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Industry leaders share their top tips for Digital Designers to get ahead

The Dots


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April 4, 2016 | 11 min read

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It comes as no surprise that Digital is by far the fastest growing industry around. As the landscape constantly evolves and changes it can be difficult to stay ahead of the game – what do employers look for now? And what trends should designers be focusing on in the future?

The Dots’ Digital Design Portfolio Masterclass

All of these questions and more, were answered by leading industry Mentors at The DotsDigital Design Portfolio Masterclass hosted at digital agency, AKQA.

Tips on how to get ahead in the industry:

Find your purpose

As the fasted growing industry, Digital evolves at a lightning pace. With that in mind, it’s important to understand that; “when you start in the industry the job you’re looking at now will not exist in 5 years time. The industry moves so fast that actually what’s more important is to understand what the clear purpose and passion you have is”. (James Chorley – Creative Director, AKQA)

Before embarking on your next project, make sure there is a purpose and a reason behind what you are creating. It will show how truly passionate you are about what you are creating. Do nothing ‘just for the sake of it’.

Having a sense of ‘purpose’ doesn’t necessarily mean defining yourself as being a certain kind of designer. Tim Baggott (Associate Creative Director, AKQA) expanded on this point for us, it’s not about saying “‘I definitely want to be an Art Director’, it’s more about the kind of work that you want to put out into the world”.

In short, focus on creating quality work with a purpose behind it rather than aspiring to have a certain job title.

Show personal passion

One sure fire way to make your portfolio stand out from the rest, is by filling it with personal projects. Mark Jenkins' (UX Design Director) top tips reiterated just this; “try and do side projects, just get things out there. Get things in front of people so that you’ve got extras for your portfolio”. Showing personal work is a fantastic way to show what a designer really loves to create, not just what they have been paid to do.

Sam Andrews (Director, AKQA) put it like this; “if you are making something for yourself that you are passionate about, you’re always going to go the extra mile, and early on in your career that’s really going to set you apart”. Showing you personal work shows how passionate you are about what you do. Even if it’s not that great, it’s always useful to keep on experimenting as George Zafirovski (Senior UX Designer, Google) said, designers should “just build a new app, or website… experiment”. Experiment, show your personal work and remember to have some fun with it!

Try new things

It’s a timeless piece of advice that you can never grow as a person (or in this case a designer) if you don’t push past your comfort zones. Designers should always be open to try new things.

Gareth Hughes (Art Director, AKQA) recommended to, “jump into something - even if you feel like you’re not fully up to the task as you could learn as you go along”. Fake it until you make it!

Owen Thomas (Senior Designer, Made by Many) told us, “it’s very important that you’re always curious, always hungry to learn new ways of working”. Curiosity after all, is probably the most important thing in a digital designer; it’s all about solving problems through design.

Think outside the box

Originality is a common thread that runs through all of The Dot’s Portfolio Masterclasses. It’s much easier said than done of course, Group Creative Director, AKQA, Ian Wharton’s advice to achieve this was to, “allow room for illogical thought. Creativity comes from illogical, ridiculous, combinations of thought that are very difficult to predict the outcome of - which is where we find innovation”. We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

Where is the digital industry moving in the future? Things to look out for:

Don’t focus on Trends

New products, designs and innovations seem to appear every week, and it can be hard to know what or where to focus on. Gareth Hughes told us, “where digital is going in the future… I’d say steer away from trends”. George Zafirovski, Senior UX Designer at Google completely agreed, explaining that trends aren’t monetized as they tend to just go away, “what sticks, are long term products that are useful to humanity”.

Solve problems

So, how do you create a product that is useful to humanity? Create a product that solves a problem – simple! Mark Jenkins divulged, “the future is much more about solving real problems for people who have actually got problems, and also being quite human about it”.

Be Human

Whilst it may sound like an oxymoron, digital design can be very human if executed in the right way.

Ian Wharton enlightened us, saying, “if you understand human behaviour and why people do the things the way they do, that’s how you can create products that can endure”.

Kat Hahn (Associate Creative Director, R/GA) agreed with Ian, explaining that, “you have to think of an insight into the consumers that you are relevant to them, and suddenly they go ‘hey, these guys understand me!” – that’s the sweet spot”.

Understand what your consumers need, but more importantly want and you’re on the right track.

What do you look for in a Digital Designer?

Proactive people

It’s super important to have a positive, ‘can-do’ attitude, because if someone thinks you’re going to take on a challenging brief with eagerness, they’re far more likely to want to work with you, as James Chorley explained, “when we’re hiring there’s a few things we look for; people who are self-starters that want to learn. They don’t get intimidated by not knowing something”.

Don’t be intimidated, jump at every opportunity given to you.

Be willing to adapt

As we’ve mentioned before, “this industry is in constant change, and you need to be willing to adapt”. (Ian Wharton) There’s no certainty that what may be one job today will be here in years to come. As Tim Baggott explains - “the moment you focus too much on any one thing, it can get you in trouble because it can be gone tomorrow”. It might not sound like the most stable of industries to get a job, but that’s why we love it!


Communication is a skill that’ll get you through the toughest of situations. Not just to be able to communication with other members of your team (although that is essential too), but also to communicate other people’s ideas. As George Zafirovski said – “they should be a great communicator and harnessing other people’s ideas is very important”.

If you’re able to work as part of a team, and communicate an idea or concept so that it’s easy to understand, you’re not going to go far wrong.

Widen your skill set

As great as it is being a master of one thing, we’d definitely recommend becoming more of a ‘Jack of all trades’, James Chorley when looking for a Digital Designer told us, “you need to know enough of many things as opposed to very deeply on one thing”.

Because this industry is ever evolving and changing, you’re far more likely to be hired if you have a wide variety of skills under your belt, as Ian Wharton pointed out, “I would expect them, or want them to be multi-disciplinary”. Not only will it benefit your work prospects but you’ll gaining new skills too.

Portfolio Tips

Show the process

How you got from A to B is just as important as the finished product. Whilst all the mentors agreed you should only show your strongest work, it was unanimously agreed that they like to see the story and process behind a concept. Owen Thomas explains; documenting your process along the way enables employers to “understand how you got to the solution”.

Sam Andrews fully supported this, stating that he looks for “a portfolio that shows that that’s the pace, shows that they’re going on a journey and shows that they’re attempting to do that job that they’re not sure they’re quite ready to do”. The process is as important as the end result in many instances.

Mark Jenkins put it like this – “show where you’ve gone and what you’ve done to get to the solution – that’s the biggest thing I look for, someone who can tell a story”.

If you are looking to meet and get first hand advice from leading Mentors, find out about The Dots’ next Portfolio Masterclass here.

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