Dear Bonnie: January 2018

Got a burning question about design jobs, portfolios, and other career conundrums? Email for a chance to get advice from Bonnie herself, published here each month. Submissions are anonymous, so include as much information about your situation as you can.

Dear Bonnie,

I graduate this May, and like everyone else, I am in the hunt for a career that will be both fulfilling and challenging. I wanted to know, what questions should I be asking employers in order to gauge what their culture is like? What should I be looking for in order to get a feeling for how I will fit in within the company? 

Matriculating in Memphis

Dear M.,

For your first job out of school, you should focus on finding a place that does the kind of work you want to do, where your can contribute and utilize your talents. If you find a place that satisfies those professional needs, chances are good that the culture will follow suit. I think it’s a mistake to think about culture first. Being happy with the work is way more important.

Also, when you are starting out it’s hard to know what kind of work culture will ultimately suit you best. Some people find they work best in a casual open office with lots of distractions. Others need the calm and focus of more traditional work places. You should be open to different possibilities.

During your interview, it’s best to keep your questions centered on the work. If a potential employer gets asked more questions about the culture than about the actual work it could affect their perception about your seriousness. And remember, if the work is not good, no amount of free food and ping-pong will make it right. 

Dear Bonnie,

What is your advice on creating an art direction portfolio that can get your first couple of jobs? I only have one photo shoot that I have styled and did the shoot concept and direction for, and some graphic design, which hardly seems enough. Should I include mock creative briefs until I can build it up?

Trying in Tremont

Dear T.,

Yes! Make up the kind of project you wish you were working on and then work on it. Your choice of assignment and how your approach it will tell almost as much about how your brain works as the end result. Your drive and desire will also be meaningful.

Another thing to do is let everyone know what you would like to be doing and offer to help whenever possible on their projects. Take advantage of any opportunity to expand your capabilities and cross-pollinate with others in the field. It’s all about problem solving, and how smart your solutions are. The more you work your brain, the better your brain will work for you (and of course, for your future employers).

Dear Bonnie,

What is one program that students aren’t learning in design school that is common in the industry?

Teaching in Tulsa

Dear T.,

They are learning all the programs that are common. What they aren’t learning enough of is art history. Or design history.

Seriously, they all know how to use their computers really well, but very few graduates have an adequate knowledge of design and art history. And, while I have this opportunity to preach, knowing about other arts, like film and architecture, is a plus—as is a general awareness of what’s going on in the world socially, culturally, and politically. Nothing we do exists in a vacuum and being a curious citizen of the world will make you a better designer. It’s not about the programs, but what you do with them.

Spend more time soaking up the wonderful and inspiring work of the past. The programs are easily mastered; knowing design history will make you a better designer.


About the author

Bonnie Siegler founded the award-winning design studio Eight and a Half. She has taught at the graduate level for many years at the School of Visual Arts and Yale University, conducted workshops at other schools and judged design competitions all over the place. She has two new books coming out in February: Signs of Resistance which is a visual history of protest in America and Dear Client, which is a book that will (hopefully) help clients work more successfully with creative people.