Copernican Cornballer

I was recently asked about how to go about promoting yourself for your first job after design school when you haven’t really specialized in anything yet. The student had originally asked for feedback on his portfolio, but this quickly became a much larger conversation trying to pinpoint where he wants to go, and doing what, and at what level. I’m posting this mostly because I feel like it goes places the other million-and-one advice posts don’t.

What follows is the tail-end of our exchange:

Q: Ideally, I would like to work for an agency. If I had to name a primary focus, it would be InDesign and Illustrator, but I like doing a variety of things as well. I don’t want to miss out on a job just because I forgot to put good samples of being capable of doing that job in my portfolio. I’m sure this is where I’m running into trouble.

I also really enjoy putting together events. And I enjoy 3-D modeling, but need to get back and do more of that. Photoshop I’m not as solid in, but I can still function fairly well and figure out things in it. Web work, I just don’t have current examples worth putting up, otherwise, I would include something.

So, to simplify: all of that. InDesign and Illustrator with a splash of events, are the areas I enjoy most and if I can get a job that capitalizes on those, I would be thrilled.

A: Your question goes in a bunch of related directions, but let me try to break it down so I don’t miss anything.

#1 Looking for work in an agency:

Depending on the size of the studio and type of clients a shop takes on will determine what they’ll be hiring for. There is a huge range even here in Sacramento.

  • On one end, you have larger, advertising-based firms that work with big corporations and state agencies. These types of firms own multiple floors downtown, have sales people and accountants on staff, and are generally run with all the creativity of a law firm. This will not scratch your creative itch, but you will gain some big name clients for your resume, even if only by association. You might be able to get a start at one of these type of places because you won’t pose as much of a risk as one of many. On the bright side, you’ll have plenty of people to learn from. Conversely, you may only end up doing production work*, and a) not learn much of the business and b) you will still want to do side projects to not go crazy.
  • In the middle you have places that work with medium-to-large clients, pay pretty well (or at least fairly, since a designer is usually in charge rather than a CEO) and generally provide a nice/fun place to work. In order to do that, this type of mid-level agency has to be more cautious (selective). One office with maybe 25 people on-staff. Meaning it’s harder to get the job, but you’ll get to work on lots of different projects for a variety of clients.
  • There are also some specialty shops: some just do WordPress, others only do games. They will want hyper-specialists and very likely have to recruit nationally. In San Francisco, most shops seem to lead toward more specialized slots.
  • Lastly, you have small shops. 2-5 people, or individuals (like me). In this instance, they will be hiring specialists. For instance, I recently hired a guy to do MySQL. He’s a ‘designer’ but I didn’t need a designer, I needed someone that can work with a WordPress back-end in ways I might not have time or desire to. In these smaller shops, if your timing (and more importantly personality) is right, you might be able to become an “apprentice.” Most of the time it’ll just be job-to-job. You wont make as much money (definitely not as not consistently), but you will have more opportunities to grow as a creative, and there are perks like working from home. In a place like this, your ‘boss’ would be more likely to take you up on doing some filming or 3-D, as opposed to a large shop where you may not even know who your boss is.

Moral of the story: Everyone wants a strong generalist, but they tend to hire for specialty.

From what I know of you, you probably fit best at a medium-sized shop.

#2 Primary focus:

I’m about to say something that you may not really understand or maybe even don’t want to hear:

InDesign and Illustrator are not jobs. They are tools.

Nouns, not verbs.

Features, not benefits. And so on.

Why this is important is an important distinction to make is that you’re using these words on your site as navigation labels, as if the ownership of software or a few years of practice with them is all that matters. Like I said yesterday, if you were a contractor, you wouldn’t put Hammer, Pipe, etc as buttons on your site ― you’d show a completed house. The only people that look at design hires as a set of collected tools are dead-end production jobs and print shops (think manufacturing rather than craft). The only people searching the internet for “Adobe Illustrator” are other designers probably looking for free brushes, not to hire you.

Quickie metaphor: The Solar System is a bunch of planets orbiting the sun. The Sun provides gravity, light and heat (energy) to its planets. So let’s say the designer is the sun, and his skills/talents are each planet. That cosmic sweet spot ― like the earth ― that’s your specialty. A planet can be destroyed like Alderaan or eaten by Galactus (i.e.., technology can make something obsolete: Flash, Fireworks, etc.) but the sun is still there. If the sun were to get dimmer or go out, all the planets die. The energy the Sun provides is essential. The client or employer cannot enjoy the benefits of living, breathing “planets” without appreciating the role of the sun in the equation.

Ok, back to my point. On your site, and just in general, instead of saying “InDesign,” use “Page Layout” or “Publication Design”. Once you get enough projects (+3 per), you can start to break that into subcategories like Magazine Layout and Book Design. Take a look at how I did my site: it’s all by what it is that I “did” not “what” I used to do it, and some projects show up in multiple categories. What do you do with Illustrator? Logo Design, Poster Illustration and Type Design springs to mind. Those should be your categories.

Focus on the benefit you’re providing ― the service, the activity, the verb ― not the easily outsourced-on-Fivvr ‘thing’.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of poster work to be had, at least not paid. Print design is a shrinking part of the equation. Some employers will just see posters and pass, others (in my opinion, the good ones) will see concepts and think ‘this could work as a wine label.’ Just something to keep in mind…; it’s not always that a project is good or bad, just that it ’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.

#3 “… but I like doing a variety of things as well” like Events and 3-D modeling:

That’s great, and why I think you have a chance to succeed as a creative. (I feel sorry for people content to be banging out the same newsletter month after month!)

If you like doing something: DO THAT! Not “I’m going/need to. ” That phrase is an excuse. People in Sacramento need things to do: go and fill that need for them.

Events are particularly awesome skills builders. You get to name the event (branding), make the logo (identity), design a flyer (print marketing), build a website, customize a Facebook page and email campaign (digital), contact sponsors and vendors (who, conveniently, are businesses that need design!), make connections by promoting your events around town (project management, client relations etc.). And it’s for an actual thing, not a made-up client, student project or some lame logo contest. You can then document how successful it was and ― voila! ― a case study for your website/portfolio with a half dozen projects, and, potentially, new client work! (I believe Ms. Cyrus would refer to that as ‘Totes Bangerz’)

Takeaway: Absolutely don’t let yourself be siloed, but do be selective. If anything you do is not something you’re proud of, it’s totally okay to leave it out of your portfolio. (It’s also okay if 3-D is just a hobby, too.) It’s totally common for students, simply because they don’t have a lot to begin with, to clutter their site. As the man says “All Killer, No Filler.” I would ask at every interview (or, better, just ask to come talk to a local shop about your portfolio for feedback, no strings) what you could do to make it better, or what you should leave out.

#4 “I don’t want to miss out on a job just because I forgot to put good samples of being capable of doing that job in my portfolio.”

Remember: Everyone wants a strong generalist, but they often hire for specialty. Don’t clutter your site with occasional stinkers just to cover every angle. Are you familiar with Poochie from the Simpsons? Being everything to everyone is a really terrible way to live.

If you’re not happy with it (and you’re your biggest fan!), I’m pretty sure no one will miss it. This is where the text component of your site comes into play. You can always list that ‘other’ stuff on your About page and in your resume. You can be honest: I would totally choose someone that said “I’ve only done a little web design, but am eager to learn more” over somebody that did 10 crappy sites and was like “I’m a badass.” No ego will take you mo’ farther.

#4½ Weak points (Photoshop and Web work):

Same as above, but also wanted to add here: what do you mean by ‘not as strong’ with Photoshop? Like rendering crazy complex Frank Frazzetta worldscapes from scratch? Not at all important. You know who does that? Frank Frazzetta (uhh… if he was alive) and nerds on DeviantArt. Literally no one else since 1997 cares.

Can you color correct? Can you work with masks and adjustment layers? Can you name files so that other people know what they’re looking at? That’s what people need, and are going to assume you know. And going beyond the tool itself: look at yourself with a very critical eye when you’re making literally anything. Does it look ‘pretty good,’ or does it look good? Knowing the difference is a more precious currency than you might think.