Friday, 28 September 2012

External qualifications

Wether or not you need extra qualifications aside from your degree (if you have one) is a bit tricky to define. I think a lot of people would like to know wether this is a worthwhile endeavour seeing as they are often not free and can actually be quite expensive depending on what it is and who it is run by so I am going to try and explain my current view point on the external Qualifications thing. First of all what exactly are we talking about here? There are all kinds of qualifications that you can sign up for and some are based purely in software others are based in specific design practices like email
design and SEO etc.

Software Training:

1. The "Adobe Suite" training certificates are probably the most widely recognised qualifications for software largely because the Adobe Suite has become an industry standard software package across design professions. They range in difficulty from the "Certified Associate (ACA)" level to the "Adobe Certified Expert (ACE)" level and the finally you can become an "Adobe Certified Instructor(ACI)". All these courses are listed here with a much more detailed explanation of what they entail; You can do certain packages individually or you can go about completing the training for an entire suite in one go, and that will of course affect the pricing but can be more productive and cheaper than doing them one by one. These will to be honest help your CV to stand out from the crowd because every single designer suggests that they are great with every single software but few of them are certified by Adobe and can prove it!

2. is gaining popularity from employers all the time as it offers various courses for all kinds of software in a monthly or yearly subscription plan. This is something that you can go back to time and time again and keep up to date with all the current technologies and trends so is fantastic as a training tool. As far as qualifications go this is as good as any and you can have a certificate of completion for every course that you go through. There really isn't any software left out of the data base and the teaching style gets great reviews from student and teachers alike.

Development Training:

1. The "W3C" or the "World Wide Web Consortium", have a website from which you can learn standardised coding for the web. These are in fact free lessons that you can get at and then you can get certified for around 60 pounds per language you take.  I actually have one of these myself and I have to say that they definitely help you to stand out. You are probably being hired by an HR department rather than a designer at least in the initial stages so it will help you to get your foot into the building at least. The rest of course is up to you. It is probably worth mentioning though at this point that you can only learn web related languages and scripts from this site and not software programming languages like C or Java. These are for programmers rather than designers and will most probably be useless to you as a designer.

2. There are numerous "CIW" (Certified Internet Web professionals) accredited courses that you can do in web development which were invented by a community of web designers and developers during the dot com boom and have survived to this day. These certificates are not easy to obtain and they are not cheap either at around 600 pounds a course. However they are internationally recognised and they do teach job specific skills rather than just vague principles so definitely worth taking a look at. They remain popular with many employers because a large number of university teach them across the UK, Europe, and US.

Design practices.

There are numerous courses that teach general design practice and in fairness wont do you much better than having a degree. This is a pre requisite of most job adverts these days so if you are going to study a broader topic then personally I would advise that you do it in a degree and at least have that piece of paper to get you into the interview room. Im not saying that these kinds of certifications are worthless by any means because they will probably teach you the things that you were too hungover to hear about in your lectures but from an employers perspective there is too little known about the worthiness of such a course and they don't want to have to do the research. If its accolades are easily "googleable" then by all means go for it, but if nobody has taken it or heard of it then I would steer well clear and keep your pennies in your own pocket.

Long term advantages.

It would be nice to think that you could go to school and be done with it and then just walk into a job but unfortunately that is not the way the world works. There isn't just one glass ceiling either there are many! If you think about it in the world of work and most especially graphic design there are pay brackets to consider. when you are in an entry level role you can expect to earn around 14-18k per annum, then when you are in a junior role you can expect to earn between 18-21k per annum, now there is a little more scope in a mid-weight position depending on the company that you work for so you can expect to get anywhere between 21-30k per annum. Senior roles 28k plus and so on. How much of that depends on external qualifications and outside factors is really not that easy to judge but I do know that if I were presented with someone who hadn't done a days education since school (on paper at least) and someone who had actively seeked out professional development certificates and courses throughout there career, I would likely choose them for the promotion. Not because it means that they are better than those without the qualification, but because it says that they are willing to work on there mistakes and grow as much as they can. Businesses need that. (at least in my amateur entrepreneurial brain they do anyway).

Short term advantages.

I have found actually that since having taken a certificate or two and this may well just be co-incidence, that I have been getting a lot more interested parties for freelance work and a lot more interviews for jobs. I haven't actually secured any of these jobs so I cannot say that the certificates have helped me in so much as actually getting me into the company but they have got me a damn site nearer to the building and that is an achievement  it today's economy I can tell you (I probably don't need to I'm sure you already know). So i have decided therefore given the long and the short term benefits from a little upfront cash, that getting external qualifications will indeed help you and they will help you with the big players like agencies and such because they care about achieving. they care that you are a winner just like them so you might as well get cracking.


It means more studying! It also means more money and of course the time investment on top of that. Often you will have to work these kinds of courses into or around your working day and so can make your life a little bit more stressful in the short term. You will have to do the research yourself into whether the course you choose is worth this kind of investment which is again more work on your behalf. They are also not a guaranteed fix and trends with courses are much the same as with technologies. What was once the hottest thing since sliced bread can quickly become yesterdays news so you will also need to figure out the kind of longevity that any given certificate holds.

Overall though I think they work more in your favour than they do against you so if you are trying to jockey your way up the career ladder then professional development certificates will certainly help you in your quest to do so within your specified field.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The specific vs the broad portfolio

This is one of my favourite subjects to talk about, honestly. Its like creationism vs evolution. Okay so its not quite as politically charged as all that but it is pretty difficult to get anyone to agree on it. If you are a graphic designer of any description it goes without saying that you are going to have to have a portfolio that shows people exactly what it is that you do. You are supposed to be a visualiser of information so technically by that premice alone it should be pretty self explanatory what your skills are after having taken a look at your portfolio. Except for the fact that this is often not the case. There are many a pixel perfect portfolio out there that fails to communicate the essence of what exactly the designer specialises in, and this is kind of how the debate opens up. The question is less about how you go about making your portfolio visually interesting etc than it is about do you have or do you in fact need to have an easilly discernable specialism. I am going to go with NO, personally I believe that you do not need a specialism to be noticed because your "specialism" will stand out a mile from the rest of your work anyway. But it is good always to know from the perspective of a client or employer, that you are capable of stretching the remit a little if needs be. After all we have that little thing called the free market to worry about now too so you can bet your bottom dollar that the competition are doing everything under the sun to stop you from getting the work they could realistically handle by themselves.

Personally my portfolio is quite broad in that it stretches from interface and web design to logos, brochures, posters and even illustration. I do this because I tend to work on a project by project basis. I don't like the idea of somebody telling me that purely because I haven't done something before that I am going to be terrible at it. There is of course a possibility that this is the case but most of the skills in the field of graphic design are transferable. e.g.. If you have done something remotely similar to the proposed project you will probably have a good idea before you've even started where your strengths and weaknesses are going to lie. So it is really about using your discretion (and being honest with yourself) about what you can reasonably achieve. If I thought for example that I was capable of coding an entire e-commerce from scratch but had never done it before then what I would do before pitching for the project is do my research! I would find out all the extra resources that were involved how long it takes your average experienced e-commercer and factor in learning time for any thing that I don't already know how to do. If this then seemed like an unreasonable assertion on reflection I wouldn't bother to pitch for the project. But, if I still felt confident after all this then I would pitch for the project and go about putting together the bare bones of the project to send out as an example or sort of insurance for the potential client. Now in a position like that you have not only gained knowledge of a new potential avenue you have also gained albeit a small amount, but some form of experience in the field and a little something to put in your portfolio, and this is all even if you don't win the client. So for me this is a worth while endeavour. I know most of you creatives out there are generally talented little buggers who will thrive in any environment given the right incentives so whats wrong with a little dabbling??

Now the reason I defend the broad portfolio so much is because it opens doors. If you have only ever worked in web then it is likely that you will only ever work in web. The work you do leads you to other similar work and that is a fact. There is s always nothing stopping you from doing self set projects in the other specialisms that you would like to try or move into, but this of course takes time to build up and says nothing of your ability to apply it in a commercial environment. The only problem with this proposed approach is that generally it makes you seem like a bit of a wild card. The testimonial is your friend in this instance. If you have previous clients with whom you have been bunged a challenge and succeeded then by all means go about getting that recommendation because it will be what sways your new client or employer into believing in you. You don't want to be in a scenario where it is just your word against theres and back up never hurts you. There is also another point to having a broad portfolio and it is because it shows your potential employer or client (I know I have used that sentence already no need to be pedantic) that you are capable of growing and adapting with the times. This is a massive bonus. Technology as we all know is changing, expanding, evolving, whatever you want to call it, at a ridiculously fast rate these days and people have barley time to figure out how to use it before the next thing comes out. With the exception of the intuitive design model thats gaining popularity across the board and was largely introduced by apple products, this is not going to change any time soon. So basically what I am getting at is that wether you like it or not you are going to have to re-skill in this business a lot and having that broad portfolio showcases your ability and willingness to do so.

There is of course a down side to having a broad portfolio and this one comes up for the more project by project basis. If you are trying to win over a freelance client as an example for lets say a packaging design on a new shaving product. You as the broadly skilled designer will likely have some good examples of similar packaging work. They may have even been for some major blue chip clients but if you are in direct competition with another designer who solely works in packaging! then the chances are you are going to lose this battle. They simply have a far better arsenal of project specific work and the years of experience to back it up than you do, which is all fairly obvious stuff but worth mentioning anyway. This is not me by any means suggesting that you shouldn't bother trying to get projects that are highly specific just a word to the wise. So all in all I am confident that benefits to having a broad spectrum of work far outweigh the negatives and give you as a designer a much better sense of your abilities in that you have stepped out of your comfort zones regularly. I can at this point therefore only advocate the same for all aspiring designers. Do everything try everything make it good. That is all.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Internships (the pro's and con's)

First of all let me say that I have done quite a few internships myself and they can be good and they can be bad depending on your perspective. It is unfortunate that in the last ten years or so the use of interns has become a cheeky way for start ups and larger companies alike to exploit hardworking young people in their quest for gainful employment. If you take a job and call it an internship then you don't have to worry about all those tricky little things such as tax responsibilities, minimum wage, and employee rights. That is of course coming from a rather cynical stand point but still one that is worth bringing up none the less. So I feel that I might as well begin this little chat with;

The Con's

The legal definition of what actually constitutes work and therefore should be paid at least minimum wage is this: having set hours, being engaged for an extended period of time, i.e. office hours 9-5, being given a set role. Now for anyone who has taken part on an internship lately they will know that these are exactly the criteria of the roles that are being dished out in lieu of paid work, and all in exchange for experience and a bus ticket. Most of the time you wont even get lunch paid for and will end up actually out of pocket working for someone else. This to me seems a little unfair and is the kind of thing that makes you feel as though your degree was in fact worthless. Not only do you have a huge pile of debt but you are no closer to getting your foot in the door than unqualified school leavers with no experience either. This is by all accounts frustrating. The fact of the matter is that in this modern era of the globalisation and the free market etc if you want to get a good job then you have now got global competition to deal with as well. One thing that universities know is that education in such a climate is big business and therefore they will do anything to persuade us that we all need a degree, and to counter that one thing that businesses know is that universities do very little to prepare there students for the real world of work, and the graduates are therefore unlikely to be able to (excuse the terminology) "hit the ground running". The fact of the matter is you probably do need a degree to get your foot anywhere near the door of a specialised position these days. You may even need a 2:1 and a masters and on top of that, you may also need 2 to 3 years of experience to qualify you as an employable human being these days which seems a little absurd when you see the amount of "work" that takes place in your average offices but I digress.

The second problem with a lot of "internships" is that they are not even remotely what they claim to be. For example I would say that about 80 percent of the Graphic Design"internships" (and I use that term loosely, hence the quotation marks) that are advertised on are actually just start ups that cannot afford to pay a private firm to design their company literature. These kinds of deals are often set around the premise of, you come to us and pay your travel upfront and we will re-imberse you (maybe), you bring your own equipment and software with you, you brand the company, design the brochure, build the website, and make everyone tea whilst your at it, 9-5 monday to friday, until your role becomes so legally tenuous that we have to let you go. In exchange you will get work experience and a reference plus a few bits for your portfolio. This actually doesn't even sound quite so bad at first glance until you look at the job descriptions of a lot of entry level roles and the fact that you will be asked to do far less and be paid around 18,000 a year for it. Its then that it starts to seem unfair. This might have more to do with Gumtree than internships in general, but I feel I have made my point about the pitfalls ahead. I believe that you do gain valuable experience, but it is mostly experience in recognising that you are being exploited.

Last of all there is the fact that the unpaid internship often goes on for far too short a period of time for any real employer to see it as proof of your experience in the field. Again this comes down to the fact that legally an unpaid internship in the UK is not supposed to go on for any longer than a month so you are still in that catch 22 position of not having had enough experience. You need realistically a solid year behind you, and the competition for the legitimate, paid, year long kind of internship is frightening! Unless you have the perfect candidate profile including the grades, which looks more like that of a political candidates resume plus the contacts to show for it also, you can pretty much forget it.

but there is hope out there for us all!

The pro's

The thing is you are going to be selling yourself on your portfolio. As much as it is wonderful to see that you are a conceptual genius that can produce ideas and campaigns to rival big brands like Coca Cola and MTV your day to day work load is not likely to be quite so exciting, so companies want to see that you can do the boring suff too. Your College portfolio will likely showcase all the shiny stuff but what you will learn very fast in the kind of internship that I mentioned before, is how your average freelance job might work out. You will get to know how to run a project from start to finish its its truest meaning and not only that but you be fully responsible for the outcome. This is going to look great in future where employers are concerned.

You will begin to see the inners workings of your average companies marketing department, from the number of employees, to the kinds of deadlines involved, and the level of responsibility that is put into the department.

Then of course there is the fact you will most likely speed up your work rate ten fold in the process (I know that I certainly did). This is something that yet again will put you in good stead with employers.

And last but not least you will also get the chance to figure out all of the non graphic design jobs that are included in being a graphic designer (nobody tells you that stuff whilst your still studying)

By the time you have finished doing a years worth of different internships for different kinds of companies (like I did if thats what you choose to do) you will be a certified pro, and probably ready to reach out into the big wide world of freelancing. Whats more you may well have gained a few great references (if you behaved yourself) and picked up some well needed office politics deflector shields! which really do need to become a real thing very soon. Obviously just like before you will need to be choosy about what goes in your portfolio still but you will also have those boring bits that prove you don't live in fairy land to the real employers, so you are most definitely gaining momentum towards your chosen career for having done one or two internships.