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Graphic designers share their top tips for a standout CV

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Graphic design is a dream job for many. Coming up with ideas to meet a brief, or working out how best to conjure up a particular feeling via the use of visual media, offers endless scope for imagination and creative fulfilment.

But it’s not without its challenges. This is a multifaceted discipline and, like all great careers, it’s competitive.

Just getting your foot in the door of a design studio requires grit and tenacity. And of course, it calls for a stellar CV that, hand-in-hand with your portfolio, will make your design identity sparkle. 

We’ve grilled some of the UK’s leading female graphic designers for their tips on crafting a brilliant résumé. From tailoring your skills to a particular agency, to being as visually unique and concise as you can, here are their golden nuggets of wisdom…


Getting started

An example of graphic designer Otilia Martin's work in progress

An example of graphic designer Otilia Martin's work in progress

Research is a key first stage. “Think about the area of graphic design that excites you most,” says Eirwen Campbell, head of artwork and production at branding agency Ragged Edge. “Is it branding, packaging, digital, artwork and production – or something a bit different like animation or illustration? Then figure out which agencies, businesses or people you admire most and get in touch.”

The next step is to think about personalisation.

“Always tailor your CV to its recipient,” says Eirwen. “Keep it clear and to-the-point. It should be no longer than one side of A4. On following pages, include only your best work and show it off in the most impactful way possible. Think about your personal brand and how you want to be perceived. If you want to break into designing packaging for food, sending your CV with a handcrafted box of brownies always goes down well. Or a super-slick digital portfolio might get you noticed by that web design agency you love.”

Strong visual details that bring out your design personality are another key element of a CV.

"As a graphic designer, your CV offers a great opportunity to showcase your abilities and personality,”  says Suzanne Battensby, senior creative at British fashion label Joules.

“It needs to be functional, clear and concise, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make it your own. Using colour and your choice of font can say a lot about you. Show what your strengths are, whether it’s illustration or typography, to add those unique details.”

But in making your CV aesthetically great, it’s important not to lose focus of the actual content.

“As a graphic designer, I’m all about how things are represented visually. But when it comes to writing a CV, never sacrifice substance for style,” warns Suzanne.

Read on for more tips...


“Rip up the rule book”

Sinem Erkas

Sinem Erkas, book designer, illustrator and art director at sinemerkas.com

“Being a graphic designer is very rewarding every time you get that eureka moment after days of visual problem-solving,” says Sinem. “Seeing your work on shelves and on posters up and down the country is exciting, but ultimately it’s seeing people engage with your work that’s the most rewarding aspect of the job.”

“Graphic design can be as creatively fulfilling as you make it, it depends a lot on how open your client is and the brief. Just make sure your portfolio is true to you and reflects the kind of work you want to get hired for.”

Sinem’s CV tips

  • Treat it as a design exercise

Your portfolio is everything, but your CV will also be looked at as a design exercise. This is your chance to show off your typography skills and make something as mundane as a CV really attractive and inviting to read.

  • Be rebellious

Rip up the rule book! If you throw a brick it will probably land on a graphic designer, especially if you are in east London, that's how many of us there are – so how will you stand out?


“Focus on big ideas”

Jessica Kumah and Lauren Digby, designers at JAMcreative

Jessica Kumah | Designer | JAMcreative

“The most challenging part of being a designer is trying to push creative ideas when some clients have very strict guidelines or very little budget, which is often the case,” says Jessica.

“But the best part is seeing your own work on a supermarket shelf, in someone’s home or seeing it in use, knowing that you’ve created it. We also love seeing a client’s reaction when you present them with a new brand and they love it.”

Jessica and Lauren’s CV tips

  • Be concise

When presenting or showcasing your portfolio, don’t show every piece of work you’ve ever designed. Pick the top four to six projects that you feel are your strongest and you feel confident talking through.

  • Keep it simple and clean

If you’re sending a portfolio digitally, don’t over-design. Let your projects speak for themselves. If you include any copy for context, keep it short and sweet – making sure you have quickly outlined the brief and your solution.

  • Focus on big ideas

Try and include projects that have a really strong idea within them. This helps employers get a sense of your thought process. And don’t worry if it was a job that never happened, or the client went with a different option in the end – on your corresponding portfolio, you can show your best idea and mock up the finals if you need to.

  • Stay up to date

Design trends change all the time and it’s important to keep up. So when you finish a big job, pop it in your portfolio shortly after, while it’s still fresh in your mind. Then you won’t end up having to build several in one go, or struggling to remember elements of the project.


“Make your work tell a story”

Alisa Barter, graphic designer at Conran Design Group

Alisa Barter

”I'm fortunate enough to work in a design studio that hosts many talented people,” says Alisa. “It's a great feeling to be inspired every day by the people you work with. It gives me the drive to give more to my job. 

“But it took eight months of back-to-back interning for me to land my first permanent job, which was tough. It's easy to start doubting your ability and comparing yourself to others when you're voyaging from place to place with no apparent success. Just remember to have faith in yourself and your work.”

Alisa’s CV tips

  • Make your work tell a story 

A well-polished and finely-tuned finished article is always good to see – but how did you get there? What was the brief and how did you crack it? I find the most engaging CVs take you on a journey from problem to solution. You want to see a creative brain accompanied with a strong thought process and understanding of the problem that needed to be solved.

  • Tailor to your audience

What creative work do you have that would really appeal to this audience? Make sure that you are selling your best attributes to the company you are applying to. Hero pieces that show you fit the bill, and then follow with more miscellaneous pieces to show you have broad creative-thinking,

  • Communicate your personality 

Give an essence of who you are. Create a sense of identity throughout your CV that gives a sneaky peek into what you're about and what style best portrays you (although do make sure your actual work stays the priority).


“Don’t undervalue simplicity”

Kate Clancy, graphic designer at Greenwich Design

 

Kate Clancy

“Creating a small leave-behind piece can be a really great way of leaving a lasting memory with an employer, in addition to your full CV,” says Kate.

“The sky’s the limit with what kinds of things this could be. Whether it’s a little book, leaflet, tea coaster or chocolate bar label, etc., make sure it’s appropriate and representative of you and your brand.”

Kate’s CV tips

  • Don’t overcomplicate it

Don’t undervalue simplicity. Sometimes designers try to make their CVs stand out with complex infographics or unusual formats. This can look a bit gimmicky and only makes the CV more complicated. It’s really great to add personality, but make sure that whenever you add elements to your CV, it’s for a good reason. It’s most important that it is clear, visually appealing and that your skills are well-communicated.

  • Avoid exaggeration

Don’t try to be an expert in everything. Whoever is recruiting you will likely be looking for someone specific. If you’ve dabbled in some animation software on a course, for example, don’t pretend you’re an expert. It’s OK to say you have some basic knowledge of it, but don’t overexaggerate as it’s likely you’ll get found out. Focus on your real expertise.

  • Be consistent

Make your CV part of your brand. As a designer, consistency is key. Make sure you are using the same visual language across everything your future employers will see. Use the same fonts, colours, imagery, formatting, etc. on your CV that you use across your business cards, website and portfolio. Think about your materials. Nowadays, everyone just emails PDFs around, but whenever you have the opportunity to give hard copies, make sure your choice in paper or presentation shows your attention to detail.


“Branding is everything”

Debbie Mendonca, head of design at Brandnation

Debbie Mendonca

“In a nutshell, branding is everything,” says Debbie. “We receive hundreds of CVs from hopeful candidates every month.

“The candidates that stand out, and ultimately make our short list, are those who pay attention to the overall look and feel of their CV and corresponding portfolio.”

Debbie’s CV tips 

  • Use a tight design style

A well-defined personal brand consists of clean logos, easy-to-read fonts and colour palettes that represent personality and design style. By doing this, you will shine in comparison to the less thought-out CVs and portfolios that are sent through.

  • Watch for typos

Correct spelling and grammar will make or break the success of any CV.


Work by illustrator Claire Spake

Work by illustrator Claire Spake


“Add an unforgettable tactile element”

Cat Pearson, lead designer at Greenlight Digital

Cat Pearson

Cat Pearson

“Talent is important, but perseverance is even more essential,” says Cat. “You really need to have a professional-quality portfolio to get a good job, which is impossible to achieve without some work experience and a lot of hard work.

“When I first moved to London I rented a tiny shared studio space and worked for peanuts, picking up any kind of freelance work I could find. The studio had no insulation and it was the coldest winter I've ever experienced, but by the end of six months I'd made some good freelance contacts and supportive friends in the industry, and had a big enough portfolio to get a permanent job."

Cat’s CV tips

  • Choose beautiful typography

Imagine your CV to be the ultimate typography test of your career. You should carefully choose the weight and size of your fonts, pay close attention to line-height and kerning, and don't get carried away by using too many different styles. Make sure your text is presented with a strong layout and a clear visual hierarchy. Be a little bit creative and have fun, but make sure that the overall effect doesn't distract from the main message you need to communicate.

  • Find creative ways to visualise boring information

Everyone has the same old stuff on their CV – software skills, uni results, hobbies. Try to think outside the box for new ways to present it. Could you use a diagram or a graph instead of a table somewhere? Could you use personalised icons to draw attention to highlight your key skills?

  • Use printed materials

In an era where nearly all recruiting is done online, never underestimate the power of snail mail to get your application noticed. A printed portfolio can give you great opportunities to show off your creative skills – from choosing the paper stock, to the binding and folds – adding an unforgettable tactile element to your design work.


“Be considered and concise”

Katie Maritz, senior designer at PB Creative

 

Katie Maritz

“Designers end up settling for another career if they don’t get into the industry straight away,” says Katie. “It is sometimes challenging, but persistence, passion and self-belief is key and this will set you apart from others.

“Work hard, but work smart. Focus on developing the skills that are essential to fulfill the role you really want – e.g. if you suck at sketching (like I did) and it’s an important way to present your designs, work on that. Soak up as much information as possible from your peers. Books and online tutorials are great but, from experience, learning a new software package, for example, is so much easier from someone who can already use it.”

Katie’s CV tips

  • Pay attention to the detail

The way you design your CV reflects the way you design. It needs to be easy to read, considered, clear and even self-branded. Also, think about the detail. I illustrated mine; it was a PDF, not a Word document; landscape, not portrait; I used grey text, not black.  

  • Be concise

Success will be based on your entire portfolio, not just your CV. It’s important to show your creative-thinking and not just the final design, but at the same time keep it concise so you have more work to show in the interview (basically, don’t throw work over and expect the recipient to sift through it).

  • Be specific

When approaching a company, try and relate to them. Consider their work and clients – focus on your skills, work and interests that relate to them most. It shows that you’ve done your homework. Also, try and send your CV and work to a specific person in the company. When I was applying for jobs I used to guess email addresses if their contact details weren’t readily available – and it worked.


“Make your design personality stand out”

Otilia Martin, art director and creative consultant at otiliamartin.com

Otilia Martin

“If you are a graphic designer, your CV needs to show it at first sight,” says Otilia. “Study carefully what concepts you want to convey. This is about what you are adding to the company not only in terms of skills, but also in terms of personality.

“A designer is like an actor – you have to be able to embrace different ‘roles’ (projects). One day you are a very corporate role, and another day you are playing a naïf personality. Your CV is normally the first thing companies are going to know from you, so it needs to stand out immediately.”

Otilia’s CV tips

  • Create a good visual structure

The content you present needs to show clearly the different areas your CV is made up of (education, experience, skills etc.), so that the person looking at it understands it right away. This involves smart use of graphic-design basics, such as typography, colours and layout.

  • Choose your software carefully 

Build your CV in a software that allows you to update it easily in different versions, in case you want to apply for different roles (for instance, graphic designer or digital designer). At the beginning of my career I did my CV in Photoshop and it was a nightmare every time I wanted to update it.


Work by fashion illustrator Katie Edmunds

Work by fashion illustrator Katie Edmunds


“Use an on-trend colour palette”

Claire Spake, freelance illustrator and graphic designer at clairespake.com

Claire Spake

“There's no denying that graphic design is a competitive industry,” says Claire. “One of the biggest challenges can be getting and maintaining a steady flow of decent work, but I really think if designers stay creative and are passionate about what they do, then there is room for everyone.

“It’s vital that you carve out your own niche. Don't aspire to be good at everything, but specialise in specific areas and do them very well.”

Claire’s CV tips

  • Make it as visual as possible

Your CV is a great opportunity to showcase your skills as a graphic designer. Play around with its format and tailor it to the specific company you are applying to. Look through some of their past work and scan their portfolio on Instagram or the web. If they have a bold, brave look, try and echo that in the look of your CV. If they favour more modern and simple designs, go down that route. 

  • Use an on-trend font and colour palette

You could even create your own logo and use different colours for your CV's headings.

  • Include images of your work

Don't forget a web address linking to your online portfolio. State all your strengths and be sure to mention all the software you can use. Sum up all you have to offer in a punchy and concise personal statement at the top.


“Be different”

Katie Edmunds, graphic designer and fashion illustrator for betty.me and Pink Parcel

Amber Druce

“The industry can be competitive as there’s so much great talent out there right now,” says Katie. “But stick it out and one door will eventually open.”

Katie’s CV tips

  • Tailor your CV to each client

Be different. Whether you design a chocolate wrapper covered in your own illustrations and previous work experience (with actual chocolate inside, because surely a sweet fix can’t go amiss, right?) or curate some sleek GIFs to bring your portfolio to life, make sure you get creative.

  • Get on Instagram

Not only is the creative community really supportive here, but all my jobs have come through social media. It’s an amazing platform for networking, collaborating and showing what you can do.


“Create a unique element that would make you look twice”

Rebecca Thomson, creative at rt-farty.com

Rebecca Thomson

“When design works, it is almost invisible because it functions so effortlessly,” says Rebecca. “I believe graphic design has a responsibility to provide for the communities, people and environments that would benefit the most. For example, I have worked to improve the recovery of dementia patients, because spatial design has allowed them to independently navigate through hospital wards.” 

Rebecca’s CV tips

  • Be original but authentic

Think of something that would catch your eye or make you look twice. This could be a statement, personal logo, colour, pattern, typeface, layout style or image. For me it’s hand-lettering. I am an obsessive hand-letterer, so by hand-lettering a simple ‘hello’ at the top of my CV, it communicated my personality and demonstrated a skill. Don’t get caught up in what you think will be perceived as trendy, cool or impressive – just do you.

  • Think print and digital

Optimize your CV for print and digital viewing. For a digital CV, make an interactive PDF so they can click on jobs, skills and projects and will be taken to visuals of your work.

  • Function over form 

Spelling, grammar, legibility and line spacing are details that all contribute to the accessibility of your CV. Make it effortless to read. Get your content finalised before you start designing. 


A few final thoughts

A self-portrait by graphic designer Sinem Erkas

A self-portrait by graphic designer Sinem Erkas

“The most important thing is not to just show off your work, but what you’re capable of doing,” says Azzurra Visaggio, head of creative at graphicks. “To be a great graphic designer, you need to be curious in life, beyond the job itself.

“It is amazing how, at a certain point, you become so passionate about images and visual art that you project this passion in your private life. This becomes the best part, where you take inspiration from everything in life – from nature to architecture, music and cinema.”

Alisa Barter, of Conran Design Group, says finding the right place to work is crucial in graphic design.

“Design studios are so diverse in culture, work and people,” she says. “If you find yourself at the wrong place, it can leave you feeling unfulfilled and disappointed. Get an idea of what you're looking for in a company; is it a place you're happy to approach the door of everyday?”

And finally, this advice from Katie Maritz at PB Creative. 

“If you aren’t successful with your application, ask for advice and feedback, and always be polite and gracious. Remember: everyone knows everyone in this industry.” 

x
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