Graduating in a downturn: Advice from creatives who survived the 2008 crash

Illustrator Jean Jullien, art director Emilie Chen, Moving Brands’ Jonny Naismith, freelancer Victoria Kochowski, and It’s Nice That’s very own founder Will Hudson offer their guidance on how to hold on in rocky times.

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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.

Each year we publish a series of advice articles for grads, and each year we think we know a good mix of people worthy of offering up some advice. But it goes without saying that this year is different. We know it’s not an ideal creative industry to be graduating into. Our industry is suffering and there’s a lot at stake. However, there are many people who have gone through similarly unpredictable, scary, economically worrying times, and survived it.

The following contributors graduated during the last financial crash in 2007 and 2008. Things were slightly different back then – 12 years ago now – but overall they get what you’re going through. Times were tough, but one way or another, they’re still all working and contributing to this wonderfully resilient industry that we’ve all chosen to be a part of. And hey – did you know It’s Nice That was founded during that time, back in 2007? So who knows what you could go on to do.

GalleryMoving Brands

Jonny Naismith

After graduating in 2008 with a degree in Communication Design, Jonny interned for a couple of months in London before landing his first junior design role at Moving Brands in 2009. He’s spent the last 11 years working his way up the ladder, going onto become design team manager when the studio opened its New York branch in 2014, and is currently creative director of the global creative company, still based in New York.

Given the current state of the economy, lots of creative graduates feel like they will have to take any job they can get. What advice do you have for graduates who feel as if they are “selling out” by taking a more corporate job because they can’t find work in the industry of their choice?

You don’t know what you don’t know.

I think there’s still long-standing assumptions across the industry about the merits and downfalls of types of environments to work in: in-house, agency, huge enterprise, boutique business, strategy-driven, experience-led, the list goes on. The truth is that the first few years of working in a commercial context shape a huge amount of your experience and expectations from that point on. Paths change, motivations evolve, people respond, and opportunities open that you may have never even considered before.

I think it’s wise to weigh up what you can get from a role rather than what you might be missing out on. There’s value to be derived from all sorts of businesses and organisations with creative functions and the skills you might learn about the relationships, politics, scale and interactions in, for example, a global enterprise would be invaluable to take into a partner creative agency further down the line.

So my advice would be: Lean in with an open mind, frame what value you can derive, and build some muscle memory for a skillset that might set you apart in the future.

Understand where your line is

It really is a privileged position to actually turn down a job if it’s deemed to not be of a suitable creative standard. So on one hand, well played you. However, not everyone has the luxury, so I think it’s important to understand where you do draw the line. There’s a big difference between ‘I just can’t believe in this’ and ‘This isn’t what I expected’. So a valuable task could be to try to understand what part of the creative process does motivate you, to help evaluate any given role and judge it objectively.

Scratch the itch

Personally, I’ve found that making space for my own creative output outside of my place of work can be a sustaining mechanism. You may find a job that treads the delicate alignment of commercial delivery and your own creative interest. There are of course blurry boundaries and you should value your own exploration that will go on to inform your work and those around you. However, I believe at least understanding the edges can both put some boundaries on what is ‘work’ and what you create for your own expression and interest.

Find fellow travellers

Don’t go at it alone. It’s likely you’ve arrived here after a challenging and often unique period of time spent with people. Study, critiques, creative exploration, portfolio building, graduation, job applications, moving… Build the network beyond where you’re employed. Bring those you know along with you and share the highs and lows. Celebrate and commiserate together. For me, it was art school. Hold on to the great relationships and walk it together.

Find great people in whatever role you are in. The creative industries are small and repeating. You never know where those paths connect further down the line. People move around and when they find great people, they want to work with them again. Build the connections now that might set you up for the job you don’t know you’ll have in five years’ time.

Explore the new normal

We live in a new world. This year is unique and we won’t be going back to normal. Companies are adapting to a new environment of work and the places in which we do it. What might that mean for you? Boundaries are changing and the need to only be in the same city is becoming less apparent. What might it mean to apply for a job in Portland when you’re based in Manchester? Maybe there’s an opportunity that didn’t exist before.

The transition from student to employee can be a big jump and we’ve received a lot of questions around how grads can feel more confident in themselves and their work to make this jump. What advice would you offer young creatives in this position?

You are the new breed of skills

I’d like to begin with encouragement. I’m continually amazed by the new class of graduates. These people are learning the craft in a time where the native skillset is light years ahead of what it was even five years ago. Be confident in that. Bring new tools to the workplace, listen acutely, and help the established teams see you as an invaluable extension to what they do.

New eyes, new energy

There’s of course a transition to a new environment or practice, but I feel that you sort of get a pass that you’ll never get again. Ask the awkward questions, explore the things you don’t understand, be the most energetic mind in the room. Junior creatives are often looked to for energy, to prod at the edges and challenge an often engrained viewpoint. Of course bring diligence, care, and attention, but help be part of motivating the work to happen and you’ll soon build a rhythm and cadence for the creative process of the team.

From me to we

I’ve often felt there is a tangible contrast between time spent in art school – developing your style, your voice, your portfolio – to moving into a workplace that is more often than not built on a broad combination of skills in a high-functioning team. Be ready for the work to win. It’s now in service of collective goals and a (paying) client. Stand your ground, maintain strong opinions, and debate widely, but build a mindset to create great work, together.

Be ready to pounce

Lastly, on a practical note, just be ready. Opportunity can come at you fast so be ready to capitalise. Create a simple website, put your work in Google Slides, have a PDF that is easy to email. It may not be perfect but prepare it so it’s ready to share. Finish it, even if it evolves. You will want to change it every time you present. That’s good. You’re building the muscle memory of communicating, reflecting, and adjusting. It will serve you well in any position you take.

Consider the types of teams that motivate you. Shape your work and how you present it to reflect that. Enthusiasm is contagious so let your natural interest fuel your own energy for selecting what to show.

It’s a unique time. You’ll be great.

Émilie Chen

A freelance art director and designer, it took Émilie 18 months to find work in the creative industry after she graduated with a design degree back in 2008. Since then, she’s worked in-house at the National Theatre and Penguin Books and her list of clients’ list includes Somerset House and BAFTA. An avid volunteer and mentor, Émilie stresses the importance of “being kind to yourself” and offers a list of useful resources in her thoughtful advice.

How did you deal with entering such a precarious and uncertain industry back in 2008? What advice can you offer this year’s graduates facing a similar situation?

I studied design in France and graduated in 2008 with a DSAA in Design, which is similar to a Master’s degree. I started looking for a design role straight away but the recession hit, and no one was hiring. Even getting internships proved really competitive! My objective at the time was to get some work experience in London because most of my design heroes were British and I wanted to improve my English, but this made the search even harder, so I started by doing a six-month internship in Paris.

I was lucky I could stay at my parents’ while in Paris, but I had to save money towards accommodation in London, so when I was unemployed, I worked shifts in local nursery and primary-school canteens. If you have to take a job to pay the bills, I’d recommend scheduling time every week to work on design job applications and personal projects. It takes a lot of discipline, but it will help you work towards your goal to get into the creative industry.

It took 18 months to land my first permanent junior designer role after graduating. I left Paris after nine months to move to London and it took another eight months before I landed my next permanent role. It was tough. I must have sent over 100 applications and got very few replies. Something I wish I knew back then is that not getting a response is not necessarily a rejection. Creative directors and design recruiters are busy and they’re just humans, so your emails might have just landed at the wrong time and got buried in their mailbox. Don’t be afraid to give them a nudge after a couple of weeks’ time, and if they come back to you saying they are not hiring, ask if you can get feedback on your portfolio. Most people in the industry are genuinely nice and willing to help.

I managed to land several internships across three years, which proved a great way to get to know different parts of the industry and to identify the type of work and the type of environment I liked the best – so this is something I’d really recommend. Also do keep in touch with people you’ve done internships with. Last year, I reconnected with a designer I did an internship with back in 2010, and he immediately offered me some freelance work!

Finally, know that the time it takes to find your first role doesn’t determine your worth as a creative or dictate your future career trajectory. It took me almost three years to land that first junior role and I vividly remember a few weeks where I thought I didn’t have what it takes and was so close to giving up. But I’m glad I stuck at it because later on, I landed two dream roles as senior creative for the National Theatre and book cover designer for Penguin Books! Things do get better.

What advice would you give to graduates who will experience periods of unemployment? How can they look after their mental health?

Job hunting is draining and getting rejected, or not getting replies, will knock down your confidence. So make time to work on personal projects and to do things that make you feel good – whether it’s drawing, exercising, baking, whatever.

I also recommend you try to teach yourself new skills. For three months in 2011, I spent one hour every day doing coding tutorials. It was a great skill to add to my CV, but also seeing how quickly I improved really boosted my confidence after hitting a low. By the end of those three months, I had redesigned my online portfolio from scratch, which felt like an incredible achievement!

Having a strong support network is probably the most important thing to help you through periods of unemployment and uncertainty, so I’d recommend joining design groups, where you will be able to connect with people at all levels of the industry. The truth is that a lot of places – especially agencies – recruit through their network, so it’s very important to grow yours, especially at a time like this. Even if it doesn’t lead to a job, you might be able to find yourself a mentor to make new friends.

Community groups you can join include Rye Here Rye Now and Creative Mornings, and I also love Fail Better talks and Nicer Tuesdays. The Other Box is amazing for creatives from underrepresented minorities, and She Says and Kerning the Gap (a mentoring scheme) for women. There’s also Ladies Wine & Design London, the group I run with Helen, Gloria, and Angira. We organise free monthly events for women and non-binary creatives and are currently planning virtual portfolio-review sessions with some amazing senior women and creative directors. Our community is very active on Facebook, where members share job ads, interesting events, and give each other tips and advice. We also just activated the mentoring feature, which we’re really excited about. We've also just activated the mentoring feature. It's early days but we're hoping the group of mentors will grow organically and that we can support more and more members this way.

Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Finding your first role always takes time, but we’re in the middle of a pandemic and a big part of the industry is struggling. No one really knows how things are going to evolve in the next few months, but they will get better, and the industry will need you when they do.

I wish you good luck.

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Jean Jullien

Jean Jullien

A distinguished name in the illustration sector, Jean is perhaps best known for the Peace for Paris symbol, an emblem of hope created in support of the Je Suis Charlie movement in 2015. Originally from Nantes, he graduated in 2008 from Central Saint Martins before undertaking a master’s degree at The Royal College of Art. His work has also been featured in the likes of The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Guardian, just to name a few.

A lot of students want to know what they can realistically expect when they graduate later this year. As someone who graduated in a similarly difficult time, what did you find most challenging when you graduated? How did you deal with this?

Strangely enough, I didn’t really see the times affect me much. Or maybe I just didn’t realise. I had been working intensely alongside my studies and when I graduated, I just carried on. I didn’t apply for a position somewhere that might have been impacted by the state of the economy, and my projects were mainly little ones. I think the reality of what’s going on is really hard, and I don’t have a ready-made solution to give but I hope that as ever, when there’s a crisis, some creative solutions can appear. I’ve always tried to keep a steady personal practice going alongside the commercial one (when there were jobs) so both practices would balance each other out. I think that’s why I didn’t feel like things were drying up.

From experience, social media is a great tool to get commissioned work. What’s tricky is that it’s really overcrowded so it’s difficult not to fall into the traps of trying too hard to stand out or chasing likes. From talking with a few art directors and curators, it seems like they don’t really pay attention to followers on social media (whereas some clients might) which is reassuring. Someone with a few followers but great work has as many chances to be picked up by the right people.

Graduating can be a really lonely time, especially after you’ve spent three years surrounded by your peers in the studio with the support of tutors and a student loan. How can graduates keep positive and maintain momentum when they’re no longer at university?

One of the things I enjoyed the most when I was at school was the group dynamic, the emulation that results from being surrounded by other creatives. That can be summed up by ‘Just working in a room full of other creatives’ in a way. So that’s what I did. After I graduated, I took a studio in east London with my brother Nico and some other friends (Thibaud Herem, amongst others). This studio has had many iterations but it’s been pretty steady with many people coming and going. I guess if I had to choose, I’d choose good company over comfort. I think it’s more stimulating.

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Victoria Kochowski

Victoria Kochowski

After graduating with a degree with a Communication Design back in 2008, Victoria found it “SO SO SO SO tough” to enter the industry. Since then, the freelance designer has worked for the likes of Wieden + Kennedy, Droga5, Anyways Creative and McCann.

What advice would you give to grads who can’t seem to find a way into the creative industry?

Get your work seen. One thing that current grads will benefit from compared to 2008 is the power of the internet, and the ability you have to share your creative work directly with other people. Get your work on Instagram, create a portfolio site, get on LinkedIn, take part in digital talks, create WhatsApp groups with fellow grads – I am currently part of a delightful freelance group and we give each other advice of all sorts.

Try to meet as many people as you can (I realise this might not be that easy to initiate given the current climate, however). Find companies or creatives you admire and reach out for portfolio reviews and advice sessions via video chat. Get absolutely all the practice in presenting your work and asking for feedback. There are a lot of people offering this, as we all have more time on our hands at the moment. Most people have been in your shoes and will give you their time to help, especially during these difficult times. Also be mindful that the industry is hurting right now, so some people just might not have the capacity to do so.

Set yourself self-initiated briefs. More than ever the world needs your creative thinking. It provides the perfect platform for your creativity to be experienced. Create a brief for yourself – it doesn’t even need to be that complicated. Set yourself a challenge every day and stick to it for a month. Learn a new program or take some tutorials to explore a new way of creating. Find something that pisses you off and try to change it. Or use your powers for good and find a positive way to make an impact on your community. It all keeps your creative brain churning and thinking, but the main thing is to get out of your comfort zone, create create create, and share what you make.

Do NOT work for free – unless it’s for a genuinely worthwhile cause (i.e. a charitable/community organisation or collaborative project). Not everyone can work for free and as a creative industry we really need to make sure everyone has a fair chance at starting out. Also, you are worth it; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Do. NOT. Give. Up. It might take time, but you will get there.

What top tips do you have for being straight out of university in a difficult economic situation?

Allow yourself space and time to breathe. You just finished three or four intense years of education. Don’t let this situation take away the joy and celebration from that. Have a video degree party with your classmates and tell 2020 to piss right the ‘eff off. Allow yourself to indulge in this moment. It’s a major accomplishment, so celebrate it.

Do what you need to get by. If you need to get a job in a shop, do it. See what government financial support you can get. Don’t see this as failure; it’s just part of the journey and nearly everyone is in the same position. This is the reality of the situation – it sucks now but the industry will soon pick up and there will be a strong need for fresh talent.

Also remember to look after your mental health. I think there’s a lot of pressure to be constantly doing something; it’s OK to take a breather. If one day you get up and just aren’t feeling it, it’s OK to stay inside and watch Bob’s Burgers all day and hoover the entire house. Take a week off to focus on yourself if you have to. Don’t feel guilty about it, just have that time if that is what you need. Make sure to turn to friends if you ever need support and also be there for them. A phone call is all it takes to turn someone’s day around.

Will Hudson

In his final year of studying graphic design at the University of Brighton in 2007, Will started It’s Nice That as a student project. Now, he oversees the creative output across all sides of The Hudson Bec Group, a creative organisation founded with Alex Bec which includes It's Nice That, Anyways, Lecture in Progress and If You Could Jobs.

You managed to establish a business in the midst of a recession. What advice can you offer graduates on how best to ride out this storm? How can they use this situation to their advantage?

Trying to write anything from the experience of graduating in the last recession to offer support and advice to this year’s graduating students is tough. There is no playbook for graduating during a global pandemic. Instead what I offer is some insight into how we started out and some of the opportunities that might repeat themselves over the next year or two.

I graduated (along with Alex Bec, the co-founder of the HudsonBec Group) in 2007 from the University of Brighton, the year before the last financial crash. I was lucky to get a job offer relatively quickly while my peers did a mix of entering full-time work, interning, freelancing, travelling and taking some time off to work out what they wanted to do next.

I worked in a design studio and learnt a huge amount in a short period of time but in the spring of 2008 I decided to leave to focus on It’s Nice That alongside some freelance to make ends meet. Shortly after the crash struck – and had I not voluntarily left my full-time position, the chances are I would have been made redundant alongside countless others across the industry.

At the start, the biggest focus for us was proving we had a service that had value. Could we pitch work, win work, deliver work and get paid for it? This was very much week to week and project to project.

We started like everyone else – we sent introductions in anticipation that the big job was only an email away. More often than not we would get polite replies and be told we’d be considered in the future (a thinly veiled excuse I am probably guilty of using today). We then learnt that if we could get in front of potential clients it started a relationship that would more likely lead to a job. We also worked out the network we could build through introductions from people we’d already met (like tutors and visiting lecturers) opened doors far quicker than cold calling creatives.

I believe we won work at the start because we were more affordable than the other options, and we were almost certainly available to start straight away. We said yes to opportunities even when we weren’t exactly sure how we’d do it, it wasn’t necessarily the work we wanted to be doing, or work we had experience in doing, but it paid the bills and allowed us to work some stuff out together. 

We kept our costs low, initially renting two desks from the illustration collective Peepshow in their East London studio. Alex had been freelancing with them for a few months so this came up in conversation when we decided to try and do our own thing. We didn’t take much of a salary – we aimed to pay ourselves £1,000 each per month and keep anything else in the business account to build a bit of a buffer. Some of the best advice we got early on was from Paul Smith who told us to only spend what we had in the jar (basically: spend wisely, save money and don’t borrow). Three years at university was good practice at being resourceful!

When I look back I have no doubt there was some uncertainty and apprehension. But we tried to focus on the opportunity and make the most of the situation as it presented itself to us. We’ve actually had far more challenging conversations recently, as we now have the responsibility of employing 42 people across four businesses (not to mention kids at home and mortgages to pay). We didn’t know all the answers then and we certainly don’t pretend to know them all now. One thing we’ve definitely learnt, though, is that a network is key, not just when you start out but right through your career. We still rely on people we’ve met along the way and often ask for their advice and feedback.

As I said at the start, this is going to be a strange time for this year’s graduates. You won’t have the same opportunities to go and meet creatives in their studios or potential clients in person. There will still be entry-level jobs but more of you might need to hustle and be self-starters to make money on your own terms to begin with.

When I left my job in 2008, the financial crisis meant there wasn’t a thriving job market and I certainly wasn’t inundated with job offers. Who knows – It’s Nice That as you know it today could look very different (or not exist at all) had we graduated into a “better” situation.

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.

jo@itsnicethat.com

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