Ask a Designer #9: How Do I Break into Graphic Design?
Graphic designer, educator, and writer Nika Simovich Fisher (@labud.nyc) is our resident advice columnist for our Ask a Designer series, where we aim to get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in the creative industries. Today, Nika writes about how to break into the world of graphic design.
I am currently a third year student trying to figure out how to get into the industry. I’ve heard lots of opinions from different people but still have no clue how to start. I have a basic portfolio and a social page set up but I’m not sure if I’m posting the right things to get noticed. I have been applying for internships but I don’t hear back from anybody so how would be the best way to get myself started to find work?
It can be tough figuring out where to start. Becoming a graphic designer may seem unattainable when you’re still in school but it can be reassuring to remember that you’re only at the beginning once. What seems hard now will seem trivial in the future and you’re likely a lot closer than you think.
Here are a few ideas for how to get started.
Be More Specific
Your question suggests that you’re looking for advice on getting into the design industry at large, which is quite broad. While I wholeheartedly believe that a good designer can work across any medium, specifying what type of designer you’d like to work as can help you get started, especially in the beginning.
If you’re not sure what types of jobs are available, you can consider reviewing various job listings. Websites such as WorkingNotWorking, IfYouCouldJobs, and AIGA’s Design Job Board are helpful starting places. Reviewing a few different types of design opportunities can help you identify what skills hirers are looking for and provide context for how to talk about your own skillsets and how they might fit in to these different teams.
Not all job listings are the same – try to identify the ones that feel thoughtfully worded and written recently.
Also, keep in mind that studying a job description will likely not be as telling as actually hearing from individuals who are already working in those positions.
We’re lucky that we live in a time where we can do a lot of insider research from the comfort of our own homes, and that there is a wealth of information out there for us to learn from. To best take advantage of these resources, I’d suggest narrowing your search to type of work – for example, exhibition design, branding, product design – or, by type of industry: media, music, publishing, in house. Then, specify it even further by identifying a few places that interest you within those categories. Once you’ve named a few potential places you’d be interested in working for, do a deep dive into who works there. Through LinkedIn, Instagram, or even a simple google search, you should be able to locate some of the designers working on these teams, and then you can view their websites. Don’t just look at their websites for two seconds; you want to study their process and learn from their work.
Observing working designers’ portfolios will provide different types of information. First, you’ll see what work at their company looks like, which can help you form an opinion on whether or not this is actually what you’d like to be doing. Second, you’ll notice how that designer presents themselves as well as what kind of work they’ve done. Your first instinct might be to feel disappointed that you don’t have this type of work yet – don’t! You can use this as a learning moment and unpack the details of their projects. By working backwards, you can begin to identify the thought process that went into creating this portfolio. Consider the curation of the projects – which ones are included? What do the projects have in common – is there a common theme or are they all different? Do they highlight different types of skillsets or just one? Try to imagine what the designer was thinking while they were working.
Additionally, look at how they describe their roles in each project. If you’re lucky enough to find a portfolio with well-crafted descriptions, spend some time reviewing it and reflecting on what went into the project. Even if you don’t have the type of work that this working designer has right now, understanding their editing process can help you present your own work compellingly and thoughtfully, which could help you land a job later on. You might also want to reach out to this designer to say you like their work and that you’d like to meet them if they have time.
Getting to know people is a great step in understanding a given career, developing interpersonal skills, and helping down the line when you start focusing on a job search.
When reaching out to people, be friendly and concise. Maintain a friendly tone of voice, but also explain why you’re reaching out to them. It can help to connect with people for something that’s not a job – for example, that you’re curious to hear about the individuals' career path, or what their day-to-day job is like. I’d suggest phrasing it like a conversation.
Sending a cold e-mail can be intimidating, but always remember that the worst-case situation is that the person either says no or they don’t respond.
Both of which are minor hurdles. On the other hand, if they do respond, you have an opportunity to connect with someone in the field that you’re hoping to get into. If they accept, make sure to schedule a time, send a calendar invite, and share information on when/where you’ll meet. A 30-minute “digital coffee” (video call) is a low commitment for most people and pandemic-friendly.
On the day of the meeting, be yourself but have a plan. I find it helpful to research the individual beforehand and have a few questions written out. This can also help if you tend to get nervous and help you in steering the conversation when necessary. When you meet with the individual, though, be present and casual. Use it as a moment to learn a little about someone else and learn from someone else. Your initial questions might be a good starting point but make sure to go with the flow and see where the conversation takes you organically. After the call is over, send a short e-mail thanking them for their time. Meeting people while you’re still in school is a good idea because you’ll start to form opinions and gain insight into what you’d like to be doing after graduation. Additionally, these connections can help you locate internships, begin your job search, or later if you’d like your portfolio reviewed.
Attending events, online or otherwise in the post-Covid world, is also a great way to continue to learn about contemporary design and identify people to connect with. Many schools and museums host online events that are open to the public. It’s not a bad idea to attend as many as you can, especially if you have the time.
Be a Designer
When I was a student, I was terrified of referring to myself as a designer. I thought I had to go through some proverbial crash course to earn my stripes and the title. This is far from the truth. You become a designer when you say you’re one, and being a designer is more about what kind of practice you have and what type of work you’re creating than having a job title. If you’re already making graphic design, you’re already a designer. It’s a good idea to start referring to yourself as one and remind yourself why you’re doing this in the first place. Your interest in design should be what’s pushing you forward, not searching for a job, though, of course, that’s important as well.
It might seem obvious but graphic designers design stuff! If you’re referring to yourself as one, you too should be designing.
Design anything you can get your hands on – this can be invitations, e-mails, a social media post, a letter to a friend.
Take advantage of anything that you have access to that can be designed while you’re still in school and have the time.
On that note, don’t forget to be a student. This moment in your life is important because you have the time to indulge in yourself. I know that having a job seems like the ultimate goal but when you’re busy working you might not have enough time to create for design enjoyment. Use this time to reflect on what you’d like to spend your precious time on and what initiatives you have agency to contribute towards. These types of passion projects can be super fulfilling and can help you learn about your own design practice, while creating work that is not client-based. Building more work, in general, can also help you identify a personal style that could inform an independent practice down the line and give you more insight into your personal preferences and taste.
On a practical note, creating more work of any kind will contribute to a body of work that highlights your range of interests and skillsets, both of which are useful in communicating your background. These projects can culminate into well documented and thoughtful case studies. Additionally, compared to your schoolwork, these types of projects exist in the “real world.” Though they’re not professional, they'll help you to boost your confidence and see yourself as a working graphic designer, with or without a job title.
Lastly, you mention that you’re applying to internships and not hearing back. Using the strategy of working backwards, consider how your portfolio matches up to the job description and try to reflect on how your interests and current body of work can unexpectedly communicate that.
Take your time and keep trying.
While you’re already a designer, it might take a few tries to land your first “real gig”. Don’t let that stop you from developing your practice and building work you’re proud of in the meantime.
I hope that these steps help you understand some of the details of getting started as a graphic designer.