Getting your foot in the door: Top tips on landing a job or freelance work as a recent grad
Two studio founders, a freelance illustrator, and two recent hires at Wieden+Kennedy and FutureDeluxe talk us through their experiences of applying for roles and finding clients.
Given the exceptional circumstances of this year, we at It’s Nice That approached our annual Grads series a little differently. In late April, we launched a survey calling all creative graduates to tell us what advice they need and from who. We’ve listened and now we’ve acted. As a result of the survey, this year’s advice pieces seek to answer the most pressing questions asked by those of you directly affected, from the people you wanted to hear from.
No point sugaring the pill. Students graduating this year face a creative industry and a job market that look completely different to last year and many years previous. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities out there or that there’s nothing you can do to find the perfect role and land your dream clients. Despite the challenges, you can still thrive in the creative industry and produce powerful and meaningful work, whether you’re striking out on your own as a freelancer or looking for a junior position at a studio.
Don’t take it from us, though. Take it from the five creatives we’ve spoken to for this article: Ayo Fagbemi, a strategist at Wieden+Kennedy; Larissa Kasper, co-founder of Swiss design studio Kasper-Florio; Amber Vittoria, a freelance illustrator based in New York; Joey Phinn, a motion designer at FutureDeluxe; and Felix Sng, a co-founder of the collaborative creative studio Swell in Singapore. They talked to us about their experiences of leaving university and starting their creative careers, and we asked them for any advice and guidance they have for students graduating in 2020. Many of the questions we put to them were lifted directly from our Graduates Survey in April.
Graduating from the University of Nottingham with a degree in Politics and International Relations, Ayo says he felt “very lost”, looking for a job that was academic as well as creative. Until, that is, he applied for the Kennedy’s, a creative incubator within Wieden+Kennedy, which he says was “the best thing that has happened to me; it taught me so much and opened my eyes to the whole creative process.” Since then, as well as being a strategist at the advertising agency, he has also set up creative studio Play Nice with his friend Nate Agbetu.
With fewer internships and jobs out there this year, how should graduating students deal with not getting a job or internship after university?
First and foremost, it is about trying as hard as you can to look after your mental health and the health of your friends around you. It’s going to be difficult and in these moments having and creating a community around you is gonna be vital. A community that, despite not having a “job”, will continue to create. Showing that a job is not the sole way you can contribute in this industry. Getting comfortable creating and improving your skills for yourself. It is a virtual trap I still fall into, thinking about work that is going to fit in my curated Instagram, that frankly no one really cares about.
Also, a new normal will be created once and as we come out of this, one that is full of new ideas and innovation. One of the upsides to living in uncertainty and times of crisis is the speed with which innovation happens, and this generation will play a massive part in shaping this. And yes, I know some may not have the time or opportunity to do this, which makes me sad, as those voices are often needed the most to solve those problems. So in those cases that is where support systems have to be in place, and that is the responsibility of those in “higher” positions reaching out to protect the health and future of creativity. Training programs, virtual festivals and mentoring, things that keep the spirits, hope and dreams of this year’s 2020 graduates up.
Any advice on how to get a job in a flawed industry that requires you to have done unpaid internships and work experience?
It is a flawed industry! For far too long, many brands and organisations have discriminated against Black people through their hiring processes. Overall only seven per cent of “BAME” people, which is another problematic term, are in the advertising industry – in 2020 that is not acceptable, and the way things are changing on a daily basis, definitely will not be acceptable in 2021. It hurts our community financially to not be given a fair chance and discourages us from thinking these spaces are for us. So for anyone reading this, as a Black graduate you deserve more than a fair chance.
Dismantling unconscious bias is not just a powerful step in creating a fairer society, it is a powerful step in creating a more collectively intelligent society. That said, I’m not confident our industry will change, so I always encourage personal projects. They give you a different perspective on different parts of the process, allow you to express your personal view on the world and are often the thing you can speak about most passionately in your portfolio. Some of the best projects I’ve seen this year have had little to no budget. This will stand you in good stead when it comes to getting an internship. In terms of some actionable places to go as well, visit Social Fixt, Run The Check, Creative Mentor Network, and The Dots for opportunities and advice, all run by amazing women who are making such a difference in this industry.
Please share any insights you have on how the current creative/design industry is going to be treating fresh grads during this pandemic. What should they do when they can't seem to find a job because of the current Covid-19 situation?
This has to be a two-way conversation. Institutions need to support those coming through this year and the years after, more than ever. If it isn’t paid opportunities, creative organisations need to show now more than ever they care about the future of creativity. If there are so many unemployed, we as a society need to find ways in this industry to create uses for people who have a want, and the skills, to be useful. My main hope is that the creative industry doesn’t become a career open to a select few and that these new grads don’t get disheartened about their vital role in the future of this industry.
Larissa studied Visual Communication at the Zurich University of the Arts before she teamed up with Rosario Florio in 2013 to launch Kasper-Florio, a collaborative studio focused on book design and visual identities. The pair has since worked on a variety of projects for cultural institutions, companies, artists, and musicians, both in Switzerland and globally. She also holds a Masters in Art Direction and Type Design from ECAL in Lausanne.
How should students and young creatives go about contacting potential employers at this time? Should they apply to jobs as they would normally or change their process?
I think it’s best to reach out to the studio or agency as you would normally do. The first contact has usually already been via email and a digital portfolio before, because very often you don’t happen to live in the same city or country. In a second phase a presentation with a video conference can allow a deeper insight into both work and personality. It’s important to feel whether the interests, the vision, goals and of course the interpersonal aspects are a match, on both sides. Even though it may not be possible to travel for a while and get to visit a studio personally, there are still ways which have proven to be right. I remember having applied for my internship in London through a Skype meeting too and it turned out to be a very positive experience. The pandemic may have given us a new set of rules of conduct, but it certainly has not turned the important attributes of creative potential upside down.
One of the students in our survey asked this: “Throughout my time in college, I’d always wanted to get a job at a branding studio. But now I feel like studios and agencies aren’t hiring amidst the pandemic. I’d really just love an idea of whether a studio job right out of college in 2020 is even something we can aspire towards.” Do you have any words of guidance for them?
Many agencies and studios have been hit really hard and it’s difficult to get an overview, let alone a prognosis. We ourselves have no employees and work with a flexible network that can be very project specific. It may well be that a permanent position immediately after graduation will remain rare for a while, since it’s a time of recovery on a stress and economic level. But what cannot and should not disappear are the opportunities to develop new potential. The situation gets better day by day and demand will increase. In the past weeks and months we have learned more and more how a working relationship from a distance can be mastered without problems. Freelance work can also take the same form. To be able to attract attention with today's means is still about doing good, relevant and reflective work.
Another student asked about starting as a creative outside of the major creative hubs: London, New York, etc. Kasper-Florio is of course based in a relatively small city. How has this impacted your work and your careers?
St. Gallen has a deep heritage in book design but the community has always stayed very small. For over ten years we have shared a workspace with three other studios, which feels like an island and a second family. The possibility of sharing, inspiring and learning from each other every day made it very natural to stay – and at the same time very hard to leave. In addition, the development of our studio made us realise that location is no longer as relevant as it once was. In a small city we have the opportunity to work in a very focused way and move around efficiently. Costs are generally lower, which means that we feel less financial pressure, which – especially in the beginning of working independently – was vital.
After graduating from Chelsea College of Art & Design in 2015 with a degree in Fine Art, Joey launched a collaborative art collective called Freyron Studio with her friend Saskia Little. This jump-started her desire to become proficient in Cinema4D, so she enrolled on an evening course in Motion Graphics at Escape Studio. She started at FutureDeluxe not long after and is now senior motion designer there.
Talk us through your approach to applying for jobs.
I started by researching motion design studios in both 2D and 3D animation based in London. I applied to more than 50 studios over the course of a few weeks. FutureDeluxe was my number one choice as I’d been following them for years since discovering them on Behance and greatly admired their work. I was extremely methodical and strategic in the way I applied. I read the Freelance Manifesto: A Field Guide for the Modern Motion Designer by Joey Korenman (not me, I promise) and applied everything I learnt in the book in the way I sent emails and how to personalise them. I also made an Excel document to organise all the studios I applied to, including the people who I had written to, their website link, what kind of animation/motion design they did, and if they hadn’t responded in two weeks, I would send a follow-up email. Job hunting needs a lot of persistence and dedication.
What was your experience of graduating and entering the job market? Had your education prepared you for that experience?
You go to art school and you want to learn how to make good art. Art school says: “OK but what is art? What is good? And what is making?” I graduated with a Distinction in my degree but absolutely no idea what I wanted to do and how I could make money and survive. I decided to take a good look at my skillset and start thinking outside the box for my career path. I was increasingly interested in 3D. What kind of career could you get? I did a lot of Googling and decided Motion Design was a really interesting career path to pursue. Also, part of what drew me to Motion Design was accessibility. Anyone can become a Motion Designer, with the right computing power and a good renderer subscription. The tutorials for a beginner are all free on Vimeo and Youtube. I definitely wouldn’t say my education prepared me for my career. I did all the heavy lifting myself. You have to be innovative and self-motivated. The internet is the greatest resource you have. Learn to be really good at Googling and finding answers from really, really old CreativeCow posts from 2008.
What tips would you pass on for someone about to go through all that?
From doing my course and my experience in the industry thus far, I’d say it’s very male-dominated. There were plenty of women on my Motion Design course but they tend to go into 2D or pursue an illustration route in their actual career. I want to encourage other women to learn Cinema4D and try their hand at Houdini. These are all just tools in an ever-expanding playground. What’s most important is your creativity, your taste, and your artistic eye. FutureDeluxe was interested in me because I was “different” to the people they normally hired. I didn’t have a lot of the necessary skillset but I had an art foundation that lends itself to everything that I do.
Learn not just to make great art, but to appreciate great art. Make a Tumblr blog or Pinterest to curate images that you like, scroll through Behance on the daily, and follow up on trends and upcoming artists; read books in every discipline and make an art Instagram where you only follow artists/people in the industry so you can go through your feed for inspiration. If you don’t know something, research it (Google, Reddit, forum posts, Vimeo, Youtube) until you do. Ask people you admire to review your showreel and join relevant Facebook communities (Panimation, See No Evil). The motion design world is a community you can learn from and get inspired by, but you also need to rise above the trends that get re-hashed every year on Instagram. Get inspired by, but don’t copy. Know what you like, and make it.
Amber actually went to Boston University’s College of Fine Arts to study Graphic Design, but there she fell in love with drawing, albeit through the lens of a designer, with a focus on form, grid structure, and colour theory. After working full-time as a designer and art director for around six years, while freelancing on the side, she took the plunge and quit her job to become a full-time illustrator nearly three years ago.
Students often get in touch with us asking questions around pricing their work and negotiating fees as freelance creatives. Do you have any advice for designers and illustrators just starting out, when it comes to getting paid for work?
My fee structure is a sliding scale; editorial projects with one-off usage come in much lower than brand projects that either claim ownership of the final project (very rare) or have usage rights for decades. Please feel free to DM me on Instagram (@amber_vittoria) or email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have a specific project for which you’d like to gut-check fees! Ask your peers as well – I know discussing finances is very personal, but I feel the more we share with each other about specific project rates and proposals, the more informed we all can be with future work.
What can graduates do to get commissions? A student who responded to our survey said: “I’m aware there is an element of talent and online presence, but what more can we do? As someone graduating right now, I’m concerned about what’s next for an illustrator in a world where the norm would have been degree shows, design events and networking opportunities. Without all that, what can we do?"
I remember the talk Jenny Saville, a visiting painter, gave when I was a freshman. Her life story is amazing and when she mentioned that her senior thesis was picked up by a major gallery, I started to panic. Flash forward a few years and my senior thesis was floating hairy sculptures (long, lovely story) and needless to say, was not being shown to any prominent gallerists. Upon graduating, I began to find brands that seemed like a good fit with my work and send them a cold email. The majority of these findings then came from Craigslist but now come from Instagram and Pinterest. I still do this to this day, with the majority of my work coming from this cold outreach method. It takes a lot of legwork and time, but it gives me a semblance of control of the flow and type of work I receive. Beyond that, be shameless about promoting yourself – to family, friends, online. You are your own biggest advocate.
Swell is an independent design studio based in Singapore and made up of six members, of which Felix is founding partner. The group met on their undergrad design programme and were, as Felix puts it, “basically rather naive at that point in time, so formed a collective just to work on whatever we thought was fun”. After working for a local design studio for a few years straight out of university, Felix made the call to go full-time with the collective.
With the increasing difficulties of finding a job right now, should a graduating student broaden their range of job applications? Or should they still stick to specific types of companies and studios they want to work for?
It’s more important now than ever to be versatile and to be able to pivot and navigate through not only this period, but what emerges out of it – that may also mean to broaden up your range of job applications. We can’t be myopic at this point. Look at adjacent industries where we can develop and expand ourselves. Identify companies and brands that have evidently placed strong emphasis on design in their culture and products. We have to be able to work with different types of people and learn different things from them. This is not at all to say don’t apply for a position at your dream agency or studio; on the contrary – go for it, harder than ever. The truth is, many of them have frozen hiring at present and anyone who is still looking will be understandably extra prudent. In a way, we’ve got to appreciate the hustle. When I was much younger, before I studied design, I took on a couple of odd jobs and was even packing tobacco at a factory at one point. I wasn’t forced into it by circumstances or anything, but I’m glad I went through that, because it formed a certain grounding. We can learn from any experience if we keep an open mind.
How should students and recent grads go about contacting potential employers at this time? Should they apply to jobs as they would normally, as if there was no pandemic, or should they change their application process?
Yes, we should still drop in our applications most definitely, but we’d also be in denial if we were to assume things were the same. So we should learn to pivot. In recent months, we have witnessed incredible accessibility in the creative community where anyone and everyone can participate. For example the #CultureIsNotCancelled campaign by Zak Group, the courses that have been made available for free, or the @livetalkfrom and @designdiplomacy series, to name a few. There is a new kind of sharing economy. How can we leverage this new openness? Chances are, not all of us will be able to secure a job immediately. Don’t be disheartened. Engage with people, use the time to build a presence for not only your work but for yourself as a person – it will make a difference. It may sound obvious but continue to create new work that is meaningful, relevant and has personality.