Advice for the Graduating Design Student

My collective suggestions for any graduating design student.

Hello! My name is Nick Longo. I own and run my branding studio, Longo Designs. In addition, I am a design instructor at California State University, Northridge and a co-host on the highly rated Deeply Graphic DesignCast. Recently, I’ve given two talks on portfolio preparation. I was invited to present at General Assembly in Los Angeles and at UCLA. I thought it would be a good idea to share this presentation, consisting of gathered insight from leading designers, portfolio reviewers and educators nation-wide. Let’s get into it! It starts with a few questions everyone should ask themselves and take note of.

Step 1: What Do You Stand For?

It’s important to have a clear understanding of what you stand for as a designer? Do you have 3 attributes or mantas that describe you? It can be your drive, your approach, or simply something you firmly believe in. I wrote down my three “drivers” that start to tell my story.

  1. I Believe in Hard Work. Period. In the words of Yoda, “Do. or do not. There is no try.” Better than just “doing”, I work my ass off. Not cocky, just confident.
  2. I’m Passionate. In everything I do. Weather it’s design, cars, cooking, or a good craft beer, I can talk your ear off about it.
  3. I Want to Give Back. I’m at a point in my life where I want to give back. Plain and simple. Teaching, mentoring and just being a resource for young designers is the most gratifying thing. One of my favorite songs says it best, “When you get where you’re going don’t forget turn back around. Help the next one in line, always stay humble and kind.”

Once you’ve determined your unique drivers, you’re ready for the next step…

Step 2: What’s Your Essence?

In plain English, what do you offer? What’s the coolest thing about you? Simple questions, but not so easy to answer. Think about a compliment you received or something you were singled out for. Ask people around you to help if need be. Your essence will help you identify why you matter and what makes you different.

Step 3: What’s Your Benefit?

We all can find something from our past that was a huge benefit to a boss, employer, teacher or client. Did you make someone’s life easier/better by going the extra mile? Yes, your experience is an asset and helps you get your foot in the door, but when you put the spotlight on the “benefit” you provided, employers take notice. These accomplishments are little nuggets of info someone will remember you for.

Step 4: Congrats, You Have a Story!

Presto. Everything you need to craft a beautiful bio is at your disposable. You have colorful and relevant content to help write an original objective for you resume, LinkedIn profile or online portfolio. Better yet, this discovery process sets the foundation for your brand. Take this insight and use it through out your digital footprint. People will appreciate your cohesive messaging and voice if you stay consistent on all platforms.

  1. On Instagram, post picture that support your story and the things you stand for.
  2. On Twitter, retweet and contribute with content that supports the things you believe in.
  3. On LinkedIn, list these accomplishments and values to help you stand out. Concentrate on the “benefit” you provided. See Step 9 below for more info.

Step 5: Have an Opinion!

I asked portfolio reviewers who participated in 2016’s AIGA portfolio review, “What was missing in student portfolios and their presentation?” Surprisingly, the most common reply was that students didn’t have an opinion about design. Specifically through the way the show their work and discuss the inspiration behind it.

They also highly recommend keeping in only the good work they care about. Not what they think people want to see. Don’t just show a single design. Turn it into a campaign by including multiple applications of that design. If this means going above and beyond what you did in class, DO IT!

Step 6: Include Case Studies

Case studies show that you can solve problems, and you’ll show that you’re worth hiring. Build Rich, wonderful case studies that talk about your design process, your successes and failures, and your ultimate design solutions.

Step 7: Design Principles Apply to your Portfolio Too

Don’t drop the ball on your portfolio layout design. All the design principles still apply to your layout, typography treatments and grid systems. Build a custom grid layout and follow that throughout the book. Most reviewers agree that your work should shine first and foremost. Keep other elements of your portfolio clean and understated.

A hero shot of each project is a smart way to introduce it. Follow that up with supporting images that help express your creative process.

Step 8: Improve Your Profile Picture

Obviously, you need a profile picture. Profiles with pictures get 14% more views. So imagine if that picture really stood out and showed off some of your personality. Now I’m not saying you should use your vacation picture from Cabo. But aim for a business appropriate picture that embraces your personality.

Here is a fantastic example. My Podcast co-host, Mikelle Morrison has one of the best profile pictures. She consistently get compliments and it helps engage potential new contacts and clients for her business. It’s fun and memorable, yet 100% appropriate.

Step 9: Get Engaged!

LinkedIn keeps track of your usage and engagement, making up an internal score for every user. The higher the score, the higher you show up in search results. If you want to be found, you need to use the platform everyday! Here are some specific tips from LinkedIn specialists:

  1. Join 100 Groups: That’s the maximum they allow, so take full advantage. This will help you mine for connections and target companies/employers.
  2. Follow Target Companies: LinkedIn encourages companies to consider followers for potential employment.
  3. Contribute to Your Feed: Share a link from an great article you enjoyed. Do more than just “like” or “say congrats!” Write a personal message on someone’s post and get noticed.
  4. Be Personable: When requesting to connect, don’t just use the default message. Write a quick note asking to connect with any intention you have to connect.

Step 10: Prep is Key

Dressing presentably and showing up 15 minutes early are given requirements for any interview. Prepare in advance with these other suggestions in mind:

  1. Rehearse Your Story: Be ready to have all your key attributes ready to talk about. Don’t memorize a word of word script, but know what specifics to highlight with each project you showcase.
  2. Speak Up: Narrate your work! Don’t just sit there and wait for questions or comments. Reviewers want to see and hear that you love this profession with a passion.
  3. Be Flexible: No two companies, interviewers or opportunities are the same! Tweak and shift portfolio/resume as needed. Customize to each opportunity. Save multiple digital versions based on specific industries or qualifications.

I’ll leave you with these final notes:

  1. Don’t Put all Your Eggs in One Basket! Obsessing about one opportunity can really set you up for failure. If you don’t get the job, there’s a good reason you didn’t. Shrug it off and move on to the next one.
  2. Follow up with an “Actual” Thank You Note. You’d be surprised how little this is done. You want to stand out and be remembered? Send a note.
  3. Your First Job Won’t be Your Dream Job. Although there are some exceptions to this rule, you’ll most likely out grow your first job.
  4. Stay Positive. This is an exciting and hectic time. Make sure you keep an uplifting attitude.
  5. Ask Questions. It’s perfectly fine to ask potential employers some questions. In fact, it’s a must. Just make sure you keep the questions about their process, career growth and other long-term topics. Don’t ask “how long is my lunch break” or “do I get a cell phone allowance.” Make it about them, not you.
  6. Be Passionate, Not Precious. Remember, you are a “commercial” artist. You’re making art for commerce and profit. There’s no room for a precious creative in any business. Be passionate, work hard and understand the bottom line. But understand you’ll have to compromise and work under tight deadlines. Be open to criticism and never take it personally. Show you understand this NOW. It will pay off in the future.

Nick Longo is a highly regarded creative executive with over 20 years in the design and retail industry. He owns and operates a branding agency specializing in product launches, corporate identity, packaging, and retail executions. Previously, Nick co-managed Equity Marketing, a leading promotional products company in Los Angeles, overseeing custom retail product development for clients such as Kellogg’s, Kohl’s, Burger King, Macy’s, Kraft Foods, DreamWorks, and Starbucks. He has partnered with over 150 internationally known brands and licenses. After 15 years working in corporate positions, Nick began his own branding and design agency, Longo Designs. His mission is to provide expert design capabilities, on time, within budget, and beyond expectation. In addition to running his studio, Nick is a co-host on the Deeply Graphic Design Cast, a design-driven podcast specializing in all aspects of graphic design. He has also returned to his alma mater, California State University-Northridge as a design instructor, teaching senior graphic design courses specifically made to help transition students into professional designers.