What successful creatives wish they'd known when they were fresh-faced graduates

Navigating the transition from student to professional can be daunting, but these lessons from creative pros will help you achieve success.

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

The journey from the structured confines of an academic setting to the dynamic and ever-evolving professional world can be exhilarating. But it can also feel like a sharp, handbrake turn, and thus, it can be pretty unsettling at the time.

As you enter this new chapter brimming with enthusiasm and aspirations, you may grapple with uncertainties and questions your education hasn't properly prepared you for. But don't worry: everyone feels that way.

To aid you in this transition, we have curated a comprehensive collection of insights and wisdom from creative pros who have walked this path before you.

Their experiences, triumphs, and hard-earned lessons serve as a guiding light, illuminating the often-overlooked nuances of forging a successful career. We share their best tips below, and you can read the full discussions on Threads and Twitter.

1. Don't play down your university projects

Your portfolio is your calling card in the creative world and should reflect your skills, creativity and passion. All graduates know this, in theory at least: your tutors should have drummed it into you from day one. As lecturer and designer Vincent Walden notes: "Your university education is not the end of your learning, just a tool to enter the industry. Nobody will ever ask you what your dissertation was about, so a curated portfolio and a good attitude to develop is key."

But it can feel dispiriting if you don't have any commercial freelance work to show in that portfolio, leading to imposter syndrome and a lack of self-confidence.

Really, though, that's missing the point of a portfolio. Most employers won't really care all that much whether the work you feature was actually commissioned. What they want to see is evidence that you know how to follow a brief, understand the process of creating commercial work and can produce what's needed. And you can provide all of that with uni work just as well.

"If the job application process seems to be taking a long time, you can always invent your own projects and briefs to keep your portfolio fresh," adds artist Taffoo. And illustrator Alyah Holmes stresses why you should. "Your portfolio is the most important thing right now!" she says. "It's okay if you don't have any 'real' projects to show. I got hired for my university projects. So, put love into those and create briefs for your portfolio if needed. Having awesome work will outshine your education and lack of experience."

2. Avoid the comparison trap

In the age of social media and constant connectivity, it's easy to compare your journey to others'. However, this can be detrimental to your growth and well-being.

Remember that everyone's path is unique, and success comes in many forms. Focus on your own goals and trust the process – accolades, recognition and achievements will come in due time.

"The best advice I can give is to try not to compare yourself to others," says illustrator and designer Kohenoor Kamal. "Everyone is on their own journey, and it can be easy to compare yourself to metrics such as having thousands of followers. Instead, trust the process, and in time, those things will come to you, too."

3. Expand your network and seek industry knowledge

Networking is crucial in the creative industries, and it's never too early to start building your professional connections. So the moment you leave university (or preferably long before), you should reach out to fellow creatives and seek advice and guidance from those with experience in your desired field.

"Keep in touch with your class – it's the start of your network!" advises animator and illustrator Stephen Ong. "Your classmates might not all end up in creative roles. Some become producers; some start their own businesses. And even your tutors might move on or recommend you to their connections."

Getting out and about is vital, too. "Go to as many events/exhibitions/festivals as you can," says Steven D. Jackson. "Networking is really important: you'll probably see the same people too, and they can also introduce you to others."

Designer Yurie Takashima adds this. "There's one thing I wish the fresh graduates or students knew every time I receive an email asking for an internship opportunity: how to approach people and build relationships. Making the message personal is quite important. But this doesn't seem to be understood, unfortunately for them."

4. Develop a thick skin and embrace rejection

Rejection is an inevitable part of the creative journey, and learning to handle it with grace and resilience is essential. Remember that rejections are often not personal and can stem from a multitude of factors beyond your control, such as budget constraints, project cancellations, or simply a matter of fit.

"If you don't get the gig, know it's rarely about YOU as a person; so, so rarely," says Otherness Design. "The reason a project doesn't go to a creative is more likely something like: the project has been cancelled, the budget was cut, the client didn't like the direction, the agency forgot, or someone sneezed and didn't like one colour of green in one thing you did. Yes, it can also be about style, fit and previous experience. But often, it's just foolish and impersonal things."

Designer Gareth Sissons-Rowe adds: "Don't get stuck in your head because you can't get a job immediately or because work isn't coming in. There is no right way to break into the industry. Or stay in it. Sometimes, it's a job-to-job. Sometimes, it's work at Tesco, a design job, a truck driver, or a big agency. Just go with it."

In other words, develop a thick skin, learn from each experience, and keep pushing forward with determination.

5. Explore alternative career paths

Our next piece of advice comes from Heather Thomas, head of learning and engagement at The Lightbox, but countless other creatives will echo it. "It's okay not to go straight into the right job or even the sector you planned to."

That might be a bit unsettling. Up to now, your whole life may well have been meticulously planned, and diverging from your chosen path might feel like "failure". But many people leave university, start working in their chosen area, and find out it's not for them. There's no shame in it, and in fact, you should be proud of the fact that you're doing what you choose to do, not what others expect.

And it's certainly true that the traditional career paths in creative fields are not the only options available to you. A degree in design will be appreciated and admired by professionals in various related fields. So, you'll have a wide range of alternative roles, industries, and passions that you can pursue.

The creative world is vast, and there are numerous opportunities to apply your skills and talents in unexpected ways. So embrace flexibility and be willing to adapt your career aspirations as you gain more experience and insight.

That said, don't abandon your chosen path just because it gets a bit rocky or is a bit dull at the start. "Everything takes time," stresses the designer. You might not be working on the most exciting projects straight out of the gate. Be patient, be respectful, watch what the other designers are doing, and ask questions rather than being upset that you're not doing the 'cool' stuff."

6. Embrace real-world application

When you're at university, pretty much everything you do is broadly theoretical. As a fresh graduate, that all changes dramatically. So, it's essential to demonstrate to prospective employers and clients how your work can be translated into real-world applications.

"Think 'real world' always," says illustrator Ollie Hirst. "If people can already see how your work functions in the world we live in, it does a lot of the heavy lifting for them. That's important in any career, but especially illustration."

So, think deeply about how your projects and ideas can solve practical problems or enhance the lives of your potential clients or audience. By presenting your work in a way that showcases its practical value, you can make it easier for potential employers or clients to envision your contributions.

7. Prioritise time management and organisation

The professional world operates at a much faster pace than the academic environment. Deadlines are non-negotiable, and the ability to manage your time effectively and stay organised is crucial. So you'll need to quickly develop strategies for time management, prioritisation, and efficient communication...or quickly get left behind.

"It can be a shock how quick things move in the industry," notes designer Ash Schofield. "There's not an unlimited timeframe like there was in uni; deadlines are real, and the designers who can visualise ideas quickly, communicate clearly, and prioritise organisation and time management are the ones who get ahead."

And here's a great tip from graphic designer Scott Saslow. "When you're working at a design agency, and the boss calls you over to his desk, bring a pad and pencil. You won't remember everything."

8. Seek opportunities beyond the obvious

While well-known agencies and studios may seem like the ultimate goal, don't overlook the numerous opportunities that exist beyond the most visible players in the industry. Explore lesser-known studios and in-house creative teams, or even start your own venture.

These "hidden gems" can offer unique experiences, invaluable growth opportunities, and the chance to make your mark in unexpected ways. Being a big fish in a small pond is often much more rewarding than being a small fish in a big pond.

In this light, graphic designer Ash O'Brien recommends you: "Look in the not-so-obvious places. "I often hear the same agency and studio names come up when talking to students. And whilst they're mostly super talented and worthy of praise, they're likely inundated with applications and emails. Try to find the hidden gems or studios that don't necessarily work with the biggest and coolest brands out there."

You should also, he adds, consider in-house. "I haven't worked in-house myself, but there are lots of great benefits of doing so. You probably won't find these ads in the normal places, and you could just ask the company about their creative team and potential opportunities."

9. Cultivate your personal brand and communication skills

In the creative world, your personal brand and communication skills are just as important as your artistic abilities. So it's not just enough to be great at your work. You'll also need to develop a strong personal brand that reflects your values, style, and unique voice.

"Your personal branding, including verbal, is really important," says Ash. "Communication is key in this industry, and getting a role is important, so work on how you look and sound. Try to keep this in mind and rely on it for all forms of communication. But, don't forget that adaptability is crucial to studios because – whilst it's good to have a unique tone – you'll need to be able to adapt to suit other clients and brands where your personal voice won't always be relevant."

10. Align with values and causes

Many creative agencies and brands today prioritise aligning with specific values and causes. If you share similar values, leverage this alignment to your advantage in your job search or client acquisition efforts. Demonstrating your commitment to shared values can make you a more attractive candidate or collaborator.

"Lots of studios/agencies state their values these days and often work with brands that share these too," says Ash. "If you also share these values, you can use them to your advantage as they will likely benefit the agency and client."

11. Don't wait for the "right time" – put yourself out there

One of the biggest mistakes fresh graduates can make is waiting for the perfect moment to showcase their work or actively seek opportunities. The truth is, there will never be a "perfect moment" – you must take the leap and put yourself out there. So, share your work, apply for jobs, and network confidently as soon as you finish reading this. The sooner you put yourself in the spotlight, the sooner you'll attract the opportunities you dream of.

As Alyah Holmes says: "Stop always waiting for 'the right time'. Post your work, no matter how scared you are. The sooner you put yourself out there, the sooner opportunities may come." And art director and copywriter Craig Sanderson adds: "Every major career progression is a leap of faith in your own ability and creativity. Nobody instinctively knows how to do the next step; they just rise to the challenge and adapt."


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