Design Students: How to Navigate Post-College Life


**This is a series of articles for college students on how to navigate post-college life, for each industry. For our blog post for PR students, click here.

The design industry can be a difficult one to break into. Between sending out cold emails, scouring job postings on Indeed, and reaching out to that friend-of-a-friend who used to work at the agency you’re applying to (even though they worked in a different department), the industry as a whole is packed with incredible talent that, for some with a lean portfolio, can be hard to make a name for yourself in.

 As we previously discussed in our PR article, more than anything, your work (and how you do it) tells a story. So let’s dive right into what many Creative and Design Directors have come to expect from entry-level design portfolios, and how you can best make yours stand out.

How important is a good college degree vs. a good portfolio?

I’d say it’s about 5% and 95% respectively, at least in terms of what employers look for. I have a Master’s degree in design and have been asked about it exactly zero times in my past job interviews. Creative Directors are mainly looking at your portfolio to see a solid competency in your design skills, as well as an ability to solve the problems you’re presented with in your projects. More advice on good portfolio practices can be found here.

That’s not to say that an education in design isn’t important though; I’d argue that it can be essential for your growth as a designer. There is a lot of value in learning the history of art and design. It can help you understand effective usage of typography, hierarchy of elements, color theory, and much more. It’s also super valuable to learn how to properly critique design work, and to defend your own work in a critique. There’s also a lot of opportunity for networking with fellow students, and if nothing else, the student discount on Adobe products is pretty nice.


Where should I begin my job search in the design field?


Everywhere. Throw out a wide net. This field is very competitive and is full of very talented people, and opportunities are limited. Take whatever interviews you’re able to get as a means of seeing what would be the best fit for you in terms of advertising agencies, design firms, in-house design jobs, etc. And even if your first job out of college isn’t your ideal position, it’s still experience that can help you work toward your ultimate goal.

My first design job was for a retail sales company, and I learned pretty quickly that it wasn’t a good long-term fit for me. After that, I spent a few years working in the advertising industry at some small-to-mid-sized agencies, and felt the same way over time. My current design-focused position is where I feel the most satisfied I’ve felt so far in my career path, and the job experiences I had leading up to this were crucial in that path.

There are a lot of great resources for job listings out there. The AIGA Job Boards, Authentic Jobs, Behance, and Dribbble are good places to look. There are also some great creative job placement resources, such as Austin-based Mathys+Potestio, The Creative Group, and Vitamin T. Even resources like Indeed and LinkedIn are good to check. 


What is the number one thing businesses are looking for in a designer?


I think that depends on the type of agency/company/firm you’d be applying for, but in general I’d say ‘adaptability.’ Projects and clients can vary greatly, and you’ll need to be able to adapt to an array of challenges, styles, project types, and problems to solve. I think that means being comfortable working outside of your comfort zone.  


Any advice on ways to prepare for a job in the design field while still in college?


Do an internship, then do another internship. And then maybe do another internship. It’s really the only way to start chipping away at the coveted ‘3-5 years of experience’ that companies ask for even in junior-level roles. Most internships run for 3-5 months, and in a lot of cases they’re great about working around your school schedule. They help you get a feel for what it’s like to work in the field, and they can help you determine what type of company you ultimately want to work for. I’d also say that it’s important to show that you’re passionate about the work you do in your internships. Make yourself indispensable to your team so you can increase your chances of being hired. At the very least, you’ll have some excellent references for your job search.

My first internship while I was in college was at a local art museum, which helped me get my first part-time design job at a retail company. Because of that combined experience, I was able to land an Art Director internship an advertising agency. In that position, my intern group was given a project to complete in our 3 month time span. While I devoted some of my time to that project, I mostly spent my time asking every Art Director, Creative Director, and Designer if they needed help with their client work. I often stayed after hours working on new business pitches, client work, and internal agency projects. As a result, they hired me on as a junior designer after my internship ended, and my career has been able to progress since then.


What should be my number one goal as a hopeful designer?


Never stop learning and honing your design skills. This can mean challenging yourself with self-initiated projects that help you learn new techniques, staying up-to-date on design trends, researching art and design history for inspiration and guidance, and networking with people in the creative field.


Are there any useful websites or specific social media sites that would be especially beneficial?


My favorite social media platform for design is Pinterest, by far. It starts off pretty bad with ‘Tasty’ video recipes and wedding gown examples, but the more you ‘Pin’ things you want to see, the more tailored the experience becomes. My favorite thing about it is the variety of styles and project types that are available for inspiration, whereas some other design-focused social sites are fairly pigeonholed in terms of style. I have boards for type, illustration, photography, packaging, branding, UX/UI, and more, and I reference them all the time for pretty much every project I do.

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