Insights from the School of Life

By Richard Long RGD


Recently I took part in an RGD portfolio review day at Georgian College in Barrie and spoke briefly with fellow RGDs about how the industry has changed. In particular, we recalled our educational resource challenges in the 80s and 90s. How fortunate students and recent grads are these days to have industry support and events such as Creative Directions with their transition to the professional world.


When I graduated, co-ops were relatively new. They were as valuable an opportunity then as they are today. If graduates did not find employment immediately, they would utilize their time in libraries researching companies. After acquiring contact information of companies, they would drop off their CVs and portfolios in hopes of getting a call back for an interview. Some graduates would go to agencies to see about potential work placements. It was a different time in terms of job search methods. A lot of it was spent cold calling or knocking on doors. Sometimes there was an opportunity to meet with creative directors, art directors and senior designers. These meetings offered a chance to demonstrate what value you might bring to their table. It was more personal than an email for sure, but it was a long, painstaking process.


These days logistics are not as much of a factor. Grads have a farther (global) reach with the web, emails, social media, etc. There are so many more ways to connect but this comes with a price. It has become much more difficult to stand out in the crowd. Filled inboxes may not even yield the opening of a hopeful email with the deluge of applicants for a single position. So making connections remains a challenge.

Once a connection is made, then what? This was a question I asked myself while I thought of the upcoming portfolio reviews. I asked myself, “Would grads find it useful to have some advice they could take away with them?” I pictured myself in their shoes... writing notes in rushed scribbles as the reviewer spoke. Then, trying later to recall the perspectives gleaned from what seemed like a lifetime of experience jammed into ten minutes. Then deciding what to include, improve or leave out of the portfolio. It’s a great opportunity for any design student, but a lot to take in all at once.

So I decided to develop tips for grads, organized into three distinct areas: Career, Portfolio and Interview. Some of the tips are common sense, those you can find on any career advice website or blog. Others are more specific to the design industry, but all come from my own experiences and reflections over the years. It is my hope that these insights will help others as I have been helped by those I've met and learned from along the way.


10 Tips for Your Career 

  1. Don’t presume to know it all. No matter how long you’ve been in the field, you can always learn something new from the oldest veteran to the youngest grad or even people not in the industry who make you think about design in a fresh way.
  2. Never leave your professional development in the hands of others, whether a colleague, boss or mentor. Continuous learning will always be your decision and responsibility. Do not rely on any one source to stay informed.
  3. Talent doesn’t win the race alone. Focused effort, adaptation, knowing the tools of the trade, dedication, people skills and networking are just as important as talent. Do not be discouraged by setbacks.
  4. You are only as marketable as your last job, so choose wisely. In addition to the type of work you enjoy doing, look at cultural fit and know what works for you and them.
  5. Show, don’t just tell. There is no business without show business and not everyone can easily discern what you have to offer. Showing people what you know and do is more convincing than telling people what you know.
  6. Don't do spec work. Never take people at their word when they offer spec work or work in exchange for credit, for your portfolio, a possibility for future work or entering a design contest in hopes of being chosen. This degrades the profession and your value.
  7. Play well with others. The client is not always right, contrary to popular belief. They can sometimes be misinformed (though rarely when it comes to their business if they are experienced), hard to please, indecisive and contradictory. But give them the respect they deserve by listening, weighing, researching, verifying and helping them. Stay humble, but do not be afraid to speak up either.
  8. Many channels can lead to success. Tools like social media (particularly LinkedIn), freelancing, blogging, co-op work placements, registering with a talent agency and meeting industry people at networking events can aid your career. But look first at the value you offer people and “fit”, not the other way around, when approaching prospective employers.
  9. Pay it forward. Contribute to your community to honour those who have helped you along the way.
  10. Stay original. Simple, clear, epic ideas last a long time. If you think you’ve created something you’ve seen before, chances are someone else has seen it too. Do not copy other designers' work, claiming it as your own. It’s a small industry.

10 Tips for Your Portfolio

  1. When it comes to selecting what is in and what is out, edit ruthlessly for quality, consistency, growth, focus and distinctiveness.
  2. Stay curious. Originality can spring from both strategic approaches and creative experimentation.
  3. Keep current. Don’t keep work from five years ago.
  4. Your portfolio should align with your passion and career goals. Do not include work you don’t wish to pursue. You get what you project.
  5. Be aware of the limits and stay within them. Do not show every piece you have created. Include 10-12 at the most, with interesting, value-added stories behind them. In the event that the interviewer wants to see more work samples aligned within their business sector, have a few more projects on hand.
  6. Let the work speak for itself and avoid being apologetic. If the work is not strong, why include it?
  7. Always keep the business objectives of your work in mind. Especially with self-promotion.
  8. Show the quality of your thinking, research, understanding of the audience needs, market competitors, customer needs and priorities within your work.
  9. Find a presentation format that is not cumbersome, is well-maintained and appropriate for the audience. Always have a back-up in case your digital presentation fails to function.
  10. Don’t forget to include a memorable, relevant leave-behind.

BONUS TIP: Award-winning work is nice to have, but helping your clients and creating value for their audiences is the best reward.


10 Tips for Your Interview

  1. Don’t fidget. Relax and stay focused by being prepared.
  2. Don’t bad-mouth previous employers, co-workers or teachers. Words travel farther than you may know and it leaves a bad impression about your professionalism.
  3. Turn off your phone and keep it out of sight.
  4. Give only as much detail as the interviewer requests, but make sure to provide enough detail to strengthen your chances of being considered for the position. Too much may be boring; not enough may sell you short. Take your cue from the interviewer. Keep it real. Do not embellish or stretch the truth.
  5. Stay confident. If you are offered the job and want it, say so, graciously. Show interest in the position by researching the company and markets beforehand.
  6. Be punctual. Always. This demonstrates your reliability and time management skills.
  7. Stay flexible and positive. If offered a second interview or candidate test, give it a chance.
  8. Have an interesting story or two about the work you’ve done, a problem you’ve helped solve or even a passion or interest you have that makes you stand out. Employers see dozens of candidates sometimes and it is easy to get lost in the crowd.
  9. Be patient, but not passive. Ask if it’s okay to occasionally keep in touch. You may not get hired by them. Ever. But they may know someone who might be looking to hire at some point. In the meantime, continue developing other contacts on your own.
  10. Thank the interviewer for their time and consideration.


BONUS TIP: No industry or employment setting is perfect. There will always be people, processes, projects, environments and work life choices you don’t feel are a proper “fit”. Understanding this balance will help you make the decision that is right for you.


About Richard Long RGD
Richard is is a graduate from Humber College’s Advertising & Graphic Design program and Sheridan College’s Illustration program. For over two decades, Richard has developed high-performance creative solutions within a wide range of work experiences from freelancing with design studios and agencies, to working in-house for corporate departments within the public and private sectors. His role as senior designer at YRT / Viva oversees the design and production of marketing and communication initiatives ranging from marketing collateral, reports, presentations, fleet graphics, wayfinding signage, apparel, cartography, art direction, illustration, photography and brand standards development and stewardship.


Click here to download these tips as a PDF.


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