I get a considerable number of inquiries from recent college grads who are either looking for a job or just looking for advice. Working in the music industry is a dream for many aspiring designers so that want to know how in the world I got my foot in the door and got started. After several times of writing grads back (I’m always happy to offer what little advice I can), I started saving my response so that I could just forward it along to anyone who asks. And so, today, if you are wondering how I got my start or what you can do to get a great job starting out in the design world, this note is for you.
I do have some advice for recent grads that I’m happy to pass along.
My first job out of college was a design position at a record label in Nashville. It was my dream job, and I’m fairly certain that the only reason I got the job was because I would cost less to hire than the other more experienced designers who also applied. Even though it was a cool place to work, I totally had to pay my dues there designing all the crappy projects that no one cared about before they’d let me touch any of their A-list artists. After almost 4 years of working there, I was layed off along with the other designers which is what gave me the forced push to start freelancing.
Lucky for me, my work in the music industry had not gone unnoticed, so when I started approaching other record labels to see if I could freelance for them, everyone knew me by my work and agreed. I never really had to struggle to find work when I went on my own, mostly because I had a niche and did my niche well. I should mention that I tried freelancing straight out of college which was a big mistake. I didn’t know what I was doing — working for a real client is nothing like doing a school project so I made tons of mistakes and didn’t know how to run a professional business. I would never recommend starting out as a freelancer… there is much to be said for working in a real design studio first to learn all the ins and outs of working with clients, pricing, printing, etc. I’ve been a freelancer now for about 8 years which is great, although I still at times miss the camaraderie of office life.
The biggest obstacle to overcome — and this is ongoing — is the idea that as a woman I should design womanly things. No one outwardly will say this, but along the way I’ve watched girlie, fluffy projects get thrown my way while my male designer friends get everything edgy and dark. I like to design edgy and dark, too! For a while I tried to overcome this by having a more masculine, dark website and never referring to myself alone in business pitches (I used lots of “we’s” even when it was just me), but eventually I decided I wasn’t being true to myself and have tried to accept that I can offer things. ideas and perspectives that guys can’t.
Anyways, I hope that this helps you a bit. The best piece of advice I got when starting out what find what you want to do and do that. If you don’t want to design crappy, boring ads for the rest of your life, don’t get a job somewhere where that’s what you’ll do. Find a job that will fill your portfolio with the things you want your portfolio filled with, because people will define you by what’s in your portfolio. Can’t get your dream job? Then start designing FOR FUN the things that you like to design.
And while I said that I learned more after college than I learned while in college, there is a LOT of solid design basics that I learned in college that make taking some classes totally worthwhile. Also — find classes where critiques are a regular part of learning. Part of being a designer is being able to take constructive (and sometimes harsh) criticism DAILY so it pays to get some practice in school where people are trying to help make your work better.
And my final thought — there is plenty of creative work to go around, so treat your competitors with kindness and respect. We’re all just trying to make something great out there. Good luck out there!
For more great tips for recent grads, check out this post.
**A note to designers and recent grads: I am looking to add 1–2 people to The Visual Republic for occasionally freelance projects. Like my first job at the record label, you’ll probably have to pay your dues by doing the less exciting projects to start out until trust is built. You must be proficient in photoshop, illustrator and InDesign (all CS5), as well as being able to ALWAYS turn in work on time. Interested? Send a link to your portfolio and a bit about yourself to: hello@thevisualrepublic. I won’t be able to respond to everyone. **