Every year, new designers prepare themselves to enter the workforce. Some of you are new college graduates. Others are making either a big or shift in their career path. Perhaps you’re experienced in publishing design and now you’ve trained to tackle a position in the web. You’re smart, you have the skills. While that may be true, there is a difference between simply having knowledge a skill and having demonstrated your ability to use that skill to accomplish a task.
With some smart decison making, volunteering can be the first step in becoming a well-paid freelancer or full-time employed designer. Becoming a volunteer is not just for new designers either. An experienced designer can get to do things they can’t do in their regular job. Why would you want to volunteer?
Many jobs and even internships are looking for people with some experience, a real world portfolio, and professional references. New job seekers tend to ask the question: How can we get a job in a new field without already having some connections?
If you don’t have connections, then you need to find and make them. If you don’t have the necessary experience, then you need to start experiencing. Volunteer work or unpaid internships is one of the methods for new job seekers to start translating their newly acquired skills into real world accomplishments for an organization.
It won’t catch my eye as an art director if you say in your cover letter, “I know InDesign” since anyone can install and use a computer program. It will be far more impressive if your cover letter has the intriguing story of how you “designed a brochure for the local branch of the American Red Cross that was distributed to 12 events.” I talked in an episode of my podcast about how having a story to tell makes your creative work interesting; having a story also helps make you an interesting person, a grounded friend, and an impressive employee.
As an art director, I can assure you that we’re not overly convinced by student work. Sure, showing that you can create a beautiful design effectively with your tools is a telling step which we do like to see. It’s true that having the creativity to produce an imaginary student project is useful as a working designer often will have to invent details that aren’t provided. At the same time, most of us work to implement the visions of our clients and coworkers. We are constrained by the real world needs of a project.
Volunteering will place you in the position of having to deal with outside interests, organizational limitations, and a real world audience which will often be discerning. If you after all of that, you’re able to come up with a stunning portfolio piece, then hiring managers will be impressed. Having the skill to create is a great piece of the puzzle, while still the focus of a hiring manager or a client is to see if you can use those skills to create what they need. Your resume, portfolio, and cover letters will ideally reinforce the story that you would help serve the business needs of your employers.
Being a print designer, I found volunteering to be a great way to solidify my web design abilities and gain confidence. Many charitable organizations would love for you to give them an awesome new website. If you’re looking for less of a commitment, you could offer training to do web updates or assist in maintainence.
For one organization, I simply created some basic graphics for their websites. For another, using their existing templates and CMS to enter content was a way to learn from those who had worked on those sites before me. These are the kinds of demonstrations of accomplishments that employers are looking for. These are also the types of case studies that we often pay professors to provide when we can also get them for free and get more value out of them
Facing your fear
Going into a new field is scary. In an episode of The Uncanny Creativity Podcast titled Face the Fear of Failure in 6 Steps, I talked about how success requires moving forward with something that might not be perfect. One way to face your fear of failure and gain confidence is to simply practice. When you practice using your skills in a a volunteer environment, they will be tested. You will be challenged and from those challenges, you’ll learn something and those are lessons that you’ll apply to your work and life.
Every time you volunteer for a new organization, you’re signing up for a new experience. Rather than paying for the movie version, you’re getting a new situation first hand. The places you get to see and work for might feel scary, silly, weird, funny, or crazy. There could be interesting people who you’d never want to see again. There could be interesting people who you’d want to become best friends with.
Networking has a bad reputation. That’s due to the many networkers who seem to selfishly want to take advantage of others. If you’re just out to use people, it’s unlikely they’ll want to help you. Instead, successful networkers form professional friendships. They’re quality friends like any other, they just have the common interest of some overlapping career goals. Treat others as friends who you admire and like. Volunteering provides a way to practice being charitable and positive when meeting new contacts. Depending on the organization, your new friend may have some solid advice for your career.
If that sounds more appealing to you than what you’ve known about networking, then banish the word from your mind and look for friendship or acquaintence-ship. Find kindered spirits who you genuinely like and admire. Help them not because you need them, but because there is something you want to share with them. If that’s something that appeals to you, be sure to check out my post How to Get Started: Artist and Designer Networking Guide Part 1 for more details.
Even if you don’t meet friends or even a professional contact, volunteering still provides a real world situation where you can practice collaborating with others. I’ve talked a lot about the importance of collaboration in both my blog (6 Dos and Don’t for Killer Creative Teams: Confessions of a Bad Team Player) and on the podcast (How to Collaborate More Effectively). This is a skill you’ll be practicing you’re entire life, so having more chances to work with others will give you valuable insights in all of your relationships.
A word of caution
If you’re going in looking for professional friendships that’s certainly possible. However, don’t mistake a volunteer opportunity or even an unpaid intership as a replacement for your job search. A coworker talked to me about how one of Baltimore’s major museums had employed her friend full-time for over a year. Her friend believed this would somehow translate into a paid position which was quite foolhardy and a recipe for resentment.
Being charitable is not your full-time position in life, especially not professionally. Set a clear and short-term limit for the amount that you are willing to do for free. A one semester internship is reasonable considering your vast lifetime, though years of full-time free service probably would not make sense for most people who have will bills and expenses.
Find reasons to be involved that are charitable and fun. If it ever stops being that, reconsider whether this works for you. If not, walk away without burning bridges. You may even take the opportunity to ask for a letter of recommendation. Be clear about what you are getting out of the situation. Ultimately, know your worth and know that your work is worth a lot of money. A You’re worth being paid tens of thousands of dollars a year.
Finding volunteer opportunities
The process of getting volunteer work isn’t that unlike applying for a job or finding freelance work. You contact an organization, tell them what services that you would hope to provide for them, and discuss any details. Your committment could be as small as an hour or as large as a full project requiring more regular committment. As you might in a job search or a friendship, focus on what you can do for your contact and their organization rather than what you’re getting out of it.
I’ve participated in some interesting opportunities through Volunteer Match. They have many big and small opportunities. For example, when I search the site I’ll see the prestigious Kennedy Center in DC, local government, and charitable organizations. Not only are these great names to add to your resume, they’re just interesting places to visit and contribute to. Volunteer Match also has virtual opportunities where you can help from your home computer.
You might also think about looking through listings on Craigslist. You could also freelance for work, and sure do that too. But as a volunteer you can help out some pretty worthy causes and often get a nice letter of recommendation or thank you letter. These are great for references without the hassle of dealing with the business side of freelance.
If you’re involved or want to be involved with your church, student organizations, or any organizations in your community contact them with ideas. You might suggest a flyer of upcoming event, re-designing their website, or see some other need that you can help with.
Have you had any successful volunteer experiences that you’re proud of?
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Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.