In this article, we’re going to tell you, in no uncertain terms, “DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB!”, but we promise not to be cynical about it. We offer this advice because we understand that, for a lot of creative professionals, sometimes you’ve got to take that crumby day job in order to fund your broader aspirations.
Juggling the demands of your day job with your long term goals is an art in and of itself. It takes tenacity, some level of stubbornness, and a heck of a lot of faith. You certainly develop a kind of dual lifestyle, and for some, even a dual personality. This, too, has its rewards depending on how you let this weird dichotomy manifest itself in your art. Sometimes you find yourself working at the right place but under the wrong title. Sometimes, the title suits you, but the pay doesn’t match. Sometimes, it’s all wrong, and you literally feel like a stranger in the wrong house.
Many a brave soul have succumbed to the temptation to pack up their tent and throw in the towel when faced with this professional dilemma. To those of you out there on the brink of folding, we’re here to tell you that you’re not alone. Sure, things seem pretty rotten right now. You come home at night feeling pretty let down, uninspired. Your true calling feels light years away, and so you end up surfing Snapchat all night instead of dedicating time to your art. To those of you out there struggling with this sinking feeling, remember this: Holding a crappy day job is simply a means to an end. It’s a tough gig, but sticking it out has its rewards. In the words of the great Ringo Starr, “You’ve got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues. And you know it don’t come easy.”
We recently asked a group of successful creative professionals to share with us some of their own remarkable horror stories of doing time in a lousy day job while chasing big dreams at night. How low can you go, you ask? There’s no telling until you hit rock bottom. And so, for those of you out there currently stuck between a rock and a hard place [creatively speaking], we’d like to share with you three inspiring stories from the artistic trenches.
Andre Espinosa, Exhibitions Designer, Cincinnati, OH:
I design exhibitions for a well-known museum, and I’m pretty happy with my job these days. But it wasn’t always like that. I’ve worked at this museum for seven years, but I spent the first five years here slogging it as a security guard. It wasn’t my dream job, but I kept at it and worked hard, day and night. Eventually, I figured it would serve me well in my long-term goal to work in the Exhibitions Department. It was a long road, I was the low man on the totem pole, and I almost quit on a number of occasions. I bumped into an awful lot of trouble along the way and had my pride hurt, and my head chopped off on a number of occasions. But I never quit. I watched people get promoted ahead of me, but I just kept working. I watched them bring in people from the outside to fill positions instead of promoting from within. Ouch! Still I kept working. I even watched as they implemented some of my ideas around the museum without a single nod of acknowledgment. I was never bitter. I just kept working.
Perhaps my darkest hour happened on a lonely Sunday afternoon in December a couple years back. My nine-year-old daughter was performing in a local production of the Nutcracker and, try as I might, I just couldn’t get the day off. [That’s another story altogether. You’d put in a time off request and, like a game of roulette, hope for the best. Sometimes you’d win. Sometimes you’d lose. I suppose I could’ve called in sick, but, remember, I had big aspirations. I was no deadbeat. I wouldn’t call in sick unless I WAS sick. It’s just not how I’m built.]
There was only one thing left for me to do, short of quitting, and that was to request early dismissal that afternoon. Early dismissal was an honest alternative, and harmless enough. It happened during the changing of the guard, between the first and second shifts, and only if the museum was dead quiet. Well, it was late in the afternoon on a Sunday in early December, and the museum was completely abandoned. You could hear a pin drop. I thought I was a shoo-in to head home early. But still, I was denied. So, with no other option available, I went to the floor supervisor and put in my request. I beseeched, petitioned, pleaded, and practically begged him. But he wouldn’t budge. I felt betrayed.
I was eventually set free that day after a hair-raising stand-off between myself and the powers that be. I made it to my daughter’s recital by the skin of teeth. But the damage had been done. The next day I was called into my boss’s office and reprimanded. I was treated like a real troublemaker. It stung, but I held my tongue and took the beating, trying to toughen up for better days that surely lay ahead. After all, I figured, it couldn’t get much worse.
Time passed, and I weathered many a storm with the goons in charge. In fact, I survived one manager after another, supervisor after supervisor – even a complete shake up from top to bottom within the organization. I guess I just outlived them all.
Eventually, a position would open up in the Exhibition Department for an Exhibition Designer. I jumped on it and got the job. It’s all good now. I’m doing what I love, and I’ve got most weekends off too. I hung in there. It was bleak, it was humiliating, and I almost gave up. But, today, I’m glad I didn’t.
Shirley Matusak, Graphic Designer/Poster Artist/Punk Rocker, Rochester, NY:
I took a job as a junior Sales rep at a big corporation, selling software to car dealerships. It was a lot of cold calling, fact finding. Lotta hangs ups. Pretty grueling stuff. Hours were 8 to 5, Monday through Friday. On the job, I was buttoned down, conservative. I never betrayed a thing about my secret artistic life, or at least that’s what I thought. On the clock, I felt like a different person. Sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror in the bathroom, and I didn’t even recognize myself. But as soon as five o’clock rolled around, I’d transform into a bold, prowling punker. I sang lead in a local band, The Sh*ts. We gigged around town on the regular. It was great. My day job bankrolled the whole thing. I’m grateful for that.
The fact that I had to keep my true self under wraps, that was challenging. It started to feel like a Jekyll & Hyde routine. Juggling these two personalities would eventually take too much effort, and teach me a very valuable life lesson. The more attention I gave to my art, the less I could give to succeeding at my day job. I had to strike a balance, and, when the time was right, strike out on my own and pursue my dreams.
It all came to a head one year when after the Christmas holiday I came back into the office and discovered that my entire department had flown to Orlando for the annual Sales & Marketing retreat. I was told to answer the phones until everyone got back. That hurt like hell. I hadn’t been invited to the party. I felt like a loser.
The chips were down, and I was tempted to quit. But thank God I didn’t. I needed that job to finance my art, to keep me sane, more so than I needed a trip to Orlando, watching clips of Braveheart, doing “breakout” sessions” with a bunch of ex-football players in pleated pants and Brylcreem. The whole experience taught me that the only one you can trust in life, no matter what your path, is yourself. I was an oddball, and no level of covering up my true self during the day was gonna work. The artist inside me needed to show through, and, eventually did, in spite of myself. I was an outcast by nature, and it was time to come to terms with that.
I eventually left that place altogether and said good riddance to those squares. The coast is clear. My true self is now allowed to come out and show itself, day and night. I still sing in bands, but I now work for an advertising agency as a designer, and I also make my living designing gig posters professionally. My clients are mainly people I met while leading the dual life of a junior sales rep/corporate lackey by day, and punk rocker by night. That job forced me to fight for what I love, to have faith in what I believe in, and to appreciate the true person lurking beneath the phony exterior of a lousy day job. I’m glad I didn’t give up.
Maintaining a dual lifestyle wears you down. If you’re not true to yourself, eventually you’re going to crash, one way or another. But if you remain true to your dreams, no matter what life throws your way, your true self will eventually make its big debut. Be true to you.
Brad Castille, Marketing Director/Web Entrepreneur, New York, NY:
I worked for five years at a local nonprofit as an Administrative Assistant to the Marketing Department. My hope was that I would eventually move up within the ranks.
This particular organization was known for holding high profile events, and these events offered a great opportunity for employees to prove themselves. Lots of media and celebrities were always in attendance. But never one to be star struck, I could usually be found on my feet working the night away. I kept things very professional and never got distracted by all the glitz and glamor. But one year, my professionalism was questioned, and I nearly cracked under the pressure.
It all happened during one particular fundraiser when we hired an outside PR firm to help manage the often delicate world of media relations that surround these kinds of events. The PR firm sent a group of mostly young, college-aged girls, and I was partnered with them for the evening. Everything seemed to go down without a hitch. We spent the entire event hustling between the press box and backstage, seating guests, playing gopher to whoever needed a hand, you name it. Everyone worked tirelessly and gave one hundred and ten percent. No star gazing. No partying. We kept our noses to the grindstone.
But come Monday my boss called me into his office. He said that one of the undercover police officers who had also been assigned to help with security that night had reported that I (or someone closely matching my profile) had been spotted bringing “girls” out onto the floor during the event, and spending much of my time “entertaining” these girls. I informed my boss that these “girls” were in fact members of the PR staff that we had hired that night, and everything was strictly business. After a lengthy interrogation, I was let out of his office. A number of the regular staff vouched for me and even went on the record to say how well I’d done that night. But something fundamental between my boss and I had been breached, and we never fully recovered one another’s trust. It sucked.
I weathered this storm, and eventually found my way out of this situation altogether. Most of my off hours are spent these days focusing on my lifestyle/ecommerce website which I launched thanks to money from my day job. I still hold a day job, too, working as the Marketing Director for a well respected creative firm where I enjoy the trust and support of my coworkers and my boss. It’s a charmed life, and sometimes you just never know how things are going to turn out.
So there you have it, folks. What doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger. Never giving up, and not giving in, only serves to sharpen your creative edge. Hang in there!
Graphic Design Portfolio Tips by Go Media –
Hello Go Media Faithful! Hunting for your dream job? The last two weeks we’ve been discussing the resources you need to submit in order to gain the attention of your dream design firm. If you missed part one and two of this series, please go back and read them before proceeding:
Now that you’re a pro at cover letters and resumes, let’s move on to part three of your submission to the graphic design studio of your dreams – the portfolio.
Here are three graphic design portfolio tips we need you to learn and embrace now (from the boss, Bill Beachy, himself):
Slow down and nail your presentation. Many young designers do good design work… then spend very little effort putting it together into a BEAUTIFUL portfolio post. The project is done, you’re eager to move on – so you throw a few images online for the portfolio. STOP. SLOW DOWN. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF LANDING A JOB – a B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L portfolio. Take the extra time to write about, mock-up and present the work you’ve done in the most flattering way possible. You SHOULD find yourself doing EXTRA design work as you prepare your portfolio post. Once you have a project that’s moving in a pretty direction that you’re happy with – KEEP GOING… don’t stop until you have all the pieces and parts to present a beautiful portfolio post.
Consider this… you may have just spent several weeks designing something. Now… you should spend at least several days preparing it as beautifully as possible to show off.
You must have an online portfolio. This does not mean that you have to be a web developer. You can use SquareSpace, Wix, Coroflot, a WordPress Template – really anything. An employer just needs to know you’re living in the 21st century. If you have the dev skills to build your own website, that would be best – HOWEVER don’t post your beautiful portfolio on an ugly website! If you’re going to post your portfolio onto a website you built – it better be as beautiful as the items IN the portfolio. The last thing you want to do is distract your potential employer by putting good portfolio work onto an ugly website. Make sure wherever you put your portfolio – it’s not distracting. If you want to show off your dev skills, but they’re not portfolio worthy – just do that somewhere else.
Your online portfolio must be a match set to your resume and cover letter – and must be GOOD. I would err on the side of good over self-built. If your web dev skills are not portfolio worthy yet, then don’t rely on them to show off your work.
Show a variety of work types. It’s important that your portfolio demonstrates your ability to do a variety of things. Obviously, you’ll want to show your ability to do the type of work that matches up with the work the firm you’re applying to does. In Go Media’s case, that would be: branding (logo design), print design and web design. I recommend including your 3 best samples of work in each design category. You don’t need to have a huge portfolio, but whatever is in there needs to be your very best work! Err on the side of showing less work of higher quality than having a big portfolio where some of the pieces are only so-so. An employer is going to pick out the worst thing in your portfolio and assume all your work will be that bad. So, it’s kind of like the saying: “A chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link.” So, if you have doubts about anything in your portfolio, get it out of there.
Side note: If you think you can only show one style of design and tell clients: “take it or leave it…” I’m telling you right now – 99% of clients and employers will leave it. You need to be more adaptable than that. When a client hires you, you need to be making designs that are appropriate to that client, not just designs that you like. When I come across candidates that have extremely homogeneous portfolios I give them two radical jobs: Design branding and promotional materials for Metallica (sponsored by Monster Energy Beverage) and design branding, signage and promotional materials for a cupcake shop that is owned by Hello Kitty. These two hypothetical projects will force a designer to push their style to extreme ends of the style spectrum. You can invent your own projects, the point is to demonstrate a wide range of styles in your portfolio.
Alrighty, so some of you may have a lot of work to do before submitting your cover letter, resume and portfolio to your dream job. These may include things like –
- Researching your dream design firm inside and out, outside and in
- Scratching that Word doc in favor of a beautifully designed resume and cover letter
- Designing your own personal brand
- Improving upon your website (online portfolio), carrying your personal branding over to that
- Thinking strategically about what you need in your portfolio and working toward those goals
- Adding more work to your portfolio
Yes, this may seem overwhelming, but when you take all of these tasks step by step, you’ll be happy you did. And believe us, so will your future employer. Best of luck, everyone!
How to Write the Best Graphic Design Cover Letter
If you want the job at the best graphic design firm ever, you have to submit the best cover letter, resume and portfolio ever. (We’ll leave the bits about being a worthy designer to another post.)
And with no shortage of resources on what makes a great cover letter, resume and portfolio out there, this should be a somewhat simple feat. But here at Go Media, we are disappointed to see the same mistakes made over and over again. It often seems like applicants choose to apply for more jobs – the quantity – over quality (in other words, doing a thorough job of applying to fewer companies). In this three part series, we talk about the elements in cover letters, resumes and portfolios that really make our jaws drop.
To start, we’d like to address cover letters. Above all, there is one element that most good applicants touch upon, but often do not take the time to cover with enough depth and passion. This aspect makes all the difference between a cover letter worth passing by, and one worth paying attention to.
What is this magic element?
A SECTION THAT SERIOUSLY PLAYS TO OUR EGO.
Sounds simple, right? Far from it.
It takes time and a ton of time, which is why we rarely see it. Please read on!
In the cover letter, it’s critical that you communicate to the potential employer: “You are the only company I am applying for, I’ve been following your company for years.” You want to play into the ego of the company. In order to communicate this you need a plausible story. Most importantly, you need more FACTS about the company you’re applying to. So, this means research! Referencing a few portfolio items is a fine start, but anyone can do that in 10 seconds.
If you REALLY want to wow the potential employer, spend several days (even weeks if necessary) reading anything you can get your hands on about them. This may sound like a huge investment, but consider this – you’re about to commit to working there for YEARS. Isn’t a week of research worth getting into the right company?
If they wrote a book – read it. If they have a blog, read every article you can on the history of the company. About page? Read it. Then, write a concise ‘How I got to know your company’ story… If you can find any gem in your research to reference you can say things like: “I read in your book that you used to lay on the floor drawing with crayons all day as a kid. That’s exactly how I spent my childhood.”
Basically, you need to make sure they know you KNOW them… you did your research. You desperately want to work for them and them only. Sprinkling in a few obscure facts will help communicate this.
As an employer it’s VERY clear to us who’s done their research and who is just throwing out a generic cover letter. Pandering to our ego works. We want to think that the people I’m hiring are HUGE Go Media fans! Of course! We love hearing their stories about how they discovered our company and have been following us for years. When they reference specific tutorials we wrote 8 years ago, we think: “Wow. This is going to be a loyal employee!”
Similarly, continue to blow us out of the water if you’re able to illustrate actionable ways in which you’ve shown your love for the company. Have you volunteered for our design conference, benefit shows, or attended every single one of our open houses? Let us know!
Also, Answer the why
Next, explain WHY you want to work for the company you’re applying to. The reason should be specific. Something like: “Your firm has a background in illustration and I can see that you appreciate art. This is unique compared to the other firms I’ve considered applying to. I love the balance of artistry with design – it’s something I’ve always done. It’s important to me that I’m working in an environment that has that appreciation for the artistic side of design.” Again, you are not only giving the reason why, but you’re reinforcing that you have a deep knowledge of the company you’re applying to. This ties everything together eloquently while making us feel warm and fuzzy.
While you’re at it, here are things to avoid doing in your cover letter:
- Not addressing anyone specifically. Never write “Dear Hiring manager” or “To whom it may concern”. Do your research! Figure out who’s hiring and write to them specifically!
- Sending before having trusted friends and family proofread it again and again. Watch your spelling! Attention to details is critical. One error here can knock you out of the game completely.
- Using your email as the cover letter itself. Design a cover letter that you save along with your resume and attach. It’s ok if what you write in your email is exactly the same as the attached pdf. The point is – I want to see you apply the same branding from your resume onto a cover letter page, and then again on the website. If you don’t attach a designed cover letter you’re losing that opportunity.
- Praising your own design skills, i.e. “I’m a VERY talented designer.” This simply comes across as arrogant. Whether you are talented or not will show up in your portfolio. Saying you’re good ONLY WORKS AGAINST YOU. If you want to praise yourself in any way – it should be: “I work hard, I’m eager to learn and I have a positive attitude.” These are things that cannot be seen in a portfolio. And these ARE traits that a potential employer is looking for – not arrogance or overconfidence.
- Giving your potential employer work. Saying things like: “To download my resume go here…” is very bad. Make hiring you as simple as possible. I recommend attaching a finished designed cover letter (which may contain the same text that you included in the e-mail), your resume and a pdf of your portfolio and or a link to an online portfolio.
- Saying you want this job as a jumping off point for completely different. The last thing we want to hear is that you’re applying to be a Junior Designer, only to turn into a Project Manager in another 6 months. We will support your hopes and dreams, but we are looking to fill the position of a Junior Designer now. If you’re actually looking for a Project Management position, please look elsewhere.
Okay, now that we’ve covered our number one must follow rule and these important don’ts, promise us you’ll dedicate the time your cover letter (and future employer) deserves.
Stay tuned, when next week we’ll be back with our favorite rules about creating the best design resume ever.