Design Dilemma: I Want to Be a Designer but My Portfolio Is Heavy With Illustration

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You’re just out of art school and have no idea where to turn. There were no courses on professional practices or career planning. (Or maybe there were but you slept through them…) So, where to next? Does your portfolio speak for itself and say, “I want to be a designer”?

David F. writes: “I saw your recent post to Fiona and I find myself in a similar position, though with some key differences.” Differences? We love different problems! So, join us as we delve into another Design Dilemma, helping to answer your questions, queries and concerns about the murky world of design…

Here’s the Story

“Here’s the short story,” continues David. “You suggested to Fiona that she could apply to a job as an associate creative director. But all these positions I see require 6-8 years of experience? My portfolio is heavy on illustration, and sometimes that gets disapproval from design recruiters. This doesn’t seem fair, since design is important to illustration and my work demonstrates that. It seems that I demonstrate enough technical and conceptual skill for an entry level design job, but I’m told that my portfolio does not fit because it doesn’t specifically focus on design. What’s up with that?”

“I went to school for fine art at a liberal arts university. That wasn’t exactly my intention, I was just a hick kid who did well in school and got into a special program that lead to me leaving home and going far away for school at a rather prestigious private university on an academic scholarship. But I chose my university poorly (I thought prestige was a good thing but I should have done more research) . Within a single semester I could see that our school did not have the art program that I was looking for. It was weak, apathetic. 80% of the students in our school double major, and so while there were art majors, there were very few dedicated art majors. You could quickly see that their art major was a hobby, not a serious professional pursuit. I tried to transfer out, and was even accepted into Pratt with a scholarship, but it wasn’t enough scholarship to actually go through with it.”

“I have a decent portfolio but it certainly skews heavily to illustration. This may be because of my fine art background. I find it frustrating though when I talk to design firm recruiters and they express skepticism at my design skills. They’ll say, ‘you have a beautiful portfolio but it seems very illustration heavy. We’re not sure you can handle design work.”

“I focused on teaching myself outside of class. I taught myself digital design and illustration. I put together a pretty decent portfolio. I also taught myself film and I directed a film my senior year that was much large and more ambitious than any previous film major in our school had done before (though I was not even technically a film major anymore, after they canceled the production side of our school’s program).”

“I graduated recently and I can’t seem to find work. The freelance offers I get are below min wage. It seems only the very best (or most connected) can get work in the local studios. I recently got a paid internship at a Venture Capital accelerator, but I’m having trouble finding work.”

“I would like to go into creative direction much like Fiona, but I can’t get a job in it straight out of college. You suggested trying for an associate creative director position, but all of those that I have found require 6-8 years of experience. What am I to do if there is nothing there?”

“I have a decent portfolio but it certainly skews heavily to illustration. This may be because of my fine art background. I find it frustrating though when I talk to design firm recruiters and they express skepticism at my design skills. They’ll say, ‘you have a beautiful portfolio but it seems very illustration heavy. We’re not sure you can handle design work.’ Design is an important aspect of illustration though, and I think my work demonstrates technical proficiency and skill, which seem to me to be the most important aspects of someone applying for an entry level job. I can’t seem to get a job as a leader, or as a follower. What am I to do?”

Keep Studying Design

 I had to think of a proper answer but first had to relay that the advice to Fiona, in a previous article was based on her experience and talents. David, as was his dilemma, “different.” I replied:

“David, I could give you funny stories of people who wanted to be a designer but had a portfolio heavy in illustration or fine arts pieces, but you live it on the other side of the funny stories.”

“Keep studying design! Typography, color theory, layout and web design are the most important things to know as a designer and too often passed over by hack designers. Show good strength in those areas and conceptualization and you’ll have a job before you know it!”

“Firstly, what I told Fiona was suited to her experience and possible avenues for her career. Your dilemma is similar but you have a different direction staring you in the face. You cannot expect people who are looking for designers to see design talent through illustration samples. The people who have been telling you that are right. No one will take a chance while there’s dozens of talented design candidates with design-centric portfolios out there.”

“You’re only choices are to pursue film or illustration or fine art. Obviously that is a direction you are familiar with and quite comfortable. If, however, you are dead set on being a designer, you’ll need to create a portfolio of at least eight very strong design pieces to show for a design position. It’s okay if you take an existing design and redesign it. Showing how YOU think about design decisions is very important to most design positions. Having published work may show you can handle work situations, but showing your true design abilities are more important.”

“And keep studying design! Typography, color theory, layout and web design are the most important things to know as a designer and too often passed over by hack designers. Show good strength in those areas and conceptualization and you’ll have a job before you know it!”

David replied:

“Thank you Speider, that is a wise response. I think you’re right, and I just need to buckle down and start putting more design centric work in my portfolio. 8 is a good number to shoot for and has helped given me a new goal. I hope I didn’t come off as an entitled snotty kid, or pretentious, and I apologize if I did.”

“I love design but it’s not what I really want to do for the rest of my life. I guess that’s why I brought up working as a creative director because I think that might suit my skill set better. I guess the thing is, the only jobs out there for creative people seem to be in design! Illustration isn’t really needed as often.”

“I’ve been a creative director and have certainly known my share of other CDs. Some do nothing but attend meetings and nothing creative, and others (like myself) who get down and dirty in the trenches with the designers and wrings out great solutions from everybody’s brains.”

“I’d be curious for your thoughts on the creative director stuff. Thank you for answer my questions and I’m very grateful for your advice. Keep up the good work!”

Being born without an inner filter to shield people from negative news or opinionated comments about their existence, I had to tell David the truth:

“I’ve been a creative director and have certainly known my share of other CDs. Some do nothing but attend meetings and nothing creative, and others (like myself) who get down and dirty in the trenches with the designers and wrings out great solutions from everybody’s brains. It usually takes time when approaching it as a designer.”

“Here are two articles that will serve you well. Both deal in emotional problems you might face as a designer, and are… rants of my career mistakes and how you can learn from my pain and suffering. Enjoyable reads!”

Who Are You Trying to Impress?

Young and Brash – Don’t Become Old and Foolish

“Just be patient and dedicated in whatever you do.”

In Conclusion

It’s funny, but there are two things a creative person can count upon. The first is being pulled in many different directions due to an overabundant drive to be creative. It’s not all design. It can be illustration, fine arts, writing, acting, pottery or craftwork. That is actually a strength but more often than not, employers are looking for niche talent. Even within design, one must recreate a portfolio for each and every client to show work along the lines of the client’s brand.

Life, however, takes many twists and turns. I have successful creative friends who decided to become painters, craftspersons, or enter a creative position in a completely different industry. People forcibly retired at age 50 weren’t ready to retire yet, and found creative outlets to continue working and earning. When you are creative, you have many choices. Should you be bound to just one discipline? There are designers who break the boundaries of the very description by asserting their creativity. Don’t be held in by titles. In the end, you might create a new term for a creative movement.

Send Us Your Dilemma!

Do you have a design dilemma? Speider Schneider will personally answer your questions — just send your dilemma to dilemma@designshack.net!

Top image ©GL Stock Images

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