Top tips for graphic design graduates

By Mark Stubbington
By Mark Stubbington

Every year we get lots of approaches from design graduates asking for placements and job opportunities. Our Design Director Mark has noticed a common theme in the graduates not really understanding/knowing the best way to go about their approach.

So, here he is sharing 8 helpful hints and tips that he guarantees will help graduates improve, and land that all important first job!

1. Know what you want

So many placements are unsure what they want to do. It baffles me that someone could complete a three-year course in graphic design and not know what they like or don’t like. It really helps to know what area of graphic design you want to specialise in. Those with a passion for what they do always stand out against those who do not. Have a vision for what you want and where you want to be. We are a specialist packaging and branding design agency, if you want to work in this area get in touch. If you’re into digital, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

2. Get your approach right – compliments will get you everywhere

First consider who you’re targeting. Normally a senior creative, director or owner of a design business. These people are used to overseeing creative work nonstop and have an unrelenting instinct to spot even the slightest mistake. They have been coached this way by an even more eagle-eyed mentor, it’s their job. They also care hugely about the body of their own creative work and company and you can bet your life they love hearing how great their work is.

With this in mind your approach should be flawless. Get the name right, find out who you’re contacting. Every agency has a website and normally the senior staff have their names up in lights. There are no excuses for not doing this homework, yet I see it all the time. Check the spelling, make sure your portfolio looks professional. Mention something about the company and what you like about their work. Don’t make your email too long, they’re busy and won’t have time to read your life story.

3. Be loud and proud of your work

Don’t just send through your CV. You’ve just graduated, there’s nothing to it! I’m interested in your portfolio first and foremost.

One of my portfolio pet peeves is small pictures. It’s not because I’m an old fart and I need to see everything big it’s because it makes what you’ve done clearer. It’s much better to have a lovely design spread on one-page full bleed so I can appreciate your typography skills than 6 small pictures all on one slide where I can’t see the detail. Even if it makes your folio a bit longer, the devil is in the detail.

I prefer a portfolio to be attached as a PDF but a link to your website is fine.

Quirky, creative approaches are always welcome but the above still applies.


4. Listen

You’ve just graduated from a design course and you’ve taken your L plates off for the first time. Yep, you’re qualified to drive but now I’m going to try and teach you how to be a formula one driver. Your degree course will have taught you some basic’s but I’m now going to get technical, strategic and demand more.

Listening is the one key skill you’re going to need in your arsenal. It’s going to be information overload, so hearing key points of what’s asked of you are important. If you are unsure ask for something to be explained again. The worst thing you can do is go back to your desk unsure exactly what it is your doing and why. I would much rather tell you twice how to do something than you have do something twice.


5. Adapt fast

On your degree course you were asked to complete a few major projects and a dissertation across a whole final year with no real kick back from your tutors. They were much more concerned about you passing the course and keeping you on track to do so. In the work place jobs and paying clients are at stake, the time scales and pressure to deliver are much harsher.

This is something all graduates struggle to adjust to. You’re not going to have a week to do one task on one project. If you’re lucky enough to be working on just one project, you’ll be expected to do much more, faster.

It’s not expected of you to be super-fast at first but something you should consider is the pressure of the others around you. The client has a print deadline, its tens of thousands of pounds of their print money. The deadline cannot be missed, because the agency will take the blame and jeopardise a client relationship. The pressures are real. The faster you adapt, the better you’ll do.


6. One idea is not good enough

So many folios I see have the brief, followed by a solution. Where are all the other ideas? The truth is in most cases there weren’t any. Most graduates who do placements display a mental block at coming up with solutions that answer the brief in a variety of ways. It is expected of you to bring a range of innovative ideas to a brief not just the first thing you think of. Of course sometimes the first thing you think of is brilliant and does a fantastic job. But most working agencies will never present a client with only one viable option even if one idea stands out. They’ll hedge their bets and show a variety but all need to be really good because the agencies reputation is at stake. It sounds ridiculous to say but think of some well thought through ideas, it is what the design industry expects even if your tutors didn’t.

The placements we offer at Design Activity are tailored to address this and give graduates a project that delivers on a range of creative concepts. If you’re interested in learning more please apply here.


7. Play the system – win the game

At university I read all the course documents for how to gain a first-degree honours. This wasn’t sneaky, the course leaders handed them out to everyone. It described in detail what was required to get a 1st, 2:1, 2:2 etc. I did all the things and guess what? Yep I got a double first. You don’t need to be the most talented designer just know how to play the game. It’s the same for workplace etiquette. Learn about the company you’re on placement with and who to impress. Be seen by the right people. This might require you to be a slightly different version of yourself. No agency will just employ you for outright talent alone. Here’s something that’s banded around the internet a lot, it’s called ‘10 things that require zero talent’.

  1. Being on time
  2. Work ethic
  3. Effort
  4. Body language
  5. Energy
  6. Attitude
  7. Passion
  8. Being coachable
  9. Doing extra
  10. Being prepared

These 10 things are basically describing the ideal employee. Everyone thinks they can do all these things but I seldom see it. My top tip for getting a job is be these things first and you’ll win the game (get employed) so long as you do possess some design talent that can be coached.

An outstanding designer who lacks most of the above is less likely to be offered a job in place of one that does. Think to yourself whilst on placement how do I make myself more employable than the previous placement and one before that.

8. Plan your placements – build the momentum

Not all placements will lead to a job. Don’t be disappointed, you might be brilliant it’s just there’s not a space for you right now. You must always plan your next placement in advance. It’s much better to turn down your next placement because you’ve had a job offer than to stop. Try and build some momentum to give you the best chance of getting a job offer. In my experience you are much more likely to get a first job offer during or after a placement rather than cold out of the blue. Keep your chin up and keep going.

I recommend having a short list of at least 30 companies to approach in your area of specialism. 10 top tier (dream jobs), 10 middle tier (good companies) and 10 lower tier (average agencies but better than working in Asda). You’ll soon learn your place depending on the level of responses. Don’t expect loads of replies though so be prepared to make a second list and go again. Agencies get bombarded by emails and sometimes it’s just a matter of timing.

It’s okay to follow up on an unanswered email but my advice is only once. An agency might have missed your email once but if they don’t respond after two it probably best not to pester them. It won’t help you, just waste your time.

Final tip: I find it much harder to say no to someone’s face, everyone does. It’s sometimes better to ask for an interview for folio feedback and advice and then ask for a placement opportunity face to face. It’s really easy to ignore emails, you’re much more likely to get a yes face to face.

Good luck!