We all start somewhere

I was a student not that long ago and can remember quite clearly the unsettling feeling that comes with a looming graduation date and a cloudy understanding of what the future will bring. And yes, there is also the excitement of knowing something new is about to begin, but when I talk to students, the former emotion always seems to resonate more. Seriously, with the exception of those who already have jobs lined up, how many near-graduation college students do you know that don’t have “STRESSED OUT” written across their foreheads?

We recently had a group of students from the DC area visit the CHIEF office through the Art Directors Club of Metropolitan Washington. They had quite a few questions about how to make their portfolios stand out so they could snag that first out-of-college job. Since I deal with stress by making lists (to-do lists, to-buy lists, etc.), I decided to offer my help to stressed out soon-to-be-professional designers by making a list of the top three things I look for when reviewing portfolios.

No. 3: I Look for Personal Work

When reviewing a portfolio, I like to see work you have done outside of the classroom. It can be work for a club or organization, or even the wedding invitations you created for your friend’s sister’s best friend. Non-school work shows me that design isn’t just a box you checked on a list of majors, and that you didn’t sign up for it because you saw the GraphicDesign.com release saying graphic design jobs are growing faster than the national average (30% faster). Independent projects also highlight what you can do on your own, without an instructor advising, or limiting, you. These efforts give me a peek at your personality, and if I’m considering working with you for the next one, five, or ten years, I want to know who you are.

No. 2: I Look for Students Who Take Ownership of Projects and Have a Wow Factor

When explaining a project to me, please don’t ever say, “my professor told me to do x, y and z.” Even if your instructor did give you a significant amount of guidance, take ownership of what you created and focus on the things you personally did to make a design different from your classmates’. Even better, take that logo you made for Branding 101 and create a package for the imaginary product you had in mind. Make a website for it. Design some shirts, stickers, whatever would help sell the item in the real world. Hell, turn it into a real product, fund it on kickstarter and then get me to invest in it.

No. 1: I Don’t Look at the Portfolio

Okay, so this is sort of a trick. But what’s not in your portfolio is just as important, if not more, than what is in it. I listen to how you talk about your work. I Google you to see what you’re interested in outside of design. (I know, it sounds creepy, but trust me, it happens. At one of my past jobs, someone told me they knew they wanted to hire me because they liked the music I listened to on last.fm.) If you were referred to me by someone, I ask for feedback about you.

Many of the young designers I meet are referred to me by friends and colleagues. So do yourself a favor and start building a network early on in school. Read a particularly interesting essay by a designer you admire? Reach out. For the most part, the designers I know are friendly and always up for another cup of coffee. (We’re also a bit of a narcissistic bunch and generally excited about the opportunity to talk about ourselves.) If you really make a connection with someone, go out on a limb and propose a mentor relationship and monthly get-togethers. Do this often! Keep meeting people and learning from them. Next thing you know, you’ll have an entire network helping you get that first job, and it won’t be such a daunting prospect.

To all you young designers out there, I can’t wait to be inspired by the work you’re doing (and to fund your next kickstarter campaign). And if you’re still freaked out about finding a job, just make a list of steps you can take to get a little closer to that goal. It worked for me!