© 2012 Joel Shakespear – joel@isotope13.com

Commentary on the recent job market, tips for getting your foot in the door, and (hopefully) helpful resources.

It’s a tough market out there. Trust me, I know. I was unemployed for two years after being laid off when the national health insurance company I had worked at for three years, decided to outsource all of their marketing and design to an agency. I learned a lot, and grew more than I could have imagined. I did a ton of contracting and managed to come out on top. But, it definitely wasn’t easy… 

Job boards are almost irrelevant at this day and age if you ask me. At least as far as graphic design is concerned. In two years and hundreds of “applications” later, it has become apparent to me that submitting your resume through a job board like Monster, CareerBuilder, or even a company website will most likely be a waste of your time. I have experienced significantly better results when using staffing agencies when job seeking. Although, I realize my experience and advice may not be the best for, or apply to everyone. But, that’s the beauty of advice, you can take it if you think it applies to you, or don’t if not. The following is my personal experience and lessons learned over the past two years. Take it or leave it.

I had a lot of difficulty getting a hold of one firm in particular, who I had even done work for in the past. I knew they stayed fairly busy… but, it had become clear I wasn’t on their priority list. That is until I dropped off a small “leave behind” of my portfolio. I got a call within the next day or two from the rep to touch base, and I started getting assignments soon after. I had portfolio reviews with several other agencies, which never contacted me again. Thankfully, there were also a few that did bring me in, and kept me quite busy. I am truly grateful for the agents I worked closely with at each of these firms.

First, I will mention the agencies I did not have much success with for whatever reason. I can only speculate as to why I did not have the same success I experienced with the firms I was able to work with. Perhaps it wasn’t a good fit, perhaps they didn’t like my ridiculous sideburns…  However, not to blow my own horn, but, I am a reasonably talented and very capable designer with epic drive to get the job done, and done right. Aquent, Vitamin T, CreativeGroup, and Paladin unfortunately did not get the chance to learn this. No disrespect to them, their agents I spoke with, or the companies they work with. I simply did not have an opportunity to demonstrate my skills and capabilities to them and their clients for whatever reason.

Now, for the agencies I was able to work with. It seems interesting to me, that two of the four that I had the opportunity to work with, in fact, the two that kept me the busiest, have “placement” tests they require before they will ever show your resume to a client. The tests aren’t what I would consider especially complicated. They are for all intents and purposes realistically comparable to what most clients will dump on you as soon as you sit down at a workstation, and they are timed. This, I assume, shows the agency a reasonable indication whether you are fit to send out or not, and I completely understand. Their credibility is on the line as much as yours is every time they send someone out. So, naturally they should want to know if you’ve got what it takes before doing so. Freeman+Leonard (formally Art Squad), and BOSS Group both offer such tests. Creative Circle conducts a very thorough portfolio review, as do most agencies. Shipley Associates, who specializes mainly in proposal work and proposal graphics, was another beast entirely. I got in the door due to a personal referral and the work while a bit sparse, paid quite well.

On to the advice… Your resume needs to be up to date. It needs to include everything your LinkedIn profile covers and vice-versa… especially the dates of employment. You should also note that if you do not have a LinkedIn account, get one. Now. I would suggest putting some thought into the overall layout of your resume. Pick a slightly more stylized font and look, you need to communicate that you are a skilled designer in every aspect that they will possibly come in contact with. It doesn’t have to be crazy, in fact it probably shouldn’t be… Your resume will often be the first thing a potential employer will see from you, so it has to be outstanding. It needs to appeal to the broadest spectrum of people possible, so super-clean, organized, and consistent is the best way to go. If you are even slightly tempted to use comic sans on your resume stop reading now and go enroll in clown school. I’m not even remotely joking.

Web Portfolios
You also need a web portfolio. This isn’t optional. This is the second impression a potential employer will get from you. Some employers won’t think twice about skipping over your resume if they can’t immediately go see your work online. So, you need to include the link on your resume, your LinkedIn, and anywhere else it is conceivably relevant. I would also suggest updating your web portfolio as often as you do new work. Even if you add sketches to your blog… it shows that you are motivated. I would also suggest maintaining a blog specific to your work. Reposting on Tumblr is fun, but, it’s not showing what YOU can do, only what you are interested in that other folks are doing. Behance is another really great way to get your work out there and get feedback from other creatives, and it shows that you are connected to the industry and making an effort to stay up to date. LinkedIn also has a little app that allows you to show a bit of your Behance portfolio right on your Linkedin profile.

Leave Behinds
I mentioned briefly before that a “leave behind” Helped me get the call back I was wanting. This is another great tool for the job-hunting designer because they get to keep a small sample of your portfolio. It is a hard copy so, hopefully it sits on their desk, stares them in the face, and reminds them to call you. Mine was a little half page saddle-stitched booklet that I ran on a laser copier, hand trimmed, folded and stapled. You can have them done at FedEx Office, OfficeMax, Office Depot, or any other place that does color copies. There are online services that offer similar items for a generally reasonable cost. I won’t say this is a must have, but, you want that job, right?

Interviewing is as much an art form as your work. My best advice is to be relaxed, be prepared and be on time. My routine generally consists of the following… Get plenty of sleep! Get up early and get ready! Dress appropriately! If you know the place is casual, don’t wear a suit and tie. If you know the place is uber-conservative, your wardrobe should not scream, “I’m an artist”. If you don’t know, shoot in the middle… you can wear slacks and a button-down without a tie to 95% of your interviews and not look foolish. If the interview location is not a place I’m familiar with, I go extra early, usually an hour to an hour and a half ahead of schedule, especially if it’s close to rush hour. I confirm I’m at the right location, then leave to go get some food. I order exactly what I want, eat leisurely, and call a friend to talk a bit to get the conversational juices flowing and head back about 5 to 10 minutes before the scheduled time. SMILE! They have to like you if you want to get the job! No one wants to work with a robot. Also note, that the night before, I customize my portfolio based on what position I’m interviewing for based on if it’s primarily print, corporate communications, marketing, tradeshow graphics, medical, etc. I feel lucky to have worked on such a wide variety of projects, however, the person conducting the interview will likely not care about your print portfolio if you are going after a web design role and if the majority of your portfolio pieces are stuffy corporate work, your interview with that hip agency will likely be a bit awkward for you both. When the interview is over, send your interviewer an invitation to connect on LinkedIn. I learned this tip when I was conducting interviews and had an invitation to connect before I could get back to my desk. And guess what… He got the job! Fatefully, he and I worked together for about two years and went on to form the Illustrati. 

Personal Networking (Notice that it doesn’t say “social”)
Thou shalt network! You’ve all heard “it’s not what you know, but, who you know”. There is a reasonable amount of truth to this statement simply because a personal endorsement will be taken over a piece of paper with your skills and employment history more often than not. So, get out there and meet people in your industry face to face. There are several business, and industry networking groups that meet in my area each week of every month. I’ve met a lot of people with similar skills, and even more with complementary skills. I suggest taking a big stack of business cards with you to these events. In fact, I will state now, if you do not have business cards get some, and carry them with you at all times. You don’t have to order a thousand at a time… you will probably get bored of them before you use all of them anyway. I can’t tell you how often, in the most unexpected situations that I have randomly mentioned doing design work and been asked for a card. For example, at a pet store, buying mice for my pet snakes. So seriously, take them with you EVERYWHERE!

Get published! It’s a bit of a popularity contest out there. Those who are highly visible get noticed first. So, do everything you can to get noticed. Create tutorials of your work, write articles, and enter competitions! Are you a member of the Illustrati Community? If not, you should sign up and enter some work in the competition… there’s a decent chance you will get published, especially if you write an article or submit a tutorial.

I’m sure there are tons of tips I’ve failed to mention. I’m sure there are better ways to job hunt, interview and impress potential employers. But, these are the tips that seem to work for me, and I hope they help some of you. If you have something you’d like to add, I’d love to hear your comments! Below are a few resources mentioned and there are plenty of other resources out there as well. Find what works for you.













Do NOT use VistaPrint if you want to be taken seriously.