Attitude's Matt Davies in live Guardian Q&A session

Attitude Designs Creative Director Matt Davies answers questions on "Working as a graphic designer"

Working as a Graphic Designer

Be a Graphic Designer they told you! Work in a high flying trendy office with cool and crazy people, drive a fast car, drink cocktails and go to awards ceremonies! Make money in the design industry! But now you try and enter the design world you find it a lot tougher than the careers advisor made out!

Our very own Creative Director was recently on a panel of experts for the Guardian in an online live question and answer session on the subject "Working as a Graphic Designer". You can see all the questions and the other answers from the rest of the panel by visiting the Guardian website.

Below we have compiled the questions Matt answered in the hope that this might help the readers of this journal. We get many questions of a similar nature emailed to us weekly so some of these answers will be interesting to many of you hoping to make a break in the design industry...

Also - stay up to date with Matt's latest thoughts by Following Matt on Twitter »

1. Hi there Matt - I see your work has been featured in Computer Arts - my fave after Grafik i must admit! Do you have any tips on getting your work showcased in such a highly influential magazine? Thank you!
by Klaudieb

All the best for the future...

Having your work showcased really does help you to gain in confidence and win new clients.

My advice: Do not seek publication! Wait for them to come to you. If you go out there emailing as many journalists and publishers as you can this often has a negative effect! Ensure your work is online and visible and it will be noticed if it is good enough. Focus on what you are doing and do it well and allow your work to do the promoting not you! I hope this helps!

All the best and thanks for the direct question.

2. To work at home as a graphic designer, what sort of computer and ancillary items would be necessary? What would such an investment cost?
by forrestsmith

You would need the following in my view:

Apple iMac (or similar) - cost: £2000
Adobe Creative suite software: £1000
Microsoft suite software: £500
Printer: £300
Scanner: £100
Business internet / phone line: £40 per month

So roughly £4000 to get up and running. I originally started Attitude Design with this equipment from home and soon found that with a bit of hard work I was quickly making a return. Of course a great website, portfolio and contacts also help!

3. When taking a brief from a client what are the key questions to ask?
by PJdaGama

Good question! I believe that the one thing that distinguishes a designer from an artist is "purpose". The key thing to understand from a client is the purpose of the design they are commissioning. That then leads on to other things you need to know - e.g. what is the message, what or who are the target audience? What are their needs? What type of people are they? Answers to all of these questions should ultimately feed back into influencing the purpose of the design which then influences the 'look and feel', message and delivery.

Here are some detailed questions we like to ask before starting a new project:

I hope this answers your question!

4. Hi, I am a recent graduate from a 1 year intensive evening graphic design course. I have a portfolio that I am quite happy with and am looking for work. I am however in a job that requires minimum 4 weeks notice and am afraid I might miss out on jobs and internships by not being available to work sooner. Can you tell me what the norm is in the graphic design industry with start times. Do agencies and design studios prefer a shorter notice period..... I am thinking of leaving and then looking for work as there seems to be a lot of work in the actual looking that I am perhaps neglecting with a full time job.
by vanessafay

In today's financial climate I would not advise you to leave your current job. I believe it always looks better to a potential employer if you are in a job than unemployed.

As an owner of a design company (Attitude Design) I believe it would be quite reasonable to wait 4 weeks until we got a new employee. As a business owner if we find the right people we will be happy to wait for them. If we need something sooner we'd get in a freelancer on a temporary contract.

Our employees are on 4 weeks notice and in my career I've worked in a number of design companies all on 4 weeks.

I hope this helps! I wish you all the best...

5. As a student interested in all forms of art and undecided about a career path, what arguments would the panel make to persuade me that a career in graphic design would be a good move. Also, are you able to tell me which colleges are regarded as being able to offer the best in training for a career in graphic design.
by sbutler

I was in your position about 8 years ago. I was always creative and loved painting and art. The reason I ended up in design was that my father used to say "son, artists only make any money when they are dead" - a bit of a generalization I admit but it got me looking for a career path that would allow me to be creative and make money at the same time! Design is all about using creativity for a purpose - that's why it's a great place to be.

However it's not all a bed of roses - it requires alot of hard work, patience and a positive attitude!

In terms of training: As an employer I do not look at the place where someone was educated as a factor for employment. I am interested in REAL experience, where your skills have been demonstrated in a real environment. If you do decide to go to a college or university I would suggest focusing your attention on learning the programs; Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator and Adobe InDesign. Obviously you can do that at generally any college/university or even in your own home. The theory you will learn will be useful but ultimately an employer needs someone who can actually 'do' the work. That might not be the answer you were looking for but I hope it helps...

6. Hi, My question is related to an ongoing argument about weather or not spec work is good or bad for the design industry. There are hundereds of design competition websites popping up all over the internet and they are becoming increasingly more popular, even with some of the big corporate companies. My fear is that if I were, for example, to open a design studio or start some form of design company after my studies and after I have some experience, that there would be no work left for me, or the only form of work would be through these websites. Is this a relevant concern? And do you feel that in the future this kind of spec work will reduce the overall amount of work available in order to run a sucessful independant design company?
by Dave0585

Great question Dave.

I'm a passionate believer that spec work is unfair and should not be undertaken by design companies if they can help it. Attitude Design belong to the "no spec" movement: . For me it's like asking x5 building firms to build you a house BEFORE deciding which house you want to buy. Ultimately it is not good for design firms - as the majority work for nothing; and not good from the client's perspective as they have not been involved in the design process as much as they would in a normal project. Ok - rant over, although much more could be said!

Attitude Design do not take on spec work and we still survive. Yes there are plenty of opportunities for big projects that require work for free but you can still get by without it. In our view we'd rather work on smaller projects that we know we are going to be paid for, than large tenders which you have a high chance of not winning.

You can be successful without spec work! All the very best!

7. Hi panel Do you have any tips on building a portfolio of work as a graphic designer and what employers want to see? Should you be maintaining this throughout your career?
by AlisonWhite

My number 1 tip is that you have an online portfolio. This is the one thing we look for in new designers as it demonstrates their know-how from a web perspective. It's 2010 - you need to be online!

8 . Is it safe to say while a few years off completing my BA, a strong portfolio is really all I can do to get a better paying job currently? I'm happy to stay where I am, but with the money being so slow I don't think I can wait 3 years! Any advice?
by happyartboy

There is always more you can do! I would suggest getting some real industry experience. To show a potential employer that you can operate within a professional team as well as having a great portfolio would really help you to contend... All the best.

9. As a mature student aged 35 (gulp!) I've recently completed a degree in Graphic Design & Illustration achieving First Class Honours. I am now desperately, and I don't use that word lightly, looking for the opportunity to take the first step in my new career. My first love is illustration and despite the sending of a million and one emails, most of which have gone without reply, I haven't had the faintest whiff of interest. I knew the industry would be difficult to get a foot in the door but it is proving so so much harder than I anticipated and I'm becoming really disheartened. I know that it takes a persistent person to 'crack it' but with the pressures of raising and supporting a family mounting it is becoming increasingly hard to stay optimistic. I know it's very much frowned upon but I would gladly work for free at this point to gain experience and add to my portfolio. Can you please please offer any words of advice on the best way to get some freelance illustration/design work (particularly in the areas of publishing or editorial). Any words of wisdom, no matter how few, would be very much appreciated. Many thanks
by ClaireJade

Really sorry to hear about your situation. A few things immediately spring to mind:

Emails are good but have you tried calling? Building a relationship over the phone is slightly easier. If you can meet people in the flesh this again adds to the chances of being commissioned. People buy from people - not from emails.

Do you have a website with all your work on? No matter how basic, it is essential to show off your talents online. Be sure to submit your website everywhere you can so you maximize the chances of being noticed.

If you are happy to work for free I would suggest targeting charities who would really appreciate your services. At least you'd then get some 'real' work in the portfolio and also trustees of charities may own their own businesses and might want your help.

Just a few ideas but I hope they help!

10. I have been working as a magazine designer for the past nine years, I'm also studying graphic design in my spare time. I feel ready to take on a new challenge but don't want to give up my current job. I would like to take on some freelance design work to diversify my portfolio and increase my income. Having never worked as a freelancer is there any advice you have to help? I really don't know where to start! Any advice welcome!
Posted by jen82

Having a great portfolio is key. As I've been saying a lot today in these forums, make sure it's online so that its easily accessible. I worked freelance for a while and found that the toughtest thing was getting work in the portfolio to start with. Once the work is in then it becomes easier because you can demonstrate your sills in the real world. People can see the results.

So - focus on getting live projects. Work for charities, work for family - do anything you can to get projects you can include in your 'freelance' portfolio.

Be careful though not to include work in your online portfolio that you've done under employment - this is technically not yours but belongs to the company you work for.

I hope this helps!

11. Hi there, I have a couple of questions about considering a career in graphic/ digital design I hope you can help me with. Firstly regarding ethical personal beliefs, and working for an agency where you might be expected to work on a brief that conflicts with your beliefs, e.g. the meat or armaments industry. Would you be expected to put aside your personal convictions or is there enough flexibility in the design industry to be able to find your own niche with regard to both ethics and aesthetics? This is one major issue holding me back from holding me back from applying myself towards a career in this area. Also, I am a woman in my mid 30's (though going on mid 20's), possibly hoping to start a family in the near future. Would my age and personal circumstances hold me back from success in this field. I haven't found my vocation yet in live, just been in routine office admin roles since graduating in social science a decade ago, but I have been interested in design for a few years and have taught myself a bit of Photoshop & Illustrator and been following some tutorials in the computer arts magazines. Just wondering if I should take the plunge & take a graphic design HND? Many thanks for your ideas
Posted by HazelnutSoyaLatte

This is a great question and one very close to my heart. I am a avid Bible Student and Christian. Whilst being employed I tried and steer clear from nudity, gambling and army work. I always found being very upfront and honest with my employers was key and I was blessed enough to have had projects given to other team members if they were against my conscience. Now I am a business owner and employer I would also do the same for any employee but would always be keen to explore this in the interview process to ensure I knew exactly where each party stood...

Also I would like to say that age, sex, or family plans should not effect your position. Again personally I would like a potential employee to be honest about these things so that work can be planned around them. Being off though for a few months might put off smaller agencies who would have to pay your maternity so bear that in mind. Larger companies shouldn't have much of a problem.

Also, you don't necessarily have to have a qualification (I don;t have a degree ;-) Learn the programs as you have been doing and set yourself up a website to showcase the results. You'd be surprised at the interest you'll get. You can also become more employable without a degree as you won't straight away demand a high wage. This is what I found when I joined an agency at 18 straight from college. You won't get as much pay to start with but you will get valuable experience which will lead to better pay...

12. Hi, I am a freelance designer (web & print) with many years experience, but I do not have any formal qualifications (past Foundation Fine Art), and I am concerned this is holding me back in finding sustained work. Perhaps you could have a look at my portfolio, and offer some feedback: . Is anything obviously lacking? I have not put any of my web-design on there, as I thought it would be better to focus on the more print-orientated work. Jack of all trades... At present, I am also a Learning Support tutor, and this is my main source of income, but I would dearly love to move over to design full-time. I have freelanced at Waterstones and Clic Sargent last year, but since then, any work that I have had in this area has been through private clients, as I have found it impossible to get into any agencies, and I do not know why. I have applied for a Post Graduate Design course to try and remedy what I think the problem is. Do you think this would improve my chances of success, or perhaps you can suggest some other courses of action that I might take? I have also recently completed an SEO short-course to broaden my skill-set as a web-designer, and though I got lots out of this, really my heart is in print-based design. So, in short, help! I feel as though my attempts to get into graphic design on a full-time basis have been entirely thwarted so far, and need some serious advice!
Posted by chucksbikeorama

I'm going to be brutal here - not because I'm a horrible person but because I want to help you. So breath in before reading the rest - it's done with the best intentions!

I don't think the problem is you not having a qualification. Qualifications do not make you a good designer. In my opinion your work feels a bit outdated. From a web design point of view your site is poorly coded and is old fashioned in its navigation and "feel". It might need to be cleaner or more 'web 2.0' if I can use that phrase. From a print and logo design point of view your work again seems a little outdated. You should focus on improving your typography and layout as well as looking at more modern styles.

There are a number of ways you can improve your skills - and getting a qualification is just one because by doing a course you will be forced to look at other techniques and ideas. However it's a big comitment. I would advise looking at show case websites like: or you could also try to follow tutorials in magazines like Computer Arts. This would all help you to look at more modern styles which would sharpen up your work.

I would advise adding any new work to your portfolio that displays this modern work and redoing your portfolio so that it is coded and designed well. This might help you to be a little more successful.

You still with me - phew! As mentioned I have been brutal but I mean it in the best way and just saying it as I see it.

Guardian website

Conclusion to 'Working as a graphic designer'

So - we hope this has been helpful to you! If you have anything to add to the above please leave a comment!


This is a fantastic read, many congratulations to Matt for being featured in this. An amazing achievement. Some great answers.

I am a web designer and reading all these questions, I can relate those trying to get into the design industry. This is some really great advice.

That is great information - and good questions! Its nice to see some as successful as yourself - sharing your knowledge, wisdom and experiences with passionate like minded individuals on the rise.

Good stuff keep it up!

I've been a graphic artist designer for around 5 years now. I'm just really unfamiliar with managing a
blog and stumbled upon your website while looking for
design blogs and forums. I have to say how motivated I am with all your material as well as the entire top quality
of your website. Hopefully I can launch a blog site just
like yours and will keep an eye on your blogposts with great interest.
Thanks heaps for your creativity buddy.

After reading through, I thank God for people like you.
Just another reason not to give up on my pursuit of owning ad adverting agency .
Please keep the good work.