finished an illo for The Economist? Cool. Prop the image with a briefcase and black-rimmed glasses and shoot it on your coffee table. Suddenly, it’s a piece of a narrative. Keep in mind that you don’t need a 5D or pro lighting equipment. A few drawing-board size sheets of newsprint and any SLR camera will do the trick. Shoot RAW and fix everything in post. You can absolutely do this while watching Mad Men.
  • Consider a physical self-promo. E-mails get deleted, inadvertently skipped, relocated to spam folders and just plain ignored — all the time. If you have a creative idea for a mailed promotion piece, by all means, put it together. You’re going for inexpensively creative: something that won’t leave you out of pocket but will shout over a stack of Pizza Hut coupons. Skip a bar night and re-appropriate the beer money for printing. Remember: it’s an invitation, not the party itself — you’re only selling them on the idea of checking out more of your work. Don’t pass the whole bottle, just offer a sip.
  • Lose the moniker. You’re not a brand, you’re a person. Just a guy or a gal with a first name and last name. Don’t go by anything you wouldn’t want someone shouting across the table at a client meeting. No one wants to hire “Luke B. a.k.a Digital Design Prophecy.” Same goes for your e-mail address. BabyCakes69 is getting an internship at Hooters, not Apple.
  • Bold that “Contact Me” button. Seems like common sense, but you wouldn’t believe how many designers hide their e-mail links in places that no one’s going to look. Even if it’s drowning in a sea of RISD accolades, if an employer can’t figure out how to get in touch, you risk getting left behind.

Does This Tie Bar Match My Pajamas?

The freelance vs. studio debate has gained revived traction the last few years, with more and more designers and illustrators foregoing the classic 9 to 5 in favor of a Netflix-filled idyll absent of staff meetings, account reps and the groaning nag of omnipresent Art Directors. It’s a perfectly legitimate path, but unless you’re strutting across the graduation stage having already commandeered a serious list of steady clients (this situation could potentially apply to illustrators), it’s one you probably shouldn’t be heading down just yet. You want a real job. The prospect of blasting out of the gates and making a name for yourself can be tantalizing, but in skipping the studio (or in-house) life, you’re depriving yourself of an invaluable experience and very likely stunting your career potential. At the very least, a studio atmosphere is going to afford you an opportunity to learn from people who have been doing what you want to do for longer than you’ve been doing it. I’m not out to shatter any egos, but regardless of how good you think you are, there’s an infinite expanse of shit you simply do not know. Stuff you didn’t even know that you were supposed to know. And there’s no better way to learn up than on someone else’s dime. Think of a studio job as a cooler version of your design class that you get paid to go to.

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe

There’s a very real truth to the notion that not all jobs are created equal. The basics (quality of work, salary, dental insurance, etc.) aside, there are hordes of other factors that separate the dream jobs from the nightmares. Dividing the two is a daunting task, made all the more difficult considering that one designer’s paradise can be another’s living hell. Ask yourself the right questions and you’ll help ensure that your first big step is in the right direction. Here are a few things to consider:

  • A place that does great work is not, by mere definition, a great place to work. It’s easy to distill the entirety of a studio’s worth into what kind of projects they’re pumping out, but if you’re seriously thinking of joining the ranks, their portfolio is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more to creative fulfillment than cranking out award-winning work, and at the end of the day, that’s what you want: a place that fills you up without spilling over or leaving you half-glassed. Getting a handle on the inner workings of a place can be tricky, so consider contacting a few current and former employees to solicit a candid opinion of the studio. They’ll be honest, trust me.
  • Try and define the kind of work you think you want to do. It’s tough as a recent grad — and you don’t want to pigeonhole yourself before you really get out there — but if you know for damn sure you don’t want to work with layouts, you probably want to steer clear of studios known for their annual reports. Similarly, if you know you absolutely want to be involved with branding, don’t get your hopes up on a place with only a handful of identity projects. Larger studios typically dabble in a bit of everything, while smaller firms often compete in relatively specific arenas. Find your sport and track down the teams you want to play for.
  • Don’t write off the in-house lifestyle. Graduates always seem to look these opportunities over, and although they may sometimes lack diversity, that’s a blessing in disguise to someone eager to work with a specific, defined range of projects. You know what you’re getting into up front and there’s at least a modicum of comfort to be had in knowing your job security doesn’t partially depend on new client acquisition.
  • Trust your gut. In the end, your own intuition is the best map you have. Let it lead the way.

There’s probably a lot more to be said here, but the bridge from academia to industry can’t be built on an essay. There’s no master blueprint to a fulfilling career, no crystal ball. A piece of advice is only as good as the experience that birthed it. So, keep this in your back pocket, but remember to carry a pencil — make your own edits, alter the rules, write in the margins or scratch it out altogether.

You’re the author now.