Getting a job: making contact

  • Contact, Tomimo Fukuta, Communication Art & Design, 2003

So you’re looking for a job. You’ve got qualifications under your belt, ambition, energy and a portfolio of work – but how do you get someone to look at it in the first place? Our Getting a Job panel have some helpful suggestions on how to use networks, charm and persuasion to get your foot in the door.

Contact, Tomimo Fukuta, Communication Art & Design, 2003

The panel
Kimberley Kapner – has now moved back to the US, but at the time of this event she worked in design recruitment for Aquent
Dale Russell – a visiting professor at the Royal College of Art’s IDE department
Nick Vessey – formerly managing director and now non-executive director at the product and interaction design company Alloy


Kimberley Kapner: This is such an exciting opportunity for you. It is also the only opportunity that you’ll have to be a recent RCA graduate. I know it can seem absolutely overwhelming. You’ve led up to this point for many years and here it is and you just feel like, “Oh my God, what do I do?” But it’s actually more, “Oh, fantastic, now I can draw on the experience I have, the contacts I have made!” I know it’s hard to be in that frame of mind, though.

You have an incredible wealth of resources at your fingertips right now: one, through things like the alumni RCA network. I think the key is to use every single contact and every single resource that you have and continue on until you find the opportunity that you’re looking for. Think seriously about what you want to do and then find people who’ll support your endeavours.

That means talking to people who graduated a year ago from your course or from an industry that you’re interested in going towards. Give all your contacts a call. Try to have coffee meetings with people that you can get in touch with. Give them a call and say that you graduated on this programme a year ago. Try to make yourself available and learn a bit more about what they’re doing in the industry that they’re in.

And then, at the end of your meeting ask for other contacts. Say, “Is there anyone else in this industry –in your company, in another company – that you know that I can approach and talk to, and learn more about the industry and what opportunities are available?” The whole ethos of what to put on your CV, how to handle an interview, what to talk about, etc, is all about getting the job. And the more you know what the actual job is, then the more enthusiasm and confidence you show and the better the chance you’ll have of getting it.

It’s not always the best designer – the person with the most skill, the person with the most experience – who’s going to be the best fit. The only way to determine that is to understand what the opportunity is and create a case around your experiences that can demonstrate your ability to be the best fit. Nine times out of 10 - 99 out of 100 - it won’t be the best designer. 

Nick Vessey: Nine times out of 10, we interview people because we’ve been sent an email with a CV attached. If we’re really actively looking for a designer, we’ll go to the degree shows and invite people for interview. On average we get five to 10 CVs a day: there are a lot of people fighting for very few places at the moment. You really have got to stand out from the crowd. Email is fine. As far as I’m concerned, it’s great because then we have a soft-copy. I’m against all nepotism. 

We still receive a lot of Word documents, which in the creative industries is difficult. You can write to me and tell me you got a first class honours degree from one of the top colleges, but if I don’t see any pictures as well it’s really difficult to gauge. I haven’t got time to invite you for an interview because within five minutes I need to know whether you’re suited for the role. We always reject all CVs that don’t have any pictures. It’s really helpful to have a mini-portfolio, perhaps a small PDF file. You don’t have to show everything. We can learn a lot from that alone. Again, the letter attached to the CV is often quite interesting: some of them are very long and a bit smug; and others just use a standard template where they’ve swapped the name of the company. The thing is, and this might sound slightly arrogant on my part - it’s a buyers market. There are an awful lot of graduates out there and we can afford to be choosy and find the best ones.

You might also be wondering, “Should I contact 43,000 people and hope that 12 will contact me?” or, “Should I just be hitting these [companies]?” It’s strategic. One of my strategies is that I don’t go out cold looking for jobs. I’m very lucky that so many people move from job to job. I’ve actually got a lot of work from ex-students that have gone onto other jobs that remembered me. So it can work both ways.

I think the worst way to find a job is to look at ads

KImberley Kapner

I’ve already recommended two students from the degree show to the companies I work with. That sort of thing is really easy to do: you see great stuff and you can say, “This is fantastic!” I also know - nature being what it is - that there’s an inclination to keep recommending the same group of people you know to different companies because you know that person will always produce the goodies. You know that they will work all night if necessary, that they will do that extra bit. And you feel fantastic that you have put that person forward. I think it’s all those aspects. I, both personally and when I’m recommending for a team, look for someone who’s special. I couldn’t tell you what this specialness is, or what their portfolio looks like until I see it.

KK: Try and get a referral. That is a definite way for them to come back to you. I’m sure if someone wrote to you and said, “So-and-so recommended that I write to you and send my CV,” you would absolutely respond to that person. The network you have at your disposal is huge right now.

For example, start with your tutors: most of the tutors here are from the industry or in the industry. Ask them if they know any gallery owners that might be interested in the work that you have, or, that might know people that might be interested in the work that you have. Contact them saying, “This person recommended I get in touch. This is the type of work I have. Can I send you some samples and can I sit down with you and review my work?”

Beyond that use the alumni network: go through and find out if there’s anyone in your course or similar or in an industry you’d like to move into, that just graduated, who experienced the same challenges. Call them up and say, “I found your name on the alumni network: I’ve just graduated, I’m looking for some help - do you know anyone that might be interested or that would talk to me?” Find people, who actually work in galleries from the alumni network. I would guess that a lot of people working for a gallery (even if they’re not part of the network) would be helpful. They might take your call and refer you to someone else. Keep asking every time you see someone: ask if they know anyone else that you can write to because that is the best way to get a response.

DR: If you really think they’re right for you and you’re right for them, what’s wrong with post or personally dropping something in? Just trying other ways can work. Do they exhibit at Frieze? Can you catch them there? I’m not suggesting you stalk, but if you really want it, go for it! The other one- it might feel desperate— but there’s nothing wrong with working in a coffee bar to supplement your rent while you spend the next year trying to get to a place that you think is right for you. I think there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

KK: I would encourage stalking, a little bit. That’s really about doing your homework and your preparation. Are there other people who’ve come to speak at the RCA or have had some affiliation at the RCA? What’s the gallery that you really want to work with? What do they do? How do they do it? Who else has exhibited there? Can you talk to those people: see if they can get you in? Was there an article about the owner of the gallery that you can write to and reference, “I read about what you’re doing here and this is what I admire and this is why I want to work with you.” I mean anything that is very specific, targeted, and passionate shows an understanding of what the gallery does.

I think the worst way to find a job is to look in the classified ads and write to people. I think it’s very reactive and won’t necessarily get you the job you’re looking for. You’ll be competing against hundreds, maybe thousands of people, and you won’t necessarily know enough about the job to determine if you’re a good fit. OK, you may find your dream job that way, but I think it’s one of the least effective ways of getting a job.

One of the best ways is talking to people: talk to as many people in your industry or related industries as possible. Learn about companies. Ask where they work, what they like about working there, what the environment is like, who their competitors are, what the competitive advantage of one company over another is. Google individuals who work there instead of just looking them up the company website. Read all the trade publications or even news publications you can. It might be more interesting to learn about them in a news context than in a trade publication to see what their interests are outside of a very focused industry.

I know I’m sounding repetitive, but use the alumni network. Look where people are working and, if you like the sound of companies, approach them and see if you can ask about them.

All quotes are transcribed from our 2006 event Getting a Job, where the panel spoke to an audience of recent RCA graduates.