10 Tips for New Graphic Design Grads: A Must-Read Before You Interview for a Job

It's almost graduation season, which means it's time for a whole new wave of newbie designers to enter the workforce. If you're one of them, read on.

In my seven or so years as a "real" design professional, I've been a reviewer at plenty of portfolio showcases. I've also hired a handful of interns, given a slew of studio tours and fielded countless emails from young prospects. And in almost every case, I'm sorely disappointed.

To help out these new graphic design grads, I've written the following ten tips as a sort of public service announcement. If you've already got some rockin' pieces in your portfolio, then this advice should help you get hired at your dream first job.

1. Get an Internship

Designing in an academic environment couldn't be further removed from the realities of designing in a "real" workplace. In school, you aren't billing by the hour. You don't have a shoestring budget for printing. You don't have clients who are changing the project scope every two hours. In other words, you're working in a fantasy world of unlimited time and money without any of the restrictions that exist at an actual agency. An internship will prepare you for the realities of working with real clients who have a real budget and need work on a real deadline. Getting this experience before graduation will set you ahead of everyone else who only has schoolwork in their portfolio.

2. Ask for a Studio Tour

Ask for an interview and people will tell you they're not hiring. Ask for a "quick studio tour" at an agency you really admire and you'll get right through the door. Sure, we all know that's code for "I-really-hope-you'll-hire-me-in-the-future," but it's must less intimidating for creative directors. Don't believe me? When I was applying for a new job a few years ago, I contacted 11 different agencies around Cleveland. I heard back from nine creative directors. I went in for eight studio tours. And one of those places hired me only three months later for a job that they never even posted publicly.

3. Cut Down Your Portfolio

I don't need (or want!) to see every piece you've designed since the first semester of your freshman year. I have a short attention span. I'll know if I like your stuff within the first few pages. Make me sit through 20+ brochure samples and I'll not only be bored to tears, but I'll also find more things to pick apart. Instead, only feature your absolute best work that excites you and relates to the company where you're interviewing. For a new grad, this usually means 7-10 pieces. Period. Oh, and don't hand me anything longer than a 1-page resume. It makes me think you're either egotistical or can't self-edit your ideas.

4. Customize Your Portfolio

If you're interviewing at a publishing house, you don't need to include trade show graphics. If you're interviewing at a web firm, they probably don't care about your logo designs. Know what each specific company does and pack your portfolio with that type of work. Your other stuff may be "pretty," but your potential boss only cares that you will be able to excel at the position for which you're being hired. So, if you're a fabulous illustrator, go ahead and include a single example of your character drawings (maybe they'll use those skills on a special one-off project)…just make sure that the rest of your book is packed with more relevant samples.

5. Show Your Work in a Real Environment

Nothing bores me more than seeing a flat brochure spread or a two-dimensional trade show display. Go ahead and put that website design inside a photo of a computer monitor. Photoshop your poster on to an image of a transit shelter. This shows me that you've gone that extra step to polish up your book and makes it infinitely easier to envision your work in a real environment.

6. Approach Work with a Marketing Mind

Almost every college student has a "redesign" project in their portfolio. (They'll take a wine label or a magazine cover or something like that and totally redesign it from the ground up.) While new designers usually spend their time explaining how they made it look different (cleaner typeface, more white space, etc.), I want to know WHY they made it different. If you've redesigned something to make it look "new" or "pretty," I'm not impressed. If you've redesigned something because you understand that specific product's target market and have identified a way to improve that connection through visual design, however, I'm very, very, very impressed. Think of this like a critical thinking test.

7. Do Your Research

Before you walk in the door for an interview, you should Google the hell out of your potential employer. Have you looked at their most recent work on the portfolio section of their website? Have you checked out the LinkedIn profiles for people who work at that company to learn more about their positions? If not, do it. Now.

8. Be Social (Media)

Almost every company has a blog. Read it. And a Facebook page. Like them. And a Twitter account. Follow them. And a newsletter. Subscribe to it. Get where I'm going? Agencies make it SO easy to learn about their corporate culture, recent work and (ahem) un-posted job opportunities through social media…you'd be a FOOL not to jump on this insider info.

9. Be Prepared to Answer Questions

Curious what I like to ask potential employees? Here some examples:

  • What did you like about this company/position that prompted you to apply for this job?
  • How do you stay up to date with changing software and technology?
  • What did you like/not like about your previous positions?
  • What are you career goals?

10. Ask Questions Yourself

When an interviewer asks you, "Do you have any questions for me?" the answer better be Y-E-S! In case you're stuck, here are several questions that I always hope potential employees ask me to show that they're interested:

  • What's a typical "day in the life" of a person with this job?
  • Tell me more about the corporate culture here.
  • How has the company changed over the past decade? Where is it going in the future?
  • Can you show me around the creative department?

Bonus Tip: Stay in Touch

Didn't get hired for that job? Don't sweat it. But do stay in touch. Not enough to be annoying, but checking in every six months or so is completely acceptable. (Assuming you got a good vibe during the original interview, of course.) Creative directors switch agencies. Marketing firms merge and split with other local studios. (And you'll know exactly when stuff like this happens because you've subscribed to social media feeds and newsletters, right?) Bottom line: You never know when you'll meet up with someone again in the future. Make sure they remember you when you do.

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Topics: Career Advice

Jen Lombardi

Written by Jen Lombardi

Jen Lombardi is the Head Honcho and Creative Genius at Kiwi Creative, a creative marketing studio for B2B technology companies. She has an award-winning background in print design, but is also a marketing maven, wizard of the web, grammar geek and all-around fun person.

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