Illegible equals ineligible

While Adrian Shaughnessy feels much empathy with design graduates, he thinks they have to go the extra mile to convince employers to ‘take a punt’ on them

We’ve all read angry letters on the correspondence pages of the design press: grim complaints from unhappy graphic design graduates about the difficulties of finding a first job. And it’s hard not to be moved by their predicament. There seem to be many more design students than there are vacancies, a situation caused by the Government’s worthy intention to send as many people to university as possible and the widespread recognition that design is a desirable modern career option.

Yet I’m constantly amazed by how badly many first-time applicants present themselves to prospective employers. The list of mandatory requirements to make a half-decent application is short. In truth, there isn’t much to get wrong, yet few get it right. You’d think the universities would spend at least some time on this vital aspect of preparing students for professional life. Apparently not. When I visit colleges, I always state the need for good presentation skills when job-hunting, and judging by the responses I get, most of them are hearing this for the first time.

The rules are simple, I tell them. Don’t use a page ripped out of a spiral-bound notebook (many do). Design a letterhead and write a short, coherent, typed letter stating aims, talents and qualifications. Include a few samples of work (don’t ask for these back – employers may want to look at them again in six months’ time – and photocopies or printouts are fine). Don’t write to Dear Sir or Madam; address it to the name of the person responsible for recruitment – and spell their name correctly. I also recommend a bit of old fashioned flattery. Designers are vain, I tell them. So, write admiringly about the work of the studio or company you are applying to. Finally, I give them some granny-ish advice on portfolios and how to conduct themselves in interviews.

Of course, there are many ways to find that first job. There are plenty of stories of applicants sending clever attention-grabbing items to creative directors in an attempt to get noticed: I’ve heard of concrete blocks, inflatable dummies and cakes being received. One student sent me a poster made out of e-mails, letters and transcribed phone calls from dozens of creative directors rejecting his approaches. Not a route I’d recommend, though it made fascinating reading.

But, there’s another side to all this that graduates tend to ignore. Choosing a student is harder than choosing an experienced designer. Veteran recruiters can spot the true worth of an experienced designer instinctively – all it usually takes is a face-to-face meeting and two or three pages of a portfolio. But assessing a student is less easy. Raw and immature portfolios only tell you so much. You have to go by personality and be able to spot latent potential. You have to take a punt. I once employed a guy straight from college. He was confident, charming and had good work. He seemed a safe bet. But on his first Monday he drifted in at 11am, and asked for the following Friday off to ‘do some sightseeing’. He had plenty of time to sightsee after that.

In an attempt to ensure good candidates, the much-admired Canadian designer Bruce Mau invited prospective employees to fill in a ’40-question cultural trivia test spanning art, film and literature’. It was designed to find individuals with ‘the sort of knowledge base and attitudes’ Mau wanted. Here are a few of the questions: ‘Who wrote 100 Years of Non-Linear History?’, ‘Who designed the Asahi Beer Hall in Tokyo?’, ‘What animal did Eric Gill have a certain fondness for?’. The quiz ended with a tie-breaker: candidates were asked to list their ‘all-time favourite movie, restaurant, author, artist, fashion designer, building and book?’ Mau received 150 replies, interviewed 15 candidates and found his perfect employee.

Questionnaires seem to be catching on: a less grandiose one can be found on the website of digital agency Poke. ‘We’re looking for dirt hot freelances’, it announces. Candidates are given a list of statements and invited to ‘tick all our boxes’. Options include: ‘I am the best interactive designer I know’, ‘I’ve got more experience than the village bike’, ‘I am not a tosser’.

Graduates seeking that first break will improve their chances if they remember that, for employers, recruiting designers straight from university is risky. So graduates need to ensure their presentations are impeccable. Many will cry, ‘We do!’. But as long as jobs outnumber graduates, the tiny details could be the difference between success and failure.

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