Future Designers: How to prepare for life after college

It wasn’t long ago that I was a wide-eyed, almost-college-grad graphic designer preparing to walk the stage and find my very first big-kid job. I remember the excitement, the nerves and the fear that I hadn’t properly prepared myself for what was next.

Thinking back to this time makes me reflect on how I could’ve better prepared myself and what I did correctly before sending out a single resume.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, these tips may help:

Figure out your passions

College comes with a lot of guidance, but after graduation, big decisions are abruptly left for you to make on your own. Graphic design has a lot of career path options and it’ll be up to you to navigate them. Do you want to be your own boss? Dive deep into a single brand with an in-house team? Or have the ability to work on a variety of projects for multiple clients? Are you interested in digital, branding, illustration or advertising campaigns?

Realizing what you love to create early on won’t just help you have a happier, more successful career, it will also help you shape your personal brand.

Get a design internship or three

Working for a design or advertising agency is competitive. So get in any way you can. If you have an opportunity to do an internship, jump on it. There’s no better teacher than real-world experience. School provides plenty of great lessons and fundamentals, but it’s also important to learn about what it’s like in a professional environment.

Working with clients is nothing like working on a school project. You won’t have complete control over a project and you will run into differing opinions. In reality, you will be thrown curveballs you’re not expecting. Working within certain guidelines will force you to think creatively so you can accomplish your client’s project to their satisfaction.

Be prepared to network at all times

When I moved to Boise after college, I didn’t know a single person. I was able to secure an interview with a company in town because I had a connection through one of my professors. Things didn’t end up working out there, but the person I interviewed with connected me to Ward and Jill (the Duft Watterson founders), which led to me getting hired here. It may seem cliche, but it really is all about who you know.

Make every interaction count, have a stack of business cards handy, and keep your LinkedIn profile up-to-date. You never know who may talk you up to a potential employer.

Know your social media

Social media is a snapshot of your life and personality. Like it or not, potential employers will be looking to your social media to see if you’re the right fit for their company, so be mindful about what you post.

Your social media presence tells others about who you are. Not only that, but it’s important to have a good understanding of how to use each platform appropriately. You’ll be surprised how many social media ads you could be creating once you lock down a job.

Build a portfolio that demonstrates great design and campaign thinking

When I was in school, there was a lot of debate about whether we should have a physical portfolio or web portfolio. We live in a fast-paced world and truthfully, it’s not realistic to skip out on creating an online presence for you and your work. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a physical portfolio. An actual book to present in an interview can be very helpful and will showcase your personal craft, but you should also be prepared for when an employer asks for a link to your work. Usually a  prospective employer will say, “Shoot me your URL,” before they’ll even meet with you.

But don’t forget about your personal brand

Find ways to differentiate yourself from other designers. Look at other portfolios to find what works and what does not when determining the direction of your personal brand. Adding animations to a website or using a specialty paper in your book can go a long way and show the amount of thought you put into your brand. Make sure your portfolio clearly shows the type of work you are interested in pursuing while also displaying your best work. This will ensure that a potential employer can quickly click and thumb through your portfolio, while seeing what kind of designer you are and how you could fit into their team.

Be someone who others would like to grab a beer with

While you’re out there meeting people, make sure to show them the best version of yourself. Listen, ask questions and be humble. Part of getting a job is being someone other people want to work with.

Always be willing to learn

The lessons don’t stop after you’ve left the classroom and received a diploma. You’re going to be out in the world with people who have a lot more experience than you. Be prepared to learn, make mistakes, listen to feedback and correct accordingly. And get cozy to Lynda.com, Skillshare, etc. Chances are that the software you already use can do a lot more than you realize.

Final words of advice

Even if you take all this advice and implement it into your life, it doesn’t guarantee that all of your interviews will end in a job offer. There will be positions that just aren’t right for you. There will be people out there with more experience who may end up beating you out for a job at your dream agency. Don’t let these moments defeat you — allow them to be opportunities to learn. If you make it a point to put your best foot forward and present a portfolio you believe in, you will find your place in the design business.