Finding work and finances: What you need to know before entering industry
From perfecting your portfolio website and personal branding to nailing those networking skills, preparing for the world of work is no easy feat. That’s why, in partnership with Wix, we’ve developed four guides designed to help you step into your creative career with confidence.
The journey to actually landing a job can be a pretty long one. While there’s a lot of hard work that goes into securing that first interview, job or commission – as we’ve learned from speaking to countless creatives over the years – there’s an awful lot to learn after that point, too.
The bad news is, we’re not always given a heads-up on a lot of that stuff. Think: contracts, work-life balance, finance, taxes. We won’t lie to you, there’s a lot. The good news is, we’ve drawn on our learnings and drawn up a long list of all the stuff people wish they’d known before they started work. So, buckle up. This is going to be a whistle-stop tour, and there’s going to be a lot to digest. But you know what they say: knowledge is power!
1. Finding Work
Time to join the job hunt
Before you begin planning your first-day outfit, first we need to talk about the job hunt. According to the Creative Industries Federation, there are more than two million creative jobs (both filled and creative) in the UK alone. So where do you find them?
Luckily, there are a wealth of job boards already out there, including The Dots, Design Jobs Board, TOB Jobs, If You Could, Indeed, LinkedIn, AIGA, The Loop (if you’re in Australia), our own Opportunities Board and many, many more which you can see in the reading list below. Browsing couldn’t be easier, and many of these sites will also let you create email reminders for when certain job roles come up for grabs. Plus, if you’re studying, it’s also worth asking if your university has their own creative opportunities website (it’s never a bad idea to get ahead of the game).
Oh, and let’s not forget social media, which can be a worthwhile way to make connections, showcase your portfolio and get in touch directly with employers. And if you’re looking for more advice on reaching out directly to employers via email, be sure to check out our guide on making connections.
Ways of working: Freelance or full-time?
The freelance versus full-time question can be a biggie for creatives, and especially hard if you’re just starting out and unsure what kind of working environment suits you.
While self-employment can offer greater flexibility in hours and more choice in what jobs to take on, the amount of work available is often dependent on the state of the industry, and offers little stability, which is where full-time work can offer more consistency. However, even though the workplace can be a fruitful place to learn with a safety net of consistent income, some creatives become frustrated with the lack of freedom in a full-time role. Rik Lomas, founder of creative education company, SuperHi, told us that he “got a bit bored of creative agencies, because I found that I was doing similar projects over and over… it felt a little bit like a factory.”
You don’t have to choose between one or the other, though – if jumping straight into freelance seems daunting, look for part-time roles, so you can freelance on the side. Just double-check that the company you’re working for allows that; a violation of contract isn’t the best way to begin work!
Psssst – if you reckon you’re more of a freelancer, we suggest paying particular attention to the Money, Money, Money section a little further below, where we’ll be zoning in on freelance business skills and contracts.
Location, location, location
Ok, so here’s another consideration to throw into the mix. As well as knowing what kind of work you want to do, and how you might want to do it, have you asked where you might like to be based? Imagine finding your perfect job, only to find out it’s on the other side of the planet – how would you feel about relocating?
Often the environment you feel most comfortable in can be conducive to making the best work, so think about the kind of setting you thrive in and then consider the location of the jobs you’re looking at. Would you rather work in a city where there tends to be more work available, often with better wages, but living costs more expensive and the competition is higher?
Consider that nowadays, more jobs offer remote working, and this is particularly the case if you decide to freelance. If that suits you, working from home may be a more viable option. Take New York-based illustrator Shyama Golden, who recently shared that “97% of my income comes from people who don’t care where I live. At this point I could live anywhere in the world and still attract illustration clients.”
2. Debunked: CVs and Cover Letters
Getting your paperwork in check
Let’s say you’ve found a dreamy-sounding role and you’re ready to apply; now is the time to get your paperwork in check. Most of the time, job applications (and sometimes, job enquiries) require a CV, cover letter and portfolio of work.
While it’s common practice to tailor your portfolio to different employers, it’s a good idea to go through the same process with your CV. For example, some workplaces might value the six years of waitressing, because it shows dedication and grit, but others would rather see work experience that’s relevant to the field you’re entering.
Then there’s cover-letter writing, which truly relies on the art of persuasion. The one resounding piece of advice that employers offer time and again is to make it specific. It’s really easy to see when someone’s sent out the same vague 300 words to hundreds of people.
Spending a little time researching the company, explaining exactly why your skill set is perfect for them and why you were attracted to them, can pay off tenfold in the long run. Think of writing cover letters and CVs as a design project – there’s a target audience that you’re communicating to, and the purpose is to sell yourself without sounding like everyone else, so tailor your words to that effect.
3. Job Interviews
Hooray! Your application has impressed, and there’s an email in your inbox asking you in for an interview. Now we’re ready to jump into a whole other world: job interviews. First off, you should know that job interviews can really vary; some will feel like informal chats, others will feel like presenting to a judging panel. Either way, in order to impress your interviewer you’ll want to be prepared for anything and everything.
You can do that in a few ways, such as:
• Practicing interview questions (we’ll get to this in a minute)
• Doing solid research on the company, brand or studio you’re interviewing with
• Getting there with time to spare (and triple-check the location...honestly, you’d be surprised)
When it comes to questions, while employers will create and personalise questions depending on the values and expectations they have of you and the role, there are a handful of questions that you really need to be prepared for. These are the usual suspects that come up again and again:
• What attracted you to the role?
• Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
• What was the last thing you saw that really inspired you?
• Where do you see yourself in three years’ time?
• Can you tell us about a time you overcame a challenge in your work?
Oh, and Inevitably, you’ll also be asked questions you might not be prepared for. Take advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy who shared a few of their curveball questions with It’s Nice That:
• Sum yourself up in 3 emojis
• What is your favourite place on the Internet?
• What’s the worst thing you’ve ever made? 💩
And last but not least, they’ll almost definitely ask you if you have any questions for them. Trust us when we say that you don’t want to pass that opportunity up. Because, although daunting at first, job interviews are also a chance for you to find out more about the role and company.
When we asked Maddie Fortescue and Matt Heinl, from London-based creative agency Moving Brands, for their thoughts, they reminded us that asking the right questions isn’t just about helping you decide whether a job is right for you; “It can also help companies see where they have the capacity for change.” Understanding a company’s working culture is important – especially considering you’ll potentially be spending forty hours a week there.
4. A Few Things to Consider
A word of warning!
It’s now become common practice for job interviews to require you to complete a pre-interview task in order to demonstrate your creative skill, in addition to showcasing a portfolio. Watch out for companies that seem like they’re out to exploit you. If the work is going to take you much more than a day, or requires a suspiciously large amount of labour that could become free work for them to use, question the motives behind the company’s actions.
A note on rejection
The interview process can be nerve-wracking, and getting a ‘No’ can be disheartening and frustrating – we’ve all been there. But know that it’s somewhat inevitable, and the more resilient you become, the more you’ll shine to potential employers. Often, a job rejection just comes down to the fact that you weren’t quite the right fit for the position, which means that you probably wouldn’t have been happy there anyway. Dust yourself off, get back on your feet and put yourself back on the market.
Money isn’t everything
If you are offered the job, congrats! Now you’ve got to decide whether you’ll take it. Try to think of your first job as the first step in a journey that houses your career. When you’re looking for employment, rather than just focusing on salary, consider what that workplace can offer you.
Take Astrid Stavro, partner at Pentagram London, as an example. She recalls “selling [her] soul to the devil” when she was headhunted by a multinational American internet company after she graduated, who offered an “irresistible amount of money”. Having already been offered a much lower-paid job with a small creative studio whose work she loved, she went with the internet company in the hopes that she’d save enough money to eventually start her own magazine, but it wasn’t to be.
Astrid lasted a month, after which she called up the design studio that had initially offered her the junior role, only to find that they’d hired someone else. The experience became a major learning to only take on big opportunities that she’s deeply passionate about, and that it’s rarely a good idea to prioritise money over integrity.
While it can feel like a privileged argument to claim that money isn’t everything, it’s important to think of any job you take as an investment in your future. In some cases, taking a first job with a lower wage in a field that you love can lead to a much more lucrative career in the future.
5. Money, Money, Money
Hone those freelance business skills
Speaking of money… While it certainly isn’t everything, we can’t emphasise just how important it is to know your worth and have a handle on your finances. Last year it was reported that the UK creative sector alone suffers £1.1 billion in late payments from clients, so while it can be a difficult topic to discuss, the more transparency there is around the subject, the better the chance of earning what you deserve.
Whether you’re a designer, illustrator, filmmaker or anything in between – your job is not a hobby and you need to be paid for your work. If you’re self-employed, it means that you are effectively running a business, which is why Lou Bones, illustration agent at Jelly London, advises freelancers to have a business plan. Making decisions about copyright, licensing, accounting, pensions and more will mean you’re prepared for whatever might come up.
Rates of pay: How much do I charge?
It’s useful to know the industry rate of pay when determining salary expectations or putting together an estimate for a client. The web is chock-full of resources to help you price your services from creative coach Kei Maye’s ebook Up The Ante, to the AIGA’s advice on calculating a freelance rate.
AIGA Eye on Design’s salary transparency spreadsheet is also a handy window into earnings from across the globe, whereas the Major Players salary report is a good reference for London based creatives. Rather than trusting one resource to the hilt, read around from a range of viewpoints to make the most informed decision.
6. Signing on That Dotted Line: Contracts and Invoices
Freelancers, listen up: You’ve got two new best friends – one’s called ‘contract’, the other is called ‘invoice’.
A contract will protect you when the going gets tough – and believe us, it can. The beauty of a contract is that it’s meant to work on your behalf, outlining the exact duration of the project as well as the expected outcomes from both sides. This provides a concrete set of guidelines which can be referred to in times of crisis. Advice for illustrators on how to create a bulletproof contract can be found on the Association of Illustrators website here. And you can also check out this article from It’s Nice That project manager Josephine New on mastering contracts and that pesky small print, which applies to any discipline.
It’s important that you get your invoice right to make it as easy as possible for people to pay you. Make sure you increase the chances of getting paid on time by always including the following information:
• Your name
• The client and project name
• Your address, email and phone number
• Invoice number (you create this)
• The dates and hours you worked
• Your bank details (including IBAN Number)
• Your National Insurance number
Working for free
Hang on – we’ve just gone over invoices and money – what’s this about free work? Well here’s the thing: Unpaid work? It’s an ongoing industry debate. In fact, if you want to start an argument between creatives, ask them if they ever work for free.
Some have a blanket rule – free work undercuts the industry and ruins pay rates for everyone, making a mockery of the notion that good creative work should be paid for. Others claim that free work can, at times, be beneficial to creatives under the right circumstances.
Rik Lomas recalls working for ‘mates rates’ on several occasions. “Pretty much every time it turned into the client taking advantage of the lower rate by adding more to be done during the project, pushing the work to the point of fatigue. Essentially it was a strange power dynamic, where I thought I was doing work because it’d be a fit for my portfolio, with clients who were trying to squeeze as much cheap labour out of a job they couldn't do. Each project resulted in a happy client and an unhappy freelancer.”
Yep. Rik advises that rather than ruling out free work completely, you should consider several things before taking it on: Firstly, ask yourself if the project is clear and defined. If there’s room for any extra revisions to creep in, there’s potential for unexpected extra work. Secondly, ask yourself if the project is aligned with the work you want to be doing in the future. Thirdly, consider whether the client is taking advantage of you. In actuality, can they afford to pay you a fair price?
Be cautious of the types of opportunities you’re taking on. Exploitation unfortunately runs rampant in the creative industry if left unchecked, so make sure that any internships you apply for are paying you a living wage, and are mutually beneficial.
Let’s all take a deep breath, because it’s time to talk about taxes.
Taxes can be scary, but the best way to avoid tax doom is to be informed. When you have a full-time job, your company will automatically deduct tax from your paycheque. This is called PAYE. But if you’re freelance or self-employed in any capacity (even if you do freelance work on the side), you need to register as self-employed (via gov.uk for the UK, usa.gov for the US, or your country’s equivalent) so that you can pay tax on your earnings.
When it comes to the end of the tax year you’ll need to fill in your tax return, which will determine how much you have to pay. This may also be in addition to any other contributions, such as student loan repayments or pension contributions, dependent on your country. In the UK, the tax year runs from April 6th to April 5th, and you’ll need to send in and pay your tax return before January 31st, so it’s a good idea to save some cash in advance to be able to pay for your taxes.
Often, freelancers will hire an accountant to help them with their tax return or managing money in general. So if the thought of this all makes you anxious, having a professional on hand might help.
If you’re stuck, help is available
Leaving university can be a difficult time for your wallet, for a myriad of reasons. There are, however, options out there. These range from grants and funding, to self-employment assistance and jobseekers allowance. The state (depending on what country you reside in) can assist you, and it will only be helpful to your future self to stay informed on what resources will be available to you once you graduate.
This however can differ for international students, who may have different funding that they’re eligible for, or may not qualify for state benefits. Plus, the industry is saturated with mentoring schemes and resources to help recent graduates, so reach out if you’re struggling, and often you’ll be met with a helping hand.
8. Looking After Yourself
We’ve put this in last, but it’s far from the least important factor of an emerging career. The start of your career comes with a real medley of emotions. Postgraduate life in particular can be accompanied by low mood, or depression. Adjusting to new spaces, places, people, on top of dealing with finances, rejection, self-comparison and more is no easy feat, and it can take a toll on your mental health.
Take recent Nottingham Trent graduate, Emily Prior-Such who summarised her experience of comparing herself to her peers on social media; “Seeing everyone posting about their fast-paced, glamorous roles in London made me feel like a failure working for a corporate business in Nottingham… success shouldn’t be measured by how Instagrammable your career is.” The feeling that you ‘should’ be doing things a certain way or at a certain time can be crippling. So be kind to yourself, surround yourself with a supportive community and take a healthy break from social media whenever you need it.
9. Practical Resources
If You Could
Lecture in Progress Opportunities Board
Design Jobs Board
The Loop (Australia)
The 20 best online jobs boards for graphic designers
Via Creative Boom
Salary Spreadsheets and Reports
AIGA Eye on Design’s Salary Transparency sheet
Major Players Salary Report
Grants and Funding
Arts Council England
Art Grants list
Self Employment assistance
Kerning the Gap mentoring scheme
Graduate job resources
The Small Claims Court website
10. Further Reading
• The questions you’ll be asked in a job interview
Via Wix Playground
• The long and winding road to landing your dream job
Via Wix Playground
• How to do a SWOT analysis for your business
• Up The Ante: The Ultimate Guide To Creative Pricing for Visual Artists and Designers by Kei Maye
Ebook via Leanpub
• The AOI’s Lou Bones: We need to stop treating illustration as a hobbyVia Lecture in Progress
• 21 steps to the perfect editorial commission, by The Guardian’s Chris Clarke
Via Lecture in Progress
• Contracts and small print: A project manager’s guide to being commissioned
Via Lecture in Progress
• Invoices, contracts and following up: How to get paid on time as a freelancer
Via Lecture in Progress
• Know your worth: How to negotiate fees and master money chat
Via Lecture in Progress
• What illustrator Michael Driver learnt from a rollercoaster ride with money
Via Lecture in Progess
• Everything a designer should know about working with clients
Via Wix Playground
• The Tear-Free Critique: Giving (and receiving) constructive feedback
Via Wix Playground
• 5 important lessons for becoming a better designer
Via Wix Playground
Work Ready is a partnership between Lecture in Progress and Wix, created to help prepare emerging creatives for the world of work. Every year, Lecture in Progress partners with like-minded brands and agencies to support our initiative and keep Lecture in Progress a free resource for students and those starting out. To find out more about how you can work with us, email [email protected]
Written by Creative Lives in Progress
Illustration by Gianluca Alla