How to nail your grad show

University lecturers in graphic design and illustration explain how you and your work can stand out from the crowd – and how to get a job or commissions from your grad show.


Grad show season is quickly approaching (perhaps all too quickly for some) and we’re sure the nerves are setting in as creative students across the UK prepare to showcase the result of hours of blood, sweat and tears poured into their best work.

Every year, we’re amazed at the fresh, inspiring talent that emerges from the grad shows we get to see here 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 social networking skills can feel daunting, especially if your future career is at stake.

Many students want to impress potential creative agencies and recruiters, but what’s the best way to stand out from a large, bustling crowd of other eager graduates? And what about the etiquette surrounding take-aways, business cards and the arrangement of your portfolio? 

To help calm the nerves, answers those burning questions, and hopefully ease the pressure a little, we’ve asked two university lecturers in the graphic design and illustration disciplines to share their top tips for students about to graduate. 

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.

In this feature we showcase some of the best work we spotted from last year's grad show at Middlesex University, D&AD New Blood 2016 and New Designers 2016. 

See more:

Image: Chloe Smith (Middlesex University, 2016)

Stand out from the crowd

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: lying Machines by Oscar Mitchell (New Designers 2016)


Stand out from the crowd

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:  How Coyote Stole Fire by Ollie St Clair Terry

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Common pitfalls to avoid

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, so be selective. 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."

Dan: "Something that we often hear said is how off putting it can be when a student has interesting work that is littered with typos – to them, it suggests a general lack of attention to detail."  

Image: The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherezade by Brian Tyrrell (New Designers, 2016)


The etiquette of take-aways

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: Nicole Cowan (Middlesex University 2016)


The etiquette of take-aways

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: Gym Vernacular by Harry Lewis-Irlam (University of Portsmouth 2016)

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Clear contact details

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: Hannah Packard's re-usable bags (D&AD New Blood 2016)


Engage in a way that has impact

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: Simon Hayes (D&AD New Blood 2016)


Engage in a way that has impact

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: The Snow Child by Brian Tyrrell (New Designers 2016)

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Arranging your portfolio

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: Matt Ingram (Middlesex University 2016)


Arranging your portfolio

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: Hip Hop Politics Authority by Ryan Robinson (New Designers 2016)


Have the best business card

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: Chloe Smith (Middlesex University, 2016)

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Have the best business card

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: Cambridge School of Art graduate Katie Holmes (New Designers 2016)


Know who’s who

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: Lead Me To The Garden by Alyssa Dieterich (D&AD New Blood 2016)