Advice to a design graduate

Originally published June 24, 2014

I graduated from the University of Reading, where I studied Graphic Communication, this time last year. I would like to share some insight into the transition into the real world from my experience from around and since my graduation. Hopefully this will be useful, to someone at least, but if not it’s quite therapeutic to look back on the last year.

Getting a job

First things first — Congratulations!

I remember all too well how much work is involved in the final year of a design degree. I still have no idea how I finished my dissertation. I know it involved a lot of coffee and red bull. Anyone who thinks design is a cop out degree is profoundly mistaken. No matter what grade you got, if you gave it your all, you deserve a big congratulations. And a beer I guess.

If you didn’t give it your all, well, you probably won’t be reading this blog post.

The university debate

Something you will most likely encounter soon, if you haven’t already, is the debate whether university is the right thing to do to get into the design industry (as opposed to working your way up / apprenticeships etc). I can only speak from my own experience, but I know I wouldn’t be where I am now had I not gone to university. It gave me the time and space to work out what it was that I wanted to do, and gave me a solid grounding in the history and principles of design. That’s something you can’t put a price on (although there is a hefty one now with the raised fees in the UK). That’s a different debate altogether — but I will say that university was definitely the best choice for me.

I hope it was for you too.

Work out what it is you want to do

Okay, down to business. Design covers a broad spectrum of industries and within those are even more job roles. You need to work out which direction you want to go in. If you aren’t already set on a definite direction, approach a few different companies and ask if you can come in for a day or week to shadow someone. Larger companies are often better set up for this but I would try smaller ones first as you will more likely get a better feel for all the things going on. By the way I really don’t condone working for free in the design industry (unless for a good cause) but this is more valuable for you than it is for the company.

Remember that you don’t need to worry if you don’t get it right the first time. Having more experience will only put you in better stead to go into another job that you do want to do.

I personally was never in the position of not knowing what it was I wanted to do. I had done a couple of internships over the summer after my second year and was set on heading into web design. I had been building my skills working freelance on small web projects whilst at uni for friends and friends of friends.

Find your niche

Experience is important, but something that is more important is finding your niche. What separates you from all the other graduates and even other professionals? Your niche, that’s what.

When it comes down to it you are marketing yourself when you are trying to get a job. You need to be indispensable. Why wouldn’t they hire you when you are this awesome?

There has been a lot of talk in the industry recently (and pretty much for as long as it has been around) about generalism versus specialism. Should you be someone who has a wide skill set in varied areas or be someone who is super knowledgeable or good at one thing? The key, as a graduate, is finding your niche. Work out 2 or 3 of your best skills and marked yourself around these.

This is something I fell into purely by accident, but I’ll say that it was the master plan all along.

It’s hard for a graduate to be a specialist, right? We haven’t got enough experience. Also its hard to be a generalist, because we’ve just studied one thing for three(+) years. The secret is for these 2 or 3 areas to be things that aren’t typically expected to be together or are just an awesome combination. Remember you need to be indispensable.

When I say I fell into this by accident, I mean I happened to be really interested in typography from what we were studying at university and I was also doing the freelance web design so taught myself how to code. This was back in 2011 when things were kicking off big time in the world of web fonts and with responsive web design. Coming from a background in typography designing for the web gave me a big advantage and it wasn’t a typical thing by any means, so set me apart.

Now of course you niche doesn’t have to be typography and code. You could be great at designing logos and working with colours — perfect for a branding agency. You could be great at web design and icon design — perfect for a small web agency. Not sure how good these examples are, but you get the gist. Work out how your skills make you perfect for the job you want.

If your skills don’t yet match the job you want then you’ll need to get practicing. I’m going to write another post soon on some resources that have been useful to me.

Meet people

My friend and previous colleague Dan Goodwin shared some great advice earlier this year — Get good at talking to people. This is a big one in the journey to getting a job and is one that for many is actually more difficult than it sounds. Meeting and talking to people in the industry that you want to get into is a great way to get your foot in the door. I’ve made many good friends over the last few years who work in the web design industry. Just remember most people are probably more similar to you than you might think and are really nice.

Conferences and smaller meet-up events are both a great place to keep up with all the latest trends and to get to talk to people. Conferences nearly always have after parties where you can meet attendees and speakers from the event and talk over a beer. Approaching people can be intimidating, I remember the first few conferences I went to on my own — it was hard! I’m quite an introverted person. Trust me it gets easier and no one is scary.

Twitter is another great way to get involved design related discussions and converse with people who might give you a job one day. I didn’t used to understand twitter until I used it to follow design / work related people. It’s often more about reading what other people have to say than necessarily what you have to say. Engaging in conversation via tweets is also really easy so you have no excuse. Tweet me and lets talk.

This is a slight shift in the topic of grades. I can only speculate about how much grades really matter in getting you a job. Sure getting a 1st class degree isn’t going to hurt. But I would put money on being a nice person helping you more than what grade you get. If a potential employer has already met you and you get on well, that is going to stand in your favour, after all you will be spending a lot of time together.

Get out there and meet people, you never know who might employ you. At worst you’ll make some new friends.

Get your portfolio ready

Applying for any design jobs you will need to have a portfolio. There is no golden bullet for showing off your work. Choosing how to display your designs is a design challenge in itself! Spend some time getting some good photographs of your work or if you don’t have a good camera, try to pull in a favour with a friend who does. Digital designs don’t all have to be shown on Apple device mockups to look good — but by all means try it out for yourself.

Good photos of course aren’t good enough on their own. You need to spend some time writing concise descriptions of the projects and how your solution fulfilled the brief. I say concise because potential employers don’t want to be reading for hours — but they do want to read what you did and why you did it. Also keep this in mind when choosing how many projects to include.

The days of needing a physical portfolio are gone.

You’ll want to get yourself a website, even if you are not a web designer. It’s not hard and it’s not expensive. Of course there is a time and a place to show off physical objects you have made, but you don’t need one of those big old folders. My final project at university was actually making a guide on how you can get a portfolio website as cheap and easily as possible, check it out — Create Portfolio. As a rule of thumb, I advise using your name for the domain name so it is easy for people to find you. I go into that a bit more in the guide so won’t repeat myself here. There are other options too of course, so take a look at Squarespace or Dunked.

While we are on the subject of websites, you’ll want to hook up an email address to your domain name. Use this for all your job related emails. It will make you look a lot more professional than that old [email protected] I know for a fact that many employers straight up ignore applications from hotmail email addresses.

Side projects

If your portfolio is looking a bit sparse, fill it up with some side projects. Side projects are a fancy way of saying designing things you want to design. They can be great if you don’t have enough of the right sort of work you want to show off. They are even better if you actually make something out of them that people can use too.

Applying for jobs

So far, so good. You’ve got your shit together, now you need to apply for a job. Depending on where you apply you will need to take a slightly different approach. Larger companies have set application processes which you just have to follow, usually filling out an online form, sending links to your portfolio, and attaching your CV / cover letter. Smaller companies typically are a bit less formal which gives you the chance to be a little more creative. A nicely written email with CV attached is a good start. Make sure you actually address it to someone by name though, it only takes a second to find out from their website. If you want to take it a bit further try and arrange in said email to meet up with them for a coffee and chat over your work. This will give you an opportunity to give them a better impression of you face-to-face.

I don’t have too much to say about CV’s, but I will say that it should be well designed so spend some time on it. It may sound simple but not everyone does.

The little advice I have about interviews is to make sure you have done enough research on the company that are interviewing you and be prepared to talk about yourself and your work. Just be yourself, simples.

When you have a job

Get good at justifying your decisions

The single most important thing I have learned to do in the last year is to be able to justify my work. Most of the time when you are designing it is sort of subconscious, right? You don’t necessarily think about why you are doing everything the way you are. ’It just feels right‘ isn’t good enough unfortunately. You need to be able to explain your decisions — often too in a non-jargon manner to clients or less design-savvy people. This is something that takes some work to get better at, but the sooner you get good at it, the better.

Get out of your comfort zone

Since graduating I’ve done a talk to over 100 people at a Design & Banter event in London and a guest lecture to students at Falmouth University. Public speaking is something I find hard but very rewarding.

I was never a big fan of writing whilst at uni. It used to take me really long to be able to write anything long form. Now I’ve been paid to write blog posts for companies.

Getting out of your comfort zone is the best way to progress in your career, and what fun is monotony? I did a bungee jump once. That was the least likely thing I thought I would ever do, which was my reason for doing it. Weird I know. I’m sure there’s probably something important I learned from that.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Last, but not least — ask for help when you need it. It isn’t productive for anyone for you to be sitting there not knowing what to do. You are new, you don’t have to know everything.

Go and do it

The first thing I was told when I arrived at university is that you are here because you want to do something you love for the rest of your life.

Now you get to go and do it.


If you have any comments / questions feel free to tweet me or email me. I’ll be happy to offer as much help as I can give.



Originally published at jakegiltsoff.co.uk/posts/advice-to-a-design-graduate on June 24, 2014