Being approached by a couple of enthusiastic students and asked “how do we get a job in the industry?” was a surprisingly awkward experience. I had no idea at first. I just told them how I got into it and then the ideas starting spouting out, from myself, from other members of the Erskine team, and other industry professionals who were around at the time.
All of them were different. That’s our industry, there’s no set path into it. Some will have been to university, some will be ‘self-taught’ and some will have progressed from an internship.
The problem is that the digital industry changes so quickly. The details of how I got started might not be relevant today, 8 years on, but the basic concepts still are.
Build a portfolio
The first thing I’d suggest to any budding developer or designer is to put together a portfolio. Online. That’s the medium you want to be working with, so it’s only common sense that you use it.
When a potential employer is looking through CVs and portfolios the fact that you might have done some work for a big brand like Nike or the BBC definitely stands out. But the likelihood is that you haven’t, so you need to stand out in other ways. Real enthusiasm can beat qualifications and experience.
Start by not doing the same as everyone else. No redesigns of Twitter, Facebook or whatever. Do some real work if you can, for friends or family, they might even agree to throw you some cash for it, but remember that, at this point, it’s not about the money. Go all out and produce something you’re proud of, it’ll pay off later.
And if you can’t find jobs to do, make some up. Build a site for a fictional company, redesign a website that actually needs it, build up that portfolio until you’re proud of it.
The old phrase, “it’s not what you know, but who you know”, is at least part accurate, so get to know people who are already working in the industry. Follow them on Twitter by all means, but meeting them face-to-face is always better.
Attend some industry events. Starting small. There’s no point forking out £150 for a conference ticket if you get scared and don’t talk to anyone. Most cities will have a local meet-up, whether it’s just a few drinks in a bar or a bunch of talks in a community centre, and this is where you’re likely to meet your future employer, or future colleagues.
Read and write
Whether it’s your own blog or the rationale for your portfolio, write about the work you’re doing, what challenges you’ve faced and how you’ve overcome these. Nobody’s perfect, your future employer knows that. Showing your ability to learn and your understanding of the challenges involved is far more impressive than some polished work which was apparently easy to do.
While you’re at it, read other people’s blogs. People who are doing the job you want. This is free knowledge, soak it up. Go to the library and read books, new ones and, especially if you’re looking to be a designer, old ones.
Don’t be lazy
Ok, so you have a portfolio that you’re proud of and you’re going to send it out to a few agencies you’d like to work at, what do you say? This is tough.
Doing your research will make this easier. Find out about the company and what they do. There must be a reason why you’ve chosen to apply there after all. Write to a specific person. If you don’t know who, call the office and ask.
Once you’ve told them why you’re interested in working for them, you’re all but done. Finish off by saying where you’d like your career to go in the near future, attach your CV and link to your portfolio, and say thank you.
Try to keep the whole thing quite short, agency life can be busy, so long emails will often get ignored, or forgotten.
Ask about an internship
A lot of agencies will take on interns, not a lot of them advertise the fact. Ask. That’s what Robin did, and now he’s a vital member of the Erskine team.
Robin was a paid intern. Unpaid internships can be demoralising and I’d only ever suggest them if you were living with your parents or already had lots of money in the bank. If you go for it, make sure you get paid in different ways. Soak up as much knowledge as you can and keep constant notes. They’ll help you remember things and write your CV for when you want to apply for a paid job.
Check the details
If you received an application that was riddled with errors, you’d assume a low quality of work in their portfolio. You’d be more attune to errors that you’d usually overlook.
Check everything you send out, from the CV to the portfolio itself. Have someone you trust check it too (there’s a reason we never check our own work) and be open to suggestions.
Only when you are 100% happy with what you’re sending should you send it.
Other things to remember would be:
Always be humble – don’t pretend you’re the best designer the world has ever seen. You’re not. At least not yet.
Be professional – as an example, don’t tell the company who’ve offered you an internship that you’re waiting on an answer from one of their competitors. Their offer will be withdrawn. Quickly.
Avoid buzzwords – It’s fine to use terms like Responsive Web Design, because it’s an actual valid approach to design. But you’re not a web curator or a thought leader. A quick and easy rule: If it sounds like bullshit, it is bullshit.