A Letter To Recent Grads: Advice and How I Got My Start In The Design World

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. **

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