Getting a job in design in interesting times

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Andrew was recently asked to comment on the state of the design industry and the working environment for graduating designers in the current market conditions at RMIT. The unscripted conversation touched upon the doom and gloom factor (as one student stated), yet that said if one takes the time to assess and understand the situation it also offers opportunity for the brave.

Not since the market correction in 1987, has the working environment been similar to today’s market conditions. Shares, money and jobs take up much of the air time, yet the social cost to the community is commonly misrepresented. This sentiment was recently touched upon by radio commentator Stephen Crittendon on the ABC television’s Q&A programme. Crittendon stated – the latest market correction will have a significant emotional and confidence impact upon a whole generation of new and emerging workers in Australia. This generation will find it difficult to establish and define their space in a personal and social sense.

We have amassed the following thoughts to assist new and emerging designers with the process of getting their work out to prospective studios.

1. The most important project for any emerging designer is to gain employment and embark upon the development stages of a life in design.

Getting a rewarding job in design is challenging and very difficult. A select individual (that freak born a designer) may have a choice of work options, where as the majority of graduates will be challenged. Remember that life rewards persistence.

In the sphere of education it is very easy to be totally immersed in a world of learning. Many graduating designers looking for work often state that they wished they had a greater sense of the working world, while studying. Mainstream commentary of design creates the impression that the design field is vast, employing armies of people who pump out rafts of designer things to buy, yet the reality is a very specialised sector that is difficult to secure work in. As compared to many sectors, jobs are scarce in communication design; a job in a high quality studio is rare and highly competitive; a job with an individual designer of acclaim is a fine tuned combination of timing, luck, persistence and social engineering.

2. Develop an insight of the graduate landscape, people and studios you are trying to contact.

Unmovable Fact 01 – Thousands of designers, from hundreds of courses, graduate every year to a very limited number of rewarding jobs – getting a rewarding job is the biggest project you will undertake while studying.

We also recommend to all new and emerging designers to gain an understanding of the typical working studio environment. In Australia, studio’s range from three to fifty staff, the average being between three to four staff. Many studios have its senior people doing anything from paying accounts, liaising with clients, developing design to putting out the recycling. An appreciation of the different studios will also give one a meaningful insight into the mind spaces of prospective employers.

3. Well before graduation, volunteer, apply and gain as much experience in a variety of working studios.

There is no substitute to gaining insights from work experience. From the inside it becomes very clear what obstacles your application faces. Start this process in first year if you can.

4. Understand the mediums used to make contact with studios and their designers, then understand their effectiveness.

If your application doesn’t look like an application from a promising designer don’t bother sending it – it is amazing how many applications we receive look like they were prepared by the local typing service. This application is not ironic, or good ugly, it is lazy, it is clueless, unresearched, a waste of paper.

It is popular for applicants to put together an intro letter and portfolio, amass contact details and names, and smash out a flurry of faceless emails.

With five to thirty such applications hitting any studio a week, one is taking a gamble with works ability to attract attention and that the designer at the other end will be in an open state of mind. The reality in a time poor studio is that a new designers email folio can be treated more like spam, than two to six years of creative thinking and effort. Long before email, regular mail was an effective delivery method for packages designed to lure, inspire and communicate – experiment with all the delivery mediums.

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Just today a strange poster was left in our letterbox by a Mr Oswin Tickler – strange, tasty, curious… must visit his website.

5. Work out your contact tactics.

Designers who are not masterful with the art of cold calling will often call a designer to encounter an awkward and uneventful conversation.

Don’t assume a designer will want to speak to you after you have emailed your portfolio. With the mass of work and life commitments, many designers don’t have time to acknowledge the many of the applications and contacts that are sent to their studios, let alone be prepared to talk about an application.

It amazes us how often a unfamiliar designer will call out the blue expecting a conversation, to then only offer the conversation the prospect employing that designer. Conversation is fine art, or a courtship. A great conversationist will engineer a contact to have a positive conclusion, or outcome. Again, a long term approach to making contact requires a range of interactions and this process will often reward patience.

6. Many  studios will employ an emerging designer they know first, rather than advertise a position.

An advertised position can attract countless candidates. An example… An expression of interest for a junior designers for Precinct Design in Melbourne advertised on the AGDA website in 2002 attracted over 100 candidates. Can you imagine the time involved in assessing, vetting, communicating and selecting appropriate candidates? Many days of work and process. Many designers we know will ask fellow colleagues of potential candidates before advertising a position.

Emerging designers that facilitate long term contact, via work experience, mentorships and industry contact increase their chance of consideration when a work opportunity arises.

7. Design your initial contact to incorporate every detail.

A short, accurate, well written intro letter opens doors. A savagely edited and well groomed preview of work (in PDF format) draws attention and completes a good impression. One has to seduce employing designers – three to six excellent projects maximum, presented in an inspired manner, has a better chance of seducing a busy designer’s attention, over a comprehensive folio.

An effective email and a concise PDF folio are often forwarded onto other colleagues as part of a professional friendship. Email messages not followed up with a phone call are bound to be forgotten within a few days – so if you choose to not make contact expect to be not remembered.

Don’t text, it’s weird – leave texting to your friends.

Also watch the file size of your PDF anything larger than 3mg is a pain.

8. Understand that many candidates are often selected on the basis of their fit within the studio’s team.

A studio is a close and energetic working environment. It is not unusual for many designers to work for up to ten, twelve, even a crazy fifteen hours a day and a cohesive team is critical in these working environments.

A talented designer with a demanding personality will often find it challenging to keep the team on side.  The days of putting up with big egos, because they are talented, made an exit from the industry around the 1980s’. It is not unusual for a senior designer to put the studio team first and train a candidate with promise, prepared to work with the team, over undertaking a talented designer with a challenging ego.

9. If you make an appointment.

Suggest a short meeting time. Be on time and dress professionally. Check how much time has been allowed. Be nervous, as nerves show that you care.

A savagely edited and well groomed review of work is mandatory – six to ten well presented projects is recommended. If you are presenting work featured in your intro PDF, reward the designer with new detail. Bring to the presentation detailed mock ups, work books and other samples.

Only ask about salary if you are asked about salary. If the meeting is a folio review, focus on your process and work, as a good meeting can be tainted by money talk. Leave the meeting with a calling card, or memento. Be sure to thank the designer for their time and leave the meeting with the impression that you are able to develop, learn, work and contribute to their studio.

10. Follow up

If you see the designer at a function, make an effort to say – hi, then run away. Follow up the contact with a project update, or send something in the post.

A studio’s staffing needs can change unexpectedly and rapidly, this principle applies for new work opportunities.

11. Developing your folio

There is nothing more frustrating than spending time with a young designer who thinks they are the greatest thing with a pulse. There are many design heros who are jerks, as there are many  design heros who are humble people, and if you didn’t know that their work was amazing, there are few signs that give away their endeavors. Many design heros will often claim that they have got so much to learn and do, to worry about what people think of their work – sickeningly gracious yes.

A broad understanding and appreciation of creative thinking and expression, while being your harshest critic is a good place to start.

The process of developing our work is a constant life process – graduating, hitting time milestones, or evolving one’s work practice are some of those most notable moments. Be prepared to talk about your work as if it is a work in progress. Be clear and up front with your influences, references and heros.

Be open to constructive criticism and feedback, be prepared to talk constructively about other designers work, and take the time to know the work of the designer who is giving time to you. Be comfortable with the idea that the folio you are showing on the day could be vastly different to the folio you will develop after twelve to twenty four months work experience.

12. If a working designer makes time to participate in a discussion, exploit the opportunity.

It is amazing how many times that one has gone to the trouble of visiting a group of students, to have a latent one sided forum take place. Getting a decent question from a group of students is like pulling teeth. Witnessing an interesting design dialogue is rarer than a straight answer from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Out of 110 students that were meant to attend my last forum, forty to fifty bothered to turn up. A less than inspired dialogue took place, two students fell asleep in the front row, one guy couldn’t stop picking his nose… the hour slowly passed. The lack of interaction was so uninspiring, I was tempted to walk out and get some lunch. The forum wrapped after yet another silence, students with a new found energy charged for the door, via scrambling for studio samples. A single student bothered to ask a question after the session and one other student sent a thank you card. In such a lack lustre landscape of graduates, it is an amazing opportunity for those emerging designer looking to create a dialogue and find a job. Andrew May 2009

If there are any other constructive questions or remarks, send us a comment or two.

Good luck!

9 comments

9 Comments so far

  1. Warren May 30th, 2009 4:40 pm

    Did I accidentally navigate myself to Hofstede’s blog?

  2. Toward Hansen May 31st, 2009 12:04 am

    Hi Warren,

    Excellent spot.

    http://www.hofstede.com.au/text/entry/getting-to-first-base

    I think Dom has had similar questions to Andrew from students and lecturers looking for work opportunities. Like Dom, we feel that it is better to spread the word and publish as much of this knowledge to as many students as possible.

    Having had been in the middle of the last big recession, Andrew had first hand witnessed how difficult it was to get work and how many people he went to college with who had real difficulty getting work. Dom is a similar age and I suppose this situation brought back old memories.

    The email seems to be the primary contact of choice for many applicants and I think it is better to call the situation as we see it rather than not say anything. The volume of email applications and the varying quality — most being average and a rare few good quality, has increased in the two years and the email has become not the best source of applicants, because of the average quality of applicants and below average quality of communication. The relative ease of sending an email is trap for many applicants and it is too easy to compose and send message, and not think of it as a communication like a piece of print or website.

    Toward

  3. John May 31st, 2009 1:43 pm

    Would following these steps land me a job at pip and co “GUARANTEED”?

  4. Toward Hansen June 2nd, 2009 12:46 am

    Yes, except we don’t respond to comments posted on our website that are lack tact, or breakdown the dialogue. We didn’t write this piece, because we like to read our own material.

  5. Stuart June 5th, 2009 10:19 pm

    I was the aforementioned RMIT student who brought up the topic of the current economic climate of ‘doom and gloom’.
    At the time, I was trying to sway the conversation towards a more positive light, which ended being the topic of what Andrew enjoys when it comes to his job. He did reciprocate with an enlightening insight into his photographic hobby which I found quite uplifting, myself being a ‘moonlighting photographer’.
    I consider myself to be an aspiring communication designer with conviction to work with like-minded people when I graduate in 5 to 6 months.
    So, thanks for the advice posted and expect a dry/witty/generationX application for collaboration soon!!! Peace.

  6. Student June 6th, 2009 10:31 pm

    I was one of the 110 students who did not attend your talk.
    We were told in the morning on the day of the lecture that you were sick and could not make it in, so therefore the lecture was cancelled. A lot of the students were very disappointed, myself especially because I was looking forward to hearing you speak.
    We only found out that you had actually made it in after it had already finished when someone received an email that was sent 30 minutes prior to the lecture.
    So, not all of us didn’t just not bother to turn up on purpose.

  7. Andrew Ashton June 7th, 2009 11:28 am

    Jase,

    Thanks for your comments and thanks for not using an alias. We didn’t write this post to have the student who didn’t turn up or those who attended to make excuses. After attending a range of similar student talks, some patterns are forming and we felt that it better to respond, rather than letting another occasion pass.

    Maybe if one stayed at home in bed and played the sick card, one wouldn’t have been so brutal, yet the visit stats for this post and comments say that my this exercise is worthwhile.

    Overall, this common social pattern may underline that lack of structured critical discussion incorporated in communication courses. To our knowledge the School of Visual Art in New York offers one of the only masters course developed address design criticism. Imagine if every undergraduate course had a unit where professional projects are reviewed, discussed and analysed? I know many lecturers informally explore design criticism, yet a formal design criticism unit may assist emerging designers with doing the work and communicating the outcomes.

    My design education was a limited one, however one thing that happened is that for two years, five days a week, I shared a studio with fifteen or so designers. Lots of talking took place and it prepared us to talk about our work, life, and discover the group dynamic and the art of conversation.

    One pattern is the lack of dialogue, discussion or debate. Many students and professionals seem too shy, aloof, or maybe wary of saying the wrong thing to make a start with a discussion. When I was teaching at Swinburne it was a similar situation. There were exceptions – my German students and Tin&Ed often engaged in lengthy discussions, which made for an interesting and worthwhile sessions.

    There is a lot to be gained by bringing to a group a selection of prepared questions, issues or opinions for group discussion. In many instances it is often expected that the speaker kicks off the discussion, when it is the students who know the group better.

    Some presenters have a knack for inspiring discussion – like Sagmiester. When you look into why Sagmiester has the knack – you don’t have to look far – his websites, books and presentations have a tone that is open and conversation like and he has had this open approach for years.

    Most professional designers have little dialogue – a visit to their website will clarify this. May I suggest to prepare questions prior the session, attempt to understand the group’s dynamic and attempt playful sense of engagement will help the speaker to facilitate a discussion. Queen Elizabeth II was once asked how do you facilitate conversation with so many people. Her response – I meet many men and I have learned to start the conversation with asking them what they do, Men can’t help talking about themselves. Women seem to need no prompting according to HRM.

    So in the absence of the studio environment and a design criticism culture:
    — try to sit in on forums and session structured around discussion,
    — try to develop a dialogue with as many peers as possible, maybe even be social with your peers,
    — research the speaker and develop some questions (remember what Queen E said)
    — during the session try bring to others into the discussion by inviting peers to comment, disagree
    — don’t be afraid of asking the wrong questions or worry about asking the right questions.

    Many students seem to be more focused on their life outside university, rather than incorporating design and their design peers in a new chapter of life. What is common with every designer I have encountered is that they have their version of a world of design, a way of living.

    Rather than making excuses on this forum for not being at my session, the questions I would be asking include: Why in an era of SMS, email and iphone and Blackberries that your peers or your student network didn’t kick in and send you a sms, email, twitter or just holler of the last minute change? What can you do to improve your student community. Set up a RMIT Comms Design Class of 2009 on Facebook, or a twitter account it is a small start and its free. Vibrant community and culture just don’t happen, people, individuals and a little effort make them happen.

    All the best,

    Andrew

  8. Owen July 17th, 2009 1:00 pm

    Hi Andrew,

    I’ve really enjoyed reading this article and the subsequent comments. My only contribution to this discussion is; why do all job-seeking advisories from professional, studio based designers centre on the student/graduate getting a “studio” design job? There is a myriad of work available for good young designers in industries seemingly unrelated to graphic design.

    Consider this. While studying, my classmates and I received much the same advice on how to enter the workplace as you have divulged here. As we collectively neared the end of our postgraduate study, a job opportunity was advertised amongst our small student body of 17 budding young designers. The job was not with any reputable design studio, indeed, it wasn’t with any studio at all. Subsequently, no-one applied for it except me. Imagine that! In a climate where a design studio vacancy can attract dozens or even hundreds of applicants, only one person applied for the job offered. I was successful in my application, and while I havn’t got the adoration of my peers for landing “the big one” (a close friend of mine got that!) I can now confidently say that I am doing design work that 99% of my peers will never experience, and doing design that impacts on thousands of people all across the world.

    The only misgiving I have is that so many of my former class mates (now almost 3 years out of uni) who are still trying to ‘get in the door’ were never told about the possibility of being a graphic designer who doesn’t work in a graphic design studio. Furthermore, we were never give any real advice on how to apply and be successful in a design interview that wasn’t going to be run by designers. Discussing your work with a potential employer who is not a member of the elite design clique is a bit like taking a cold shower, outside, on a frosty winter morning. Most of the ‘planned’ discussion you had in your head about the varying intricasies and vagueries of your work go right out the window, and one does feel rather naked without it.

    So, in short, I would summarise with this. Look far and wide in your search for prospective employers; learn to talk candidly about your work and yourself; and for pity’s sake, take the design theory and rhetoric with a large spoon of salt; after all, it’s your ability as a designer to THINK that will serve you best, not your ability to regurgitate verbatim.

    Good luck,

    O

  9. Toward Hansen July 17th, 2009 8:14 pm

    Hi Owen, I couldn’t agree more with searching wider than the name studios. Just recently I had the pleasure of meeting, sorry to to name drop, Mark Gowing, Mark’ s journey in design was working in magazines and education publishing, far from the the bling of websites like this ,

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