Student Fears - A blog post series

SF2: Questions from an intern

March 31, 2016 - 17 minutes read

This post is part of a series on student fears, addressing real concerns from real illustration and design students. Feel free to browse other posts in the series.

What the intern needs to know

Our recent intern at Post+Beam shot me a few questions she wanted elaborated on before she finished her internship and left out into the scary world. I thought they were worth sharing out.

Illustrations – using illustrator

Q: I’ve been wondering how should you start when you are doing a sketch or character design on Adobe Illustrator. I always use Photoshop and I think it’s a lot simpler but there are many things that you can only do in Illustrator.

A: I would recommend still doing sketches by hand or in a program like Photoshop before moving into Illustrator. Illustrator is great for getting a very polished look to things, or just for the scalability that vector graphics provide, but it’s not really poised for quick, rough and dirty sketches. If I knew that the style of the illustration needed Adobe Illustrator I would hash out the idea elsewhere first and then paste it into Illustrator later, using it as a template to work from when building the final illustration. For illustration work myself I generally work in Photoshop, however.

Q: Do you have other programs that you recommend?

A: Of course! There are tons of apps out there now for artists and designers that can be helpful. The very first things I usually recommend though aren’t apps, but actually extensions for Photoshop.

Check out Kyle Webster’s Photoshop Brushes, and Alex Dukal’s symmetry tool.

For other apps, if you’re into web design check out this post, otherwise for illustrators check these out:


Q: From an employer’s perspective, what should be in a portfolio aside from work? What do you usually look for? Creative process?

A: When I am interviewing people I look for knowledge of art and design fundamental skills first and foremost. I don’t care if someone is certified in Adobe software or any other piece of paper like that. I look for skills, and a desire to increase those skills.

Do you understand grid theory and other compositional and layout skills, colour, typography, contrast, and so on? Do you know how to take advantage of those skills to manipulate context and hierarchy?

Do we look for process? Absolutely. And if you don’t bring or include it in your portfolio, expect to be grilled about your process. How do you go from a blank page to a finished illustration or design? Do you collaborate? Do you rely on your peers? Use Google? If you don’t know the answer to something, or aren’t sure about your work, would you ask for help?

Portfolio wise, the skills always come before a piece of paper.

We also want to see how often you’re creating things. I often talk to illustration students and ask what they did throughout the summer, what they drew in their sketchbook, and what they learned. If they answer “nothing” I know they aren’t serious about becoming an illustrator and don’t have what it takes to succeed. If it’s 3 months between drawings for you, why are you still wasting your time? Move on. Do something you’ll actually commit to.

Many art directors want to see that you’re updating your portfolio semi-regularly, or at least posting things somewhere. Blog, use social media, do something. It’s acceptable if you go on a posting hiatus while you actually have a job, but if you’re hunting, get in the habit of posting work.

What I also look for is someone that’s incredibly interested in learning and progressing their skills, even if they aren’t the best. Are they eager to learn and sink their teeth in? Do they have the fire in their belly that’s needed to push forward? Our industry constantly has new technology or aggressive timelines. We have to push through that.

Most importantly, though, we look for “fit”. Meaning, is the person friendly, easy to get along with? Are they arrogant or otherwise over-confident? Would they fight with the team, or could you see yourself having a beer with them after work? Do you think they actually care, are interested, and give a $hit (which are our values at P+B)?

Going out in the real word (a noob in a battlefield)

Q: What are the important skills needed or must learn to be better or at least be ready before going into the industry?

A: We recommend that all people in the industry stay subscribed to some of the top newsletters and magazines in their industry. Currently our office buys Communication Arts, the Society of Illustrators Annuals, and a few others. We also subscribe to various online newsletters from people like Smashing Magazine, UX-Pin, InvisionApp, and other industry leaders. Checking those things out are good places to start, but the priority is basically just to make sure you stay up to date skill wise after leaving school. In fact, you’re probably out of date by the time you graduate since many curriculums can’t keep up with all the new technology and processes out there. Which is fine, they can’t give you everything, but hopefully they’ve taught you the fundamentals.

I would also recommend any new art and design graduate to be ready to collaborate. One thing we missed in some of our schooling that my colleague Naoko Masuda is remedying at the local art school ACAD is giving students the knowledge of other common roles in the industry and how you’ll have to rely on them or learn to get along with them. Even as a freelancer, you will need to work with a client, whether that’s a small business owner or a project/account manager. If you don’t know how to admit when you’re wrong, or even sway sometimes when you aren’t, you won’t get called back for a second project very often.

Further to that point, communication skills and presentation skills are invaluable. So many art and design folks are introverts. I know, I get it. But you need to be able to talk to others, present, argue your work, and critique other people’s work. You need to be able to take feedback and run with it, and ask good questions. A lot of people I know have read the book How to Win Friends and Influence People. There’s a lot of great tips in there. I don’t actually recommend any of their workshops, social media feeds, or anything else, because it’s gotten a little cult-ish since the book came out decades ago, but the book is still solid advice.

  • Keep learning, your nickname should be The Human Sponge
  • Draw, draw, draw, draw, draw, draw, draw
  • Ask questions. You do NOT know everything. Accept that. You never will. Roll with it.
  • Don’t be afraid to branch out and try new things. You may specialize in school with illustration but realize you have to also do design in order to get by financially. That’s fine. Keep learning, keep creating.

Q: What are the expectations and realities when starting your career?

A: The main expectation when hiring someone out of an art and design program, or that already has experience in the industry, is that they know art and design fundamentals. Out of anything, aside from talking to clients, presentation and speaking skills, and so on, we expect that the program you went through (or even self-taught folks) leaves you with knowing the fundamentals. If we hire you, as an intern, contract, full-time, whatever it is and you ask what a grid is and why you need to use one I will stare you down with a face full of a mixture of anger, disappointment and “why god? Why?”

Sadly, the reality is that I’ve worked with a handful of people that do not know what a grid is, let alone various other art and design fundamentals. In that case, you need to be willing to learn, or to teach if you’re in the hiring position. Even in the cases when those people haven’t understood a fundamental skill, I’ve been willing to teach them. The ones who have failed are the ones who haven’t been willing to learn.

The harsh reality that when working in freelance, with some of the startups I’ve helped, at Shaw, Post+Beam, and so on, a lot of graduates that we see come out of their programs a bit arrogant. Many of them think they know everything, or realize they’re talented and form an ego. They don’t realize that they may not have the full picture, or that there’s more to being in the industry than just being able to make pretty pictures. You need humility to survive in this business just as much as you need an ego.

Q: What helped you when you were just starting your career?

A: The things that helped me most when I was starting out were probably asking a lot of questions and noticing where help was needed most and trying to fill that gap. I won’t refer back to when I was freelancing on my own, because I was a complete moron when I started out. But when I started my industry career, I listened intently at every meeting, I took notes, and I didn’t just do what I was told. I did my very best to figure out where people needed help, and tried to help them. In this approach, I learned a lot of new skills organically, but I also made great friendships by helping people on my team that may not have even asked for it.

Ultimately, the thing that helped me most, and continues to, is not an external source. It’s my drive to learn, care about clients and what I’m working on, and progress. Usually that comes in the form of asking a lot of questions, Googling like crazy, and trying to learn what I didn’t know but should know.

Business and interpersonal skills, communication skills, and other skills for actually dealing with people are invaluable. Beef them up. Talk to people, make relationships, try new things, and charge in.

Freelancing and Clients

Q: Do you have any suggestions or advice when freelancing or coping with clients?

A: Oh, man. Where to begin.

Get a contract, some solid rates and terms, and sort out your process. If you’re in Canada, the GDC has great contract and terms templates for people to use or start with. Whether it’s a friend, family, or whomever, do up a contract. They protect you from things like scope creep, miscommunication, and abuse.

Try not to get angry with clients. Starting off, it’s likely you’ll have a lot of small fish that have no idea what they want. You need to learn to ask good questions. And you need to learn to know when someone’s given you a good answer. Even still, I get a lot of answers from clients that do not answer the core of what I am asking, so I have to dig deeper. Doing illustrations for a story recently I asked what it was about and if I could get a full break down, their take on it in a few words, as well as the story itself. Their answer? “It’s a comedy, umm… and the main character likes ____.” Real helpful, right? When you get a client like this, you must dig deeper and ask the right questions, sometimes multiple times in a row.

Overall, my main advice is to always be pleasant and not be a dick. That doesn’t mean you can’t stand up for yourself, but you can stand up for yourself without swearing, being arrogant, belittling someone else, or burning bridges (in most cases).

This post is part of a series on student fears, addressing real concerns from real illustration and design students. Feel free to browse other posts in the series. For more information on how the series came about, see the first post, here.

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