How to find your first design job

This is the 2015 edition of the AIGA Career Guide. For a better understanding of the changing landscape of design, and help navigating the new disciplines, trends, and challenges, see The AIGA Guide to Careers in Graphic and Communication Design (Bloomsbury, 2017).

Finding your first job need not be a source of great anxiety. It’s not an all-or-nothing venture. Some people will say that a “wrong” choice will lead you down the wrong path, or that nothing is worth considering unless it pays a mid-career salary. Others may push you to take anything that’s offered, no matter how unglamorous or low-paying it is.

You’re not choosing the ladder you will eventually climb, or investing in some fictional “dues-paying” system. Your first job is simply an extension of your education, and what you learn from it will lead to your next job, and may lay the foundation for your professional habits. It’s not a prize to win, but rather a relationship to cultivate and learn from.

Your first job may not be the job you pictured when you were in high school. One of the greatest things about being a designer is that even at the highest levels, designers work in a variety of contexts. You could be working in-house on a design team, for yourself, for someone who runs their own practice, in partnership with another designer, for a large advertising agency, small branding firm, large design studio, small design studio, and everything in between. Better yet, you can move freely between these contexts. It’s completely plausible for a designer to work for a design studio, go into private practice, join a team at an advertising agency, and then partner with a friend there to start a new studio—all in the span of a few years.

The job search has changed as well. There’s never been a time when more prospective employers and employees know about each other. It can take days to sort through the hundreds of listings you’ll find online. Similarly, when employers post an opening on a large job board, they receive hundreds of applications, which means you might not hear back for weeks, if at all. Daunted by the search, employers will likely turn to personal connections first, as will prospective employees, which adds another dimension to the hunt. This means that creating a strong cover letter, resume, and online portfolio of your work is vital.

The more specific you are about what you want, the more likely it is that you’ll find yourself happily employed. Similarly, when employers are specific about what they’re looking for, the more likely it is that they’ll fill the position with someone who’s committed to the job.

Along the way, you’ll probably get all kinds of free advice, much of it from people who are unfamiliar with the contemporary job market. Whatever you do, regard advice simply as enthusiasm and support, unless it’s from people who have recently (and successfully) gone through the experience of getting an entry-level job, or people who have recently hired for a position. If they’re willing to share their expertise, listen.

Look for your next job—and the one after that. Look at the most popular job lists (you can start here with AIGA’s job board). What kind of experience does the position require? For example, many students will say they want to be art directors. Look at those job descriptions. What do you need to know? What do you need to demonstrate that you know? Does knowledge in only one medium or one context (such as advertising or publishing) qualify you for the job?

Make a list of qualifications. This is your measuring stick. Anything you do from that point forward, especially in your first job, should involve learning something on this list.

Find a well-written job description. Choose an entry-level job that meets your measuring stick and matches your qualifications. A well-written job description will say exactly what a qualified candidate should demonstrate. This may not be your future job, but the description will be helpful in preparing a set of materials that you will use for more than this opportunity.

You can follow these steps any time you’re feeling ambivalent about your career. Be as honest with yourself as possible. Is your dream job really your dream job, or is it something other people think you should do? What job would you do secretly? What job would you do even if you didn’t get paid for it?

Before you apply

Maintain an online portfolio. This can be on any platform, or use any service, and its form can even be somewhat generic. The most important thing is to make it easy for a potential employer to get a sense of your work in 10 seconds, and proof of what you can do in five minutes. This evidence should match that well-written job description you found. If, for example, the description calls for experience with HTML and CSS, or illustration skills, and there’s no evidence of it in your portfolio, don’t expect to get called in for an interview.

Have a greater-than-zero web presence. When your name crosses the desktop of your dream employer, the first thing they’re going to do is look you up online. If you haven’t already, search for yourself. What shows up? If the answer is nothing, and another candidate is habitually sharing thoughtful and relevant links and images, they’re suddenly a more attractive option, and all before the employer has even read your painstakingly created resume.

Practice talking to people about what you do. Meeting strangers one-on-one can be daunting. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at it. While you’re in school, visit other faculty on campus or professionals off-campus to discuss your projects. Ask for informational interviews. Pay attention. What are some of the questions people ask? How long can you talk before someone’s attention flags?

The application process

Find a job you want to apply for. Start by searching discipline-specific online listings on AIGA’s job board and on sites like Authentic Jobs, Behance, Design Observer, or Krop. Check out the websites of any companies or institutions you want to work for. General job boards at sites like LinkedIn, Indeed, and The New York Times can be harder to sort through, but are still good sources for listings from larger companies that post all of their openings in one place.

Industry-specific lists such as Mediabistro (for publishing and advertising) can also focus your search. And make sure to look through your school’s job board, if they have one; companies looking for new graduates will be posting there.

Read the description. Is it clearly written and realistic? Does it sound like the company or department shares your values? If so, do you have the skills and experience listed under the qualifications? Do you know what you’ll show to demonstrate that you fit those qualifications? Finally, do you meet the non-design qualifications, such as immigration or visa status?

Read the instructions. This is a test. If the listing says to send a cover letter, resume, and portfolio link to an email address, do exactly that. There’s someone at the other end who’s managing this process, and who’ll appreciate your effort to make their job easier. If there’s an online application, use it and follow the instructions. When they meet to assess candidates, they’ll be looking at the list it generates, and if you’re not on that list, you won’t be considered. No random email or care package you’ve sent along will change that.

Write a cover letter. If you’re applying by email, sometimes the email is the cover letter. This should be as short as possible, but specific to the recipient beyond just changing the name. Include the job title and where you saw the listing, as well as a statement about who you are and what you’re currently doing. Tell the recipient why the work of the studio or company interests you, and what you would expect from the experience. Then tell them about your experience and skills and how they can see them in the portfolio PDF or link that you’ve provided. End by inviting them to meet with you to hear more.

Create a resume. Know what a resume is and what it’s not. A resume is a kind of cheat sheet for your reviewer, a summary of your experience and skills. It’s not a brochure, an autobiography, or a ticket to the moon. List your (pending or completed) degree, and relevant work experience. If you’re not at a senior level, keep it to one page. Don’t list more than three unrelated jobs, and don’t list more than three internships.

Your resume is also evidence of your typographic skills and attention to detail. If the person reviewing your resume is a designer or art director, look at it again. Have you thought about how someone will read it? Is the hierarchy correct and well-articulated? Are you using en-dashes? Are you using default margins, typefaces, type sizes, or leading, or is your resume consciously designed? Is everything spelled correctly, and consistent in its punctuation?

Create a PDF portfolio. If they’ve asked for one, create a PDF portfolio that demonstrates that you have the skills and qualifications asked for in the job description. This should be specifically tailored to the company with a maximum of five projects, while your website can appeal to a broader number of people and demonstrate a wider range of skills.

Wait. Unless they need someone tomorrow, companies will wait until they have around five applications in hand before responding or scheduling interviews. If multiple people are reviewing the candidates, it may take even longer to find a time when they’re all available. You should follow up no more than twice by email (a week later and a month later) to ask where they are in the process, but only if you already have direct access to someone and you’re still interested. The bigger the company, the more likely it is that you won’t get a response unless it’s a definite yes.

Before and during the interview

Be courteous over email. Most companies expect employees to be good communicators both via email and in person. If someone asks you about setting up a meeting, be specific about when you’re available. If they suggest a time or a range of times, confirm what’s best for you and what you can do if that time is no longer available. If you can’t make it then, suggest three times (or time spans) in the future when you’re available. Ask if they’d like you to prepare anything before meeting.

Anticipate questions. The night before the interview, write down five questions you think you may be asked and answer them. Don’t bring these notes with you—this is just to help you prepare.

Be on time. If you can, be early. Yes, this is about being courteous, but it’s also a good way to guarantee that you won’t be anxious. You don’t want to start or end the meeting with an apology.

If you’re offered a glass of water, accept it. Generosity offered and accepted puts the giver at ease. Once you’re calm, focus on how your interviewer is feeling.

Relax. All the interviewer wants is for you to be the one. They’re rooting for you. Nervousness and agitation is contagious. Practice techniques to calm yourself down.

Let the interviewer lead. If you’re showing work, ask if they’d like you to move through it, or if they’d prefer to “drive.” If you’re showing work digitally, show it on a tablet if you can, rather than a laptop.

Ask questions. Whether or not you can do a job is usually answered by your resume and your portfolio. The interview is about whether or not you want the job and whether or not you’ll fit into the company’s culture. Having no questions about the company may signal that you don’t really care whether you work there or not, especially if there’s already been media coverage about their projects or operations.

Follow up with a thank you. Do this the next day at the latest. Be courteous, brief, name everyone you met with, and say something that shows that you appreciated the meeting. Even if you’re no longer interested, or it was clear from the meeting that you’re not what the company is looking for, you want the individuals you met to remember you for your courtesy and professionalism when they move on to other companies.

Wait. Again, it’s customary to follow up twice over email and ask where they are in the process if you don’t hear back, but no more. If they reply by saying they’ve hired someone else, respond with courtesy. Leaving a good impression is a very small gesture that can lead to greater returns in the future.

Accepting a job

Once you’ve been offered a job, the journey isn’t over. You have to really decide if it’s what you want. You also have a considerable amount of power that’s gone once you’ve accepted the job.

Get all the details. Beyond the compensation and the working hours, what can you expect from them, and what will they expect from you? Will you be expected to travel? Work on weekends? Pull long hours during certain cycles? Having this conversation over the phone or in person will be more useful and honest than sending emails back and forth.

Ask yourself some hard questions. Do you like the people who interviewed you? Did you meet the person you would report to? What would you learn from this position? Going back to the very first step of this process, ask yourself: will I gain experience and skills in this position that will help qualify me for the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that? Or is this just about paying the bills?

Ask yourself more hard questions. Does the company’s work matter to you? Can you imagine the world without their publication or product? The company doesn’t have to be saving the world, but if what it makes is irrelevant to you, you’ll quickly lose steam.

Compare. You may not have a choice to make, but if you’re lucky enough to have one, judge wisely. Don’t stop at compensation. You won’t be happy unless you’re working with people you like on something that matters, and learning enough to keep growing as a designer.

Negotiate. Look at what other people are making in similar positions, and learn what you can about the company’s finances. Before turning down an offer, ask for what you think is fair, and be flexible. You may be able to raise the compensation for a job you would prefer, or, if money is tight, get more time off than what’s initially offered, or more flexibility in the workweek.

This isn’t the first time you’ll be at a crossroads, unsure about what will happen next. It can be nerve-wracking, but it can also be exhilarating, and you may learn things about yourself that you didn’t know before. You may even learn that you don’t need to change jobs or take on a new one. Many of these same techniques and principles apply when looking for projects as a freelancer or studio owner. And there’s no better time to practice than the present.

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About the Author:

Juliette Cezzar is an Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the BFA Communication Design program at Parsons / The New School, where she was the Director of the BFA Communication Design and BFA Design & Technology programs from 2011-2014. She established her small studio, e.a.d., in 2005. While books anchor the practice, her work has spanned a variety of media for clients such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, RES Magazine, The Museum of Modern Art, Vh1, The New York Times, Eleven Madison Park, and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Art, and Planning. She is the co-author of Designing the Editorial Experience with Sue Apfelbaum (Rockport) and author-designer of Office Mayhem (Abrams), Paper Pilot,Paper Captain, and Paper Astronaut (Universe / Rizzoli). She holds an MFA in Graphic Design from Yale University and a professional degree (B. Arch) in Architecture from Virginia Tech.