A Foot in the Door: Advice for New Designers

Tips on launching your career from a pro


Marketing for New Designers

Getting started in a creative career is actually all about marketing. You have a product (you). You have services you’d like to sell (in this case to an employer), and so you need to market your product and services. It makes sense, therefore, that you should use established principles of marketing; techniques that have proven effective over the years.

To simplify things a little, I’m going to condense the marketing process into five essential steps. These are:

- Refine the product,
- Identify the target audience,
- Get their  attention,
- Communicate the benefits,
- Motivate the purchaser.

 Refine the product

If you are the product, then refining the product means self-improvement. You’re up against a lot of competition, so make sure you’ve got the skills you need to land (and keep) the job.

• Technical skills
If you’re applying for work as an agency designer or art director, you must have Quark XPress and InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, or comparable skills.They also look for sketching ability (as opposed to illustration), so you can quickly capture an idea, or present something original to a client that cannot be represented by stock photography. If you’re a writer, you must know how to spell, you must know the rules of grammar, and you must know how to proofread. If you’re weak in any of these areas, go back to school.

• Stylistic skills
As well as possessing technical skills, you also need to know what to do with them. Make sure you’ve experimented with different types of executions. The design and writing style of an annual report is very different from a 50-cent-off coupon. The style you’d use to sell skateboards is very different from the style you’d use to sell arthritis medicine. Agencies and design studios are looking for versatility.

• Conceptual skills
Agencies are all about big ideas, so conceptual skills are very important there. If you’re an imaginative person, and you can come up with surprising ways to present familiar ideas, that’s a valuable skill. If not, apply your skills where they will shine to best advantage: production artist instead of art director; editor or journalist instead of copywriter.

• Business skills
Business sense is what differentiates the commercial artist from the fine artist. Never forget that the purpose of your work is to sell something. If, deep down, you have a problem with that, then you should go into fine art, or write novels. To hone your business sense, read Marketing Magazine, Strategy, business magazines, and of course the business section of the local newspaper so you know what’s going on in the world. (That will also give you some impressive small talk in an interview situation.)

• People skills
If you don’t have at least moderately good people skills, you probably won’t succeed in an agency. You’ve not only got to get along with your co-workers, but also impress clients. Rejection will be a regular part of the job, so there’s not much room for inflated creative egos. If you’re shy, join Toastmasters. If you’ve got a temper, take an anger management course. Identify your weaknesses, and see what you can do to fix them.

Identify the target audience

If you only want to work for one kind of company, you can get away with one kind of resume, one portfolio, and one interview outfit. But if you’re applying to ad agencies, government, high tech companies and other employers, you need to tailor your efforts to the demographics, psychographics, and industry of your target audience. (If you’re not familiar with these terms, you should be, so that means doing your homework, and improving your business skills.

Try to anticipate as closely as you can what kind of person you’re approaching. Is it a 60-year-old man, middle income, post-secondary education, conservative lifestyle, working in a government ministry; a 30-year-old woman, entrepreneur, risk taker, working in a web design environment? Your approach to these people should be very different.

Remember that creative directors, marketing directors, communications directors, and other potential sources of work get approached every day by job seekers. They get handfuls of telephone messages, dozens of resumes, hundreds of emails, and that’s on top of their actual work! So the next thing you have to do is capture the attention of your target audience.

Get their attention

You won’t get noticed if you stick a form letter and a resume in an envelope and mail it out. So what do you do? You could be persistent and annoying, and phone them every day to ask for work. This would be the “ring around the collar” school of marketing yourself. These techniques will get you noticed, but probably not in a good way.

• Teasers
One way to get some attention is with a teaser, and the smartest kind of teaser is one that reinforces the services you’re offering. So if you’re hoping to get work as a designer, use something visual. If you want to be a copywriter, use the written word. Make it relevant to the job you’d like to land.

One good attention getter that I once received was a “before and after” example. The fellow sent one page of a company newsletter as it had previously existed—quite cluttered and messy looking—and then the same page as he had redesigned it—very clean looking, nicely organized, easy to read.

If you have lots of time and money you could send a series of teasers, which would all have to look consistent, so the target audience knows they’re from the same person. Then, follow with—ta da!—the resume. But, generally I find that if you send a little teaser or creative gimmick at the same time as you send your resume, you’ll get results.

• Resumes
Keep your resume to one or two pages. Somebody once sent me a dossier that was 18 pages and included a list of her favourite TV shows. Too much information!

Do include your name, address, phone, fax, email; your occupational objective, so they know what kind of job you’re looking for; highlights of your experience and education, any relevant personal information, and references. Don’t include your age, marital status, or cultural background, unless you know it would give you an advantage.

And of course before you send a prospect anything, proofread it meticulously, don’t just hit “Spell Check” and assume it’s OK. I once got a letter from a fundraising organization that started, “Dear Ms Vincent, We believe you ate a concerned citizen.” Hmm. Have someone else do a double-check, just to be on the safe side. This should go without saying, but you’d be amazed at the number of resumes we get that are riddled with typos, spelling mistakes, and grammatical errors.

• Phone call
So let’s say you’ve sent something nifty to your prospect. Maybe she’ll give you a call, maybe not. The beauty of the teaser is that you can wait a few days, and then give her a call. You won’t have to say, “Hi, I’m Joe Bloe, I’m wondering if you got my resume?” And she won’t remember, so she’ll say “sorry, we don’t have any openings right now.” Instead you’ll be able to say, “Hi, I’m Joe Blow. I sent you a little before and after demonstration,” or “I sent you a little green booklet,” or “I sent you...” whatever it is you sent her—and she’ll remember you, and be much more likely to want to see your book.

Communicate the benefits

The thing to remember about the interview is that first, you want to make them want you. You want to show them how you can solve their problems, meet their needs, and become their most valuable employee. It’s all about them. Of course at the same time you’re trying to figure out if this is a job that meets your needs, but you have to be subtle about that. Better to be offered the job and turn it down than be eliminated right off the bat because you came in with a list of demands.

• Interview dos & don’ts
Do dress appropriately to make a good first impression. In agencies the dress can be very casual—jeans and shorts even—but to have someone come in for an interview in cutoffs, bare feet, and sandals is just inappropriate. Dress up, and look as well groomed as you can.

Do shake hands when you introduce yourself—and do it firmly, with a flat hand. Don’t curl your hand, don’t apply bone-crushing strength, don’t shake too vigorously, and don’t offer them a limp dishrag either. If you’re a little bit nervous, wipe your hand on your pants just before you go in, so you’re not all clammy. Smile, and make eye contact.

• The portfolio
Depending on what it is you want to say about the inner you, you could use anything from a colourful custom-made folded wrapper to the classic black zippered case. In the zippered case your work is protected in sleeves; if you use a folder or box you might want to laminate your samples so they don’t get all moth-eaten and ratty.

Choose your samples carefully. It’s much better to show 10 really great pieces, than to go in with 30 samples of work, 10 of which are great, 10 of which are so-so, and 10 of which are amateurish or outdated. That just distracts attention away from the good stuff, and raises questions in the prospect’s mind such as “Doesn’t this guy realize how bad it is? Is she not aware of this typo? Is he inconsistent?”

The other advantage of having fewer samples is that it makes for a shorter interview, and that will be appreciated by your prospect, particularly if you’re showing samples of writing. He’s really not going to want to sit there in front of you for 45 minutes, reading. Meanwhile, you’re sitting there, either trying to look fascinated by the office decor, or else alertly watching his every facial expression, wondering how he likes it so far.

If you’re a writer, and you’ve written something brilliant but it doesn’t look that pretty, it would be a very good investment to hire a talented designer and to do it up. And vice versa. In fact, if you team up and collaborate on a promotional piece that looks great and reads beautifully, then both of you can use it in your portfolio, and you might just get freelance work while you’re looking for a full-time job.

• Position yourself
One way to communicate the benefits of hiring you is to position yourself. Are you a very speedy, efficient worker? Say so. Are you the best designer in town? Make the claim. And then prove it.

Remember that the purpose of any business is to make a profit, not to provide jobs. So you’ve got to show them that hiring you will be a profitable decision. You’re not going to cost them money, you’re going to make them money because you’re fast, you have a special talent or you’re really, really good.

• Answers & questions
Prepare your answers in advance for some of the classic job interview questions.What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Why do you want this job? (Make it a reason that matters to them, not to you.)

And have a few questions of your own. Don’t start in with “How much time off do we get?” Ask about that when they offer you the job. Instead, ask about the business, who their clients are, what their needs are. Then cleverly turn that to your advantage by showing how you will meet those needs.

Motivate the purchaser

So you’ve captured their attention, got an interview, impressed them with your portfolio, and communicated the benefit of hiring you. There are still a few more things to do before you get to sit back and wait for all the job offers.

• Incentives
Is there an incentive you can offer to motivate trial? Can you fill in for other employees on holiday or sick leave on short notice? If they try you, and like you, they’ll want to hire you full-time.

• Follow-up
Send something for them to remember you by. It could be something gimmicky like a pencil with your name on it, or it could be as simple as a thank-you note. Make it relevant, interesting, and professional.

• Faux pas
Phoning to follow up is acceptable, but not more than once. People don’t have time for repeated sales calls. Approaching someone on their personal time or at their home address or phone number is a complete no-no. And, know when to quit. There’s follow-up, and then there’s stalking.

You’re hired

So, congratulations, you’ve got the job. Now what do you do? There are a few organizations that have well designed orientation plans and training programs, but in most cases you will be plunged into a state of chaos. They’re busy, of course, that’s why they hired you. So keep your head up and your wits about you, write stuff down, ask questions, and make friends with someone who can help you get settled. Before you know it, you’ll be the one showing around the new guy.

Don’t stop marketing yourself just because you got a job. Attend lectures, join professional groups, and network for all you’re worth. And above all, keep refining the product. Learn and experience and grow as much as you can, work as smart as you can, treat people right, and your career will flourish.

One last piece of advice: try not to get discouraged, and, never give up. When I first decided I’d like to get into advertising 18 years ago, I did some little concept sketches and headlines, and sent them out with my resume and a witty letter. One creative director called to tell me I didn’t have “a snowball’s chance in hell” of getting the job I was after. “The streets of Vancouver are full of unemployed copywriters right now,” he said. The next person who called was one of the top creative directors in the city. He interviewed me, tried me out, and hired me. It was a dream job come true. If you want it badly enough, and you’re willing to work for it, you will get the job. Good luck to each of you!

By Carol Vincent, Redbird Communications
Associate, Vancouver Island Chapter