My grandfather gave me a hacked version of Photoshop when I was 12 and it became my new medium for drawing. I was fascinated by it. Later, in high school, our guidance counselor told me about graphic design and how people did that for a living. She got me a one-day internship at a big ad agency in Montreal—I was from a small town, so this was a big deal. The minute I saw their office and the type of work they did, I knew I wanted in. Having the memories of that physical place was really helpful over the following year because I had a vision of my goal. It kept me going through the late nights of student work.
In the Quebec school system, you go through high school, followed by cegep and then university. For cegep, I did a three-year graphic design program at Collège Ahuntsic, and then I went to UQÀM (Université du Québec à Montréal) where I got a BFA in graphic design. During university I also studied abroad for a semester at ESAG Penninghen in Paris in their Graphic Arts Masters program.
My very first design job was over the summer after my first year of cegep. There was a two-person communications agency in my hometown and I showed up unannounced with my portfolio on a CD and asked if I could work there. The designer looked at it briefly and said I could start the following day (I think he was a bit overworked). I worked mostly on adapting his designs to various print projects like restaurant menus or local newspaper ads, which gave me good work experience.
I also had a recurring freelance gig for a dance festival in that same town. I created their press kits and printed programs for many years. Essentially, I worked on anything that was printed in-house on their greyscale laser printer—it was all pretty scrappy but very cool. I worked for a little money and comp tickets for the dance shows, which was great.
My initial plan was to do three years of cegep followed by three years of university and then work at a big agency to learn from the best creatives and gain some experience. Cegep went according to plan, but my semester abroad changed my whole perspective on life and made me question my plans and priorities. I was never much of a risk-taker and liked things to be in order, so being uprooted in a foreign country was precisely what I needed in that moment.
While I was still in France I decided to send a Facebook message to the founders of a food blog that had just been launched in Montreal. I told them I’d like to design their cookbook if they were ever to make one. They politely replied and thanked me for my interest in their project. Many months later, I got an email from them saying they were now thinking of doing a book, and would like to interview me. I ended up getting the project, which turned into a full-time job and lasted two more years. To balance school and work, I started taking night classes to earn my credits. I considered not graduating because I was already working, but decided to keep going. It took four and a half years instead of three, but I’m really glad I did all of it.
The first thing is probably the presentation itself. Whether it’s very clean or super bold, it should be mindful of its purpose, which is showcasing the work and thought process that lead to it. Good photography is also key, even if mockups are used. Everything should feel intentional and it should be aesthetically pleasing (or at least creatively interesting in some way). In terms of content, I look for a variety of components— like branding, web design and typography—which give me a certain understanding of a candidate’s conceptual thinking skills as well as how detail-oriented they are. Not everyone necessarily has web design projects (it’s very dependent on each school’s focus), but it’s becoming increasingly necessary. It can be taught to a certain extent, but basic UX/UI skills are definitely a plus. All of this ‘click-bait-y’ stuff is necessary, but it really all comes down to the interview in the end. Talent is just as important as personality.
As with any relationship, both parties need to give to create something amazing. A great client is one that understands they are in a partnership, and not making a one-way transaction. There needs to be trust and respect for each person’s expertise, and an openness to learn on both sides. Designers will advise and educate based on their industry knowledge, and the best clients are the ones who will value that insight and pick recommendations based on it. The best outcomes are often found when clients are brave enough to be bold and different.
I think it’s always mutually beneficial when each party knows what they don’t know, and are willing to trust the more qualified side to make the call. A big part of it also lies in setting expectations, and the foundational / strategy work before starting design. Alignment from day one is key to staying on track with concepts, and communication throughout the project will prevent many issues from arising.
Be bold. There will be creative constraints soon enough. Take advantage of this brief period where your only clients are your teachers, and there are no strict rules. Be an idealist and strive to do things differently, because grades won’t matter later on, but your portfolio will.
Ask for what you want. Nobody is hanging around wondering how they could make your dreams come true, so don’t hesitate to reach out to your ideal employers. The fact that you care the most will make you the best candidate. Life is a puzzle and everyone gets a few random pieces. It’s your job to advertise what you have and what you want in order for those pieces to come together.
See the world and never stop learning. It’s filled with amazing people who will change your life forever.