Advice For Emerging Designers

…your process of emerging from school into the (design) profession needs to be as carefully framed and designed as any of your projects.

It’s portfolio review season. In colleges and design schools all over the country students are in the throes of preparing their portfolios to emerge from school into the professional world. This portfolio-forming process is full of angst, indecision, tears, uncertainty and hopefulness, all wrapped up into a big ball of stress. This process almost always goes on concurrently with finishing final class projects and preparing for grad shows. Students’ focus is so much on the portfolio itself that they easily neglect to think about what to do with that portfolio once they graduate and enter the design job market.

Are you getting ready to leave school for the vast landscape of design jobs? Here’s some advice from a seasoned design practitioner and educator:

1. Limit your presentation portfolio. Include 12-15 very strong design solutions. Your work will be remembered for both its strengths and weaknesses, so your goal is to include only the best. Don’t include something just because you like it. Strong work not only looks good, but is functionally effective. Select work that achieves its goal.

2. Create different versions of your portfolio. You’ll be well served to have a physical book, a digital version that can be viewed on a tablet or laptop, and a web site. The key here is to avoid sameness between the web site and the portfolios. You can tailor your presentation portfolios based on who you’re interviewing with, but put the larger body of work on the web site, categorized and organized so that it makes sense.

As for web sites, certainly you can use providers such as Behance and Taxi. Depending upon your long-term goals and budget, a dedicated web site under your own domain may be desirable. Domain registration and hosting plans are not all that pricey, so think seriously about a dedicated option.

3. Develop a critical eye for your own work. Hopefully, you have been doing this since you started your design studies. Self-editing is key to compiling your strongest work, and believe me, everyone has done poor work. Classroom critiques help you develop your eye, but you’ll also need the objective feedback of design professionals, which is why participating in portfolio review events is so useful.

4. Include documentation of your process. Merely showing your final designs does not create an overall narrative or provide the interviewer with an understanding of your thinking process. How did you frame the design problem and then solve it? Why did you make the choices — color, composition, typography, balance — you did? Why did you discard certain ideas and move forward with others?  If you can’t explain your process, how can you “defend” your work? Process is what will set you apart from and above other designers, because it demonstrates how you think.

5. Research your target employers before asking for an interview. Know what their focus is and what their work looks like. Find out who their clients are. Don’t just focus on the specifics of the company or organization. Learn about the space or marketplace it operates within. Look at the big picture. For example, if you’re taking an interview with Starbucks, do some research into the coffee business as a whole — the issues, challenges, history and successes of that particular marketplace. Look also at ancillary “spaces” which affect the realm of operation. Use this information to develop insight into how you will frame design problems and develop solutions. During interviews you will be asked questions, but you should also ask questions based on intelligent research to reveal your understanding of the challenges the organization faces.

6. Know what you’re bringing to the table. In other words, what are your strengths as a designer, craftsman and as a person, and what will you contribute to the team you’ll be working with? Most of the students whose books I have reviewed could not answer this question, but it’s a crucial one. Designers come as a package – a gestalt. Believing that you’re only a portfolio or a design solution denies that fact that you’re a person – a unique individual with strengths, weaknesses, history, insights and the ability to grow. You bring your life experience with you into any job.

With a big idea, every project you work on becomes a next step that advances you toward achieving your life purpose.

7. Develop a big picture for yourself. What is the big idea that drives you? What do you want to accomplish? What are you passionate about? Becoming a good designer requires that you have a set of values and life paradigms by which you consistently and automatically operate. Without a big picture, you’ll have no compass, and every design project you undertake will remain a design project. With a big idea (what Phil Cooke refers to as the One Big Thing) every project you work on becomes a next step that advances you toward achieving your life purpose.

8. This is VERY IMPORTANT. Before (and I mean, before) you start interviewing, review your social media profiles and delete anything that will cause potential employers to question your values, motives and work ethic. Everything online is fair game for employer sleuthing. This does not mean being deceitful and “catfishing” (presenting yourself as someone else), but you don’t need to post your entire life online. Everything you post is shared with the world, not just with your friends, and what you share is fair game. Be deliberate and intelligent about how you represent yourself, and be consistent between your face-to-face and online presences.

9. Decline offers of unpaid internships. Many businesses and organizations offer such internships instead of employment in an attempt to get cheap or free labor. Internships are for gaining some work experience while you’re still in school, but they are not a substitute for professional employment. If you accept an internship to “build a professional portfolio”, do not count on it to turn into a paying job down the road. Don’t remain in an internship for more than a few months. You need to make a living. I’ve discussed internships in more detail here and here.

10. Do not work for free or in exchange for a credit line. Value your work, and others will, also. The person asking you to work on spec or in exchange for a credit line will always get the better end of the deal, shortchanging you in the process. If someone can’t pay you, work out a value-for-value barter in writing. At one point in my life, I needed an attorney, but could not afford the fees. So we worked out an exchange (with a written contract) in which I designed an identity system and promotional pieces for the firm in exchange for representation. Word to the wise here: if you don’t need something, it’s of no value to you. So be sure that what you’re bartering for is something you actually need and a valuation can be attached to it. What is the value of a credit line? What is the value of your time, education and expertise?

All of this is to say that your process of emerging from school into the profession needs to be as carefully framed and designed as any project in  your portfolio. You won’t simply fall into things. Although you’re a “creative”, you are entering the business world. Set yourself up to succeed before you graduate, and be persistent and patient as you pursue your professional goals.


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