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Design Advice, My Story, and How AIGA Nebraska Changed My Life

When I was interning as a graphic designer at eleven19, my boss, Donovan Beery, pulled me aside one day and fished a large file out of the office filing cabinet. Within this several-inches-thick tome, paper threatening to burst out of all sides, resided all the résumés and business cards he’d ever been given. He was showing me this because at the time, I was in school designing my own letterhead and business cards, and he thought perhaps it might be a good source of inspiration.

(Yes, as you can probably tell by now, this is going to be long. I’ll warn you now: I’m going to wander through a few topics. I definitely appreciate you reading, but if you’re short on time, just skip down to here.)

Thumbing carefully through this precariously stuffed folder, one particular piece stuck out to me: a beautifully elegant letterhead and business card combo, cleverly designed and meticulously crafted. Each piece was amazing on its own and even better with the other.

I was in awe of this work. As far as personal stationery items go, it was design perfection.

Every designer…lives in perpetual fear of their portfolio costing them a job they, as a person, might otherwise have gotten. But how many worry that they, as a person, could cost their portfolio a job it might have otherwise gotten?

I asked Donovan about the applicant (whose identity I will not reveal), and he told me without hesitation: yeah, that person is a fantastic designer. They have immense talent and a great portfolio. On work alone, this person was given an interview, and if work alone were the consideration, they would have been hired. But in the conversation that took place during that interview, Donovan said something about this particular stranger just didn’t make the right impression on him. Talented though they were, regardless of what an asset their skills might be, he just simply couldn’t see this person fitting at eleven19.

I’ve thought about this encounter many times since then. It’s haunting, in a way. Every designer spends inordinate amounts of time obsessing over every last detail of their work, living their lives in perpetual fear of their portfolio costing them a job they, as a person, might otherwise have gotten.

But how many of us worry that we, as a person, could cost our portfolio a job it might have otherwise gotten?

Credit Where Credit is Due

We all like to think of design (and maybe everything else, too) as a meritocracy: the best people and the best work rise to the top, so if you labor diligently and scrutinize your portfolio into perfection you, too, will be successful.

And there’s a lot of truth to that. But if we’re talking the whole picture…it’s not entirely accurate.

Malcolm Gladwell discusses this brilliantly in his book Outliers. The point is too deep and involved to fully extract here, so I encourage you to read the book for yourself, even if it’s just the first few chapters. The inadequate summary, though goes something like this:

Meritocracy, in many cases, is a bit of an illusion. When we think of people seizing opportunity, we tend to put too much emphasis on the “seizing” part and not enough on the fact that they received the opportunity in the first place, often through little fault of their own. This first opportunity, however it may have come about, led naturally to another, then another, then another. The people who get ahead, those who succeed wildly and who stand apart from the crowd, don’t tend to be just the people who work the hardest (though it often takes that as well—the 10,000 hour rule is another key topic discussed in the book); they’re also the people for whom something fell into place first.

Every opportunity leads to another opportunity; every connection leads to another connection.

Bill Gates was brilliant, but he was also one of the few kids in the United States who had access to a computer and could learn to program in the 1960s. Professional athletes push their bodies to the limit, but they also are often born taller, stronger or earlier than other kids. The Beatles were innovative and talented, but they also got the opportunity to hone their skills playing excruciatingly long sets together night after night after night long before ever exploding onto the national music scene.

The point is: work and opportunity, like wealth and poverty, are compounding. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer; the more you have, the more you will have, and the less you have, the less you will have. Every opportunity leads to another opportunity; every connection leads to another connection.

Better Than Better

I’m not here to tell you that you can get hired without being really good; you probably can’t. Or that you don’t need to put in many, many hours of work until you have something great to show for it; you do. But I am here to tell you that being good skill-wise isn’t all there is to it.

Design is a crowded field, to say the least. By some estimates, of every ten people with some kind of a degree in graphic design, only one has a full-time job in the field. Granted, there are a number of reasons why even if that number is accurate, it may be misleading—for example, many designers are freelancers who don’t put in a 40-hour work week or part-timers at multiple jobs, and even some of the full-timers are in other fields—but if the sheer numbers were to be believed, you need to be better than about 90% of the prospective designers out there to get a job.

A good portfolio gets you an interview; a good attitude gets you a job.

Don’t despair, though, because this is one reason why your skill alone may not be the main consideration of a potential employer: even if you are an amazing designer, that doesn’t do much good for an employer who already has a staff full of amazing designers (and a flock more of them pounding at his or her door). This is part of the reason for a trend toward professional workplaces in general and the industry in particular placing less emphasis on the black-and-white things shown on your résumé and in your work itself. The focus is instead increasingly being placed on finding people who fit personally and culturally within the workplace, on what the sports-inclined might call “intangibles.” Your talents are important, but if you have other strengths, roles, abilities, perspectives or positive personal effects to contribute, at a certain point, it does a lot more good for your employment possibilities to focus on those.

Marty Amsler, creative director at Bailey Lauerman, gave this quote at Meet the Pros when I was a student, and it’s stuck with me ever since: “A good portfolio gets you an interview; a good attitude gets you a job.”

The problem, for both you and your prospective employer, is that an interview may not be enough to convey a good idea of what that attitude might be, and how else you may be a complementary asset outside your raw talent. A portfolio reveals your ability as a designer in minutes, but even a series of interviews may only give a prospective employer a glimpse of how you might fit in and what kind of intangible energy and intelligence you bring to the table.

Showing work is easy; how do you show who you are as a member of a team?

It’s All Who You Know

I’ve been working professionally in some capacity in the design field for a little over two years, whether as an intern, a freelancer, contractor or full-time employee. That doesn’t make me an expert on anything, and I’m not here to pretend to have achieved some mighty triumph or to look down on anybody. I’m quite young in my career, and I have no pretense about that.

I’ve never, ever, ever gotten one single piece of work or even so much as a job interview without establishing a relationship with somebody first.

And to be honest, I’m not convinced I’m in that top 10% or so of designers. (Not that there’s any point in trying to quantify something like that, but still.) The letterhead I eventually made for my class wasn’t as good as the one I saw that day at eleven19. Yeah, I worked hard, and I still do. But I know that I am where I am not just because of that, but because of the people I was fortunate to meet and the connections I happened to make along the way.

I know this is true because I’ve made at least part of my living through design for more than a couple years now, and design has been my main or only source of income for the better part of that time. But I’ve never, ever, ever gotten one single piece of work or even so much as a job interview without establishing a relationship with somebody first.

Ask the Pros

Ask any Omaha design professional; we all know we didn’t get where we are, wherever that may be, entirely on our own. I’ve heard countless professionals say so themselves. We all know we have whatever we have because we went to the right event to meet the right person; because we got an internship or a job shadow against all odds; because we shared a space with somebody who would have an important role in our lives; because just the right person showed up at that portfolio review or that job interview; because we ran into somebody at just the right time; because we sent that email, we made that phone call, we got that coffee; because we got to do that work that led to doing that other work; because we knew somebody who knew somebody who changed our life.

Personally, when I look at the series of events that put me on the path I’m walking today, I see one thing tying together all the pieces, connecting all the dots and facilitating every event that had an impact on my young career. I think most Nebraska pros would cite the same thing.

That thing is AIGA Nebraska.

We’re All Connected

I can honestly say I wouldn’t be walking the path I’m on without AIGA Nebraska. Like I said above: every opportunity I’ve gotten is because of a connection, a relationship, or an interaction, and virtually every single one of those somehow, in some way, ties back to that organization and the selfless efforts of its volunteers.

Whoever you are, wherever you are in your career, think about the opportunities you’ve had so far. What has been your catalyst? What opportunities led to other opportunities which led to even bigger opportunities?

Can you honestly say that AIGA Nebraska had nothing to do with it?

The person sitting across from the interview table can see how good your portfolio is. What they can’t see is how being a part of something bigger than yourself is meaningful enough to you to personally take the initiative to make it happen.

I certainly cannot say that my path never led me through an AIGA event, or to an advocate who served on the board. I can’t tell you that my network didn’t overlap with AIGA Nebraska’s, or that I didn’t benefit from the connections within that network at all. And the events—Show, Barcamp, StoryTime, 36 Pints, Nerdbraska, AIGA student group meetups, Me, Myself and Design, the speaker events, workshops—I don’t know about you, but I would be lying like the devil if I told you none of those things affected my professional trajectory.

If you’re a student, or an aspiring professional, I’d like to answer the question from earlier, the one about how you can show a prospective employer who you are.

The answer is: show up, and find out how you can help. Even if your future boss or your future interviewer isn’t in the room, somebody who knows them is.

The person sitting across from the interview table can see how good your portfolio is. They can see how good the work of all the other applicants is, too. What they can’t see is how you turn up when and where you might be needed, how you build relationships, interact as a member of a community, seek out challenges, reach out to and work with new people.

How being a part of something bigger than yourself is meaningful enough to you to personally take the initiative to make it happen.

Why I’m Writing This

As you may know, I am the sitting Director of Finance on the AIGA Nebraska board. You may also know that this week marks AIGA’s national membership drive.

Whether we’ve already changed your path or not, we will. If you give us the chance.

AIGA is funded almost entirely by membership; the events we put on as AIGA Nebraska, the networking opportunities we provide, the student mentorship and scholarship programs, the resources, partnerships and discounts we offer—all of it relies solely and entirely on the support of the design community. Most of it operates at a loss. Trust me; I’ve seen the numbers. We don’t do this to make money, or for ourselves. If we did, we’d be failing miserably.

We do it for you. For our community. Just because we love it.

I started going to every AIGA-related event I could as soon as I knew what they were; that’s how I met the people who became important to my career, where I earned the recognition that led to recommendation, then interviews, then projects and jobs. Ask virtually any pro in Omaha, and they’ll tell you a similar tale. Their success story isn’t just about work; it’s about other people giving them a chance, and doing so because those other people knew that person could be trusted with it.

If you’re in any way involved in a design field—any design field in Nebraska, I want to ask you: please consider joining AIGA Nebraska. If it hasn’t benefitted you yet, it can and will if you let it. Most likely, in some way, it already has.

More info on membership and the drive is can be found at aiga.org/belong, but know this: membership starts at only $50 a year. That’s less annually than I pay for Hulu or Netflix, and many schools and employers will help foot that cost. Even if they don’t, not only does it go to directly benefit your community, but most or all of it will pay itself back in discounts to events and in perks if you take advantage.

One year of basic membership: AIGA costs less than Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, Spotify or Amazon Prime.

Locally, we partner with Flywheel to give our members a discount on WordPress hosting, with Regal Printing to give our members discounted printing options, with Magnolia hotel and a whole lot more.

Nationally, all AIGA members at any level get discounts on Skillshare, AIGA events, Show entry and lots of other things, plus access to share portfolios and view job postings.

Bump your membership up one level (psst: it’s still less per month than you might spend on Netflix or HBO Now) and you add discounts on Apple and Wacom products, Lynda, Shutterstock, FedEx and printing at Moo.com as well, plus access to the private AIGA health insurance exchange.

We need your support. We depend on it. And we aren’t asking for it without giving anything in return, I promise you.

Whether we’ve already changed your path or not, we will. If you give us the chance.

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