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Top tips for graphic designers breaking into the industry

The Dots


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July 29, 2015 | 9 min read

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Making it in the hugely competitive world of graphic design can be a daunting and seemingly impossible task. It’s difficult to know what Creative Directors are looking for. How do you make your portfolio stand out and nail that all-important interview?

In response to this, The Dots hosted a Graphic Design Portfolio Masterclass at iconic design agency Pentagram, giving emerging Graphic Designers the chance to get their work reviewed by some of the UK’s leading Creative Directors and Designers.

We asked them for their top tips for making it as a Graphic Designer. Here is what they had to say…

Learn the basic portfolio rules

Your portfolio is your calling card to great roles. Naresh Ramchandani - Partner at Pentagram recommends that you “learn the rules and how to do the things a portfolio is supposed to have”. He told us that in a portfolio, “you need 2 or 3 campaigns that are really covering the basics, and 7 or 8 minimum that are doing something sensational… If you can do 10 that are sensational then even better.”

Keep your portfolio short

The overall quality of your portfolio will be pulled down by your weakest projects, so distil and make it impactful.

Harry Pearce from Pentagram strongly advocated this point by telling Graphic Designers to “keep it (the portfolio) short. Don’t overload it, just because you think you should. Don’t put tons of things in, put your few favourite things in. Put in things that tackle real kind of commercial ideas, but also put in really personal stuff too.”

In short, focus on quality over quantity… every time.

Tell a story

Give your portfolio a narrative and let your personality shine through. What’s your personal story, what’s the story behind each project and why are you passionate about the design you created?

Ben Marshall, Creative Director at Landor illuminates this point perfectly, “Nail the story. nail the delivery. In an interview for example it’s as much about you as it is about the work, so nail your delivery - don’t underestimate it.”

Be Original

To score the top roles you have to be original, Naresh Ramchandani at Pentagram summed this up perfectly “you’ve got to do a brief that no one else does, do them with ideas that no one would actually approach them with – both strategic ideas and creative ideas and use media that no one else has thought of.”

Creative Director of TCOLondon, Timba Smits says that the biggest thing he looks for in a Graphic Designer “is somebody that’s willing to take risks. Somebody that’s willing to paddle against the flow”.

In other words – you’ve got to stand out from the crowd. Make people remember you and your work and really impress people.

Show multi medium work.

If you are brilliant enough to be able to work across a range of mediums – then show it! If you only put in print work then whoever is looking at your portfolio will assume that’s the only thing you can do.

One of the key things Timba Smits looks for when viewing a portfolio is “Flexibility […] showing a wide variety of styles or a wide variety of mediums that you can work in – print, digital” etc.

The industry is crying out for more Digital Designers, so you’ll stand a much higher chance of scoring that dream job if you can apply your craft digitally.

Keep work relevant & detailed

Although you’ll want to show off all of the amazing skills you have (and rightly so), it’s important to make sure that you tailor your portfolio in the direction you would like your career to go in.

One of the key things Timba Smits looks for in a portfolio is “’Relevance’ - at some point you will need to choose an area of expertise in design that you want to go down so it’s (the portfolio) about being relevant to that.”

Pay attention to detail

The difference between a good portfolio and a great portfolio is in the ‘detail’. Timba Smits’ key thing he looks for in a piece of work is “detail. I’m a sucker for detail, if the detail’s not there it doesn’t really get past my net”.

Research before an interview

If you’ve made it to the interview stage (well done!), it’s important to remember that whoever is interviewing you has already seen your work. The interview therefore is a means for the potential employer to see whether or not you are someone they could work with and how passionate you are about your work.

Deputy Head of Design at the V&A, Jane Scherbaum said that when in an interview, “what I would really hope is that you’ve done your homework. Research the place you’re going to, what they’re about and really demonstrate your understanding of that and how you could fit into that agency or organisation.”

Be Personable

One of the points that was unanimously agreed upon with all Mentors was that they look for someone who is easy to get on with and can work well with others. As Pentagram’s Harry Pearce explains, “Your ego has to be pretty low down. Be part of it the team and show willingness”.

Jane Scherbaum, Deputy Head of Design at the V&A followed this up by telling us that she looks for people who will “really inspire and motivate to get the best possible creative solution”.

No matter how amazing you are, make sure you keep your ego in check and can work well in a team – otherwise it might be difficult to find others to work with!

Show your personality

Whoever is hiring wants to know who it is they might be hiring – so show your personality!

Design legend Leif Podhjsky summed this up perfectly “I want to see something about your personality that comes through in the interview and in the work”.

Naresh Ramchandani from Pentagram supported this by stating that interviewees have “got to stand up for their ideas, really defend them and really explain them” – otherwise how else are you going to make people understand the reasons behind your ideas?

Show enthusiasm

When looking to hire a Graphic Designer, all mentors looked for enthusiasm and passion in a Graphic Designer– “somebody who has got a bit of energy, who’s willing to start fires under people . Someone who’s a bit unfettered” Said Ben Marshall, Creative Director, Landor Associates.

Corrie Anderson, Senior Lecturer at Shillington mentioned, “Enthusiasm and wanting to learn and discover is really important as a graphic designer” and was nicely summarized by Pentagram’s Harry Pearce who said, “you can feel when a person loves what they do, in their work and in their attitude”.

Love what you do, show it in your work and you’ll be one step ahead.

Attend Events

You may think that anything other than working at your desk is counterproductive to your work, but the V&A’s Jane Scherbaum’s top tip for breaking into the industry is to “attend lots of events. London is a fantastic place where there are all sorts of talks and events that you can go to, and if you attend those and talk to people there – you’re going to get an awful lot of insight. On the whole, the design industry – we’re a friendly bunch – we will share contacts and leads, and you can really tap into those, so make sure you make the most of it.”

Immerse yourselves in this amazing industry of ours – you never know what contacts you might pick up… Plus when you follow your passion it won’t feel like work! Happy days!

And Finally… Follow your heart

As cheesy as it sounds it’s probably one of the best pieces of advice we could give to all Creatives. Harry Pearce from Pentagram told us “one of the best things I ever did was to get close to the people that I admire […] and really follow my heart”.

We couldn’t agree more!

If you are looking to get feedback on your portfolio, find out about The Dots’ next Portfolio Masterclass here:

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