08 November 2006
by Darin Painter
Darin Painter

This is the true story of four young designers, who graduated from school and started looking for work, only to learn what happens when the job market stops being nice and starts getting real.

As an art director in the Boston office of Bernard Hodes Group Advertising, Leigh Standley was working on high-priority projects. She was energized by high-profile clients and earning high praise for her creativity. "Basically, I was high on life," she says.

Unfortunately, she was low on the totem pole.

Standley was laid off when the recruitment ad agency cut approximately 25% of its Boston workforce in March, only eight months after she began working at the firm. "I was like, 'OK, wow, this is actually happening,'" Standley says. "Half of me was relieved to finally know my fate, and half of me was scared out of my mind. I was in Boston and had to pay for my apartment. I wasn't sure what to do."

Thousands of other creatives can relate. As the economy weakens, corporations worldwide are scaling back their marketing budgets, and design studios of all stripes are reducing their payrolls. To stay out of the red, many companies are handing out pink slips and young designers are often the first to get them.

"Since the beginning of the year, it's been extremely devastating," says Roz Goldfarb, author of Careers By Design (Allworth Press, 1993) and president of Roz Goldfarb Associates: Recruitment Consultants, a New York City-based design and management consulting firm. "Tight is beyond description for this market. Design-school grads who are trying to land their first jobs are in a tough spot."

Tough, but not impossible. As Standley and three of her peers have learned, solid jobs are within reach for talented young designers who are flexible, brave, realistic and savvy.

Be Flexible
The most important attribute for job-seekers during an economic slowdown is flexibility, Goldfarb says. If jobs are scarce for design-industry newcomers and they definitely are then dream jobs are even tougher to nab. If you aim for a pie-in-the-sky job, Goldfarb says, be prepared for a slice of reality. "Everybody wants to be in New York, San Francisco or London," she says, "but those places have been hit the hardest."

When searching for their first jobs, Gary Williams, a designer at Cahan & Associates in San Francisco, and his twin brother Robert, a designer at Howry Design Associates in San Francisco, wanted to live in the same city. The location, however, was less important to them than the studios' track records and their own growth potential. "We would have gone to Omaha, Nebraska, if we thought we'd be doing excellent work," Gary says.

Gary graduated last year with a bachelor's degree in graphic design from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA; Robert earned his bachelor's degree in visual communications from California State University at Long Beach. When targeting employers, they took notes on inspiring work they saw at design conferences and in print annuals. Preferring print collateral to other work, the twins narrowed their searches to studios specializing in annual reports.

"We had no real problem getting jobs, but it was a much healthier market last year," Robert says. He says many of their fellow graduates were laid off this year, and some are still looking for employment. "If your primary goal today is to get a job, knowing about [a technology] like motion graphics, when your main emphasis is print, would be an advantage," Robert says. But he warns that it's not possible to be an expert in everything. "Being well-rounded is a good thing, but if the cost of being well rounded is mediocrity, keep it in check."

Brad Gerstein improved his flexibility and marketability by learning Java coding, video interviewing and other skills while he was an MFA student in Art Center College of Design's communication and new-media design program. He wanted a full-time job in a creative department that handled Web, print, advertising, branding and multimedia design. Gerstein used the Web site to locate dozens of prospective Bay Area employers, and many of them invited him to interview.

To prepare for a job that would run the gamut of creative work, Gerstein put himself through the gauntlet. He says it was a "huge challenge" to learn technologies needed to complete his thesis project, Exopolis, an award-winning online documentary about urban sprawl's potential effect on the Santa Clara River (Southern California's last wild river). The documentary, which was an Outstanding Achievement winner in HOW's 2001 Interactive Design Competition, includes interviews with public officials, a detailed map and a call-to-action page with links to various environmental groups.

Exopolis (www.exopolis. org) also includes a link to Gerstein's resume and his portfolio of interactive design, print design and photography. "I think that was the biggest winner for me during my job search because it was pretty whiz-bang-looking," he says. "It helped me show employers how flexible I was." Liquid Thinking, a branding and business-strategies firm based in San Francisco, added Gerstein to its 15-member creative department, partly because of his willingness to collaborate on team-oriented projects.

When an increasing number of people are vying for fewer jobs, "you have to find ways to separate yourself from the pack," Goldfarb says.

Be Brave
While at University of Kansas' School of Design, Standley spent time online and at bookstores, researching the size, turnover rates and design styles of prospective employers. She eliminated firms that lacked a Web presence, assuming they were too small or non-progressive. When she spotted an opening for a copywriter at Bernard Hodes Group Advertising, she sent her resume and received an email rejection letter. Discouraged by the response, she remembered her parents' mantra: "If you want something badly enough, park yourself in the lobby until they decide you need to leave."

"Nothing wonderful has ever been accomplished without risk," Standley says. "Especially now, you have to be the best risk a company can take. If they're going to take one, you have to make it worth their while."

Standley called her contact at the firm several times, and he eventually agreed to critique her portfolio. They ended up talking for three hours, and he introduced her to the agency's creative director. A few weeks passed. Then, Standley sent her contact a postcard that showed her scowling and holding her portfolio. The card said, "The fact that you haven't hired me yet can only mean one of a few things "She listed humorous possibilities such as, "You've relocated to Tibet and feel the commute would be a problem for me." At the end, she wrote, "Or, you've decided I'm just the dynamic person you need! Call me!" The contact called Standley laughing, and the company hired her a few days later. "They just ate it up," she says.

Be Realistic
But what happens once you land the job of your dreams? One reason Gary Williams chose Cahan & Associates over his second choice (Duffy Design in New York City) was the quality of Cahan's eye-catching, often irreverent annual reports.

Williams figured if Cahan's work was off-the-wall, the studio's culture would be, too. But he says the environment is much more subdued than he anticipated. At the firm, designers often work alone, creating different concepts for the same client, who picks the one he or she likes best. "To a student looking in, you see an end product, but you have no idea what goes on at a firm to produce that product," Williams says. "I never realized that before I started working in the real world."

Williams' bottom-right desk drawer at work contains seven projects clients have nixed. "Disappointment is inevitable because you put your blood, sweat and tears into that work, and it might never see the light of day," he says. "But then you suddenly realize: Everyone has one of those drawers." His brother included. Two different annual reports Robert designed at Howry for auction house Copart weren't selected by the client. Robert, who was assigned the project during his first week on the job, says, "You realize quickly that this isn't school anymore. This isn't designing for your teacher or your classmates. This is a different ball game, and every move counts."

New designers are often expected to make an immediate impact on a design firm, and good ideas must be developed in hours not semesters. Standley was partly responsible for a special recruitment advertising section in The Boston Globe during her first few days at Bernard Hodes Group Advertising. There simply isn't time for extended on-the-job training. Designers are expected to learn what they need to know in school and through internships and co-ops.

To prove themselves on their first assignment, Robert Williams and fellow Howry designer Ty Whittington drove from San Francisco to Long Beach one night to photograph Dr. Yi Donuts & Croissants, an all-night shop that also sells toothbrushes and maps. They created The Donut Book, a colorful promotional piece for Sacramento printer Fong & Fong that juxtaposed a print shop and a donut shop. On one page, for example, the print capability "Small Runs" appears beneath a photograph of mini-donuts. The printer loved the avant-garde idea, Williams says.

Jill Howry, principal at Howry Design Associates, says one challenge young designers face is realizing their work must convey a real message. "We're all in this for communication, not just a pretty art piece," she says. Howry, who earlier this year reduced her staff size from 18 to 12, prefers to hire designers who have had internships or other past studio experience. "Young designers should be valuable to others in the studio, just as others should be valuable to them," she says.

Be Savvy
When Standley was a student, she and her classmates worked with design parameters, but seldom dealt with actual budgets. "If I was doing package design for a fictional company," she says, "I would have placed gold trim everywhere. Money was no obstacle."
The reality of a tight market, of course, is tight budgets. That's one reason business-savvy designers are in high demand. "A young person today has to be a lot more knowledgeable [than designers in the past]," Goldfarb says. "Not only do they have to be good designers with technical abilities, they also have to have solid general-business sense. They need to understand what drives clients." But, Robert Williams says, "Lower-budget projects can still be impressive pieces. I've learned it requires a little more ingenuity on the designer's part to make those stand out."

Gerstein has also had to deal with more budget-conscious projects lately. When he started working at Liquid Thinking last year, most clients wanted flashy logo redesigns. He worked on a six-week branding project for Australian Web-tracking firm Red Sheriff that included a redesigned logo, business cards, letterhead, thank-you cards, stickers, folders and envelopes. "Today," Gerstein says, "most projects are driven by return on investment. [Clients] want sales kits and other practical work. I've learned to be aware of those trends."

Be Positive
Job searchers are facing a similar reality check. While Standley doesn't want to leave Boston, she has interviews scheduled with design firms in Minneapolis and Rockford, IL. "You used to do a search for design jobs and get 64 results," she says. "Now, it comes up with six."

Rather than bemoan the unfavorable job market, Standley frequently illustrates greeting cards and sells them to small New England retailers. She's also considering a relaunch of Curly Girl Design, a commercial illustration business she ran for a year before taking the job at Bernard Hodes Group. "I'm excited about the possibilities of trying my own thing," she says, "but right now, I'd prefer learning as much as possible from others."
Standley and her peers have already learned quite a bit about survival and growth in the real world. "As soon as I was let go," she says, "my ears just perked up to what was happening in the industry. It's a little shocking when you realize it's not just you that it's really not unfair. You deal with things very quickly when you realize job cuts are happening everywhere. All you can do is understand the conditions, and do your best to find a new way down the path."

About this article
Reprinted with permission from HOW magazine, December 2001.

About the Author
Darin Painter, a freelance writer in Arlington, VA, is managing editor of Print Solutions magazine.

About HOW Magazine
HOW Magazine provides graphic-design professionals with essential business information, features cutting-edge technological advances, profiles renowned and up-and-coming designers, details noteworthy projects and provides creative inspiration.