How to Stand Out as a Fresh Web Design Graduate

With the yearly influx of creative designers about to graduate, all looking for unique and full-time opportunities, how can a fresh designer compete? Here’s how.

Expectations & Outlook looks good

A survey, by The Creative Group, asked marketing and advertising executives “In which of the following areas do you expect to hire in the first quarter of 2012?” and their answer reveal that agencies are looking for more people skilled to online creative areas.

29% for Web design/production 23% for social media 18% Interactive media 17% Print design/production 16% Mobile applications development 14% Media services 9% Creative/art direction

So there are jobs available and you may have many of the requirements, but does this mean you get the job? Having the required skills and experience certainly helps, however a designers experience only accounts for 2% of what an employer looks for when hiring, according to The Creative Group—leading us to the other important factors.

How to Get Noticed

“First impression is everything. You won’t get my attention by sending me a boring email. Creative directors get hundreds of emails a day so if they happen to be on a deadline they won’t have the time to address your email right away and then it will get lost and forgotten in a string of emails” – Catherine Baird, Dashboard
Catherine Baird advises “Sending things via snail-mail are likely to get attention… Whatever you end up doing, make sure it looks professional. Things that look too crafty or rough don’t send the right impression. You want to show that you are creative, inventive and thoughtful, and most importantly, you are willing to do more than just send an email to get a job.”

A clever, yet simple self promotion piece created by graphic designer Tiago Coelho, showcases his experience, work, and information all in one folded promotional piece that can easily be mailed or dropped off to any potential hire. Just make sure whatever you create, that it is not too large and awkward in size, since the chances of it being held on to will be higher if it can be placed somewhere easily. Make sure to have work in your portfolio that stands out to compliment your promotion.

“It’s very important that students step outside of the classroom to experiment with their work.  There’s rarely often any practical examples of their craft being applied in anything other than school projects.  You can actually pretty much tell what school someone is from based on the projects in their portfolio.” Satish Kanwar, Jet Cooper. Show a mix of school work, freelance/client and experimental work. This will allow diversity in your portfolio and show your range as a designer.

Make sure to have work in your portfolio that stands out to compliment your promotion.

It is all about fit

“As the saying goes, you hire for fit and train for talent. We really look out for whether a candidate will fit into our culture, environment and process first. If anything is out of place in these departments, the rest doesn’t matter.” – Verne Ho, Creative Director and owner at Jet Cooper

As picky as you would be in selecting a potential romantic partner, some of the same principles apply for hiring a new member to a company team. Identifying whether you having things in common, a matching sense of humour, similar goals, a willingness to work hard at making things work, and a sort of professional chemistry, are all things that are being assessed during an interview.

The balancing act of confidence

“You should be the best person to talk about your work, even if it’s a sketch on a napkin, so never be afraid.” – Steve Hodges, Creative Director at Espresso

What I have often observed in interviews is a range from the insecure shy person afraid to own up to the talent they posses, to the cocky and overly confident person who is either unaware or over compensating. Both are not ideal candidates to put in front of a client and most companies are looking for the right balance in between.

The last thing you want to do is give the wrong impression; Catherine Baird sums this advice up perfectly, “Attitude is everything. Be confident but not too confident. Those of us who have been around the industry more than ten years have a term for most of the students graduating these days: entitled. For some reason many juniors seem to think they don’t need to work hard at the beginning to get to the top — like the rest of us did. Unfortunately for them, there is even more competition these days so having some humility will take them far.”

Above all, have passion

“Honesty, passion and obsession always shines through in a creative portfolio. These things can’t be faked and they always scream out in an interview.” – Steve Hodges.

Designers getting hired Must Have Passion

Whether the company is a UX focused start up or a large advertising agency, they are all looking for this passion within any potential hire.

So how is this passion identified? A designers passion will unwillingly shine through when they speak about their work, it will manifest itself through personal projects that they created and will be visible by the amount of knowledge and industry engagement they seek.

I often encourage students to begin freelancing right away and to experiment with challenging themselves beyond the classroom. The reality is that the majority of knowledge a student gains is from the time they spend on their own learning and while on the job.

 You want to show that you are creative, inventive and thoughtful, and most importantly, you are willing to do more than just send an email to get a job.

So to encourage external creativity, I created two design challenges for my students at Humber College this semester. One was to create an iPhone skin design for Banana Skins and a doodle challenge to draw about “what inspires you” to win tickets to the Montreal Meets Two design conference.

These competitions were an experiment of sorts to see which students would step up to these challenges and take the time to do a little extra for recognition; in the end those are the students I will remember and reach out to in the future.

There were many great submissions, but overall there was one designer’s work that stood out of the crowd: Johana Barretto’s submissions for both the iPhone design and the doodle were chosen as the winner.

In addition to Johana’s congratulations, I wanted to mention a few other students who still impressed: JeJun Lee, David Matton, Shahina Meru and Cassaundra Kaiser.

Design showcases and competition links for students

Behance Network
Montreal Meets Two
HOW Design Competitions
Smashing Magazine Monthly Desktop Design Competition projects
FITC Awards


How have the challenges of finding work, and the influx of online creative needs, affected your process? Do you find many designers are “entitled”? Show us what resources you use and your experiences are in the comments!

  • AARed

    This article is great. I’m a student designer and somehow i lost my passion and am confused about the industry out there. After having read through your article, it inspired me and somehow enabled me to regain my confidence again.Indeed, i have always believed in creating works apart from normal school projects. However, i’m abit insecured about the works i produce. What if they are not up to the company’s standard? what if it isn’t good enough? Will i drag everyone down? things like these eventually made me think too much and caused me to cease producing works. For your students, it must’ve been an honor to have you as their mentor.

  • Great article Linda! Hope it creates some great conversation as well.

  • Awesome article Linda!

  • Excellent article,Thanks for your great work!

  • Good statistics from The Design Group. Agreed that passion for the subject is one of the most important attributes when it comes to making yourself and your work stand out from the crowd.

  • AARed, the reality is, the skill and portfolio get you the interview but it is your passion and hunger to learn that will help you get the job. So once you are hired, most of the learning and improving will happen there. And remember it is ok to make mistakes when you start out, just be clever enough to learn from them and do not be afraid to ask for help.

  • @AARed Linda hits it on the head here. So true and that your skills and talent only get you so far!

    But here is the reality, somewhat harsh reality: You probably aren’t that good. I say this earnestly, because many designers starting out aren’t good and is a phase you will go through for sometime. Sometimes I feel like I am still going through as some artwork I make just isn’t good.

    The beautiful part is this: There are some companies were your worst is their best and vice versa—so as your skill improves you’ll either raise the bar where you are at or find work else where! You can always get a job, no matter how good or bad you are, trust me on that one.

  • Great article Linda, really touches on some great points that every student should know. I agree with Mike, as a student you aren’t that good.

  • I agree most designers are not so great straight out of school, and I also agree that there are jobs to be found for most designers who want it. I remember how lost and naive I was back then. The hope is with every job and experience you improve and then raise the bar a little higher. This article outlines how this bar has been raised for entry level positions at up and coming and successful companies. So if you do not find your ideal job right away that’s normal, just work hard, mess up, learn and you may get there.

  • Excellent article Linda. Can’t believe we still receive applications from graduates which consist of just a basic CV. Hopefully this will help point them in the right direction.

  • I will be back to look at out more of your articles later!