The best strategy for getting your foot into the doorway to a graphic design position, is to push out on two tracks.
Track one is registering with and searching for jobs on one, two (or maybe three) of the meta-job posting and networking sites (like Indeed and LinkedIn). For advice on how to successfully work that track, see Graphic Designer Job Search Tips & Best Practices in this blog series. It is a good companion to this post. Here, the focus is on track two: lesser-known, smaller-scale job and networking sites focused specifically on graphic designer jobs.
Where two tracks meet
Tennis players need a forehand and a backhand. Boxers need a jab and a hook. Soccer players need to play offense and defense. And aspiring graphic designers need to be listed on big job boards, and network and look for jobs in smaller venues that focus specifically on helping graphic designers find work.
Examples of “track two” job hunting venues (beyond the big job and networking sites) include:
- AIGA (nee American Institute of Graphic Arts) is the largest professional membership organization for designers
- Job networking resources aimed at finding or creating graphic designer opportunities for historically underrepresented communities like Girls Who Code, Blacks Who Design, and Latinxs Who Design.
- Workshops, or join meetups for specific design fields ranging from motion graphics to UI/UX design to coding at Meetup.
- Zoom (or better yet) and classes, seminars, or conferences where you can get insights into job hunting and even connect with employers.
In the rest of this article, you’ll learn to avail yourself of these kinds of resources. But keep in mind that graphic designer jobs are best pursued by mixing and meshing these specialized, graphic design-focused resources with larger job and networking resources.
How do the two tracks mesh?
- You can add or strengthen skills that show up in big job board sites through networking in meetups.
- You can get the big picture from job boards like what companies are paying entry-level graphic designers, and then apply that knowledge if you land a job opportunity through networking through meetups.
- There’s a psychological element to mixing tracks as well; applying for jobs through sites like Indeed and LinkedIn is awfully impersonal, and connecting with fellow human beings in smaller, more personal venues can help combat alienation.
Accessing AIGA resources
AIGA, an association of graphic design professionals, is a one-stop shop for job hunting and freelance graphic design resources. The site (and the association) are not mainly geared to job hunting resources for people just entering the graphic design field. But AIGA’s expansive set of assets exposes you to professional graphic design tools, freelance options (something we’ll return to in this article) and does include job postings.
AIGA memberships aren’t free, and aspiring graphic designers don’t need a lot of extra costs while searching for a paying job. But if you elect to shell out $50 for a student membership, or an emerging membership for people entering the field ($150), you do get access to valuable job posting details and job-hunting resources.
AIG freelance resources
Freelance and part-time gigs can be an important bridge in the transition from graphic design student to working professional. And many successful designers make or supplement a living doing freelance work. As you explore freelance options, you will need advice on how to write project contracts; how to bill clients, how to avoid copyright infringement issues; and how to protect your own intellectual property. AIGA provides unparalleled access to essential (and free) tools for all that.
Here are links to essential templates, forms, and explanation of policies and laws that you’ll need to have at your fingertips when you get your first (or second, or 55th) freelance graphic designer gig:
- Contract templates for projects including a Standard Form of Agreement for Design Services
- A free book (PDF) DESIGN BUSINESS + ETHICS
- An independent contractor contract template
- A video, Copyright Law for Graphic Design
Job networking through AIGA
In addition to being one-stop-shopping for legal and contractual resources, AIGA also hosts a job posting hub for graphic designers that works like the ones at Indeed or LinkedIn. As noted, this feature is only available to members.
The job search isn’t stocked with a ton of filters, but you can filter results by being specific in the Search Postings box. For example, if your strong suit is print design, enter that.
Or, if you are looking for work that combines graphic design with motion, add “motion” to the description.
Money-saving tip: If membership in AIGA is outside your job-hunting budget, you can track down posted jobs at AIGA (that do show up in search results, for free, just without details) by searching for the same posted job on LinkedIn or another site that provides free tools for learning about and applying for jobs.
Job hunting at Dribbble
Like AIGA, Dribble offers services and resources as well as job postings for aspiring (and working) graphic designers.
When you sign up at Dribble (it’s free!), you’ll be prompted to identify yourself as someone looking to hire a designer, someone looking for “inspiration,” or, a designer looking to share your work. That rather vague category includes both freelance and full (and part) time salary positions.
Dribble’s resources for freelancers are not as all-encompassing as AIGA’s but its job board is at least as accessible, and free for job seekers.
To search for jobs, go to Dribbble.com/jobs. There are tabs for either freelance or full-time jobs.
Both tabs include filters for skills and locations.
When you select a position, you’ll see details and a button that zips you right to a screen to apply for the position.
As with all job hunting journeys, “Do Not Enter” without the key required resources:
You’ll find resources for creating a proper resume, an impressive portfolio, and an effective LinkedIn profile in other posts in this blog, including:
- Graphic Designer Resume Guide & Tips
- Why Your Design Portfolio Should Emphasize Process, Not Just Content
- Leverage LinkedIn and Glassdoor
Otta – a different kind of job board
Otta is a job board that feels like a dating app. Unlike the interfaces at traditional job boards or networking sites, or designer-focused job boards at Dribbble and AIGA, the sign-up is fun to use, and a refreshing change of pace from the usual job hunting user experience.
Don’t let the inviting interface fool you, Otta is a serious job-finding site. You still need a resume, a portfolio, and a LinkedIn profile to get a job through Otta. But the journey to finding a job is demonstratively different, starting right away with a set of values you are looking for in a position; things like challenging work; diversity and inclusion; flexibility and wellbeing; or great tech and tools.
Other steps in the process of defining the job you are looking for put more emphasis on things like U.S. visa status, and languages other than English than other design job sites.
Otta also has employee-friendly features, like keeping track of good matches for your skill set, and promising your application won’t show up for your current employer. And the site is very transparent about giving you a choice in how often they’ll flood your email box (or not) with job prospects.
Otta provides detailed data on jobs, including how frequently candidates hear back within two weeks and hiring trends. And, Otta has its own reviews of workplaces. They are candid and employee-facing.
Freelance and part-time work: a job and part of job hunting
Many graphic designers do freelance and contract work in between full-time jobs, or on the side while holding down a full-time job. A freelance project can bump up your resume and portfolio and, in that way, contribute to locking down a full-time job. And building up a portfolio of projects at a full-time job can serve as a launching pad for setting up your own shop.
The point? Integrate looking for part-time and freelance work into your graphic design career pathway.
Freelance fun, and pitfalls
Freelance graphic design work can be wonderful, exciting, and creative. It is also full of pitfalls. Don’t walk into a project oblivious to things like defining a client’s expectations, or proper billing protocols.
One of the fun things about freelance work is the variety of experiences and projects, and exposure to interesting institutions and people. But here again, be prepared. You want to be sure you understand the nature of the project, the expectations, and deadlines!
To know what to expect, and to be prepared for things that you will run into in freelance work, take the time to study how successful freelancers operate by perusing these interviews:
- Brian LaRossa, Art Director
- Leta Sobierajski, Designer
- Sohee Cho, Junior Art Director
- Yana Barysheva, UX Designer
- Pedro Sanches, Designer
Internships and pro-bono work
Internships–paid and unpaid–and pro-bono (literally from the Latin for good but in popular usage meaning unpaid) gigs are different. But either one, or both, can be channels to a paid graphic designer position.
Internships involve, or should involve, a commitment from an employer to expose you to skills and a structured introduction to professional workflow and culture. And, in general, the best internships are paid and include organized classes. Internships can be a formal part of a degree or certificate program. Or, you can simply apply for one on your own.
Pro-bono gigs are less structured. They can be as accessible as creating graphics for the skate park where you hang out, a musician you like, your favorite tattoo studio, or a cause or organization you are part of.
What internships and pro-bono gigs have in common is:
- They expose you to new skills and allow you to sharpen your skill set
- They develop connections that can evolve into full-time, paid jobs
- They give you a chance to develop your portfolio
- They build confidence and ability to navigate in professional workflow and culture
- They can be fun
Leveraging pro-bono gigs
Pro-bono jobs don’t pay, but pro-bono shouldn’t be a euphemism (code word) for slave labor! If you have time on your hands and find a place where you can sharpen your skills, get work experience, and contribute to a mission or cause you believe in, pro-bono work can be part of your pathway to a graphic designer position.
You can search for pro-bono jobs on normal search engines (like the ones explored so far in this article, or others like Indeed) or job networking sites (like LinkedIn). But a better route is to reach out to groups or institutions you want to support and see if there is a way your graphic design skills and talents can help.
Connecting through volunteer sites
Rather than search Indeed or LinkedIn for pro-bono jobs, you may find it more productive to work through sites that match volunteers with needs. One venue for that kind of search is volunteermatch.org. Here you can search for the kinds of causes you care about.
Pro-bono positions at volunteermatch.org include the same kinds of skill set requirements listings as paid job, so you can consider both what you contribute to the cause, and what you can add to your resume, portfolio, and LinkedIn profile.
The position illustrated here, listed at volunteermatch.org, translates to a resume listing that includes
- The company
- Possibly a letter of recommendation
- A chance to list experience in graphic design, print, social media graphic design, web design, and UX design.
And, like any pro-bono job, you don’t have to list the (lack of) salary involved on your resume.
Using job boards for internships and pro-bono work
Job hunting boards like Indeed, and job networking sites like LinkedIn, allow you to enter “Intern” or “pro-bono” in search boxes. Results are spotty. The financial model behind these resources depends on employers paying to list jobs, and internships and especially pro-bono positions might not be listed by institutions that can afford paid listings.
Because internships and pro-bono work play a significant role in the journey from graphic design student to working professional, AIGA, which focuses on designer resources and jobs, can be a more effective channel to internships and pro-bono jobs.
It is a bit of an irony that it costs money to join AIGA and get access to listed pro-bono jobs. But if you find a pro-bono job listed at AIGA, you can search for that job in other venues and apply for free.
Resources for Underrepresented Communities
Job boards that either host or partner with LinkedIn (or other job boards) to provide access to jobs posted by employers who emphasize that they are committed to workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion of a diverse staff in gender, ethnicity, religion, and background.
Joining groups aimed at breaking historically underrepresented communities into communication design and development like Girls Who Code, Blacks Who Design, or Latinxs Who Design.
The Diversity job board partners with LinkedIn to highlight jobs for minorities, women and persons with disabilities.
Job postings at Diversity detail the same kinds of “soft skill” job requirements every job board does, like being responsible, good organizational skills, attention to detail, ability to multitask, meet deadlines and communicate. And they list technical qualifications like fluency with Adobe Creative Cloud, exposure to UX/UI tools, and Microsoft Office. You search by entering “graphic designer” in the search box.
What’s different at Diversity is the amount of detail on companies’ policies and culture for promoting diversity.
Networking through meetups and seminars
Informal networking can be a very dynamic factor in job searches, sometimes in unexpected ways. A conversation with someone with interesting stickers on their laptop can lead to a graphic designer job tip. Attending a seminar (live is best) can be an opportunity to introduce yourself to and get valuable insights from an industry leader or influencer.
You will find that most people like to talk about themselves, including their job. And good listeners stand out in the world of communication design in general and graphic design in particular.
So, where do you find opportunities to network in this way? Yes, coffee shops can be a real networking experience, but for a more organized approach, consider these venues:
- If you are still in school, or just out of school, ask professors or instructors if you can stay in touch with them to get advice as you pursue your career path. And then follow up by keeping them updated.
- Check into employment resources at your school.
- Take the initiative to connect with people you meet in or out of school who are also looking for graphic designer jobs. Set up Slack, Discord, GroupMe, or WhatsApp groups.
- The website Mentoring for creatives has resources to pair you with a professional mentor, some of whom will help you for free.
- Check out the post How Organic Networking Helps Introverts Grow Their Network for helpful suggestions.
- Take advantage of remote or in-person seminars and classes, including the rather amazing set of free seminars offered by Noble Desktop. Tip: don’t be the first one out of the room after the formal session, stick around and pick up job tips from the instructor and other attendees.
Networking through Meetups
Meetup is a massive resource for workshops, or join meetups for specific graphic design fields ranging from motion graphics to UI/UX design.
You can elect to filter results for a “graphic design” search by location, or not. The best opportunities to network are local, since you can connect with presenters and participants more informally before and after a presentation. But remote events still add to your skill set (and resume) and can contribute to your career pathway.
- Start your job search with a polished resume, portfolio, and LinkedIn profile; without those, your job search will never achieve liftoff, or will quickly crash.
- As a secondary but important track in your pathway to a graphic designer job, explore resources at AIGA, Dribbble, and Otta.
- Expand your skill set, beef up your resume, and make some cash while you pursue a full-time graphic designer job with freelance or (free) pro-bono work.
- Network! Meetups and seminars are good places to meet people, strengthen your skills, and get insights and connections.