Top tips from designers on finding work during uncertain times

While the design industry has suffered during the pandemic, there are some bright spots for those looking for work – particularly among freelance and digital sectors.

By Henry Wong 

The past year has presented many challenges for those working in the creative industry, as widespread cuts resulted in less work and job losses.

Combined with continued uncertainty about lockdown, many designers have struggled to find new work or stay in employment. A recent Design Week poll revealed that 48% of designers are worried about what the final few months of 2020 might bring.

But Pip Jamieson, founder of creative professional network The Dots, tells Design Week that after a difficult period, the recruitment consultancy is finally seeing an “uptick in terms of work”.

And while some companies are still cautious about taking on new employees, there’s opportunity for designers to find another job or even consider transitioning to a different sector.

In this piece leading designers from the sectors of digital, branding, retail and hospitality reveal their best tips on finding new work.


What are the employment trends within the design industry?

The tech industry is “thriving”, Jamieson says. There’s a “monumental rise” across the board – which includes user experience (UX), user interface (UI), product design, design thinking and even tech copywriting.

Designers shouldn’t limit themselves to tech roles though. According to Jamieson, there’s also a rise in creative jobs at tech companies, meaning that skills can be transferred. “You can still work in advertising but at Google, or still do fashion but at Depop, for example.”

While there has been an increased appreciation of tech, it’s not the only sector of design that’s seen renewed interest more recently. She highlights animation as an in-demand skill, though admits that illustration is struggling because of print’s continued woes. “We can’t do live action at the moment so everyone is looking at how to do a Christmas campaign with motion graphics,” she adds.

Jamieson also notes a rise in “curation” roles. “There’s so much information in the world right now that companies are looking at people with creative design eyes to curate ideas and products for their own services,” she says, pointing to social media app TikTok’s trend curation.


Are companies hiring?

Jamieson says that there are fewer junior hires at the moment as companies are “scared” of the commitment. However, she adds there’s been a “significant” rise in freelance roles. This is a mixed-bag for designers, she explains: while it means that companies might not be committing to full-time roles, there’s also more scope to try new things and develop skills.

The rise in freelance roles has also meant more call-outs for “freelance collectives”. These are  small networks where work is shared out between freelancers. She says that companies are approaching these groups where they might usually have approached an agency.

Finally Jamieson, points to the a “massive rise in remote roles” across Europe and the US, which means plenty more opportunities but also a lot more competition.


Upskilling

Jamieson recommends upskilling as a way of making yourself more attractive as a designer between roles. This doesn’t require a complete change in direction or retraining, she adds. It’s about finding your core skill and working out if it’s “transferable”.

Illustrators might want to learn how to motion design, while copywriters could apply their skills to platform copy (in the UX field). Front-end developers who have design skills are a “holy grail” right now, she says.

She points to the wide range of tech courses available, such as General Assembly which offers short and long-term “coding bootcamps” and can be taken remotely.


Making the jump to digital

Sennep’s Olo Loco

How could a designer go about making a jump to a more digital-facing sector? Hege Aaby, founder and creative director of digital product studio Sennep, says it requires being a “specialist over a generalist”.

People with skills in UI and expert knowledge of technologies like AR, VR and machine learning are attractive. Complex digital products also need to be documented – so that people can be onboarded onto projects quickly – which means that design documentation is also important.

It’s also key to remember the role of empathy in designing for digital, Aaby says. That is good news for designers considering a transfer to digital. “When you come from a more graphic design or brand design background, you’re thinking a lot about the emotional connection of products,” she adds.

Aaby echoes Jamieson’s recommendation about General Assembly courses. When it comes to portfolios for digital jobs, she says that it’s key to show an aptitude for problem solving but not to forget the aesthetics. “Beautiful design evokes feelings and you can’t underestimate that when it comes to digital products.”

She also agrees that freelance will be a booming field and the studio is looking to grow its talent pool – advising designers to keep their eyes on sites like LinkedIn. And while all the designers stressed that adaptability is key right now, Aaby says that any designer starting a new job will have to be comfortable with remote working software like Figma while offices remain partially or fully closed.


Personal projects can be an “invaluable” addition to your portfolio

Recently, the studio revealed Olo Loco, the sequel to its 2012 video game Olo. Aaby says this “personal project” is important for the studio as it allows the team to explore their passions and follow them through to completition.

Likewise, she says that setting yourself up with a personal project is “really valuable” for designers’ portfolios. It’s a great way of showing problem solving skills and human connection in your portfolio, according to Aaby.

A project could be personal to the designer or tailored to a brand. Booming fields in digital right now are health, the environment and personal apps that track food intake or exercise, she says.

Another direct consequence of Covid is the movement of physical events online. Aaby says that a client has been looking at how to recreate a physical event in a virtual space, and she believes this sector will evolve in the coming period.


Think “outside of the norm”

Supple Studio founder and creative director Jamie Ellul tells Design Week that when it comes to hiring designers, he is always interested in people who have interests “outside of the norm”.

They bring a different perspective to a branding studio like Supple, he says. Echoing Aaby’s point about personal projects, Ellul says that it’s good for designers who have side-interests.

And after a difficult year, work has picked up again. He also says that there’s been a slight change in briefs from clients which are focusing “more on the digital side of things”. For example, Supple worked with au pair service Norland College on its latest campaign.

Usually that would require video content, but that was not possible this year. The studio created an illustrative style for the brand and a series of animations. These have been used for recruitment drives and to brief new students on the company’s Covid guidance.

He highlights that people with skills in animation, photography and illustration are a definite plus at the moment.

When it comes to applying for roles, Ellul adds that a consistent bugbear is the “designer’s CV that isn’t designed”. “If you can’t design your own CV, it really makes an impression,” he adds, saying that a Word document in Times New Roman is unlikely to grab his attention.


See where “motion inspiration” takes you

Design Bridge London senior brand and motion creative Fahud Ahmed has advice on making the transition from graphic to motion design – a move he himself made at university.

“Where graphic design tends to be about one final result, motion is all about how you build an engaging story up over time, step by step, spotting and filling in the gaps,” he says.

He encourages designers to think about why something needs to be animated, and then plan accordingly. “Create a storyboard with a clear script and plan each frame and the transitions needed to move from one to the next before you begin,” he says. “Doing this will help to identify what is missing and what needs to be created.”

In terms of practical skills, he recommends a “full understanding” of the Adobe suite. A motion designer will likely be using software such as After Effects and Premiere but also creating and editing assets in Illustrator and Photoshop, according to Ahmed.

He says that YouTube tutorials can be a great place to learn the basics of animation while Vimeo’s Staff Picks showcase must-see work.

The designer also highlights social media as a useful way to find “motion inspiration” and “seeing where it takes you” (he namechecks Instagram accounts like @motiondesignschool and @motionmate).


“Be honest about the technical skills you have”

In terms of job roles, motion designers “can dabble in both 2D or 3D”, Ahmed says, but some prefer to specialise. Some studios will also dictate these specialisms. For example, a CGI studio will more likely need a motion designer proficient in both skillsets while a creative studio may prefer a 2D specialist, he explains.

Whatever the career trajectory, he advises “being honest about the technical skills” you have at the application stage. Because it is a varied field, he also says that designers should be “honest about the kind of work” they want to do.

“The worst thing is saying you’re passionate about 3D motion design to get a job, then when it comes to the day to day work, you don’t actually enjoy the technical creation,” he adds.

A portfolio must include a showreel which reflects “your technical and storytelling skills”. It should also highlight the “diversity” of your work and avoid any repetition. A final word of warning: “Don’t copy an online tutorial and then feature it in your showreel because it’s not original and we’ll spot it a mile off.”


Rethinking retail

While Covid has hit the retail, hospitality and exhibition sector hard, it’s not all doom and gloom according to Phoenix Wharf creative director and founder Chris Gwyther. The Bristol-based studio covers branding, hospitality and retail design and works in an open studio with its sister agency Ignition which focuses on exhibition design.

Trends have been “accelerated” in these fields, he says – most prominently the blurring of  barriers between the sectors. Recently the studio opened Bristol Loaf, a mixed-use space which combines a bakery, wine shop and café. He says it’s an example of where the sector is heading; a shared, more localised space.

This makes the sector an exciting one for designers, he says, especially as it crosses so many disciplines – from graphic and spatial design to digital.


Thinking beyond Covid

The recently-opened Bristol Loaf

Right now, the agency is hiring across the group. But Gwyther advises designers not to get “hung up on designing for Covid”. In terms of hospitality and retail, he thinks that this would be “reactive”. It’s better to look further ahead and work out where the sector is heading in the long term – by reading design publications and keeping an eye on trends.

He advises for graphic designers to try to expand their repertoire, with programs like Adobe XD. In terms of retail, a key attention to spatial design and the flow of shops is vital, of course. But like the other designers interviewed, Gwyther says a breadth of experience can be great.

For portfolios, he provides a balance to Aaby’s advice, saying that while visuals are important, he’s really interested in the “thinking and process” behind work. “I want to see the workings and development of an idea,” he adds.

Variety is also key: a house style shows a designer is not responding to individual briefs but just working to their own style, he says. Gwyther advises designers to show off the “diversity” of their past work. One project could demonstrate a skill like rendering, while another could show how a designer approaches manufacturing methods and materials.

“You have to keep us looking through it all.”

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