How do I break in? Best approaches

I am a self taught graphic designer. I started out about 7 years ago teaching myself Illustrator to make my own graphics. I’ve been using photoshop for a long time too, as a photographer. I have gained a lot of experience over the past several years, and am taking some night courses at a very good design school to improve my skills and methodology. I was planning to go freelance when the time was right, but a couple of months ago, I lost my day job, which didn’t pay very much in the first place. I’ve been working on freelancing, but have only been landing low paying gigs and not enough of them. I’m at the point where I need something to happen real soon. I’ve been exploring freelancing platforms to no avail thus far using proposal methods given to me by a marketing expert. Most of the jobs on those sites seem to either pay too low, be outside of my wheelhouse, or if they pay well and I can do it, there are a ton of proposals for the job. I am not sure if it is better to spend a bunch of hours writing proposals, or to look elsewhere. I have a website. I have a bunch of work that I think is pretty good. I really want to apprentice under a seasoned graphic designer and learn the jedi ways. I think I am talented, and I am super creative, but I am not sure that I am realistically at the level of expertise to get into a fancy design firm. I really just want to work with someone who likes my style and wants me to help them out, and help me develop. I’m looking for good advice here. It’s a pretty scary time for me, but I want to make it, and be able to support myself doing something that I love and am good at. Thanks in advance for any words of wisdom. :slight_smile:


I felt exactly the sae way when I started: highly teachable, good at what I do, great attitude – how come no one wanted to hire me? I strongly believed that if someone just gave me a chance it would make all the difference.

I finally realized I had to create that my own opportunity and I’m sure this is not what you want to hear but the answer for me was: networking.

Everyone hates it when they start and you feel like you’re terrible at it, but it’s so much more about who you know than what you know. Go to events, join a networking group and build relationships with people. Get business cards and then follow up and go for coffee with them. People will use you when they know you, like you and trust you.

You probably have friends you recommend because they’re decent at what you do but more importantly you like and trust them. You just need to make those relationships with strangers, now!


Thank you! I have been networking with a few graphic designers that I know. I’ve been dropping cards at events that cater to my target clients as well, but I could do more of that. I’ll look into networking groups. That’s a great idea. There’s got to be a bunch in Los Angeles. :slight_smile:

I’m in BNI (Business Networking International) it’s global, so I’m 100% sure there’s one in California. It’s a very formal business meeting and can definitely catch you off guard when you go to your first one. I’ll be honest it’s a bit weird. But you’re given access to professionals outside of graphic design – your potential clients. It’s a referral group, so you’re expected to give, but also to receive referrals from members.

There are plenty of derivatives of BNI as well if it’s not your cup of tea :slightly_smiling_face:

1 Like

Networking, networking, networking. Katied74 is absolutely right.

I tried the local AIGA, but it did nothing for me. I don’t see much point in networking with other graphic designers. They aren’t going to hire you.

Then I looked at the local BNI and found it grossly mismanaged and overpriced. So, no.

Then I joined a local Chamber of Commerce, and oh my, that is working very well. I started at their monthly coffee thing, and was walking away with interested contacts even before I officially joined. I’ve already got two projects going with fellow members.

FYI, almost every city has a COC, but not all are worth the effort. I researched several, and hooked up with the 4th one I looked at. And the dues are only $315 a year. Can’t beat that.

1 Like

Unless you know someone, a design firm is not going to hire you without some type of 4-year degree. As it is, quite a large number of design firms have gone from having a staff of designers to just hiring on design contractors on an as-needed basis. They don’t take on intern level designers and they don’t have the time or the budget to train even “the teachable.” For contracting, they have to know you, and know you will deliver the goods they need on time, on budget. That is where networking with other designers can be helpful.

The market is supersaturated with designers. Not a field I’d recommend to any potential college student these days unless their love for design is larger than their desire to eat regularly.


I was in a BNI for a while Towards the end, I only half joking said BNI stood for Business Not Inside. I think it’s all a matter of getting in a good group.

1 Like

I’m definitely seeing that the field is supersaturated. Most of the clients I have had so far barely want to pay a rate that makes it worth my time as well. That’s why I’ve been looking for other designers to work with and wanting to get into a team situation. I don’t really want to work in a vacuum. It seems like there’s tons of work out there, but also a ton of people that do not understand the value and time involved in good design. I’m also a photographer, and I’ve thought about pursuing that, but that’s another supersaturated market, and I don’t want to do wedding or fashion photography.

At this point, I’m so invested, and I love it so much that it would be a shame to just drop it. I originally got into this because I wanted to create my own graphic art, and put together a brand based off of that, which I started to do several years back. Then I got injured, and had to stop working on that for a time. My first passion is my art, which includes my photography. Working with clients has been really difficult for me at times, and I’ve thought about just doing art, especially now that my chops are more refined. I could work on a brand relaunch… I had a good thing going with that for a minute. I need a way to bring in some income in the meantime though.

As others have said, networking is a powerful tool. Figure out what your goal is and network accordingly. Are you wanting to freelance? Then network where you can find potential clients. Are you wanting to get hired? Then network within the field.

If you’re feeling up to posting a link or work samples, that would help us evaluate where you are and give you more specific advice.

I say this because you’re contradicting yourself. You say you have a bunch of pretty good work, that you’re talented, and that you’re super creative. Then you say you don’t have the expertise to get into a fancy design firm.

I think what you need to do is find someone that could mentor you in the business. The best way to do this would be thru networking. When you meet someone who seems like they’d be a good fit or a good mentor, ask them if you can buy them breakfast or lunch or a cup of coffee. Tell them you’d like them to look at your work and offer feedback and that you’d like to talk to them about their career path.

See where that takes you.

You’re correct. So what can you do to set yourself apart from the pack?

Yeah, it kind of seems like photography is the new graphic design in a way.

For sure! It’s also important to figure out your ROI on it, as DocPixel said it’s quite expensive, and you need to step back and figure out how many jobs/what kind of jobs you need from it to pay for it.

1 Like

My website is:

There is a photography and graphic design section, and I need to update it with some recent work soon.

The fancy design firm comment is mainly because I know the level these guys are playing at, and the level of knowledge that they have about graphic design, branding, typography, etc. I’m just not on that level yet. That is why I’ve been thinking about some sort of mentor type situation.

I got one legitimate job out of the group. My profit from that job covered my joining and meeting cost for the year. Seemed like a good time to get out before I went into the red.

1 Like

I’ve been trying to carve out a niche specializing in Sacred Geometry based design and catering to the spiritual community here which I am pretty connected with. It’s been slow going so far, but I’m also trying to get closer to the larger companies that are catering to that community.

Does this niche (1) appreciate the need for good graphic design, and (2) have the bucks to pay for it?

Not necessarily… some aspects are supersaturated and some are not.

Weddings, fashion and other glamorous photography, yes.

Product, architectural and police/forensic photography, not so saturated.

1 Like

I’m pretty bad at networking because I’m introverted. That’s why I started trying to work my way out of graphic design about 15 years ago. Now I’m learning the hard way that you can’t network too much in anything you want to achieve. The trick is learning the difference between a useful contact, a benign contact, and a back-stabber.

The problem with an over-saturated overly-competitive profession such as graphic design is that there are too many back-stabbers. Many of the back-stabbers aren’t even graphic designers, but instead co-workers or clients of graphic designers, Graphic designers are more vulnerable to back-stabbing. Our backs are exposed more-so than those in professions with less subjective results. It’s easy for a marketing person to blame a bad marketing decision on a graphic designer. It’s easy for someone who’s equally responsible for proof reading a piece to blame a mistake entirely on a graphic designer. It’s easy for a co-working technician to blame a graphic designer for a bad technical decision as if the more qualified technician was never allowed to advise the graphic designer.

If you know a back-stabber, avoid relying on them while avoiding burning the bridge at the same time. I hate LinkedIn because it keeps trying to reconnect me and associate me with back-stabbers. I’ve mistakenly burned some bridges in the past. LinkedIn keeps trying to bathe me in the ashes of those burnt bridges. Now I avoid using LinkedIn despite it’s benefits. It would have been easier to avoid these people had I not burnt the bridges. I just hope it doesn’t get to the point that avoiding LinkedIn will be seen as a red flag.

Some of the bridges I’ve burnt were not back-stabbers either. In a profession where you aren’t expected to have a wide-variety of clients in your portfolio, you can accidentally burn bridges in the process of expanding, moving up, or moving on. The question of how to break in is an important question. An equally important question is how to break out of situations without turning the network you have into a cloud of bad news hanging over your head.


Public relations people can be great contacts. A lot of times they are organizing events and they need someone who can wrangle people and take photos. And they also tend to be the ones responsible for things like newsletters. They need photographers and designers and they aren’t necessarily going to pay a premium for those services. At least that’s my experience.

Public information officers for govt agencies are great contacts too. Municipal government, police, fire, water districts, etc. Communications for the agency goes through them and they always have a need for photographers and designers who can work on a limited budget.

There are different segments of the creative market. Not everyone is looking to eat every meal at a 5-star restaurant.


Good question, Doc. The answer to the first part of the question is yes. The second part depends. On the grass roots level, there are a lot of individuals starting small companies and groups that need graphic work, but do not really have much money to put towards it. It’s easy to sell something in this community if you have a desirable product, but harder to get paid well for graphic design. That’s why I’m looking for the bigger companies who cater to these guys at the moment.

Many U.S. state governments select various kinds of businesses — including graphic designers — to be on contract. Once a business is listed as a state contractor, that business is pre-approved to do work within the terms of the contract for the various agencies within the state government.

Typically, the various state agencies are required to choose contractors from those businesses already on state contract. If there isn’t a business on state contract, the agency can look elsewhere, but only if there isn’t already a pre-approved business on contract capable of doing the job.

A Request For Proposal (RFP) is typically posted by the state purchasing authorities for specific services, and all businesses are invited to apply. These RFPs for specific services are typically released every two, three or five years (depending on the state and the service), then businesses apply and are selected to be on call for those specific services. Businesses can only apply when those RFPs are released, and those businesses are on contract until the contract expiration date, at which time, a new RFP is released and new contracts are awarded.

Businesses need to be real businesses, however, with business licenses and the usual legalities that surround a business. Freelancers, as long as they have business licenses and meet various other requirements (that differ from state to state), are usually eligible to be selected.

Two or three years ago, I was asked to be on the State of Utah’s selection team to evaluate graphic designers to be on contract for Utah’s various state agencies. If I remember right, only a dozen or so freelancers and agencies applied. Out of those dozen applicants, only one was turned down. The fees of these various agencies ran from hundreds of dollars per hour to ten times less than that, yet all but one was selected.

So now, every state agency in Utah that needs to hire a graphic designer for a project is required to choose from those eleven or so design firms on that state contract list.

Each state, of course, has its own requirements and hoops to jump through, but it’s certainly worth looking into if you don’t mind dealing with sometimes mind-numbing state bureaucracies. Here’s a link:


©2019 Graphic Design Forum | Contact | Legal | Twitter | Facebook