The most valuable things you will get from any job are experience and connections. Experience in the sense of both portfolio pieces and technical skills, but also good habits. Connections because many people find jobs almost exclusively through referrals. I’ve only had a few job offers come through recruiters and normal applications. Most have been either a person specifically pointing me to a company, or friends referring someone to me – even years after I worked for them. The world is much smaller than you think. So don’t burn bridges unless you’re absolutely certain you won’t need them again.
When you’re actually looking for jobs, find a designer you like. Find out where they worked, see who used to work with them, see what else they’ve done. The internet is great for stalking people. Maybe even reach out and say hi. Let them guide you. Just don’t be creepy. Be a human being. Same for companies. Got a company you want to work for? Reach out to them, even if they’re not hiring. See who works for them, and find out where they worked. See who used to work for them, and find out where they are now. Just don’t be creepy. Be a human. Also, make sure companies can see your work. Get a website. Make sure your work is on Behance, or Coroflot, or where ever else. Keep LinkedIn up to date. It’s no substitute for in-person networking, but every bit helps.
When you’re interviewing, have your presentation down. If you’ve got samples, make sure they can survive handling. If you’ve got a printed book or boards, make sure the prints/photos are in good shape. Make sure you can actually carry it. If you’re presenting on a tablet or laptop, make sure your battery is charged and if you’ll need internet access, make sure you arrange that beforehand. Make sure everything works. Talk process and decisions. Know your contribution. Don’t fake it. Also, don’t show everything for the sake of showing everything. I’d also rather see fewer deep projects than lots of shallow projects. Chances are, I will only ask you about a couple pieces in your portfolio – probably the strongest (because I’ll be curious) and the weakest (because I’m going to push you).
Understand what companies do. Be prepared to ask questions. Look past the PR. Find out what you’ll be doing. Curiosity is underrated, and will help you in the long run
And understand, your first job or two or three will probably suck. Sad but true. They’re the hardest to get. You’ll be the low man on the totem pole and do the most basic work until you prove yourself or move on. You’ll do a ton of things wrong. Eventually that’ll change (even if it’s only because you change jobs). Learn and grow. Don’t let your first job pigeonhole you. Complacency can hurt you in the long run, even if you like what you’re doing – for example, I had the opportunity to focus purely on Flash design/dev early on. If that became my only skill, I’d be virtually unemployable now. If you hate your first job, find something else. It’s a big world, every company and every client is a little different.
Take freelance on the side, if you can manage it, or start personal projects. The barrier for entry for getting yourself published online has never been lower. Whether it’s the Daily Drop Cap, the Daily Monster (both actual projects from designers I respect), or the weekly-something-I-just-made-up, it’s the closest you’ll get to your student work in terms of pure concept and self-expression, which is always interesting. Use the time to experiment and improvise. It’s a far cry from the daily exercise in compromise that is professional design.
Design is a business. Remember how I just said how student work is about concept and self-expression and improvisation? Professional design is about getting paid, hopefully without selling your soul. Money’s certainly not everything, but life is much easier when you’re not worried about eating or paying rent. It’s also much easier when you don’t take it personally. Speaking about getting paid, there are two things you should check out on the internet:
- shouldiworkforfree.com (Which helps answer the question you’ll have to answer constantly, “Should I work for free?” Hint: the answer is generally no)
- Fuck you, pay me (Not the scene from Goodfellas, but a very funny presentation about contracts by Mike Monteiro, who runs a design shop in SF.)
There is no such thing as beta. For those who aren’t aware of how software releases work, there’s a first release, called an “Alpha” – it’s a buggy mess. It’s generally not meant for public consumption. It’s just to test specific features. Then there’s beta – maybe opened to the public, this is when the bulk of the features are done, but you need a bigger audience to look for the odd bugs. Then there’s the actual release.
Guess what? There is no beta. When putting your work or thoughts online, remember – you only get 3 phases: zero (pre-publishing), a few (showing it in-person) or everyone (sending out password-protected links, posting your work in forums, whatever – once it’s out there, it’s out there.
Also, take yourself seriously. No one else will. And I mean that professionally, physically, mentally and emotionally.
This is the biggie: Be careful drinking the kool-aid. You’ll have to drink a little bit of it. If you’re in a small design shop and you don’t think that late nights, and stress, and instability and insanity are exciting and at least a little cool, you’ll be miserable, fast. If you’re in an ad agency, accept that you are selling products. You’ll have to live with the fact that advertising is its own little universe where it is actually important in people’s lives. If you work for a big tech company, accept that things have a process and politics and move at a glacial pace sometimes. If you work in pharma… well… at least you’re not doing porn. I’ve never worked in pharma, for the record. If you’re freelancing, you have to learn to love that you never REALLY know what you’re going to be doing next week, and managing your expenses, and networking constantly, and filing your taxes. But I’ve worked for small ad shops, big ad shops, a non-profit, corporate, tech, design… whatever. You’re going to have to be engaged and present… and if you’re not, you’ll just be sad.
That said, take it easy. This is the one thing I repeatedly fucked up. It took me 7? years to figure this out: You aren’t your job. Shocking, I know. Working 70-80 hours a week gets old fast. Working weekends gets old fast. It’s not healthy. It leaves you no personal time. And it leads you to a personal and creative stasis. You shouldn’t expect to walk out at 5PM every day – you’ll have to put in your time. You should want to go to work in the morning, but it shouldn’t be the only reason you get up. Because as soon as you hit a rough patch, or a friend quits, or your client fires you and things get crazy or god forbid, you get laid off, or you just decide it’s time for a change… it will hurt that much more, and it’s already going to suck. Stefan Sagmeister has a great story about this:
When I was moving to Hong Kong and was about to make a lot of money Tibor Kalman told me: And don’t you go and spend the money they pay you or you’re going to be the whore of the ad agencies for the rest of your life. I didn’t and got easily out of it again. Most of my colleagues did not get that great advice and are still stuck in the agencies.
I don’t want to unfairly pick on advertising (design isn’t much better), but he’s got a point. Advertising is a crazy world that revolves around buying things you don’t really need. They pay a lot of money (most of the time) to make up for the stress and instability. As an industry they practically pride themselves on wrecking their employee’s lives and condoning terrible behavior. And many people buy into it as “the price you pay”. And to a degree, that’s true. You can have a lot of fun in advertising. Some people fall in love with it and stay forever and produce all sorts of really good work. But, If you end up in a world you don’t like (say, you hear self-important speeches about ‘positive contributions to culture’ and ‘conversation starting’ one too many times, or bashing of junior creatives who want to be treated as actual human beings), it’s very hard to leave when you’ve spent all of your money, and gotten into a lifestyle and spending habits that require that high salary.
Really though, it’s good advice for everyone, whether or not you go into the ad industry. Every industry has its dark side. It’s tough for you guys, just graduating, without a ton of money, probably with student loan debt. Being careful with money means you can move across country. Travel. Save for a rainy day and you can afford to wait for the job you want, not taking the first paycheck that can come your way if you find yourself laid off. It is genuinely liberating to get to the point where you don’t need that next paycheck.
Speaking of Kool Aid, you’re going to have to develop a sense of ethics. I’ve worked for absolutely loathed companies – My first job was for a cable company. I worked on Discover Card and Capital One. No one ever likes credit card companies, or their cable company. But both were full of shockingly decent people who wanted to provide a good product. I worked for BofA during the last crisis when they bought ML and Countrywide (nice people, at least), P&G Pet Care (they frequently have food recalls, but geniuinely loved animals). I draw my line there. My last big agency client was Citibank. I can say that I’ve drunk a little of the koolaid here and there… but Citibank crossed a line. I will not work for a company that is that openly, blatantly unethical and staffed by people who seem gleefully aware of that fact. And while I’m ok working on alcohol, I would never do tobacco, or porn ads (and yes, there is a place that does both of those).
And so ends part three. Here’s where my talk went a little long. Keep in mind I didn’t have much time to edit, but I would probably trim this part down a bit more in the long run, and talked a lot more about ethics. We make decisions every day, large and small, that affect our users. We can choose to make the easy decision or the hard decision or the right decision.