As a graduate about to take a leap in to the design industry, which path do you take? Do you try and land a much coveted role within a large agency, do you find a small boutique agency or do you go it alone? Quite often the path can be decided for you, dependant on the economics at the time you apply.
Here are some tips to landing your first design job role and the realties of working in big and small agencies, as well as the pros and cons of freelancing. This advice has come from personal experience, as well as from my husband who is a freelance FMCG Design Director with over 20 years experience in the industry .
Make Connections: This is really important because agencies want to work with people they know and trust. Try and find work placements and internships during the summer months between years on your course. Although they don't pay well, they could be the path to a full time role.
Show off your work: Make sure your work is out there, so people can discover you. Having a website, behance and Instagram accounts will help, but being able to talk through your ideas and work is really key. London graduate shows are often attended by top agencies, so well worth trying to get a spot there too. If you can't attend shows, then see if any agencies are running any graduate portfolio sessions, or even film yourself talking about your work (have a look at Present.me, a great tool for this!).
Do Expect: To make tea: Showing you are willing to help out team by way of caffeine will be greatly respected (honestly!). To work long hours: There are very few agencies that manage to kick out there staff at 6 o'clock. To not be too big for you boots: you may be very talented but try and not come across as cocky, a calm confidence and eagerness is fine. To ask questions if you need to: Don't be afraid to sound stupid, it is better to ask about something you don't understand.
The Big Agency Role: In a large agency you will be part of a smaller team. You will invariably be working on projects that could run for months and often years. This can be dissapointing for a graduate who is keen to 'create', however what you can learn on these huge projects is inavaluable. You will get to work alongside strategists, copywriters, artworkers, print and production teams. You will learn to audit brands, you will understand trends, you will understand systems and processes, why consistency and guidelines are key to larger brands. Quite often there will be training opportunities available too, for example in new software programmes, but also sometime life drawing, visits to paper mills and printers etc In theory you should have a mentor on a day to day basis, but this isn't always the case. At the end of the day as well as having a great agency name on your CV you will also make a huge number of connections. This is the most important part as people like to work with people they know. The design industry shifts and moves, with people quite often moving on every 2 to 4 years.
The Small Agency Role: Quite often the smaller agencies get the more 'creative' jobs (at least on the surface). Their lower rates mean they can take on more interesting brands/ projects and not have to rely on large branding programmes. However this will always a be a balance as they will have 'bread and butter' work running alongside too. The smaller agencies may only have one artworker for the whole studio and have to get freelance copywriters and other design support dependant on the projects. You often have to hit the ground running, however you will feel very much like you are a big part of the business(and less of a small cog) and potential to move 'up the ranks' faster. There is definitely more of a 'family' feel and culture to a smaller business and quite often will be made up of ex 'big agency' staff.
Freelance: Initially you will find it hard to get freelance roles as a graduate, as often freelance support requires designers to be able to pick up a project and run with it in a short space of time. However you could certainly aim to get internships or work placements. The other option is that you try and take on your own clients and jobs as a freelancer, working with your clients directly. Finding those first few projects will probably come by word of mouth or through friends. To build up your portfolio at first you may need to charge lower rates, but even within a year you can bump these up quite a bit. Building your freelance portfolio is key. Although you won't get to learn the processes that agenices use, you will very quickly learn what works for you and you will literally be learning on the job. Thankfully with online tutorials you can often find tech support you need, for example when it comes to artworking. You will also start to build relationships with your own suppliers, for example a good printer, they can also help advise you with print and production. The negative side of freelancing directly with clients is that you don't get holiday or sick pay, plus you also don't get to brainstorm and share ideas and build up your design network/ family. But you will build great client relationships, there will be no 'Chinese Whsipers' as you will hear all the feedback first hand.
Eventually when you have enough experience you will be able to freelance in agencies, this is a great way to network, learn how different agencies work and you will also earn a pretty good day rate. Quite often freelancers won't get to work on the 'gold' jobs or even for the whole length of the project. However if you have a specific talent for concept work, illustrations or hand lettering, you may soon be requested specifically for it.
In summary, there is no right or wrong path, just don't lose faith if you don't get a full time role, keep building your portfolio, keep learning, keep networking, you will get there.