Overqualified? (Seeking Advice)

Hi everyone!

First, I would like to add a little context to clarify my situation. Currently, I’m an undergraduate foreign student at a national university in Japan (my major is in robotics and engineering). Currently in my last year at the university, since the start of my academic year, I’ve been setting out on a journey to hunt for a suitable job. For personal reasons, I’ve chosen graphic design as an occupation I hope to pursue.

Having chosen a prospect job that I want to pursue, I rushed to prepare my portfolio and a suitable resume to accompany me on my job hunting journey. For the last few months, I’ve also spent my time building a portfolio website, which finally comes online last August (I’ve always relied on a portfolio site created through Behance before this new website is available).

You can find my portfolio at My Portfolio Site

However, to my surprise, I was repeatedly turned down by companies and agencies without knowing why (in Japan, employers do not (not just rarely) provide a clear reason for turning down an applicant). Of over 30 agencies I’ve been applying to, only one agency has kindly replied to me: “Even though your portfolio and resume is extraordinary, at the moment, due to the ongoing pandemic, our agency is looking for a seasoned designer to help us to immediately tackle our projects. As such, to our deepest regret, our agency does not hire fresh graduates at present.” (I took a cold contact but they kindly answered my application and provided some feedback on my portfolio, so I was really glad despite being turned down). For other agencies, they either ghost my application or just turn it down without giving me an invite to an interview.

Feeling frustrated, I brought my portfolio to a meeting with a group of experienced designers held in Tokyo, Japan to seek advice as I believe it was my lacking which led to my current situation. The responses I received can be summarized as below:
“In general, your portfolio contains clean, professional, and beautiful works. To be frank, some of these works can rival, or could even be better than the works seen in a senior designer’s portfolio. However, such appealing works also lead to companies and agencies being anxious about hiring you. In general, agencies and companies (in Japan) expect to train fresh graduates for 1 to 3 years before allowing them to work as junior designers. As such, fresh graduates are only required to have a basic understanding of the basics in design and a good understanding of design software such as Photoshop and Illustrator. They don’t have to know the software well enough to design artwork. They only need to know how to navigate around the software. Your portfolio, however, shows that you not only have a good understanding of design but also are capable of working on projects on your own. Combined with your resume, you could be labeled as ‘overqualified’ for a fresh graduate applicant. While being overqualified isn’t something bad, companies may feel anxious about hiring you because they are afraid of not being able to keep you to their side for a long time and that you may jump ship after 1 or 2 years. For that reason, companies would rather turning your application down than taking the risk.”

As a result of our discussion, some seniors advised that I should “create more basic projects and try to fake some naivety in my resume and interviews,” while a large number of seniors advised me to “seek out new opportunities in large graphic design hubs such as in UK or US instead of staying back in Japan and hamper your growth.” Normally, I would only consider advice to be suggestive (meaning I can choose which one I would listen to and may modify them if I so wish for). However, if over 50 senior designers advise me the same thing then it’s another story. A few seniors also kindly gave me a link to a website where I can view the works of other applicants (fresh graduates) to compare myself against (I’ll have some samples posted below).

To be frank, even though I found the advice sound, considering the ongoing pandemic, finding an opportunity at a third country seems impossible (considering the volatile job market and high unemployment rate, as well as various travel bans) unless I’m willing to wait for another 1 to 2 years, which is (financially) difficult. As for the other advice to try and “fake some naivety,” it’s similar to telling a good singer to sing like a tone-deaf person, which is very difficult. For this reason, I would love it to hear everyone here’s opinions and advice on some possible ways to escape this dilemma I’m facing.

Thank you for your kind time and consideration.

Below are some sample works from other applicants (graduating from the same year).

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I followed you on behance and instagram.
Which I never do. Your work is really nice and clean looking. I hope you stick around here and post works to critique.

While I can’t attest to being able to read Japanese. The designs still look bright, crisp, and what I’d expect to see if I went to Japan. Your work stands out because it is slightly different. I prefer seeing your work.

The job market is tough and difficult here in my home state of Michigan. I wouldn’t however fake some naivety in designs or interviews. Graphic Design is a competition in some ways and it looks like you’re ahead of your peers. They can learn from you!

What you can do is look for faults in your own work and address those mistakes as to not repeat them in future works.

It looks as if you like doing Graphic Design. If that’s the case don’t give up. Learn more techniques and grow. Corner Japan’s freelance market. Build yourself up and maybe you won’t have to look for the studios they will find you.

I will say, when I hear someone as being self-taught it usually makes me cringe. But your work is pretty solid. I will say, why would you mention being self taught so prominently on your website? I mean, yes, your work does speak for itself, but being self taught could foster doubt into anyone looking to hire you, IMO.

Secondly, I don’t understand the idea of dumbing down your work to get hired. That seems backwards. The pandemic has certainly affected job hunting for pretty much anyone at the moment. If you can, you may want to focus on freelancing.

You also mentioned meeting with experienced designers in Tokyo. Are there routing meetings with other designers? If so, building up networking through those sorts or events may open up doors for you.

Instead of spending an unlimited amount of time to create a polished masterpiece, set a timer for 2 hours. That’s the piece you put in your new portfolio. You’re not faking it… you’re just using some real-life parameters to produce your work.

Thank you for following my works on both Behance and Instagram! I really appreciate it!

While there has been some major shifts in design styles in Japan, it’s usually said that Japan’s world of graphic design has been lagging behind the rest of the world. Although UI/UX design has been prominent in these recent years, as you can see in some of sample shots above, the general style is to stuff a lot of text into one single screen, making it difficult to read. I’ve been researching a lot into the field and as a result, my style combined some elements of the Japanese style with the Western style, making it somewhat distinctive. Some seniors have also said that my designs, despite being functional, carry a “magazine” feelings that make them seems more luxury.

I will still keep on working to perfect it since I could always find the style somewhat lacking, and I always find this (weird?) joy working on new projects and experiencing with new ideas. As you said, I believe Graphic Design is the way forward for me and I will not give up on it. Although at the moment, I’m unsure if Japan is the choice for me…

If Japan is lagging behind, be the trendsetter.

Thank you for your feedback.

Japan is usually called a 学歴社会, which means it’s a society which highly value degrees and certificates (not real skills). Although there has been some shifts in recent years, this way of thinking is still prominent in the country. That’s why I thought it would be better to clarify this beforehand so as to avoid some…complicated issues later on. I’ve been working on a separate portfolio site designed specifically for Japanese readers and I do not intend to specify this fact. I will also fix this issue on my portfolio site for English readers. Thank you for your feedback.

The idea behind dumbing down my works and/or faking some naivety is to reduce the anxiousness an employer may feel when skimping through my application.

Please allow me to explain a bit more about this campus hiring in Japan. In recent years, it’s very common for fresh graduates to jump from one company to another after 1 to 3 years. While this may seem normal for some Western countries, in Japan, this is undesirable (looking from an employer’s perspective) because most companies in Japan is used to the 終身雇用 system (meaning permanent employment) with which, employees are hired and keep on working at the same company until their retirement. Although this system is already abolished, many companies still keep the old thinking of wanting to employ an employee for a long time. That’s why they are ready to invest heavily into their employees. As I said before, companies are ready to allow fresh graduates to train for 1 to 3 years under senior workers and/or mentors. However, since the 終身雇用 system was abolished, if an employee decide to leave after 3 years of training, it will be a huge loss on the employer’s end (0 return on their investments). As such, employers always seek to find employees who are ready to spend a long time working with them.

Back to my case, for some weird reasons, having a too high of a skill funnel this anxious feeling inside employers that I will be (100%) a loss for them if they decide to hire me as I will jump ship sooner or later. Although it may seems ridiculous (whether I stay or not largely depends on whether the company could create the opportunities/environments that could keep me or not), it’s their thinking (which I could absolutely nothing about).

I’ve recently joined a circle of designers basing in Tokyo. However, the number of our meetings has been reduced by a lot due to the pandemic. Although so, I’m still keeping my eyes peeled to expand my network with fellow designers. I hope this will helps to open up new opportunities.

Again, thank you for your kind feedback!

Except for the logo of each brand I’ve been working on, every work I’ve been working on is below two hours provided that I’ve the general concept and guidelines ready in the back of my mind. Some projects on my portfolio site (HAKUHAN, ARCHIVIZ, and CATS’ HOME in particular) are real works done for clients and they are always completed before the deadlines. As for why I want to spend more time on the logo: the logo, although isn’t the whole image of the brand itself, plays a very important role in creating the image of the brand. As a result, it’s my habit to spend a lot of time sketching out, adjusting, and polishing the logo to make it something recognizable, memorable, and stand out from other competing images, all while being able to convey the message and the image of the brand/company itself. I also spend a lot of time coming up with a suitable color palette as it’s also a vital part of a branding project. However I believe this is just the norm for branding.

Thank you for your valuable advice!

What it more sounds like to me (and I’m a cynical old man) is that there are a lot of senior designers afraid to hire you because your skills may already be more advanced than theirs. Have you considered aiming higher? Maybe a more prestigious studio/agency, or for a job level higher than “entry level?”

Am with @CraigB - wouldn’t mention that you’re self-taught. Reason being, it makes you sound less professional and the reality is clients will judge you based upon your work not by where you learned your skills.

Hi and thank you for your feedback!
As stated before, many seniors agreed that my portfolio contains very good works that could rival theirs. An art director even approached me and made a joke asking if I’m that type of guy who “learn and do just for fun but could actually create works that took others 10 or 20 years to achieve” (an Asian joke I guess). Jokes aside, it’s a general consensus (it seems) that my portfolio is better than that of an entry-level or junior level graphic designer. I’m sorry if everything I said have been so vague because I myself I’m not sure since I’ve never tried to benchmark myself against my peers. Half of the reasons is that I’ve been working in a non-designer environment and has been experiencing a great lack of feedback from other peers. Another half is that I usually have a tendency to look and learn from works made by experienced designers and agencies and have never actually think of searching for work made by other entry-level designers.
Different from other countries, Japan is very strict at the “Years of Experience” requirement. While I do realize that in other countries, sometimes, you could apply for positions higher than what is possible as long as you have sufficient experience working in the industry or have an equivalent skill, in Japan, however, when a company states that it’s looking for a designer with (for example) 3 years of experience, it truly means 3 years working at an agency or company where they could provide proofs of your working experience. “Freelancing” in the country is generally frowned upon when an applicant tries to apply for a position at a company. Some companies disregard freelancing as real work experience as they can’t contact the clients to ask them to prove the applicant’s experience. As such, in general, it’s close to impossible to apply for a higher position without a “provable” work experience.
I’ve tried to apply for a more prestigious studio, however, these studios in general look for designers with work experience as I’ve stated before. The result of my application was a straight turn down with a letter stating that they are looking for someone with real work experience despite stating in their letter that they agree my skills are more than qualified to work with them. It’s…confusing to say the least. The same thing apply for any positions higher than entry-level positions. Consequently, it’s safe to conclude that it’s impossible for the current me (a fresh graduate) to apply for any big agencies or high positions as long as I stay in Japan (this line of reason led to many seniors advising me to move to the UK or US where agencies appreciate the skills of the applicants more).

Thank you for your kind advice.
Currently, I’m considering removing that phrase from my English page since I’m thinking of making it exclusively for freelancing and for overseas client. As for Japanese agencies and companies, I’m in the middle of developing a new site which should be available soon. I will update the old page as soon as possible.

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It sounds like you’ve received a lot of consistent comments from professionals in Japan concerning the job market there. I wouldn’t recommend moving to the US though. That might have been sound advice in a different time, but the US is going to be dealing with the aftermath of covid for several years. It’s going to be a rough job market for awhile. I’m in Los Angeles and I know several other designers who have much more experience, and had many more clients than I do and they’re desperate and slashing their rates just to get some kind of income right now.

If it was me, and I got the kind of advice that you’ve received from professionals in Japan, I would give the potential employers what they are asking for, which is unpolished work. Don’t spend a lot of time on it, and don’t get precious with it. That might be a blow to your ego, but it really shouldn’t be, once you understand the nature of the graphic design business. Very few of us get to do the work we want, with the budget we want, with no unreasonable client demands or interference from supervisors. And no one ever gets an unlimited amount of time to create their work. There are always outside constraints that limit what we can do.

Show them the portfolio they want to see, get in the door, start working, get some experience, earn some paychecks, and pay your bills. If they’re unhappy with your work they can fire you.

If you get bored, do freelance under a different name and portfolio.

With all due respect and with all humility; there’s always a chance that with how good your work looks, some agencies have a suspicion that you might have plagiarized. It’s very easy to do. If you are saying you just started learning and are self taught, then having work that good is suspect. That was my very first thought when I first opened your portfolio. I hope that doesn’t come across offensively.

I also want to say that the work from the other entry level designers is fairly incredible and it’s a bit hard for me to discern why they’d say their work is so low grade and your’s is too good.

Also I love your username.
My fav used to be Warbandit.

Your work is good and your talent is obvious, but honestly, the work you’ve shown above seems to be of the pretty standard Japanese retail variety. I don’t know much about the ins and outs of Japanese corporate hiring practices other than it’s considerably different from most other places.

My views are partially rooted in ignorance, but I’m having a hard time accepting that you’re not being hired because your work is too good — that strikes me as bassackwards by even Japanese standards of preferring a tie to a blowout baseball game.

Japan can be, as I’ve understood it from friends who have lived there, an awfully insular place with a culture consisting of lots of unspoken views and expectations. Are you a Japanese national or someone just studying there? Are you sure there’s not something else going on that you’re running into.

Thank you! First of all, I’m really glad that you are a medabots lover. My favorites are Metabee and Rokusho though I can understand why you love Warbandit. Medabots has a very large impact on me when I was young, so I kept this name as a way to remember it.

As for why my works are considered too good compared to other entry-level graphic designers, there are a few reasons. First of all, my works are believed to demonstrate a higher level of understanding, not just in design but also in business aspects. From the font choices, color choices to presentations, I usually do not just choose them based on my guts or because they seem cool. The way I make these decisions show that I also understand the client’s businesses, their images, their customers, etc. which is something an entry-level designer may find difficult.

Secondly, most of my works is done as projects. These projects usually contain many stages similar to an agency’s full-service package. There are many reasons why I create my works this way, but mostly, I want to put myself into a real working environment so as to familiarize myself with the pressure and the various aspects when dealing with clients. This is something a normal student rarely do and that created a large gap in our skills.

The images of the works I put up there are also sample works from top candidates at agencies. Normally, candidates’ works are at a bit lower standard compared to these.

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Thank you for your kind feedback.

Yes, it’s true that Japanese companies have a hiring process which is vastly different from other countries. Even for fresh graduate hiring, companies usually conduct 3 or more round of interviews along with some standardized tests (the test subjects are Japanese, basic Math, and personality). Adding the document screening processes and also some situational screening processes, in total, applicants usually have to go through 5 to 6 stages of screening to be able to get a job. In extreme cases, such as when applying for an engineering position at a large corporate, applicants may have to go through 8 or 10 rounds of screening (8 rounds of interview, including group interview, group discussion, one-on-one interviews, etc.). It’s a lengthy and tiring process.

Also, as you’ve stated, Japan has many unspoken views and expectations. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to state it here but I will edit it if needed. I’m not a Japanese national, but rather, I’m a student from Vietnam who went to Japan to further my studies (a wrong choice considering how worthless a degree in Japan is). Starting from language school, I’ve studied here for 6 years and have experienced a fair share of discrimination based on my nationality. The biggest experience for me was when a big national university declined my application to study in the medicine department because I am a foreigner and they believe that foreigners aren’t capable of keeping up with the programs being offered (my linguistic ability, however, is a lot much more better even when compared to an average Japanese person as I did go through a lengthy test before receiving my translator certification). There are also many other stereotyped thinking out there which caused myself a lot of troubles. To make matter worse, my nationality is Vietnamese, which is the third-most-hated nationality (the top two being Korean and Chinese) in Japan. That thinking might have contributed to my troubles but to be honest, I can’t say anything for sure as they are mostly speculations. Though so, I’ve seen many agencies hiring Chinese and Korean designers as well, so to my beliefs, nationality might not be the issue here,

At the moment, I’ve decided to continue to polish and challenge my skill limits. I’m also applying (though somewhat randomly) for bigger agencies that other foreigners tend to avoid, and for a higher position if possible. I’m also working on a new project as well as redesigning my portfolio site (at the moment I have two sites, one designed mainly for English-speaking readers and one for Japanese-speaking readers though their contents are the same) to better suit it for agencies in other countries. It would be the best if I could find a job in Japan, but if the situation really call for it, it won’t hurt to find more opportunities overseas and depart from Japan again.

Thank you for answering my questions. I was hesitant to ask directly since I have no desire to offend anyone.

Have you considered returning to Vietnam? You seem to have valuable skills that would serve you well in Vietnam’s growing export economy. You have first-hand knowledge of Japan, its culture and its language. Your English is excellent. You also have considerable design talent.

Wouldn’t the combination of these attributes serve you better in Vietnam than in Japan?

Thank you for your suggestion.

Returning to Vietnam is not really an option for me for a few reasons:

Firstly, the world of graphic design in Vietnam is not that advanced. In overall, graphic designers in Vietnam barely scrap by no matter how talented they are as companies and agencies in the country tend to rely on free templates and such, not valuing original designs. Consequently, graphic designers’ salary is even lower compared to an ordinary 9-5 office job. If it’s just me alone then maybe I could make it with a lower living standard. However, my family’s situation couldn’t afford it.

Secondly, companies and agencies in Vietnam do not care about Japanese university degree. It’s not because these degrees are worthless. It’s just that there are many Vietnamese students who went abroad to study in Japan (although only a handful amount got accepted into good universities). For employers in Vietnam who are not well-informed about the education system in Japan, as long as they have a university degree, private and national universities are treated the same. As such, I cannot fully utilize my degree’s value after graduating.

Thirdly, while Vietnam is rising as an export country, most of our manufacturers work in the form of make-to-orders similar to how manufacturers work in China. We do not come up with original designs or invent new Made-in-Vietnam products (only startup companies do so, however, people working at startups in Vietnam are usually seasoned employees who have experienced a fair share overseas). Even with considerable knowledge, at best, I would only act as a communication bridge between the ordering side and the manufacturers’ side. Personally, I found this option not desirable until I have more experiences.

For these reasons, I find it a better option to find opportunities in Japan or at a third country compared to returning to Vietnam right now.

Well there is no doubt that you’ve produced some excellent work. It’s been mentioned before, but have you considered doing freelance work with clients online?

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