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How to Get the Work You Want Advice for Students Anyone

One of the most common questions I’m asked about design is how to get the work you really want to do. Students often bring up the fact that they feel so far away from their dream projects. Even experienced agencies make excuses like “gotta make payroll” and “we’re too busy right now.”

Here are two tips that helped me do the work I wanted to do.

1. Make your own work.

Especially for students, don’t be afraid to make your own commissions. If you’re a fan of the NFL, make up your own project as if the NFL hired you. Create a fake redesign of and put it in your portfolio as an uninvited redesign (just make sure you’re clear about stating that you created the brief yourself). As a bonus, if the NFL ever does come knocking, you’ll have a ton of things to talk about with them that you’ve already been thinking about.

And for those that think you can’t put unsolicited work in your portfolio, that’s utter nonsense. I once interviewed a designer for a very high design position (he essentially would have been my boss). He had some of the most original work in his portfolio that I’d seen. When we talked about the projects, I learned that about half of them were projects he made up for brands he had good ideas for. They showcased both his critical thinking and his design chops. While there’s something to be said for how designers react to the constraints of their customers, clients, or bosses, unsolicited projects can help round out the narrative of your portfolio when you don’t have client projects to fill in certain chapters.

Designer Andrew Kim created an unsolicited rebranding of Microsoft and subsequently got a job there. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s far from an isolated incident.

My dream client is Nike. I love the brand—I once had close to 50 pairs of Nike sneakers… now I’m down to 17—and I love all the digital work they’re putting out. I wanted to work for them since I was in school, so lots of my school projects were centered around Nike products. I bet my teachers were tired of seeing my “what sneaker are you?” Flash sites. I haven’t landed any Nike work yet, but it’s just a matter of time. If you’re listening, Nike, I’ve got a boatload of ideas. More on this in a bit.

If you’re in design or just starting out teaching yourself, there’s a pretty high chance that you’ve got some free time. Use that time to fill your portfolio with projects you’d love to be hired to do.

If you’re a small agency that doesn’t have as much of the luxury of time, rest your thinking to see it as an investment. How much money would you put down to get the project you want? $5K? $25K? Carve out however much time this’ll buy and devote it to creating some fictitious work. Does $5K buy a month of your time at your rate? Then you’ve got a month to make some killer for your dream client. It doesn’t even have to be a redesign; you could make an app that might help the business, a gallery site devoted to a particular subject, even just writing a few blog posts to show your passion about a brand or topic.

And, if you have the time and can’t figure out what to make, send me a two sentence email that says something to the effect of, “I love [brand name] because [reason for liking them]. What should I make?” I’ll reply with a brief for you to tackle. Some examples that make for good commissions:

You get the idea.

Do the work you’re proud of even if no one’s paying you to do it. They will soon.

2. Contribute the conversations you want to be part of.

One of my favorite things about the web is the openness and warmth of the communities it can create. Want to meet dog walkers in your town? Looking for other cancer survivors to talk to? Need a second opinion about which TV to buy? There’s a meetup for that.

When I first started in design, Flash was all the rage. I visited K10k and Pixelsurgeon every day. I waited eagerly for every edition of a Computer Arts. I could tell you what Pixelranger, Joshua Davis, Big Spaceship, JUXT Interactive, Gmunk, Brendan Dawes, Hillman Curtis, Yugo Nakamura, Branden Hall, Billy Bussey, 2advanced, and lots more people and companies that I admired were up to at any given time.

A bit later, the practice of building websites in tables was being supplanted by a relatively new experimental language called CSS. People were writing about their findings on things called blogs. I visited a lot of these sites every day too to see if anyone had written anything new. (Eventually, I got automatic updates by some new software I installed called an RSS reader.)

I read as much as I could from people like Mike Davidson, Shaun Inman, Jason Santa Maria, Dave Shea, Jeffrey Zeldman, Jeff Croft, Andy Budd, Eric Meyer, Ryan Sims, Jeremy Keith, Garrett Dimon, Jared Christensen, Mark Boulton, Wilson Miner, D. Keith Robinson, Faruk AteĊŸ, Ethan Marcotte, Derek Featherstone, Greg Storey, Cameron Moll, Roger Johansson, Khoi Vinh, Dan Cederholm, Dan Rubin, and so many more. I started my own blog where I could write about the same things. When these people wrote a new post, I read it and commented on it. I wrote responses on my own site. I wanted other readers to see my name when they saw these names. This was a community I wanted to be associated with.

Then, a funny thing started happening. I started getting inquiries for work that looked like this: “I reached out to [name on that list], but he’s busy, so he recommended I reach out to you.” I was more than happy to play second fiddle to any of these fine folks (still am). The types of projects they were working on was the stuff I wanted to do, so I made sure I was around to pick up the scraps.

If you want to be seen as part of a particular community, then participate in it. Times have changed a bit and blogs might not be best way anymore, but apply the same logic to Twitter, conferences, podcasts, Quora, meetups… wherever you see conversations happening that you want to be involved in.

Over the last few years, I’ve seen a handful of “newcomers”—at least to me—join the conversations I’m part of. People like Jared Erondu, Laura Kalbag, Zach McNair, Sam Kapila, Judson Collier, Tim Smith, and more whose work I wasn’t aware of until recently have become staples in my Twitter feed and email newsletters. I’m not saying these people haven’t being doing great work for years; they have. But, from my perspective, each of these people have appeared out of nowhere and suddenly been everywhere. They’re shining examples of putting this tip into practice.

So, how do you identify said community? A few suggestions:

  1. LinkedIn. Seriously. I use LinkedIn for this all the time. Wanna do work for Oakley? Find someone in your network that works for Oakley or someone that knows someone that works for Oakley. Then ask if you can buy them coffee and talk about working together. I’m not talking about being sleazy. I’m talking about being honest about your passions and doing what it takes to do the work you want. People love people that will work hard for them. Make them see that you’re one of these people. Gregg Pollack from Code School has a great post on landing your dream job.
  2. Lots of brands hire agencies to do work for them. Progressive’s agency of record is Arnold Worldwide. Burger King works with Mother. Verizon uses AKQA. Google “[brand name] agency of record.” Then send some emails. If you’re a student, beg for an internship. If you’re a small agency, write a compelling note about why you’d be a good partner. My buddies at Huge/KingCoyle do a ton of Nike work, and I’ve told them on numerous occasions that I won’t charge them a dime to do Nike work with them. They’ll take me up on it one of these days.

There’s little excuse for not being able to do the work you want. I’ve been fortunate to work on some of my dream projects, simply from being part of the right conversations. Start filling out your portfolio—see step #1—join the right conversations, and make 2014 your best work year yet.

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