The idea of your first job post college can be a daunting one. All things considered, you’ll still likely be going off of hearsay and the odd tip from a professor.
Participating in school outings to workplaces around the city are fun, but you get a very tailored experience and every studio or agency seems to exhibit that level of “hipness” you’ve heard about all too often. Inside you think to yourself, “This is too good to be true! They have beanbags and nerf guns and they drop f-bombs on the regular!” most likely followed by, “Damn, I really hope my portfolio and resume are up to par.”
I certainly did.
It’s been nearly three years since I graduated college and after working at an ad agency for almost two years, followed by a user experience design agency a year after that, I thought that I may have something useful to share. What, exactly, should you concentrate on in college? What is working in an agency really like, especially for a new graduate? Or the one I could never get a straight answer to: how much am I going to make?! Hopefully I can offer a little bit of insight into these frequently asked questions.
Ideally everyone will gather something beneficial from this article, but at the end of the day it is still based off of my own limited experience in college and agency life. Furthermore, the time I have spent here in Toronto will, in all likelihood, be different than that of someone in say, New York or San Francisco. Take everything with a grain of salt.
Getting Ahead of the Pack
For me, and most I would think, college was an interesting time. Coming out of highschool I had already started designing on a freelance basis, and was looking forward to meeting a new group of people with similar interests and experience (let’s just say the small community I grew up in about 45 minutes North of Toronto was not liveliest art and design hub). After weighing a few different options I opted for a 2-year college program with the intention of getting out into the workforce as soon as possible. I was tired of having no money, wondering if I could afford a slice of pizza for lunch that day (not that I had it bad, my parents were usually willing to help me out), but most of all I wanted that sense of independence that only a full-time job could deliver.
“I wanted that sense of independence that only a full-time job could deliver.”
The first thing I realised when I got to college was that it was not going to be what I had expected. For the most part, the course I had chosen focused solely on learning the applications in the Adobe Suite. Not nearly as much design theory as I had desired, and at the time we were learning technology that even the teaching staff acknowledged was likely on its way out the door. I still remember the first two weeks of my Photoshop and Illustrator course being spent teaching half the class how WINZIP worked so they could get their god damn lesson files on to their desktops. I don’t know if the experience is similar in other courses, but I was growing less and less enthused by the day. Thankfully, after that first semester you start to notice those people who weren’t quite in to the material start to drop out (or worse), and about a year later you’re left with a relatively solid group of people who actually take design and development seriously. I got the most out of college in the last semester, and I’d say the most important thing I got out of those two years were the people I met. Three years post-college and I am still very close to that group of roughly a dozen of us that sat through Photoshop and Illustrator class together (in fact, we’re all working in design and development jobs, most in downtown Toronto, and more than half of us live within a 2 minute walk of each other). I still keep in touch with a few of my professors too, a handful of whom still introduce me to new people, and three years into working life I can safely say I personally know someone at almost every major design or ad agency in the city.
Aside from networking, one of the most important things you can get out of college is your ability to give and take critique. People will criticise your work, and for good reason. College is the time to get exposure to this practice so you don’t break down at your first place of work in a crying fit because James thinks your typography is shit and wasn’t afraid to say so.
Once you understand the intention behind constructive criticism it becomes natural to see your work objectively. Your classmates aren’t cutting you down, they’re making suggestions for improvement. Don’t think their suggestions have merit? Doesn’t matter. Shut up and listen, it’s not like you’re required to act on them. Although what they have to say can and will affect you as you design your next poster or site, and for the better. The student that sits in class and refuses to listen to people, or gets snappy and retaliates for some self-perceived verbal wronging is the student that is going absolutely nowhere (and fast). However, this does not mean you can’t have a discussion around someone’s feedback. To the contrary, you should be having a discussion around almost everyone’s feedback.
While taking criticism is one thing, giving it is something else entirely. “Be constructive in your criticism.” I’m sure you’ve heard it hundreds of times, but I can’t stress it enough. Good critique is not “That blue is ugly.” or “That doesn’t make sense.” That’s just being a useless prick. Useful criticism is “I think the blue you chose is a little hard to see on that background” or “Perhaps you should try yellow for that header, I think that might look great with the colours you’ve chosen for the rest of the site”. If you don’t want your opinion to be dismissed immediately, have something constructive to say and say it with some tact. It will be appreciated.
So you’re almost done college and you’re about to start the search for a job. Awesome, right? You’re nearly there! There are a few things I wish I had known at this stressful stage. I was putting together my resume, worrying about my portfolio, and in the midst of it all I made a few small mistakes that, looking back, would have been easy to correct.
My first application faux pas: a shitty resume. I thought it was pretty good at the time. I did it in Illustrator, it had to be good right? No, and looking at it now I am mostly left scratching my head and wondering how I managed to get a job with it. If I were to give advice to a burgeoning grad, I’d say the following:
- Don’t lie. Don’t bend the truth. Obvious, right? You may be able to fool your classmates, but someone who looks at dozens of resumes every day will see right through it. This mostly applies to work experience: you’re not an “art director” or “creative director”. These are job titles for people with years of experience (a big giveaway being the word “director”), and yet I’ve seen it more than a few times (yes, my naive self even tried to pull this off before I’d ever had a real job). Not to mention, if you’re applying for a Junior Designer position it’s a little silly to claim you’re actually a few levels higher, no? For 99% of the jobs you’ll be applying to, “designer” will suffice. Designer of what, your portfolio should illustrate clearly.
- Be short and sweet. The long explanations are what interviews are for. Give enough for someone to make a decision and perhaps want to learn more about you, but don’t go too in-depth.
- Don’t have particularly relevant job experience? It’s your first job. They know. Make up for this in your skills section (and if you can’t, you’re not ready). I listed my time as a Photolab Technician at a local Shopper’s Drug Mart. It sparked a lengthy conversation in my first internship interview about my interest in photography which led to one of my most memorable photography experiences: shooting Canadian olympians for Nike!
- Do not list the applications you are proficient in. It is expected that you already know them. Seriously. No one gives a shit if you know every program in the Adobe Suite. They all do too. List your skills! UX design, illustration, animation, motion graphics, etc. This is what your employer wants to know. These are the things they tout their company as being capable of delivering.
It’s my strong personal opinion that following these few simple, seemingly obvious points will put your resume well ahead of plenty of students who just didn’t realise what they were doing wrong. The quality of your resume directly translates into the confidence that HR feels when forwarding it to the right people, and the willingness of those people to go one step further and look at your portfolio.
Segue! If you hadn’t guessed, the next major element of a student’s job application (and in most cases much more important than your resume) is the portfolio. It goes without saying that your portfolio is the only representation of your creativity and work quality. Treat it as such.
Pick and choose your best pieces. Do not feel like you need to include every single thing you have ever designed in your portfolio. In all likelihood you’ve gotten much better in the last year, so don’t feel pressure to include out-of-date pieces that aren’t representative of your quality of work in order to appear as if you have been designing for a longer period of time. The time and effort you have invested in your personal development will show through in your most recent pieces. This is a concept that took me more than a few years to get comfortable with. While I hold certain sentiment towards some of my past projects, I also look at them and I am reminded of how much I have improved since, which makes it much easier in the end to simply leave them out.
A portfolio with 8 strong pieces is better than a portfolio with 26 shitty pieces.
Another good idea (perhaps more of a pet peeve than an industry standard) is to leave out all of your college assignments. Seriously, screw ‘em. Every single student applying for every single job is going to have the exact same collection of student projects in their portfolio. Unless you managed to completely blow the others out of the water with an original take on a decade-old assignment brief, it’s just not worth the visual noise. No, it’s probably not a deal-breaker, but it doesn’t exactly show that you have a ton of motivation either. Ideally, you have been creating work unrelated to your studies the entire time you were in college and it is more than likely that you are proudest of this work.
Scenario: two students apply for the same junior design position at an agency (I think you know where I am going with this) and the student who didn’t have any original work because he or she was too busy with school work does not get the job!
What to Expect and What to Ask For
So you’ve got a solid resume and kick-ass portfolio. Now what?
Many soon-to-be grads have struggled here, including myself. Not due to a shortage of options, but because there are just so many in Toronto. There is an enormous variety of advertising agencies, design studios, UX agencies, game development companies and more to choose from. All of them need designers in some sort of capacity.
Before making the decision on what particular route you are going to take you should keep in mind you are only choosing your first job. Don’t give yourself unnecessary anxiety by convincing yourself this decision is going to affect the rest of your life. It isn’t, and if you don’t like what you have chosen no one is going to stop you from switching gears in a year or two’s time (or sooner, if your disdain is exceptionally heartfelt).
Now this is a pretty personal decision and not one I can really offer any meaningful advice on, so I will detail my own experience as well as briefly address the routinely evaded question of salary and compensation (both from my personal experience and from useful little birdies around Toronto who have, deliberately or not, managed to overhear the right type of conversations!)
The choice I made, and one that I still agree was the best decision for me, was to pursue the avenue of advertising directly out of college. In my last semester, I was fortunate enough to have my work featured in a handful of online showcases and was also a finalist in the FITC 2010 Awards for “Best Canadian Student Website”. My future Creative Director was on the judging panel for that particular award. He came across my work and invited me in for an interview shortly after. In this sense, I was incredibly lucky and had a couple of options to weigh before graduating. In the end, I opted for the 80-100 person agency that would provide me not only with the solid list of clients I wanted experience working on, but a sizeable team full of awesome individuals that I’d be able to learn from, get to know, and network with. I learned more in 3 months of working at this agency than I did in two years in college and I believe this would be true regardless of your choice. There has never been a substitute for hands-on experience in any profession and there never will be.
I learned more in 3 months of working at this agency than I did in two years in college…
In regards to compensation, there are a few different things you should be aware of other than mere salary. Vacation time, to me, is essential. Judging from a few sources, it seems the most common vacation time arrangement in the Toronto ad world is about 3 weeks (15 working days). While 2 weeks (10 working days) is the government-mandated vacation allotment, advertising agencies tend to offer a little more because they are fully aware of the overtime most of their employees will be working. A burnt-out designer is not good for anyone involved. If you find the particular agency you’re applying to does not offer a little extra in the vacation department, it’s actually pretty common to negotiate for a little extra vacation time (especially if they aren’t offering you what you want salary-wise). It will come in handy and you will thank yourself in the long run. A minimum of three weeks paid vacation is something I will always try to make sure I have, not only to preserve my sanity, but to keep my work sharp and stop myself from getting burned out. There have been a few times when I’ve deemed it necessary just to take 2 days out of my vacation bucket in order to buy myself a four-day weekend and recuperate.
Another important factor in compensation is the inclusion of a benefits package. Benefits are great and save you a good amount of money that otherwise would have come out of your salary. While they will vary from company-to-company, if I recall correctly my first benefits package looked something like this: a few hundred dollars for massages, a few hundred for eye-wear needs, a few thousand for dental (of which I used almost all), travel insurance, life insurance, prescription drug coverage and a handful of other small things that improve your life just a little bit. Provided you take advantage of these offerings, factor this into salary and it’s the same as adding somewhere around $2000/year.
There are a few other things too! The implementation of summer hours seems to be a growing trend. A sizeable amount of agencies (at least in Toronto) will tack on an extra holiday to all long-weekends from the end of Spring to the beginning of Fall. A lot of agencies will also have a little bit of scheduled fun. For example, the agency I interned at shortened every Friday to make room for a BBQ and beer-filled afternoon and the agency I work at now has a team-wide beer-filled show & tell every Friday, followed by drinks at the local watering hole. One of my favourite extras though, is the conference/learning allowance. This usually consists of a annual dollar amount that the company will cover for you to attend design-related conferences, which is great once you realise you are no longer eligible for that 75% student discount and suddenly conferences are only available to the wealthy (looking at you, FITC.)
Now for the tough one: salary. This is one thing I felt very strongly about including in this article because it is the one thing I never felt like I got a straight answer to when I needed it most. Salary is a troublesome topic because it differs for every agency, every position and every individual. If you’re going to take anything with a grain of salt in this article, take this one with a gargantuan slab of it (tasty). Salary is often the largest factor in influencing a new grad’s decision because it determines what kind of lifestyle you’ll be able to afford over the course of next year, how often you’ll be going out with friends after work, whether or not you’ll be moving downtown and be able to walk to your office, or if you’ll be enduring an hour of fetid Hell on the infamous fleet of city streetcars. I’ve been lucky enough to have great experiences in transparency when it comes to discussing salary. In fact, for my first job I had a straight-up conversation with my boss regarding the cost of living comfortably in downtown Toronto (coming from a small farming community, I really had no idea). If you have progressed to the compensation discussion, are confident this is the company you would like to work for and you think your future boss is understanding enough, I feel like this is a reasonable conversation to have. Then again, I could save you the time and quickly say that you could live quite comfortably downtown Toronto on $40,000/year (with a roommate so you’re not eating ramen). Probably even less, but I have bad drinking habits and buy a lot of shit that I shouldn’t.
$40,000/year, coincidentally, is also a great starting number for a fresh Toronto-area graduate with no real working experience (I mean in an agency, you should still have some good work in your portfolio). If you’re really confident in your work, you could even ask upwards of $45,000/year and in rare cases perhaps even $50,000/year. We’re certainly getting up there for a junior though, so you should have the work to support this attractive figure and the network to back it up when your employer starts looking into your references. Another thing to keep in mind: you almost never get the number you want. You’ll get talked down a few thousand nearly every time, which is pretty common. You’re also a student, which means realistically you probably don’t have the luxury to juggle offers. A simple tip: aim a little higher than you want, and take the hit. If in a year, you feel you’re worth more – bring it up with your boss, you probably are.
Not Done Yet
So you did it. You got the resume through HR and to the right people, they liked your portfolio, you made it through the interview (or two or three or four) and you came to a compensation agreement. Awesome!
I don’t need to tell you that your “learning” is not over. Everyone will tell you that. I do, however, have a few suggestions regarding where to start.
Remember when I stressed the importance of knowing how to give and take criticism? Put that shit to use now! Give meaningful critique when the opportunity arises and if you honestly don’t have anything to say, do not feel pressured to say anything at all. Take critique given to you and act on it when it makes sense to. A designer that can take criticism, start meaningful discussion and generate quality work utilising input from the entire design team is an enormous asset and your coworkers will see this. You don’t have to make every single person happy, but chances are more than one person will have valuable feedback on your work and you will only get better with that little bit of extra perspective.
Another incredibly valuable competence to work on (and one that I cannot fathom how often is completely absent) is the ability to write an email that can be comprehended by the average literate human. This goes for everything from spelling, to basic grammar, to something a lot of people overlook: formatting. Know when to use a bullet list. Know when to use a paragraph. Know when short forms like “u” and “l8r” are appropriate (never, you bastard). These things are vital if you don’t want to be perceived as some nitwit with a knack for Photoshop for the remainder of your career.
And lastly, get the most out of this first job. As I said earlier, it is only your first. The overwhelming majority of people in advertising will move on (and up) in less than two year’s time (some even closer to one). Get something out of it. Talk to your art directors and fellow designers. Improve the quality of your work. Expand your skill set. Improve your communication ability. Get exposure to presentations and clients. All this experience will all add up and aid in making you an integral part of any design team, in any field.
That’s it! The rest is up to you. I wish you the best and if you have any questions or input, please leave a comment below. I’ll do my best to get back.