How to find your first design job

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, with the idea of getting “a foot in the door.” 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, so that you can continue to grow.

Your first job may not be the job you pictured when you were in high school. One of the greatest advantages of a design career is that even at the highest levels, designers work in many different contexts. As we covered in the last chapter, you could be working in-house on a design team, for yourself, for someone who runs his or her own practice, in partnership with another designer, or for a large advertising agency, a small branding firm, a large independent design studio, a small independent design studio, and everything in between. Better yet, you can move freely among these contexts. It’s completely plausible for a designer to work for a design studio, go into private practice, join a studio in an advertising agency, and then partner with a friend there to start a new studio—all in the span of a few years. This is very different from the legend of “starting in the mailroom” and working your way up to CEO.

Keep in mind, too, that despite all of the articles anxious relatives may be sending you, a bona fide full-time job is not necessarily the only option, or even the best. Every time you say yes to a full-time design position, you say no to fellowships and partnerships, starting or expanding your own practice, committing to starting your own business, further education or travel, or working full time doing something else. Of course, whether or not these options are even available to you depends on your financial and personal ability to take risks at any given time. If you are able to take those risks, understand what you are giving up or putting off before blindly going after a job that may be the end of someone else’s rainbow. Either way, much of the advice below applies to many different kinds of opportunities, not just full-time jobs.

The career sequence for a designer has changed in part because the job search has changed as well. There’s never been a time when more prospective employers and employees know so much about each other, or are so visible to one another. Twenty years ago you could look through three newspapers and find maybe one listing that was relevant to you. Now it can take days to sort through dozens of relevant listings you’ll find online. Similarly, when employers post an opening on a large job board, they receive hundreds of applications. You might not hear back for weeks, if at all. This availability of positions and applicants erodes certainty. On both sides, it’s harder to settle.

It also creates more work. Daunted by having to review too many applications, both employers and prospective employees are likely to turn to personal connections first, adding another dimension to the hunt. Creating a strong online portfolio and résumé, supported by your online presence, is vital, as is having good character, maintaining personal relationships, and making good impressions even with people you encounter briefly. The people you work with, interview with, or go to school with will eventually move on to different companies or positions. The project manager or producer you work with very early in your career is much more likely to connect you to a great position than a high-level director you meet in passing at a networking event five years later.

Now, it’s important to have a talk with yourself about what you actually want to do, and can do. Over time, developing strengths in multiple areas is important, but at any one moment, 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. There is a difference between being open to opportunities and communicating indifference. Keeping your options open means going to a job interview for something you didn’t initially think about doing. Being indifferent means being asked at that interview what you’re looking for and saying, “a 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 been interviewing candidates for a position. If they’re willing to share their expertise, listen. The guidance in this chapter is culled from conversations from people in both of those positions: looking and hiring. The rest is just noise, and can be detrimental, for being too general, out of date, or too specific to the person speaking.

So what should you do? Where do you start?

Beginning the search

Look for your next job—and the one after that. Find well-written job descriptions for jobs you’re not yet qualified for, but that you think you might want someday. What kind of experience do these position require? For example, many students will say they eventually 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 industry (such as advertising or publishing) qualify you for the job, or do you need more than that? Is experience in a specific context (such as an agency) a requirement for that position? If so, how much experience?

Make a list of qualifications. Write down the things they are all asking for. This is your measuring stick. Anything you do from that point forward, especially in your first job, should involve learning something on this list, rather than just falling under some abstract category of “years of experience.”

Find a well-written entry-level job description. Choose any entry-level job that meets your measuring stick and matches your qualifications. This job description will say exactly what a qualified candidate should demonstrate. This may not be your future job exactly, but the description will be helpful in preparing a set of materials that you will use for more than this opportunity. Even if you intend to reach out directly to studios and companies, reading listings for similar positions will give you an idea of how you should present yourself.

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

Create or update your online portfolio. This can be on any platform, or use any service, and its form does not need to call attention to itself. The most important thing is to make it easy for a potential employer to get a sense of your work in ten 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.

If you’ve never created a website like this before, or you haven’t done it since high school, it’s understandable that you would approach it as an autobiography. Don’t. The audience for that website does not need to understand you, know your whole story, see everything you’ve ever made, or see all the talents that make your mother proud. A prospective employer needs to know whether or not you are a suitable candidate for a project or position. She needs to know what you already know and what she would have to teach you and whether you will think the work is worth doing. She has seven tabs open on her laptop and thirty minutes to decide who will be called in for interviews. How can you make that decision easier?

Rather than obsessing over the form of the website and an unnecessary monogram, make solid decisions about what goes on your site and why. If you don’t know where to start, take that list that you made looking at requirements on job descriptions, choose the first six items, and then present projects in the order of that list. If the first requirement is “excellent typography skills,” choose the project that shows that you can systematically set type toward an understanding of content (not that expressive type exercise you did in your freshman or sophomore year). If the second is “ability to apply design skills across print and digital,” or “works well collaboratively,” select projects that best demonstrate those skills, and describe them in a way that shows that you understand what it means to translate across platforms or work as a team on a project. And so on. Present each of the projects with an emphasis on highlighting that particular need or skill, using short written descriptions to bolster your case.

Depending on what you’re going for, you will need more or less description. Where a potential employer is looking for thought process, such as for a user experience position, you will need to write more to unpack what you were thinking. If they are looking only for someone to make beautiful visuals, you will not need as much explanation. If you understand what they are looking for, you can show that you can do it.

But what about your drawings? And your photography? And your illustrations? Isn’t showing only design work... boring? Well, maybe for a non-designer, but for a real designer, design work is a lot more exciting than charcoal sketches. A website that has your name with the subhead “artist–photographer–graphic designer” communicates that you would really prefer to do those things in that order. It says “I’ll do graphic design if I have to.” No one wants to work with someone who doesn’t want to be there. If you have credible illustration skills, it’s fine to present that work alongside your design work, or in it, as there are many situations that would call for both skill sets. If you make creative technology projects on the side, it would be an asset for a position that hopes for a high level of experimentation and moxie for digital prototyping. But leave the charcoal drawings with your parents, who will appreciate them most.

Beware of the “portfolio piece.” What nailed your professor an interview in 1998 is not necessarily what will get you in the door twenty years later. Complex or self-directed thesis or capstone projects certainly will have more impact than others, in that they can show a combination of skills at play. But a packaging project will not mean much to a user experience designer, and a mobile website will not convey your identity design process. Put the superstition away and think about what it’s like to be in the shoes of that person trying to decide who to interview for a role, and highlight aspects of projects that will be relevant to them. All they want to know is if you can do the job, if you want the job, and whether you will feel uncomfortable in that position or at that company.

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 find out what they can about you. If you haven’t already, type your name into a search engine. What shows up? If the answer is nothing, and other candidates are habitually sharing thoughtful and relevant links and images, they’re suddenly a more attractive option. If the answer is “party photos” or “high school sports stats,” you have some work to do.

If there is a platform you want to share personal images or thoughts on, make that page or account private, and choose or start another to be your design ambassador. This is a good habit anyhow, for the future: when someone is looking for “someone who is passionate about design,” a thoughtfully curated Instagram or Twitter feed will answer that question better than your portfolio will. At the same time, these platforms are not as formal as your portfolio, so it’s also acceptable to share your enthusiasm for food, or basketball, or portraiture. You still want to keep it, though, to what you would share or show at the office Christmas party, unless you’re OK with limiting your potential employers to whoever is comfortable or on board with what you are sharing. In some cases, this may true: you may hold a political or social justice position, for example, where you would never want to work with someone who disagreed with you. If that’s the case, go for it, but if it’s not, it belongs in your private communications. Visuals matter as well. Someone who is an art director is as sensitive to an inappropriate photo as an editor is to a run-on sentence. Finally, a photo that is meant for a dating site is not appropriate for LinkedIn (and yes, you should have a LinkedIn profile that is as complete and professional as possible).

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. If you’re in school, visit other faculty on campus or professionals off-campus to discuss your projects. Ask for informational interviews from professionals in the field. Pay attention. What are some of the questions people ask? How long can you talk before someone’s attention flags?

Go to any interview that you’re invited to. This is one of the best ways to learn how to have a professional conversation with someone you don’t know. Pretty soon, you’ll find out that every interview is a conversation and every conversation is an interview. These less formal conversations are also great opportunities for asking the questions that will help you in your search: What do you look for in a portfolio? Do you think I should pursue work in this area, or is there something else I’m not thinking about? Do you like what you do, and would you recommend it? If I want to eventually do X, would it be better for me to do Y or Z?

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. Take time to look through the websites of any companies or institutions you want to work for, and see if they have listings under “careers” or “jobs” that apply to you. 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 seek to fill more than just design positions.

Industry-specific lists such as Mediabistro (for publishing and advertising) or workingnotworking (for advertising and branding) can also focus your search. And make sure to look through your school’s job board, if they have one. Companies specifically hoping for new graduates will be posting there. Beware of free listing services like Craigslist: someone who pays money to post a listing is serious about it and is also more likely to pay you.

Sometimes listings lead to headhunters or recruitment agencies. Working with one that specializes in design can be helpful, especially over the long term, and an experienced recruiter can help you with clarifying your goals, website, and résumé. Rather than responding to listings, consider reaching out to the recruiter directly with a description of what you are hoping for and the materials you have. Recruiters work for employers, often for a percentage of yearly salary, so it’s in their best interest to convince you to take a job and negotiate for the best compensation. The only downside is that only companies that are short on time and connections and long on money will pay for outside help in staffing, limiting the offerings, and the recruiter is much more likely to spend his or her time on higher-level positions. If you’re looking for a junior- or mid-level position, you won’t get the same amount of attention.

If you’re looking for a junior-level position in a small independent studio, at a small nonprofit that’s close to your heart, or with a sole practitioner, you definitely won’t find that job with a headhunter or staffing agency, and it’s unlikely that you will find those jobs listed online. A small studio is also less likely to have the time to interview many candidates, or to wait several weeks for candidates to start. Contact any studios that you are interested in and request an informational interview. When studios at that scale need new employees, they will reach out across their networks and to people who came in for informational interviews who seemed promising, usually hoping that the candidate can start within a week.

These companies also often don’t have the luxury of knowing what will happen beyond the next three months, so they’re also the least likely to offer you a job that will start six or more months down the line. If your number one goal is to have a job six months in advance of graduation, limit your list to large companies that have headquarters in many cities, and be ready to go where you’re needed.

Read the description. Is it clearly written and realistic? Does it sound like the company or department shares your values? With the exception of recruitment agencies hoping to keep their search exclusive, a description that is vague about what the company does, or what the position is, means the job will not be worth pursuing: there’s no benefit to keeping that information a secret, other than to lure you in for a conversation about something else. (Even with recruiters’ ads, the descriptions tend to be detailed.) If it passes the test, 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, résumé, and portfolio link to an email address, do exactly that. There’s someone at the other end managing this process, and that person will appreciate your effort to make her 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 that software 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, unless the listing asks for a separate cover letter, 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 sentence or two 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 about your experience and skills—again, in a sentence or two—and how they are showcased in the portfolio PDF or link that you’ve provided. End by inviting the recipient to meet with you to hear more.

Create a résumé. Know what a résumé is and what it’s not. A résumé 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 in reverse chronological order (most recent position first). 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. If you’re just graduating from school, no one is expecting you to have an internship every semester.

Your résumé also doubles as evidence of your typographic skills and attention to detail. If the person reviewing your résumé 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, with the most important or distinctive elements called out? Are you using en dashes for date ranges? Are you using default margins, typefaces, type sizes, or leading, or is your résumé consciously designed? Is everything spelled correctly and consistent in its punctuation?

Resist the urge to make your résumé “stand out.” There is no mythical stack of résumés that someone is going through, highlighter in hand, on a big wooden desk, waiting to come across one that dazzles. Get that image out of your mind. The résumé is often something that gets printed out from your website after the interview decision has been made. It confirms what has been learned from the portfolio website and potentially frames the interview conversation. Besides, if you really want to stand out, all you need to do is typeset it professionally and spell everything correctly. You’ll be in the top 10 percent, guaranteed.

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. This is also a good practice if you are reaching out to people directly, since it shows how well you are able to tailor this experience to someone else’s interests and for the medium at hand.

Wait. Unless they need someone tomorrow, companies will wait until they have at least a handful of 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 may follow up no more than twice by email (a week later and a month later) to ask politely where they are in the process and to state that 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, or they’ve made a hire for the role.

The interview process

If you are a successful candidate, the journey begins. Many companies will start with a phone or video chat screen before scheduling an in-person interview, in which case much of the advice below still applies for scheduling, preparing for, and following up after that interview.*

Be courteous over email. Most companies expect employees to be good communicators both via email and in person. If someone responds and asks to set 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, or if you can’t make it then, suggest three times (or time spans) in the future when you’re available. For example, if they ask “can you meet Thursday at 4 p.m.?” you don’t want to respond with “I’m busy Thursday.” Try “Unfortunately I can’t meet then, but I can meet at 5 p.m., or anytime on Friday morning. Will that work?” Ask if they’d like you to prepare anything before meeting: if you’re not sure if you should bring your portfolio, ask. After you agree on a time, confirm the meeting by sending a calendar invitation (unless you are working with a scheduler who will do this step), and confirm it again by email the morning of or the night before.

Ask for the names of the people you are meeting with, and find out who they are. All you have to say is, “Will I be meeting with you, or with someone else?” Find out more about your interviewer or interviewers, what their company or practice is about, and what the public has to say about them or their company. You don’t need FBI-level research on this, but you should know at least what someone who reads the newspaper every day would know. (For that matter, if you want to be able to talk to anyone, read the newspaper every day.) It will also be less jarring to walk into a four-person interview if you know about it ahead of time.

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, so that you don’t respond to every question with “that’s a good question.” It’s very likely that your interviewer will open with “tell us a little about yourself,” and end with “do you have any questions for me/us?” The response to the first question should explain why you are there, sitting in that specific chair, rather than telling your life story. The response to that last question will tell your interviewer how interested you are in working there, or in the industry. What are you curious about?

Be on time. If you can, be early, but no more than five minutes. 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 the meeting with an apology, or exchange nervous smiles for twenty-five minutes before the appointment.

If you are showing work, have it ready as a PDF on a tablet, if you have one or can borrow one. You can bring a laptop if you have no other choice, but because a laptop is a personal device, it is always awkward to show work on one, especially across a table to multiple viewers. If you want to show work that needs an internet connection, you can ask to get on a Wi-Fi network, but don’t rely on it: you don’t want to spend the first twenty minutes of a thirty-minute interview troubleshooting network settings (you have maybe ninety seconds before it’s time to switch to a PDF). If you are waiting in a staffed reception area before your interview, that is a good time to ask about Wi-Fi and connect to it.

When you see your interviewer, be the first to say hello and smile and extend your hand, and start by thanking him or her for taking the time to meet with you. Bring several printed copies of your résumé and hand one to each of your interviewers. It will help them remember who you are and what your name is, especially if you are the fourth interview of the day.

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

Relax. All the interviewers want is for you to be the one. They’re rooting for you. Nervousness and agitation is contagious, so when they go from excitement to agony, it’s a fail. If you’re prone to anxiety, learn and practice techniques to calm yourself down, and try to reframe your anxiety as excitement. Sometimes it helps to have a little ritual before the interview, however odd, like walking around the block or drinking a bottle of water. Sometimes it helps to go ahead and state calmly to your interviewer that you are nervous because you’re excited to be there. A lot of anxiety comes from watching or listening to yourself too closely, so consider focusing on your interviewers instead: thinking about their day and their hopes may get your mind off of what your voice sounds like. Find out if you have nervous habits and work on reducing or replacing them. You may think it’s no big deal to twirl your hair or check your phone through an interview, but for the interviewer, it can be a deal-breaker. Turn your phone off or put it in airplane mode before going into a meeting. If you pay attention to it at all, it signals to your interviewer that you think it’s all right to interrupt a meeting with your supervisor or with a client, and it’s not. You will not be called back.

Invite the interviewer to lead. After initial greetings and questions, if there is a pause, ask, “Would you like to see my work?” If the answer is yes, ask, “Would you like to go through it or would you like me to go through it?” If you are leading, tell them how many projects you are presenting, and look for cues for when you should stay on a project or move on. If you were showing people around your house or apartment, in each room you would give a short summary and give them a chance to look around or ask questions, and when you saw a brief change of expression, you would invite them into the next space. You wouldn’t stand in the kitchen and deliver a monologue on how much you hate cooking, or walk into each room, exclaim that you just love that room, and list every object in the room as if your guest weren’t standing next to you. The same goes for your portfolio: present your work to your interviewers, talk about what matters to them and follow their lead, whether they speak or just nod.

Ask questions. Whether or not you can do a job is usually answered by your resume and your portfolio. The interview is about whether you want the job and will fit into the company’s culture. Having no questions about the company signals that you don’t really care whether you work there or not, especially if there’s already been media coverage about its projects or their business. Your questions can also be directed at the interviewers. Ask them what they did before, how they got to where they are, and what they like about being there. Ask how things have changed, what they are working on, if there’s anything they’re excited about right now. If an employer is looking for curiosity, this is where the interviewers will know if you have it or not. This is not the time to ask about salary, benefits, or time off: save those questions for a second interview, or until you have an offer.

Be interested, and if you are interested, look interested. When you’re in high school, showing emotion can be socially risky, so it’s easy to develop a habit of looking as neutral or nonplussed as possible when talking to people. Older people who don’t remember high school tend to interpret this as disinterest or disgust. If something interests you, make eye contact, gesture, nod, or use words to show that you’re interested. Sometimes it helps to remind yourself that you like the person you are talking to, and you should—because he or she is taking an interest in you.

Follow up with a thank you. Do this the next day at the latest. Be courteous and brief, name everyone you met with, say something that shows that you appreciated the meeting, and if you still feel like it would be a good fit, summarize your enthusiasm or what you can offer. 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 or when a different position opens up. You can just thank them for their time and for what they shared. But if it does feel promising, when they go to contact you again, this is the email you want to come up in the search field, not the one that says “5 min late sorry.”

Wait. Again, it’s okay 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 don’t reply, the most likely reason is that they don’t know, because they are not done with the search. If they reply by saying they’ve hired someone else, respond with courtesy, wish them well, and if you hope there will be an opportunity to work with them again in the future, say so. Leaving a good impression is a very small gesture that can lead to greater returns, and if you did leave a good impression, they are likely to call you back in when an opportunity comes up before they list it, or recommend you to someone else.

Accepting a job

If they do reply positively, 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? It’s all right to ask these questions so that you can plan other commitments around them. Having this conversation over the phone or in person will be more useful and honest than sending emails back and forth. Ask if they know what projects you would be working on, what they hope will be the start date. Ask when they need an answer from you. Be neutral about this information. This is not the time to negotiate—that comes later.

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? How realistic is the commute? Am I thinking of accepting this job just because I want this process to be over?

Ask yourself more hard questions. Does the company’s work matter to you? Can you imagine the world without its 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. Also, going back to the early days of your search and to the descriptions in the last chapter, be realistic about the environment you’ll be working in, and whether you will be comfortable enough there to learn. Picture yourself there. If it’s your first “real” job, it’s not also a good time to correct deep anxieties about working with other people or working alone. Many of the things that drive supervisors to write screeds about “young people these days” are borne out of these anxieties: maybe you can’t focus in an open office if you’re not wearing headphones, or maybe you need to make contact with someone every few minutes to be sure that you still exist. If the office culture supports it—as in you see other people doing it and it seems OK—great. But if it doesn’t, it’s going to affect your work and your reputation. Unless you are seeking an accommodation linked to a documented disability, it is you who needs to adapt to the environment, not the other way around.

Compare. You may not have a choice to make, but if you’re lucky enough to have one, judge wisely. Don’t value compensation over all other factors, and ask for advice if you can. 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. And now that salary information is so easy to access, companies don’t pay a lot more just because they don’t know any better. Either the job requires expertise that is hard to find, they have a hard time retaining staff, or the term of the position is temporary or unknown. If you turn down a job, as with all your other communications, be professional, thank them for their time, and wish them the best with their search. If there is someone else who you think would a better fit for the role, offer to put them in touch.

Negotiate. If there is an offer that looks attractive to you but feels low, look at what other people are making in similar positions, and learn what you can about the company’s finances. Before turning down that 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. Most people are given low starting salaries not because they were turned down, but because they never asked in the first place. It’s always all right to ask nicely.

A common situation, however, is not being given a specific offer but instead being asked first what you want to make in the position before it is offered to you, or being asked what your previous salary was in another job. (In an effort to battle unconscious wage discrimination, Massachusetts recently outlawed asking about previous salaries, and other states may follow.) If you are asked about expectations, consult professionals in the field or websites like glassdoor.com to come up with an appropriate range for the size and type of the company and the city. What is peanuts for one company will be difficult to sustain for another; a salary in one location will bring you comfort and in another location, insecurity. Ask for a little more than what you are hoping for, and see if you can negotiate to a place where both you and the employer feel like you are getting a fair deal.

Try it out. Many companies will want to hire you for a period of time before you both make a commitment. If you can do it, and especially if you feel confident about working at the company, it’s a great thing to do, because so many questions that can’t be answered in the interview process—like how you will work with people on a team—will be answered during a short trial.

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. At certain points, 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 the more practice you have, the better you will be.

*Video chat interviews are far more common, and in some cases, may even replace the in-person interview. For a video chat interview, think carefully about where you set yourself up for it. Ideally you will be in a quiet place with a completely neutral background. If you practice with a friend and have him or her record the screen, you can get a better sense of what it’s like for the interviewer. Whatever you do, do not sit on the end of your bed, with the computer set on a dresser opposite the bed. It’s not an appropriate place for discussing a job.

Continue reading excerpts from The AIGA Guide to Careers in Graphic and Communication DesignNext up: The future of careers in design


About the Author: Juliette Cezzar is a designer, writer, and Assistant Professor of Communication Design at the New School’s Parsons School of Design, where she was the Director of the BFA Communication Design and BFA Design & Technology programs from 2011–2014. She served as President of the board of directors of AIGA/NY from 2014–2016. She is the co-author, with Sue Apfelbaum, of Designing the Editorial Experience, and the author of five other books, the latest of which is The AIGA Guide to Careers in Graphic and Communication Design.