The normal job hunt process goes a little something like this:
- prep your portfolio
- write a cover letter and resume
- wait for job listings
- send your portfolio, cover letter, and resume
- wait for a response
- rinse & repeat
This process never worked for Woody Holliman, our keynote speaker at our recent SHIFT event, The Guerrilla Guide to Job Hunting (for designers). Woody is currently Associate Professor of Graphic Design at Meredith College, where one of his primary responsibilities is to help students and recent graduates find internships and full-time jobs. Prior to this teaching position, Woody was Principal and Creative Director of Flywheel Design, a 10-person graphic design studio in downtown Durham.
The problems with the typical approach are you rarely get confirmation that your resume & portfolio were received, you are up against dozens of applicants, there is a LOT of waiting involved, you can only apply when there is an opening posted. Should your resume garner some interest, you are still being judged on paper, and you are lucky to get an interview. Should you be that lucky and that interview leads to a job offer, there is pressure to that it, even if it doesn’t appeal to you, because you don’t know when another opportunity will open up.
To combat these problems with the typical job hunt process, Woody has resorted to sneakier means of getting in front of people. These guerrilla tactics may be unconventional but they are more satisfactory than the standard approach. Why?
These strategies allow you to arrange dozens of interviews with agencies you want to work for, and you are typically only competing with two to three other applicants.
Most graphic design jobs are not advertised. Like the job hunt process, it is difficult and time consuming for an employer to post a job opening.They have to sort through dozens of resumes and portfolios. It’s far easier and quicker for an employer to ask their staff of colleagues for recommendations. They may also reach out to former interns or students who have come in after requesting an informational interview (more on this later). This is why it is easier for both the employer and the job hunter to connect with each other before a job becomes available.
- they want someone they know and like
- someone who plays well with others
- they need to meet you and assess your personality in person
- work as an intern or freelancer
- meet their staff designers online and in person—face-to-face interactions are optimal
- find a mentor who will write you an introductory letter or email
- ask for an informational interview (keep reading, we’ll get to this soon)
- write the agency owner or creative director a love letter. It’s ballsy but memorable if you are sincere, specific, and there is no bullshit.
This is the simplest way to increase your odds of getting hired. There is the potential to be offered a job at the end of the internship, or to be recommended to another agency with an opening. The better the reputation of the agency, the more valuable the internship will be. It sometimes makes sense to take an internship post-graduation, especially if you never had an internship. Just be careful that you don’t get taken advantage of. Put an end date on the internship.
Of course, the best way to connect with design professionals in person is to be an active member of your local AIGA chapter. To make professional connections online, Woody suggests LinkedIn. Take advantage of its advanced search capabilities to identify everyone in your area with the job title graphic designer, art director, or creative director. (Tip: if it’s clients you seek, search Marketing Directors).
You may want to consider a premium account for more ways to connect with professionals. Send messages to those you want to connect with if you can find a commonality to discuss. Authentic connections in a personalized way with no bullshit can lead to face-to-face connections, which is important because an online only connection is weak.
Woody also suggests being a good online citizen: support others with endorsements, recommendations, and positive, thoughtful comments. Don’t be a taker, you must give too. To stay in front of people’s minds once you have built up your network make status updates and periodically post on professional topics.
Being active in a professional organization, like AIGA or AMA, AAF, TRIUXPA, TIMA, etc. is a great way to meet potential mentors. Many professional organizations offer mentor programs (we are launching our own mentor program, learn more here). Also reach out to alumni of your design program when seeking a mentor, they are more likely to want to reach out and help. Woody suggests using LinkedIn’s advanced search features to locate local alumni.
Don’t let the word interview confuse you, this is not a request for a job interview. This is a request to interview a design professional whose work you admire. This is easier done as a student or recent graduate, but it’s always worth pursuing. Reach out to the person you wish to interview and explain why you admire their work—again, no bullshit, be sincere—and ask for a 15 minute critique of your work and their feedback on what to include. Insist that you are not looking for a job yet, this takes the pressure off of you both. More than likely you will get more than 15 minutes of their time. But the small request makes it easier and more likely for them to agree to it. If the meeting goes well, ask if they can recommend anyone in their network who might be willing to meet with you and do the same. Woody calls this the “chain letter” strategy. Ask each future contact for names as well. Be prepared with intelligent and thoughtful questions to ask each person during your meeting. Do your homework on each person so you are familiar with their work and look for common points of interest.
Hardly anyone has the nerve to do this, so it can be tremendously effective—and yet again, you must be sincere and no bullshit. Make a short list of the most admired agencies in your area and write a personalized letter. Be highly specific as to what you admire about the agency and their work.
Ok, so what if you have no choice but to apply to a job by submitting your resume and cover letter? Understand what it is used for and tailor it to do the job. A resume is a screening device to quickly eliminate candidates. Any tiny mistakes, typos, or typographical faux pas can be fatal. The resume is not a design showcase—that is what your portfolio is for—it is a demonstration of your typographic competence. Woody advises to use classic legible typefaces, a well-crafted typographical hierarchy, optimize text for legibility—tracked tighter with extra leading, and thoughtful use of a grid. The main text column shouldn’t run across the full width of the page, aim for 10-12 words per line, hey look that lends itself well to dramatic use of white space!!! Headings should be positioned closer to the text they modify then the text that precedes. Use color in your hierarchy to aid scanning, and if using infographics make them as simple as possible.
The cover letter is used to assess your personality and personal brand Be original and creative. Show your personality and write in a conversational voice that shows your passion. Do not be tempted to use a generic letter for each position you apply for. Decide why they should hire you and tell them.
When you get the interview, understand that the standard interview questions are meant to reveal negatives, so be prepared with your responses. Ask them good, super specific questions, and show that you’ve researched them.
Considering leaving a self-promo behind? If done well it can help, if you use your humor and design the crap out if it. The piece should be a quality production, so pay attention to the details.
We’ve all heard to tailor your portfolio to the work you want to get. You want your portfolio to look like you already work there. Put pieces in your portfolio that you can tell the story of the design problem and how you approached finding a solution.
Now that you’ve got some new tactics to use in your job hunt, go forth and conquer. Good Luck!