Studying for a degree in Illustration means you are often faced with tutors and others around you reminding you that you’ve chosen to enter a tough industry. On occasion, some have been so thoughtful as to verbally prepare you for the inevitable disappointment of post-graduation life like it’s some kind of apocalyptic event. To be honest they’re not entirely wrong.
However, with a little perseverance and willpower it is very possible to break into the industry. After what seemed like a lifetime of customer service and cleaning toilets, I finally found that my efforts at university, hours put into my portfolio and interning had paid off. I began working at Sweet Cherry Publishing as the children’s book designer in May 2016. At Sweet Cherry I have designed not only book covers but also book fair stands (Frankfurt and Shanghai so far), catalogues and posters. I’ve also written illustration plans and reshaped the company’s identity, which is something that I could not have experienced working at a larger publishing house.
As suggested by the bitter tone in which I describe working life after graduation, it took a few disappointments to just get a foot in the door. Design is a tough industry and I felt like I should have started my career at the age of foetus just to obtain enough experience for an entry-level position. But wallowing in self-pity helps nobody… I started to do my research and using every opportunity I could to better my CV. Whilst studying I entered competitions with publishers. I undertook projects that I enjoyed illustrating the most (the majority being book projects) and subsequently ended up winning a national competition redesigning Alice in Wonderland. I also took the opportunity to meet people in the industry through university contacts, learning about others’ experiences in the industry I wanted to enter.
After five to six months of life as a graduate, I interned at a design studio that specialised in the production of books. I then began to really gear my portfolio specifically to apply for book cover design job positions. After a few disappointments along the way, I finally got a call to interview at Sweet Cherry Publishing. I had learnt from both positive and negative interviews that the publishing industry is built upon relationships. Employers like someone who is genuine or an individual that can work well with the existing team, so it pays to be yourself in an interview. In terms of design, it is important that you can talk confidently about your work and the challenges you faced when creating it. During my Sweet Cherry interview, I was asked critique a book. Part of what got me the position was giving my honest opinion – pointing out both the positives and negatives of the design – which demonstrated that I was able to think critically as a designer. I probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to approach this task honestly if it weren’t for my previous (failed) interview experiences.
I think my advice is to persevere and have the willingness to always self-improve. You should be constantly working on your portfolio in order to improve your chances of finding employment. It is also important to not compare yourself to others and to understand that you have entered an industry in which it can just be a case of being in the right place at the right time. Frustratingly, it can seem as though some people get into the industry with minimal effort, but I can guarantee they have all had the same fears as you at some point. So to conclude what has seemed like a mini-monologue and rant about minor misfortunes, my final piece of advice is that you should get out there and go meet people. Network, network, network! Opportunities present themselves in the weirdest forms. You never know, a random encounter could be the start of your career!