“What’s the one piece of advice you would give to new graduates?”

When you’re reasonably young and lucky/stubborn enough to be working in the industry that you studied in, this question seems to crop up quite a lot. The phrasing suggests that the person asking is looking for the hack (the secret/formula/shortcut/common-denominator) to success; anything to fast-track those first few horrible years out of full-time study and get the career ball rolling; or at least, I know that this is what I was thinking when I was the one asking this question. 

Despite having plenty of opportunities to practice my answer, when I’m asked this question I still haven't come up with one that's both meaningful and succinct (hence, the blog post). There are so many possibilities when it comes to building a creative career that there’s no single piece of advice I can think of that would be useful and applicable to everyone. That said, here are a few of my own turning points whilst I was finding my feet, and how I think you can turn them into actionable advice:

1. Create more work

After graduating I thought that step one was to package up my existing portfolio and send it to the right people – the art directors, publishers and agents ‘holding the keys’ to the industry. Step one actually was to make more work - and better work. My portfolio wasn’t nearly as good as it could be (this is always true, but it was especially true when I was fresh out of uni), and honestly, my efforts would have been better spent on generating more material so that I could hone my skills. Whilst there’s no reason not to seek opportunities as soon as you graduate - if not before - it’s important to realise that you don’t need to find work to make work. You can do so much for your career without ever being ‘hired’ for a job or project in a traditional sense.

Focus on what can you control – you can’t control the competition, the economy, the job climate, or what is going in and out of trend. You can control how good your work is; so get to it.

2. Find your focus

Generating work (practice work, personal work, ugly sketchbook work) is also the best way to become more familiar with your illustrative technique, skills and interests, and how that translates to a chosen field or industry.

Coming out of my final year of study, if you asked me what type of work I would like to pursue and why, I would have said ‘probably publishing?’, simply because I thought that my illustrative style was well-suited to Children’s books from an aesthetic standpoint (not incorrect, exactly, but perhaps a rather superficial line of reasoning). Today, I’m still interested in working on published material (I’ve just finished illustrating my 3rd children’s book), but not for the same reasons that I would have provided three years ago.

I love working on children’s books because I love interpreting text; I love writing and storytelling, printed material, storyboarding, and developing characters. The fact that my illustrative technique seems to lend itself well to this medium is simply a bonus.

When it comes to finding your preferred line of work, it’s certainly useful to consider the types of projects that your illustrative style is well suited to visually, but there are many other, less tangible aspects to consider when you’re carving out your niche. Remember to ask yourself not just what you want your portfolio to look like, but what sort of interactions you want to have in your work; what kind of stories do you want to tell?

3. Embrace the unexpected

It’s also worth considering your career in terms of the kind of routine you’d ideally like to keep. What sort of environment do you do your best work in – are you most productive alone, with a team, collaborating closely with clients, from home, in an office, or on the go? Do you work well in a structured environment or with greater flexibility in your schedule? Are you good (or at least competent) at time management, taking care of paperwork and client correspondence, or would you do better with an agent? Do you prefer small projects with quick turnarounds or more long-term work? Think about how you’d like your average week to look and lean into the skills, interests and qualities - some of which may not be directly connected to your creative work - that make you different and how that may affect the decisions you make about the type of work that you pursue.

Career growth is an ineffable combination of chasing new opportunities and letting go of others; there are countless occasions where I’ve unexpectedly started a new pursuit, or changed my mind about a long-held goal.  Find your focus – but let it adapt and change.

And finally, in no particular order…

If you’re at all able, travel as much as you can whilst there are fewer commitments (AKA: emails) making demands on your time. Keep a list of job-hunting sites bookmarked on your browser. Learn the keyboard shortcuts. Hustle hard, and have faith.

Doris Chang