How to find graphic design work in the Bay area?
July 16, 2012 11:33 AM   Subscribe

My girlfriend and I live in the Bay area, and she's looking for graphic design work. She'd prefer a full-time job, but would be happy with contract work for now. She's new to the industry, and would like your advice on finding work. Any tips or resources would be welcome.

My girlfriend is a gifted graphic designer and photo retoucher, with a BA in studio art from a well-respected school. However, she doesn't have a whole lot of industry experience, and neither of us have many connections. For the last couple months, she's combed Craigslist, SimplyHired, and Indeed for full-time positions. This yielded a couple interviews, but no offers. She's looking for a "way in", but doesn't know where to start. To quote her, "I'm willing to pay my dues, but I don't know where to pay them!"

She's willing to start with contract work or possibly even paid internships. Her current focus is on building her portfolio and learning the industry; it's okay if the work doesn't pay fabulously right away.

What websites should she be searching for jobs? What articles or blogs should she read? What meetups or events should she attend? What's the best way to beef up her portfolio? Do you have any advice from your own personal experience? Any other tips or suggestions?

Thanks for the help.
posted by apostate street preacher to Work & Money (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
In most of the Bay Area right now, and certainly in the design field, applying through job listings is usually not enough. There are too many other people with connections to compete with.

The best thing she can do it to promote herself online. She should make a professional, good-looking website where potential employers can view her portfolio. She should include the URL in her resume and cover letters.

She can build her portfolio and make connections by taking freelance or temporary gigs. Former clients can point her to more work.
posted by twblalock at 12:02 PM on July 16, 2012

Response by poster: She should make a professional, good-looking website where potential employers can view her portfolio. She should include the URL in her resume and cover letters.

She's done that.

She can build her portfolio and make connections by taking freelance or temporary gigs.

She's definitely open to taking freelance and temporary gigs. The problem is she doesn't know where to look for them. Any ideas?
posted by apostate street preacher at 12:07 PM on July 16, 2012

Has she got her name in with the various graphic design/creatives-specific temp agencies? (Yelp can probably help sort out least bad from most bad.)
posted by rtha at 12:14 PM on July 16, 2012

Cold calling has always found me work.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:14 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agree on the temp agency for creatives approach.

And she might want to attend local AIGA events (which you can do as a non member). Most of the content should be of interest and she may end up meeting some of the right people. She should be targeted in what she chooses to go to but also interested. If she can afford it she can become a member later.

It's very hard to say just how strong an alumni network is at any given point for a school we don't know but at minimum she should be using her school as part of her networking and job seeking.

Also does she have a focus or specialty in design that we should know about or sets her apart (aside from photo retouching which I feel is separate).
posted by safetyfork at 12:40 PM on July 16, 2012

I'm a designer on the east coast so I don't have Bay Area-specific resources. That said, things that have helped myself and others land design work:

Do some freelance work. Get freelance work by talking to your friends and family. Does anyone need help making their wedding invitations? Doing website touchups? Retouching photos for someone's food blog? If you doesn't know anyone who needs help with anything... make something up.

Get on dribbble and post non-confidential snippets of your process on that client work. They have a good job board over there, too, so troll that.

Even if she has her own portfolio site, put a few pieces of outstanding work up on Behance for free. Then get on LinkedIn and connect that portfolio to LinkedIn. If you've labeled your work well, you should start getting headhunters attacking your inbox. In my experience in New York, a lot of these recruiters are complete crap, sending you untargeted listings...but once in a while something worth following up on.

My impression of the kind of work available in the Bay Area (and what I do for a living) is digital product design. If she has competency or interest in this area, she should check out local digital agencies (or companies like Facebook, Pinterest, etc.) job listings directly on their websites. These larger places tend to have pretty good internship programs and are excellent places to start your network.

Don't bother looking at Craigslist. The stuff up there might pay the bills, but likely won't be from savvy companies who have the kind of employees you want to build your network with.
posted by thirdletter at 2:43 PM on July 16, 2012

She should attend industry MeetUps and other events. Not only will she hopefully learn something, but meet some great people in her field who may know of an opening. I have been to many meetups where employers were there looking to recruit afterwards.

Bonus points for coming with some well-designed business cards with her name, contact info and portfolio site.
posted by halseyaa at 2:46 PM on July 16, 2012

Agreed with KokoRyu on cold calling or cold emailing. If she gets organized, starts a list of potential clients, and remains diligent about reaching out to a list of people two or three times a week, she'll start getting clients.

I keep a spreadsheet of emails going all the time, and periodically send out a mail-merged email (so it feels a bit personalized) with a pitch that showcases my work, says what sorts of things I'm available to do, etc. I also add a p.s. that lets people know that they're not on an email list, and if they don't write back, they'll never hear from me again. No need to piss people off. :)

Once she sends out the email, mark that portion of the spreadsheet as "sent" (I do this with color), and get to work locating more names and addresses to add to the end.

Pretty simple system, and it keeps me busy. If she does that for a year, she'll get work AND she'll have a lot more industry experience.
posted by nosila at 2:58 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

How does your girlfriend feel about learning some of the skills to be a front-end developer?

I ask because I know a couple people who went to art school, and are now living in the bay area. The ones with salaried positions all ended up at tech companies, after seeing how cutthroat/poorly-paid GD can be. From what they've described, community colleges have quite a few courses which'll teach you enough to get started.

The other suggestion I have is to check out 99 designs for practice, but I've heard that it can actually be quite frustrating for the designers.
posted by tinymegalo at 2:59 PM on July 16, 2012

While the pay isn't always great, the fastest/easiest way to get temp and temp-to-perm design work in the Bay area is probably through creative staffing agencies or recruiters. The agencies with the most work seem to be: Creative Circle (high volume of jobs, slightly lower rates than competition), 24 Seven Talent, (great client roster), and Aquent. I've also heard Kinectic and Von Church mentioned, though have no experience with them.

There is a ton of design work in the area right now but most of it is for web products or apps; if her experience is mainly in print design, it might be helpful for her to do some pro-bono web work to build her portfolio; also, the term 'graphic designer' is very broad and seems to have fallen out of favor as a job title in the area, I see most people using 'visual designer' to differentiate themselves from more specific areas such as UX or web design.
posted by erisian at 3:50 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can give her some Bay Area-based agencies that have placed some of my graphic design friends, but the competition is truly fierce and getting to the pace where they see you enough to place you can be tough:

(on preview, most of what erisian said)
posted by Ink-stained wretch at 3:57 PM on July 16, 2012

Things that can allegedly get you jobs, of which I claim no first-hand knowledge:
  • Network like crazy. Attend not only AIGA events, but try getting on the local AIGA board, or a board for another local design club. Go to events and talk to people. Get business cards and followup for informational interviews.
  • Have a real, physical portfolio to bring to informational interviews. Have it be really good. She needs to understand the concept behind she's designed and have justification for it, but be entirely open to criticism.
  • Follow up with criticism and improve designs for follow-up interviews if no job is found within 6 months to a year.
  • Have a strong web presence. This is more than just a portfolio website - twitter, linkedin, tumblr, a blog, anything she feels comfortable in can be a step in helping a potential employer make the decision to take a chance on her. I've heard.
  • Utilize industry blogs like the San Francisco Egotist to know who the big companies in the area are and what they're doing.
  • Self promotion through mailer-sized portfolios to places she'd like to work.
i bfa'd in design but have never worked directly in the industry so all of the above is not guaranteed to do anything more than overwhelm me personally.
posted by girih knot at 6:45 PM on July 16, 2012

Please please please don't tell your girlfriend to get on 99designs. Spec work sucks for all involved.

And if she is in digital media, a print mailer or physical portfolio are awfully outdated. Mailers have been passed around amongst my agency for a chuckle, and if a candidate showed up for an interview with a paper portfolio I would be nonplussed.

Even if she is a print designer interviewing somewhere, it is still probably better to have well-photographed work in digital form with maybe a physical sample to pass around. Often you are being interviewed by multiple people and crowding around a sheet of paper is not the best experience.
posted by thirdletter at 7:51 PM on July 16, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks to all for the suggestions! You've given my girlfriend a number of new avenues for finding work, which is exactly what she needed.
posted by apostate street preacher at 3:48 PM on July 17, 2012

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