“It’s easier to get a job when you have a job.”
There is some ring of truth to this cliche. If you’re a designer starting out – perhaps you’re a fresh graduate, or you’re changing careers – this can seem frustrating and paradoxical. Most high-status job openings are available only to those with years of experience. If you must have experience to get experience, how does anyone ever get started?
Fortunately, it is easy to build an impressive design portfolio with no professional experience whatsoever. Even if you’ve never had a paying client, you can do remarkable work and showcase it in a manner that will open doors.
Think Like a Designer
Before you create an online portfolio or get an account on Dribbble or Behance, rethink your entire life story, from the perspective of your identity as a designer.
“If you’ve ever solved a problem, then you have design experience,” says Jason Early, a designer, entrepreneur, teacher, mentor, and author of the career guide Getting Hired. “You just need to reframe how you present it. The design process is used to address a challenge. Any challenge. And showing how you worked through the process to address that challenge can be a portfolio piece. Show your work. Just like in grade school math class, showing how you got to a solution shows how you think through a challenge. And that is what a portfolio is. A collection of examples showing how you reached a solution.”
As you move forward in your career, you will learn to say “no” to opportunities that don’t serve you. However, in your early days as a designer, you must err on the side of taking on more work and saying “yes” to as many different projects as you can. Then, follow the green lights.
Look for pro bono projects for nonprofit and charity organizations you support. (Taproot Foundation, a clearinghouse for pro bono creative work, is one place to start.) If you have acquaintances who perform or promote shows, offer to design graphics and fliers for them in exchange for free admission (or beer and pizza). Seek out any opportunity to show up and create something.
If you’re passionate about the early work that goes into your portfolio, you will likely find opportunities to do more work like it, for more generous compensation.
Make All the Things
Keep solving problems, embracing fresh challenges, flexing different muscles, and adding work to your portfolio. At first, you may be frustrated that your own work isn’t up to the standards of the successful designers you admire. This means you’re right on schedule.
Work through the “taste gap,” push through the resistance, and keep showing up. The only way to do great work is to do lots of work. As you consistently generate more new samples, you can continuously update your portfolio to showcase better and better examples of what you’re capable of.
Find the Others
You are one of many people building a creative career. It may scare you to think you have millions of skilled and hungry competitors. But you can shift your thinking and instead see the creative people around you as potential collaborators, eager to work and grow together. Being independent doesn’t mean being alone.
Attend networking events and reach out to those who have complementary skills. Then, work together on projects that showcase and challenge you both.
For instance, if you are a designer, join forces with a like-minded copywriter. You may build a fruitful long-term partnership, like copywriter Jeff Goodby and art director Rich Silverstein, with a joint brand that combines your talents. At the least, you will build your professional network, enrich your thinking through cooperation and mutual respect, and do work together that you wouldn’t and couldn’t do alone.
At Artisan Creative, we have years of experience helping new and experienced designers build their portfolios, their networks, and their careers. Contact us today to learn more and get started.
We hope you’ve enjoyed the 466th issue of our a.blog.