Tips For Students Approaching Design Agencies For Work  

Matt Shelley: Senior Designer at DeepTim Smith: Senior Designer at Deep


Q: Is it better to have qualifications or experience, as a student interested in working for a design agency and what should they be?

Matt: Design qualifications are important because they reassure companies that you have hopefully reached a certain standard and understanding of what design is, having had at least 4 years practising and refining your talent. However, a strong portfolio and an infectious personality goes a long way.

Tim: I will always go straight to the applicant’s work and primarily judge them on this. That said, University experience and placements are vital in terms of understanding the industry and level at which you need to aspire.

Q: What stands out to you most about a student’s portfolio?

Matt: Personally I like a broad set of skills. An eye for layout and creative typography really excites me. Illustration and photography is a bonus and a sense of humour. 

Tim: Polished and considered work that is representative of realistic industry projects and shows attention to detail, throughout the chosen method of presentation.

Q: What skills do you think make a good graphic designer?

Matt: Ideas and knowing how to help yourself come up with them. Reliability and a drive to keep pushing and not settling for the first thing you think of. However, sharing your ideas and not being overprotective of them is very important. If you create a situation where you don’t share your thoughts, you only have one critic – yourself and you probably will ignore or miss things that aren’t right. Competition within a studio is good but being competitive isn’t.  Also an ability to take constructive criticism.

Tim: Being intuitive and adaptable to a large variety of markets.

Q: Which digital designers do you admire most and why?

Matt: Peter and Maria (The Digital Mosaic Directors).

Tim: I think the constant development of technology and user behaviour means designers working digitally are only as good as their most recent piece of work, meaning there is less time for styles and trends to set in. That said, I think designers such as Neville Brody have shown you can produce effective work across platforms.

Q: How important is creativity and artistic flair to your line of work?

Matt: It’s 90% of what we do I think. The other 10% is understanding how to make that talent generate money, otherwise we’d all be struggling artists.

Tim: To produce effective work you must apply thought creatively to avoid repetition. I would say this is the same in any industry.

Q: Do you often have to compromise your vision or strike a balance with the technical constraints of web?

Matt: Yes but working under constraints, presents another exciting set of challenges.

Tim: Without constraints there would not be a problem to solve.

Q: Is networking a vital part of furthering your career in the industry?

Matt: I think so, just as it is in most professions.

Tim: I don’t think you can ever have too many industry connections.

Q: What process, tools and techniques would you recommend to a student as a pre-requisite to forging a professional career in this industry?

Matt: I think having a set of strategies to help you generate ideas is key. They might be different for each designer. I find the best work comes from preparation before jumping on the mac, thorough reading, understanding of the brief and brainstorming in a layout pad. Great ideas seldom come from searching on Google.

Tim: Creative suite and a strategic approach to every project.

Q: If digital designers alter the way people see and interact with the world, changing the way we think about the web … do you think it is important to be innovative?

Matt: Sure, otherwise things stay the same.

Tim: Yes but innovation should not be mistaken for simply doing things differently. It should mean improving the product from every angle.

Q: Describe the process between the conceptual and practical aspect of design practice that students should be aware of.

Matt: Concept is usually key to strong design. The client might like the concept but want to refine the design. If you just go in with pretty work and the client doesn’t like it, you have nowhere to go. Sometimes it’s easier to sell ideas than visuals. Although not always. Coming up with practical concepts help. 

Tim: In order to ensure the idea is feasible, concepts must be put in to practice by applying them across every possible eventuality.

Q: What is the main difference between digital designers and print designers?

Matt: Print designers seem to be more old school, turned on by paper, the smell of print and other things like that.

Tim: I don’t think there is, or should be any difference.

Q: Where can a student who has studied and worked at a design agency, hope their career will progress to?

Matt: Full time job I should think…be prepared to start at the very bottom. Be on time, smile, relax, and see where that takes you. One tip I would give anyone is don’t put your earphones in during the first month. You’re shutting yourself off from the studio, everyone in it and vice versa.

Tim: The usual route is to be taken on as a junior designer in a team. This role will involve being a part of projects from start to finish, usually taking the lead from more experienced designers/directors. Eventually such a career could progress to art director, creative director, having your own agency and beyond!

Q: What is your best and worst experience in working for a design agency?

Matt: Best is getting that job back from the printer and thinking it probably couldn’t look any better. I don’t think I’ve ever had that feeling yet, but have come close a few times. I don’t think I know any designers who are ever truly satisfied! Or positive feedback from a client. That’s when you’ve done your job properly. Or even just looking at someone else’s work and thinking, “I would never have done that”. Getting excited by other people in your studio’s work, is important because it motivates them and creates a sense of a team. Worst – working with overly negative people. Good design comes from confidence in your own and your team’s ability.

Tim: Clients and clients!

Q: What advice can you offer students for making a good impression when attending a job interview?

Matt: Smile and make sure your portfolio is good. Show that you can present because it speaks volumes about your social skills and confidence.  It may seem old fashioned but it gets my back up when people have spelling mistakes all over their CV because it just tells me, they haven’t got an eye for detail and can’t be trusted to artwork anything properly.

Tim: Be prepared, confident and remember the person on the other side of the table is only human and wants the interview to go as well as you do.

Q: How should a designer dress for an interview if smart attire is not required within the working environment?

Matt: Dress to impress, however you interpret that…

Tim:  I don’t think it was ever decided that smart attire is not required. I believe people expect designers/media types to express their personality by the way they dress.  From the design agencies opinion, more informal attire creates a welcoming and relaxed environment for employees, clients and associates.

Q: What is the key to transforming a brief and delivering it as a successful design?

Matt: Finding what the real problem is and working out how to tackle it.

Tim: Lots of research, questions and doing everything possible to understand the target market/s.

Q: What is your preference in designing for print or websites and why?

Matt: Print. Ive had more practice and I’m a touchy feely designer. I like embosses, transparent paper, silver foil and the feel of a sheet of Colorplan.

Tim: I don’t differentiate between the two. Personally, I see it all as applying the brand across the necessary platforms.

Q: Which sources do you suggest would be most helpful to job seeking students?

Matt: Blogs like September Industry are good for seeing design you can use as a quality benchmark. I enjoy attending lectures by designers, they reinvigorate and motivate.

Tim: I would suggest going direct to the companies that inspire you. Also, interesting blogs often have interesting job posts. 

Q: How do you advise students for optimising their portfolios, CV’s and covering letters, when approaching design agencies?

Matt: Try to stand out but don’t look like you’re trying to stand out. Wit and humour go down well with me.  Show that you are professional and creative. Creative, obviously but professional because this is a job after all. Also, there are lots of people chasing a small amount of places.

Tim: I always say to lead with images of your work in a PDF format which does not exceed 3/4mg. A link to a personal website is okay but sometimes too much effort if the recipient is busy. Always provide links to website designs. Only show 4/5 pieces of your favourite and most relevant work.

Q: Should aspiring designers be prepared to work for long hours or is it expected?

Matt: Unfortunately yes. Though I do honestly think if a studio is well managed there shouldn’t really be a need to do it.

Tim: In order to be successful you need to go above and beyond the norm in any industry. It can be a little more expected in design due to agencies being expected to pitch. This inevitably means working for free and to do this your designers are sometimes relied upon to work extra and unplanned hours.

Q: Complete this sentence: You know it’s worth commissioning a website from Digital Mosaic because…

Matt: …they know what they’re doing.

Tim: …you have looked at and like, their folio and ethos.

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