Becoming a designer: How to start a career in web design

Web designers sitting together discussing a project

In the first part of this two-part blog Onespacemedia's Creative Director, James Dellar, offers his expertise and advice to design graduates looking for their first job after leaving university.

A design degree will teach you the tools of the trade, but how do you set yourself apart from your peers when you make that crucial step from university to the workplace? Onespacemedia's Creative Director, James Dellar, offers tips and and advice to design graduates looking for their first job after leaving university. 

You've graduated! Now what?

So you’ve made it! The degree show is complete and you’re really pleased with your final show. You’ve just received your results and everyone is proud of what you have achieved. Congratulations are due but graduate design jobs don't come easily - here's where the hard work begins. Being proactive, creative and resourceful will put you in the best position possible while you are competing with all of the other graduates trying to get a foothold in the industry.

Your job hunting toolkit

The way you communicate with potential employers is crucial and attention to detail will go a long way. Do not compromise on quality in any of your communications and please, please, make sure that your work is error-free. People spot mistakes a lot faster than they spot quality and innovation. Every computer has spell check - use it.

How to write a CV

The first tool in your arsenal is a killer CV. It has to stand out from the crowd but remember that your future employer probably doesn't have time to read your life story - make is simple, one sided and concise. Leave the pointless infographics and over-designed layouts in your imagination.

The second crucial element is your cover letter or email. Whatever the format, do your research, learn about the company, its style, its approach. Demonstrating understanding of projects and markets that the agency operates in will be noticed. Always look to show that you can add value to the agency.

How to present your portfolio

The final tool is an outstanding design portfolio. Ideally you’d have both a pdf document and a website. The portfolio should show your best work with a summary to provide context on how you completed the brief. Remember it is difficult to judge work without understanding the brief and the process, and of course any constraints that were enforced. Your work should be the stand out feature, not how well you can clutter a page with random graphics. All of your documents should be built using Adobe Indesign - you want to be a designer so it makes sense to use the tools of the trade. Demonstrating knowledge of a design package, using a strong grid and showing a good use of typography will help drive your skill set home.

What is a digital footprint and why does it matter?

One of the first things a potential employer will do after receiving your application is look at your digital footprint – your website, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Dribbble, Facebook. Are you talking about the industry? If not then you should be.

Demonstrating passion, inquisitiveness and showing that your finger is on the pulse helps to demonstrate commitment. Remember that as a staff member you will be an ambassador for the agency so every little detail will be scrutinised.

Working for Steve, your Uncle’s mate

When you first start out, any design work experience is worthwhile. Whether it’s for family, friends or local companies, showing initiative to get design work experience will help your portfolio grow. If you can’t find any freelance jobs then try creating your own briefs to bulk it out. Pick a brand and do something different or make something better. Either way showing a future employer that you are a self-starter is a real selling point.

Agency life (beyond the ping pong table)

Just to be clear, being a web or graphic designer is not a nine to five job, you have to live it 24/7 and it’s hard work. The job comes riddled with short deadlines, uninspiring assets and a lack of rich media. You have to work hard to make your work look visually compelling. From the outside, a designer's lifestyle is an attractive and cool proposition: chilling in coffee shops with your headphones on, skateboarding to work, going for lunches with clients, instagramming inspirational crap, or attending expensive conferences around the world. In some respects the lifestyle is real but it comes with a price - a lot of hard work.  If you’re looking for a hipster lifestyle without the hard work then I’m sorry, this isn’t the job for you.

Focus on your development

Our industry is driven by delivering results for our clients. The level of passion that agencies demonstrate in ensuring that they add value is a good barometer of quality. Looking for that first job is a daunting task but concentrate your efforts on those companies that you think are aligned with your way of thinking. Don’t get sucked in by the fact that they have beanbags or a pingpong table. Your first position is to learn about commercial design and how to get the most out of a brief for a client. Every designer wants to work for the top brands in the world but not many of us walk into a company to be handed a million dollar project to work on. Think logically, the key to your first position is to focus on your development.

Be prepared: Interview tips

Congratulations you've made it to interview stage. Let's talk about what to wear for an interview. Dressing for your first interview at an agency can be confusing - do you go ultra smart with a suit and tie or take a more casual stance? If you've signed up with a recruiter then ask for their advice as they probably know the company style. If you are unsure then err on the side of caution and go super smart.

As Baden Powell said, 'Be prepared'. Of course you can never prepare enough but when it comes to interview techniques it's better not to try and write a script, conversations never work that way. Write a list of all of the key points you want to get across and think of different ways to articulate them. Always take in a print back up of your portfolio, you will learn not to rely on getting a wifi connection in meeting rooms!

OK so you've been invited in. Take a deep breath. Stay calm and collected. Greet the interviewer and let them set the pace. They'll be assessing everything about you from the moment you enter the room. When it comes to your portfolio ensure that you show pride in your work. Stand by your work and your decisions but listen to feedback - being able to listen is a crucial part of being a designer. Remember that we've been in your position too so a few nerves won't be judged unfavourably.

Honesty goes a long way too, think about showing a project that you would change with the benefit of hindsight. Being able to be critical of your own work is a great way to communicate the way that you think. The last piece you show should be your best work, leave that ace up your sleeve until the crucial moment. Finish on a high and leave the interviewers wanting more.

Work experience: How to become indespensable 

Congratulations, you've been asked to come in for work experience. Now you have an opportunity to show what you are capable of. Even if it doesn't look like there is a job on the table, it’s great just to get your foot in the agency door. Any experience at this stage is good experience. You want a job, so make yourself indispensable. Have a can do attitude and give everything you have got.

When working with other team members, remember to listen. Make sure you understand the task at hand and don’t be afraid to ask questions. You should focus on evolving your skills but make sure that you demonstrate some passion for the agency - this will help to cement your position as an indispensable part of the team. You never know, with a bit of luck and hard work, the job that didn't exist when you started may just materialise.

Check out part two: Becoming a designer: stepping up to the plate

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