It seems like just yesterday I was graduating from college, crying that it was over, filling my Volkswagen Beetle to the brim and hugging my friends goodbye. But I was also ecstatic to imagine finally having a paycheck in my bank account and the chance to nail my dream job in a big city.

Four-and-a-half years and three companies later, I finally have my dream job, and I wish I knew back then what I know now. So I feel a responsibility to relay some helpful tips to design grads entering the work force right now.

1. Network, Network, Network

Graduating with a degree from an established design program is a gift, to say the least, and thousands have been in your same exact position: unemployed and job-hunting. Use these people as a resource. Reach out to as many alumni and smart friends as possible. They can be surprisingly generous in helping out recent grads and often are flattered that you contacted them. Of course, some won’t respond at all. But that’s OK. You’re on their radar.

Go on LinkedIn and do some serious (but professional) stalking. Our generation certainly knows how to find something on a social network when we put our minds to it. Within LinkedIn (and via phone or email), use every mini-network you can: your parents’ church buddies, high school friends, older siblings, professors, your dad’s golf pals… etc.

Applying for jobs online is efficient and necessary, but it will only add your name to a pile of résumés that might not get much attention. Having someone on your side to deliver your résumé to Human Resources can go a long, long way. Some other websites to scour are Craigslist, the Dieline, Monster, AIGA, and creative staffing agencies like Creative Circle, Digital People and TCG (The Creative Group), just to name a few. And is a great omnibus job-hunting site for creative and marketers.

Oh, and there’s another, old-school but proven way: Approach companies directly. Agencies, studios, foundations, public organizations, non-profits, consumer brands, big retailers: many of these have in-house design departments. 

2. Freelance or Volunteer

Yes, an employer is looking for a good portfolio. But they’re also looking for someone they can live and work with for a long time. So personalities are important. Freelancing and even doing volunteer projects (try Taproot) are great ways for you to show your stuff and for them to see you at crunch time. And remember: although you might be desperate for an income, a few weeks doing pro bono work can get you much closer to a job than sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring. One more thing: There’s a difference between volunteering to show your stuff and being taken advantage of by a client that’s just cheap and opportunistic.

3. Once You Get The Interview

Prepare. Start with basic housekeeping – it’s crucial: bring at least three extra copies of your resume and business card to the interview. You never know who else will be there. And never rely on their internet to show your portfolio! Employees often don’t know the billion-character wireless password, and that’s an awkward way to start a meeting. If they have wi-fi ready for you, great, but always have a hard copy or PDF ready to go on your computer or tablet.

4. Dress Right

Creative agencies aren’t law firms, so there’s absolutely no need to wear a full three-piece suit to an interview, despite what Mom might tell you. You’ll see a little bit of everything on designers during the workday, but most of the time the theme is comfort. That said, you do need to look professional, polished, and just a little more conservative than your interviewer is likely to look. Iron your khakis, make sure your button down doesn’t have beer and Buffalo Wild Wings BBQ sauce stains on it, throw on a jacket or some heels and project confidence. Don’t try to be someone you’re not, but do step it up a notch to show those interviewing you that you want it and you’re qualified.

5. Prime Your Portfolio

How you show and talk about your work is very important, because you’ll be pitching it to colleagues and clients for as long as you’re in the business. Pick your favorite 10–12 projects and show variety. You always want to end with a bang, so start with your second favorite piece and end with your favorite. Don’t go too fast while talking about your work.

Be ready to show and explain your process – walk them through your thinking from start to finish. Explain what the creative brief was – this is crucial ­– and justify the choices you made along the way. Show your inspiration, your sketches, scribbles and other nonsense ideas that helped you narrow in on the grand finale. In fact, before the interview, go a few more steps and create extra signage, packaging or even a clever ad campaign on your own to complement the work. Show us your passion.

6. Show Interest

Do some more homework and figure out what we do and why we’re different from other design agencies in the world. Tell us why you want to work here and what excites you about the thought of it. Come prepared with a few questions for us, as well. “What would a successful hire be in your eyes?” is a great one.

Once you figure out whom you’re interviewing with – asking ahead of time is the simplest way – go back on Linkedin and stalk some more. Make the meeting just a bit personal by alluding to their pertinent experience and passions. Go the extra step and create a leave-behind for them. Nothing over the top, but a small thank you token that encompasses you and your skills while also laddering up to the company’s abilities and portfolio. For example, the company website might feature some beer labels that it has designed; why not create your own identity within a beer label with a witty tagline? Because hey, who doesn’t want a free beer??

7. Say Thanks

Send a very brief thank-you email to the appropriate people. No need to gush or overstate your desire for the job. Just call out a few important highlights from the interview and be done with it. Some swear by handwritten thank-you notes. If this is your thing, by all means stick them in the mailbox. Then be sure to follow up in a week or two with a friendly note that doesn’t suggest you’re hurt for not having heard anything. Persistence is key. Try to stay top of mind without being bothersome!

8. Once You Get It

Congratulations, you got the job! But the fun doesn’t stop there … now you need to keep it. You will have a lot to learn, and the best thing I can tell you is to write things down, ask questions, and do it all with a smile. Be proactive in assisting your new coworkers with anything, and make sure there is nothing else they need before leaving for the night, every night. Be that awesome team player who is ready to lend a hand 24/7. If you have some down time, ask if you can shadow someone and just observe them. I can’t tell you how interesting and informative it is to just watch someone else work in Illustrator or Photoshop and pick up on shortcuts and techniques.

9. Anticipate Needs

The most helpful coworkers are the ones who can anticipate your needs or the clients’. This won’t come at first, but start to notice how meetings are set up and facilitated and expect this going forward. Come to these with the same mindset you did for your interview. Think of how to talk about and defend your work.

10. Work Smart

Always sketch first. Don’t waste your time by jumping on the computer immediately and getting caught up on fonts and color choices. Print out those photos you looked at for inspiration and let those tools endorse your concept. Notice trends in stores, take photos, assess the category you’re working in and research the heck out of it. Think about your project full circle.

11. Develop Yourself

Here’s the best advice I ever got: You are in charge of your own development. If you aren’t getting what you want out of your role, then it’s your responsibility to do something about it. If you want something, however crazy it might sound, ask. Set goals for yourself, schedule one-on-one time with your manager to talk about your progress, and make sure she or he is aware of these goals. Don’t ever settle for what is provided to you if you want more. Your job should challenge and excite you. You can’t sit around and wait for your dreams to come true, so be proactive and go out there and get what you want!

And that’s it! Easy, right? Ultimately just be yourself (minus the belching and swearing), aim for a company that you feel will bring out your best self and give you what you need to achieve your goals. Never burn bridges and always stay challenged. Go with a group that’s forward-thinking and culturally strong, and you will thrive.

Kaleidoscope has offered me overwhelming support in every crazy idea I’ve ever come up with and continues to test my capabilities daily. The passion everyone has for their job here is astounding, and in turn makes for happy employees and an encouraging learning environment. I have found my bliss – now go out and find yours!

On a side note, Kaleidoscope is always looking for talented designers with the itch for beautiful things and collaboration. Think you can handle this crazy crowd? Drop us a line and let us know. If you want some practice on interviewing, want to show us your most recent work, or just want to come in and say hi, our doors are always open!