How to nail your grad show

University lecturers in graphic design and illustration explain how to stand out from the crowd and land a job offer.

Grad show season is soon approaching (perhaps all too quickly for some) and we’re sure the nerves are setting in as art, illustration and design students across the UK prepare to showcase their best work to creative directors, recruiters and others from some of the best agencies.

Every year we’re also there, scouting out fresh, inspiring talent that emerges from grad shows we get to see in London – such as New Designers and D&AD New Blood – and we’re sure at individual university grad shows across the UK. You can check out what talent we spotted last year with the links below. 

Choosing your best work to put forward and polishing those networking skills can feel daunting, especially if your future career is resting on it.

Many students want to impress potential creative agencies and recruiters, but how can you stand out from a large, bustling crowd of other eager graduates? And what about actually talking to professionals, handing out business cards and choosing the arrangement of your portfolio? 

To help calm the nerves, answer those burning questions, and hopefully ease pressure a little, we’ve asked two graphic design and illustration university lecturers to share their top tips for students on the edge of graduating. 

Senior lecturer of BA (Hons) graphic design at the University of Portsmouth Dan McCabe and BA (Hons) illustration programme leader at Middlesex University Nancy Slonims explain everything you need to know to nail your grad show.

Image: Caicai He (London College of Communication post grad, 2018)

In this feature we showcase some of the best work we spotted from last year's grad shows, which you can check out below. 

See more:

Image: Donna Clark (University of West England Bristol, 2017)

Nancy Slonims: "Make sure that whatever you present is actually what you do. There’s no point in presenting work that you cannot maintain and is not want you want to do when you graduate. If it's genuinely your own personal visual language properly representing you and the way you work, there will be a depth and authenticity to the work the professional creative industry will be able to see and appreciate."

Image: Amy Cranston (London College of Communication, 2017)

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Dan McCabe: "Many students believe that they need to shout to stand out, and that being bigger, brighter, and bolder than those around them is how they will get noticed. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work. In fact, it can work against you because you stand out for the wrong reasons, and the noise you’re making will irritate rather than impress.

"Often, it’s the integrity of your subject matter, the attention you’ve given towards the detail in your typography, the consideration you’re showing towards craft, or the sharpness of a concept that will speak volumes about what you have to offer as a creative. Quality will always shine through and employers (the one’s who you want to impress) know what they’re looking for and what they’re looking at."

Image:  Shazleen Khan (Middlesex University, 2017)

Nancy: "Make sure you demonstrate your strengths. Don’t exhibit everything, as one
weak piece can do more harm than all your good work put together, be selective.
Try to show diversity in your work - potential clients like to see what you can do
and they may come from many different parts of the industry.

"Before graduation, students will often say they don’t do buildings or animals or children’s books, for example, and yet a few years later they’ll have a thriving career doing exactly that. You may feel you have a particular path you wish to follow, but designers and art directors will often see something else in your work and want to use you for projects you would never have considered. This is what is so exciting about the industry so don’t write anything off, be brave and open to all challenges, you never know it may be a whole new career path."

Dan: "Being at a grad show can be exciting and exhausting in equal measures – ultimately, and it's a bit of a cliche, you will get out of the experience exactly what you put in to it.

"If your plan for engaging with your grad show is to turn up once it's all set up, talk to a few people if they happen to come your way, and then leave having secured a job; you may want to rethink your approach. Being part of a grad show often starts way before the show has actually opened. Depending on what institution you are studying at, look for opportunities to get involved in fundraising, planning and promotion. Help out with regards to setting up, hosting, and taking down the show. Celebrate and champion the work of your peers – yes, it's a competitive platform, but it's also a collective exhibition. Doing this will enable you to feel more invested in the process and help you to take ownership of what is essentially your show."

Image: Sam Elston (Winchester School of Art, 2017)

Nancy: "The most important thing is to make sure it is easy to take away. If you're in a show or exhibition remember people don't want to wander around carrying something heavy or awkward. Take-aways don’t have to be loud or 'tricksy', just make sure the piece you produce is representative of what you do and one of your best pieces of work. Obviously make sure you have all your contact details clearly on your piece."

Dan: "Having well-designed, well-crafted take-away items can be a great way to help people remember who you are and, more importantly, how to get in contact with you. The thing to bear in mind is that not everyone who picks up these items will be from industry. A large group of enthusiastic school children can clear a show stand of take-aways with in a matter of seconds."

Image: Bethany Wallington (University of West England Bristol, 2017)

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Dan:"So try limiting the amount of items you make available and strategically replenish or bolster where necessary (for example, a private view or guest speaker event would warrant having a healthy, readily available supply of business cards or portfolio tasters).

"Also, when in the midst of a conversation with someone about you or your work, don’t be afraid to put a take-away (or in this instance, a give-away) directly in to that person’s hand. It shows confidence and an ability to network."

Image: Robin Pringle (New Designers, 2017)

Nancy: "People may have taken your cards or take-aways without you knowing and in my experience many students are often contacted well after the event. With this in mind make sure whatever contact details you put on your take-away are maintained and checked regularly. People will only try to contact you a couple of times after that they will move on.

"It’s essential your contact details include your name in a professional format, months later people won’t know who ‘pixy-talent’ is. 

"If you have taken business cards from professionals visiting your show, don’t just sit there waiting for them to contact you, send them updates of your work and phone them occasionally."

Image: Thomas Moore (University of the Arts London, 2017)

Nancy: "If you’re at your degree show or any event where the creative industries are looking at your work, don’t be shy and hide away. If they're looking at your work it’s because they may be genuinely interested in what you’ve done, so go forward and start to talk to them. Remember they want to know about you and what you do, so don’t be mysterious be generous, chat and show them more work if you have it."

Image: Calum Heath (D&AD New Blood, 2017)

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Dan: "It also pays to think about your body language while at your show stand – smiling and giving eye contact can help to put people at ease and more inclined to engage with you. Sitting on the floor in front of your work while fixated on your phone can suggest that you’re bored and uninterested. 

"As intimidating as it may be, try to embrace each opportunity to speak to someone. You can empower yourself to do this more confidently by practicing talking about your work prior to being at a show. You want to make sure that, as much as possible, you're able to articulate a clear rationale for your ideas and show that you understand the related processes. Being knowledgeable and passionate about your subject can make a strong impression."

Image: Rachel Card (New Designers, 2017)

Nancy: "There are many differing views on this and in the end you have to go with what feels right for you. Some feel you should start with your best and work backwards, others (me included) that you should start with your strongest and then ‘loose’ a few weaker pieces in between other good work and then finish strongly again. I would never advise you start weak and get stronger as creative people are usually very busy and if they don’t see something they like early on they will simply close the folio and move on.

"Make sure the work can be seen easily, if you have something that requires taking out and looking at, make it easy to do that, otherwise people just won’t bother. Don’t overcrowd the work. Give it space so it can be seen to its best advantage.

"Don’t over label everything. We can see it’s a life drawing or a drawing of a building, only explain if it was a specific brief that needs an explanation. In reality the work should speak for itself, you won’t always be there to explain it and shouldn’t need to be."

Image: Amy Bushill (University of the Arts London, 2017)

Dan: "We encourage our students on the BA Graphic Design course at the University of Portsmouth to be both reflective and selective when arranging a portfolio. This means identifying and including only your best work, and making sure that there’s nothing in your portfolio that compromises the overall quality. Or, another way of looking at it, is to make sure that there’s nothing in there that you would feel the need to apologise for."

Image: Molly Howard Foster (Middlesex University, 2017)

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Dan: "It’s incredible what can be demonstrated in terms of personality and design ability in a space that typically only measures a modest 55 by 85 millimetres – and it’s really worth bearing this in mind when designing your business card. The best business cards are a clear reflection of who that individual is as a creative.

"They are also, at their best, an irresistibly collectible item that demands to be taken. Whether it’s a spot UV varnish on an uncoated board that gets the graphic designers drooling, the use of letterpress to impress the type obsessed, or an inspirational illustration that will be pinned both online and on the wall. The best cards should appeal to exactly the right audience because they have been designed with those people in mind."

Image: Hani Abusamra (London College of Communication post grad, 2018)

Nancy: "I don’t really like the traditional business cards as I think they go in wallets and are promptly forgotten. I prefer postcards because when I worked as graphic designer I would always pick up a card if it had something I liked on it. I would then have it up on my wall so I could look at it often. A postcard gives you the opportunity to have a strong image, which represents your work on both sides of the card as well as all your contact details."

Image: Isabelle Becker (University of the Arts London, 2017)

Nancy: "It's important you make yourself aware of who’s who in the industries. Obviously you can’t know everyone but you should know the bigger design companies, advertising agencies and publishers. I remember a design colleague once being very shocked that a student hadn’t heard of his company. Given that it was one of the biggest design groups in the country it certainly didn’t look good.

"Ask for the name of the person you are talking to and what company they are from, you can ask them for their card so you can chase them up at a later date. People in the industry expect you to be professional as it bodes well for any future working relationship." 

Image: James Kelly (University of Portsmouth, 2017)

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