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10 Things You Need to Do After Design School

Finishing school can leave you feeling a bit lost. A designer shares her tips for the best next steps.

My dad—the man of the cryptic text message—texted with his two index fingers, “Dropping out with a bang, hey?”

What he was referring to back in autumn of 2011 was the fact that I had decided yet again to drop out of my uni degree and start Smack Bang—with a bang (Dad’s jokes). Not only that, but as the youngest of six dropping out of a fourth uni degree, I daresay I was clocking in as his least favourite child in that moment. Three of my siblings were successfully studying law while I couldn’t hold it together with a design degree, canned spaghetti, and a few packets of mami noodles in my pantry.

And so, the honest truth: I never even graduated, and I never threw a tasselled hat into the air or posed in awkward photos sandwiched between my parents. And I guess while I’m in confession I may as well add that I’ve never had to submit a job application within the design field, nor have I ever stepped foot inside of a design agency that wasn’t my own. So, the credibility of this blog post might be slightly skewed. Luckily, for this article I have drawn on the expertise of my legendary design team and their knowledge of what actually happens in the real world, when you don’t just do it your own way.

Here’s the lowdown on ten things you just gotta do when you cartwheel out of design school.

1. Take a Trip

No, I don’t mean that kind of trip, although sure that might help, who am I to judge? I mean you should take at least three months off to enjoy new experiences and adventures that don’t involve slaving to deadlines at 3 am. Most of you will finish up school in November so don’t even think about applying for jobs until January/February, because (a) that’s when agencies are hiring, and (b) you deserve a holiday and most likely need some time to re-coup a few thousand hours of sleep after the #majorproject.

2. Skill Yo'self

Take a class, go out and learn a new skill. It needn’t have a single thing to do with design. Take a pottery class. Or learn to sew. Study a language, write a blog, make a kite—do something new that can unlock a new creative avenue that you enjoy. Exploring a new skill set will either open your mind to something you didn’t know you were good at, or at least remind you that you bloody hate to paint, which is helpful too. My side-skill involves cooking up a storm in the kitchen, or fine-tuning the art of picnic packing.

3. Eenie Meenie Minie Mo

Figure out exactly what kind of job you really want. It’s important to fine-tune what it is you want to get out of the job and the kind of place you want to work. Are you more suited to a corporate advertising agency, or a hillbilly-working-out-of-a-garage type setup? Neither is right or wrong, but you just need to realize which you are more suited to. This way you will be able to thrive. My strong advice is to not just apply for every Junior Designer opening. You spend most of your waking life at your job, so make sure you get picky and only apply for your dream jobs. A bad fit is a bad fit for everyone. Do your research and seek out those golden pearls—and apply for them!

4. Clean, Cull, and Fix

Once you’ve decided on the kind of place you would love to work, go through your portfolio and tailor it to that style and aesthetic. Remember, you’ll be employed for the projects you display so be ruthless! Cull any projects you’re having serious doubts about or you feel you’ve outgrown. If there are some that can be adjusted, have a troll through Pinterest and think about what you can add to the project to give it a more “real life” edge. Can you add more collateral? Perhaps add a homepage? Adjust any elements that were a uni requirement within the project to something you really like and feel proud to stand behind. For more ways to sex-ify your portfolio, read this list of Portfolio Dos and Don’ts.

5. Make a Hit List

Create a list of dream places to work and prioritize them. Naturally, it’s better to apply for places that are actually advertising a job opening, but don’t be scared to send your portfolio to companies that haven’t advertised a position—you just never know what might be in their pipeline. One of the best applications I have ever received was from my senior designer, Erika, who designed a super cute package and popped it in the post to me. We weren’t looking to hire at the time, but I just couldn’t resist her epic proposal. Thinking outside of the square will get you everywhere.

6. Write a Love Letter

When your portfolio is ready to roll and you’ve decided whose doors you want to knock on, write yourself a winning cover letter. Again, it’s important to tailor your cover letter to the agency or workplace you are applying for. Explain why it is that you would love to work there, what projects you’re most drawn to from their portfolio and why you feel you would be the best option for them. Show that you’ve done your research. Get a trusted friend to spell and grammar check your writing—nothing sinks a first impression like beautiful design marred by atrocious spelling. Show your potential employer that you care!

7. Hustle

Jobs don’t usually just fall into your lap, at least not that I’ve noticed. You probably won’t land the first job you apply for, and so the hustle can be legit. It’s necessary to struggle in the early days to land the dream, because it builds your character, resilience and makes you all the more grateful when you finally strike gold. If you’re not already, get into rooms where other designers hang. Go to gallery openings, industry events, meet and greets—anything that will jointly inspire and connect you with others in the industry. You’ll notice the same people at some of these events, and it’s worth saying hello and getting acquainted with them. Show people that you’re consistent, interested and the legend that you are—character counts for a lot! Plus, some of the people you meet will inevitably be bosses and big doggies in design land, so smile and be your best self.

8. Don’t Panic

Just chill. You don’t have to get a job immediately. You’re not a failure if it takes a while. You are normal and you still have something to offer. You don’t have to take the first job that comes your way, either. If it’s not right and the vibe isn’t there, saying yes can potentially just lead to disappointment later when you didn’t get what you wanted out of the experience. If you get offered a gig at a corporate office with no creative life and florescent panel lighting overhead on a baked beans salary, maybe it’s not the one to jump at. Or maybe it is—you just need to know what you require out of the job you take. Take your time, research your dream studios and consider the best way to approach them. Be creative, but not naff. Also, never do a blind drop in! No one wants to be put on the spot, and it can be super awks for all involved.

9. Ask For Help

Don’t be scared to seek out advice from those with experience. Contact former uni lecturers, chat to classmates, call your friend’s dad’s next door neighbour’s brother who runs a design studio—be creative. Ask for feedback on your portfolio from someone in the industry. At this point in the game you won’t be the only one feeling as though you have two left feet and an inability to sell yourself to a Junior Designer. Your lecturers will have great tips, and possibly even connections, if you just ask them. Always worth a try!

10. Be Flexible

Suddenly have the epiphany that you hate design? Relax! Other opportunities will expose themselves once you start looking. Perhaps you’re a gun at managing client accounts, or you’re a natural comms manager, or have a way with words—the creative industry is vast and multi-faceted. Changing directions is still moving forward and there is absolutely nothing wrong with dropping out—trust me.

This article was originally featured on Smack Bang Designs’ blog, and republished with permission. Smack Bang is a Sydney-based branding and design agency run by Tess Robinson.

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