What If You’re Fresh Out of School?

5 minutes


Updated October 11, 2023
Land Your Dream Design Job

You’re reading an excerpt of Land Your Dream Design Job, a book by Dan Shilov. Filled with hard-won, personal insights, it is a comprehensive guide to landing a product design role in a startup, agency, or tech company, and covers the entire design interview process from beginning to end, for experienced and aspriring designers. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.

One of the common challenges that new designers face when putting together their portfolio for the first time is the lack of so-called real-world design projects. If you’ve just completed a bootcamp or graduated from an undergrad or graduate program, you may not have a lot of working experience. By all means, if in your school projects you worked with a client—a startup or a large company—be sure to feature that work, including any internships that you’ve done. But if you have none of these?

Hiring managers, especially those without a design background, sometimes don’t give as much weight to candidates who don’t have many real-world projects in their portfolio. Sometimes they see it as a risk to take on an entry-level candidate, thinking that they’ll have to spend a significant amount of time training and developing the employee.

storyIn a recent interview, a founder mentioned to me how he was afraid of hiring junior designers: “Yeah, we’ll get them in, they’ll do exactly what they’re told, and that will be a complete failure. What we need is people who can push back and tell us we’re wrong and come up with a better solution than we would have on our own.” So don’t be afraid to showcase your process and frameworks that you’ve used to push back on problems to come up with better solutions. As designers, redefining problems is our core competency—no matter the seniority.

So if you find yourself in this situation, what can you do? Generally, you can take a couple of approaches, and my recommendation is to experiment with some of these while you’re still applying to your dream role.

Tailor Your Portfolio and Do Your Research

In general, the advice of tailoring your portfolio to the job at hand still applies. You’ll want to show how your projects in school can transfer to the problems your potential employer might be facing. If the company you’re applying to has an experienced design manager on staff, they’ll usually be able to connect the dots quickly.

However, if they don’t have a design manager, you might want to bridge the gap for them by doing a little research and doing some work on the side, showing how in just a few hours of time you were able to take a crack at some of the challenges they’re facing. Yes, this does start to look like a design exercise of sorts, but if the company isn’t doing design exercises per se, a teaser of what you can do for them can work wonders to open up a more productive conversation.

Add Freelancing Side Projects

While you’re applying and looking to get that ideal design job, it’s not a bad idea to look into design contracting or picking up a few side projects along the way. You can bolster your portfolio by attending a hackathon (which can be an intense but brief commitment for a few days). Alternatively, you can reach out to non-profits to do work pro-bono as long as they’re willing to commit the time to communicate and work with you. Another source of work can be a contribution to open-source projects. Many of these are started by eager developers, but few projects have designers, so this could be an excellent way to fill in some gaps.

Consider an Apprenticeship or a Design Internship

If in your schoolwork you weren’t able to do a design internship—this could be another path to consider. There’s no shame in taking an internship after graduation. While usually internships don’t pay much, they do provide a low-risk way for the employer to get to know you while you’re working. Be sure to go above and beyond in this role if you do choose to pursue an internship. Even if things don’t work out or if the employer doesn’t invite you back—they can still be a strong reference for you and potentially might open doors at other places. But, of course, you also want to take matters in your own hands and continue looking while you are pursuing your internship.

Consider Your Portfolio Personas

The main goal of your online portfolio is to land the phone screen. It is not to be exhaustive in describing the rigor of your process (save that for the on-site!) but rather to start the initial conversation and continue the momentum from online, to phone screen, to an on-site interview.

Be choosy in what you show here and focus on curating the best representative image of your work. Because you will not present this portfolio, your portfolio must stand on its own when a recruiter or a hiring manager is looking through it.


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