How to Get Your First Design Job – The Exhaustive Guide

Vicky Shoub
December 13, 2018
9 minute read

You’ve got skills, a great portfolio, and stellar recommendations.

The only thing you need now is a design job.

As many an experienced designer will tell you, landing your first job is one of the toughest parts of building a design career. The competition for entry-level jobs is intense and since you have no prior experience, standing out is hard.

To make things easier, here’s our guide on how to find your first design job.

Part I: Understand Hiring

If you want to land the perfect first job, you have to understand how the hiring process works, what employers look for, and how much negotiating power you have.

Understand Your Situation

Recent graduates looking for their first job often have a skewed perspective of the job market. They might think that the process is heavily weighted in favor of employers, or that they have no say in the negotiation process.

That’s not true at all.

Employers work exceptionally hard to find the right candidates. In hard-to-fill creative roles such as design, they’ll often go out of the way to attract top talent.

In fact, attracting and retaining talent is the number one priority for creative agencies – among the top employers for designers.

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You’ll understand why employers care so much about hiring when you realize the costs associated with it. An SRHM survey found that the average cost-per-hire for any employee is $4,129. For skilled workers such as developers, this figure can be as high as $31,970.

In other words, employers have a strong incentive to:

  • Attract the right candidates, and
  • Make efforts to retain them

Once you realize these facts, you’ll find that you have a lot more say in the hiring process than you realized.

Understand What Employers Want

What exactly do employers look for when hiring designers?

The easy answer would be “skills”, but that doesn’t show the complete picture.

While skills are undoubtedly important, employers care more about results and marketable skills.

To understand why, you first have to understand how employers utilize your services.

Most companies that hire you would fall into two categories:

  • Product-based companies that use designers to create and sell products, such as Microsoft, Apple, etc.
  • Service-based companies that sell designers’ time to other companies, such as creative agencies.

In the case of product-based companies, the exact skills the employer wants will vary from employer to employer. A company that invests little in graphic design but a lot in UI/UX will want designers who focus on the latter. Another that does a lot of illustrations will want you to have Adobe Illustrator skills.

But in the case of service-based companies (which are among the largest employers for designers), your worth is essentially tied to how much the company can bill for you. In-demand, technically challenging skills that lead directly to increased revenue for clients are worth more.

This is why a starting UX designer gets paid much more than a graphic designer. The former’s skills can lead to higher conversions for agency clients, which increases your value.

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Essentially, employers want people who can bring in more money. And for that, you have to show skills that correlate directly to higher revenue or conversions.

For example, a graphic designer might create a smashing brand identity that helps a client stand out. But “brand value” is abstract and can’t easily be tied to higher revenue.

In contrast, a UI/UX designer might create a revamped version of a website that converts better, and thus, helps the client make more money. Since the UX designer’s work can be directly tied to increased revenue, his skills are more in-demand.

Thus, when you’re searching for your first design job, focus on skills that are “closer to the money”. Instead of emphasizing abstract skills such as “creativity”, target skills that help your employer bring in more money.

This will do a great deal to help you stand out.

Understand the Market

A lot of new design grads enter the market believing that they’ll get a chance to exercise their creativity and create category-defining campaigns.

The truth, however, is a lot more somber.

Unless you find work as the only designer at a tiny company, you will have to deal extensively with constraints and rules. If you’re working at a creative agency, for instance, you’ll have to create designs that fit the creative brief. For high-value brands, these briefs tend to be extremely detailed, telling you exactly what specific colors, font, and even line-height to use.

Even at product companies, as an entry-level designer, you will rarely get to create designs that go straight to market. Rather, your designs will go through various iterations before they go live.

Apart from creative rules, you’ll also have to deal with organizational rules and corporate bureaucracy. The larger the organization, the more rules you’ll have to deal with.

So when you search for your first design job, it is important to understand what kind of work you’ll do and temper your expectations. There is a clear correlation between “freedom & creativity” and “financial stability and good pay”.

As a general rule:

  • Choose freelance if you want few organizational rules and can do with lucrative but unstable pay.
  • Choose a small company if you want more freedom (creative as well as operational) but are okay settling for lesser pay.
  • Choose a large company for a more stable job but with lower creative freedom.

Understanding this will make your job hunt, and the experience afterwards, much more satisfying.

In the next section, we’ll share some practical tips to get the design job you’ve always wanted.

Part II: How to Get Your First Design Job

Finding your first design job is all about positioning and outreach. You want to reach out to employers on the right platforms, and you want to position yourself as the kind of talent they want to hire.

We’ll share a few tips to do this below.

1. Apply even if there are no open positions

Ever dreamt of getting a design job at IDEO? Or working on new digital products at Google?

Don’t hesitate to send in an application even if you don’t see any open positions.

Design-focused firms like to maintain a full pipeline of talent, regardless of their current needs. When they do get a new opening, the leads they already have in the pipeline often get first priority.

So if you have a target employer that isn’t currently hiring, still send in an application. It’ll stay in their pipeline and when the need arises, they’ll turn to you.

2. Find a connection

In a recent interview, the founder of creative agency Fuzzco said that nearly half of all their design talent comes in through references.

This is one of the worst kept secrets in the design industry. For all the open positions they advertise, companies still prefer to hire in-house or through references.

For employers, turning to references makes sense. Anyone coming in through a reference is already vetted to some degree. This reduces the resources they spend on screening and qualification.

Before you send in an application at your target company, study their company on LinkedIn. Look at their list of employees and try to find 1st or 2nd degree connections.

Search for your target company and look for 1st and 2nd degree connections

When you do find such contacts, use your common connection point (a shared contact, alma mater, etc.) to spark a conversation. Mention that you’re a designer and point to the company’s open position. Ask them to put in a good word, if possible.

An internal recommendation will go much further than a cold application.

3. Make prolificness a habit

Employers might value creativity, but they value your ability to ship products even more. They don’t want to hire just a creative individual; they want to hire someone who can create sharp designs across a variety of product categories while sticking to the brief.

The surest sign of your ability to ship is a large portfolio. Being prolific shows employers that:

  • You love design or are at least serious enough about it to work on it extensively
  • You can work across industries and product categories
  • You can stick to a creative brief
  • You can create finished designs, not just half-baked creative ideas

Ideally, your portfolio shouldn’t be focused entirely on a single industry. This is particularly true if you’re applying for a job in a creative agency where you might have to work on multiple clients at once.

4. Tear up your traditional resume

Is your resume a boring list of your experience in 12-point Times New Roman font?

If yes, consider sprucing it up with more punch and personality.

As an information-heavy document, the resume acts as a great vehicle to showcase your design chops. How you organize information, your choice of layout, and even your font choices will be scrutinized by art directors to see whether you understand clarity in design.

Here are some ways to brighten up your resume:

  • Choose more innovative fonts – or at least switch away from Arial and Times New Roman.
  • Switch from Word to a tool that gives you more creative freedom, such as InDesign.
  • Chose font-size, line-height, and paragraph spacing to make information easier to read.
  • Consider adding some color (but don’t make it overwhelmingly colorful).
  • Be careful of being too innovative with your resume. They can be memorable for all the wrong reasons. Balance creativity with convention.
  • Ditch unnecessary sections such as “objective”. Aim to be brief while still giving hiring managers the information they need.

5. Re-organize your portfolio

One of the more common mistakes new designers make is sending the same portfolio to every company they apply to. Not only does this make your portfolio difficult to sift through, but it also doesn’t tell hiring managers how well you’d perform in their specific niche.

As Daniel Myer, a UI designer at BMW says:

“It helps to show work that relates to BMW or another luxury vehicle brand, even if it’s purely conceptual”

The solution is to re-organize your portfolio for different industries and product categories. Each of these sub-portfolios should be either organized around a product category (such as ‘cars’) or a theme (such as ‘luxury’ or ‘value’).

Make sure to include a few examples from outside the category to show the breadth of your work.

When you apply for a job in an industry, use the appropriate sub-portfolio. Add a link to your full portfolio as well. This will show recruiters that you have industry experience as well as a broad set of skills.

6. Be where your employers are

A core tenet of business is to “be where your customers are”.

This applies as much to a designer as it does to a hot dog vendor. If you’re not active on platforms where employers actively seek talent, you won’t land those top opportunities.

For design talent, employers frequently turn to the following platforms:

  • Major job boards such as Monster, Indeed, etc. Although these aren’t the top feeders to prestigious design jobs since there is often just too much resume volume on them.
  • Niche job boards such as WeWorkRemotely (for remote positions),, etc. The offers here tend to be more targeted.
  • Design-focused discussion boards such as for niche roles in smaller companies.
  • Portfolio sites such as Dribbble and Behance. Because of their large design audience, they often attract mainstream companies.
  • Recruitment services such as TopTal. These services often have a test or screening interview. Employers prefer them since the screening process eliminates all but the most talented of designers.
  • LinkedIn – of course, we can’t leave out the biggest recruitment platform on the planet.

Not all these platforms have the same kind of jobs. Generally, niche platforms attract smaller companies and more specialized roles. If that’s the kind of job you want to work in, such platforms should be your top priority.

Besides the above, you can also try out recruiting agencies such as Gemini People and Propel. Although not ideal for first jobs, recruiters can make the search process much easier, especially if you have experience.

Refer to our list of design resources for more job boards, design communities, and portfolio sites.

7. Show, don’t tell

At any design interview, you’ll invariably be asked to talk about your design process. Employers want to know how you go from concept to final product, and whether your process aligns with theirs.

Yet, so many designers neglect to include their design process in their portfolios.

Make things easier by focusing on showing, not telling in your portfolio. Don’t just share the end product; share how you got there. Your concepts, wireframes, even napkin sketches should be a part of your portfolio.

For example, former Google designer Rachel Schultz included the pen-and-paper sketches she made before designing an app in her portfolio.

Apart from the design process, this sort of “show, don’t tell” exercise is also a great storytelling tool. It gives you a chance to share the process of discovery, conceptualization, and ideation that helps you take things from idea to final product.

8. Network proactively

As they often say, it’s who you know, not what you know that matters.

In design, a large network will often open up new opportunities for you, even the ones that aren’t advertised anywhere.

How you network will depend on where you currently are and how much time/money you can devote to it. If you’re still studying, your college itself will be a great networking opportunity (especially your alumni network). If you have the means, attending an industry conference can be a great way to know new people.

Some ways to increase your network size are:

  • Join design organizations such as AIGA and volunteer at their events. This is a great way to get in front of hundreds of people without spending a dime.
  • Attend local design meetups. If you’re interested in a particular industry (such as automobile firms or tech companies), expand your focus by going to their meetups as well.
  • Join virtual communities, design boards, and even closed networks such as DesignerHangout.
  • Reach out to people in your industry whose work you like. Share useful resources, insight, or even positive comments on their recent publicly shared work. Don’t sell anything; just be useful and register yourself on their radar.
  • Attend industry conferences and events. This is the fastest way to rapidly increase the size of your network.

A large network is worth all the time you spend building it. Be proactive about it and you’ll never be short of opportunities.

Over to You

Finding your first design job isn’t easy. You have too much competition and too little experience. Follow these tips to make your job search easier and land that gig you’ve always wanted.

In the meantime, check out Workamajobs to find some of the most sought-after agency jobs.

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