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Define your ‘iconic brand assets’ to land your first job

Jonathan Sands, Co-founder of Design Community Hub & Chairman of Born Ugly, on how defining your own brand iconography can help you stand out in the hiring marketplace

Your very first step in the door is the hardest to make, but every year thousands of graduates attempt to land their first design job. Here, one of the co-founders of The Design Community Hub, a digital platform supporting aspiring creatives break into the creative industries in the UK, Jonathan Sands, who is also Chairman of brand design agency Born Ugly, shares his advice for aspiring creatives on how branding yourself can help land you that first role.

An apple with a bite taken. I’m lovin’ it. The unmistakable curve of the bottle. Purple chocolate packaging. The swoosh. You know what I’m talking about: the iconic brand assets that make Apple, McDonalds, Coke, Cadbury’s and Nike so immediately recognisable right around the world.

Those are some of the most well-known and successful ones, but they’re a key element of any successful brand identity, and identifying or creating iconic assets is a major part of what we do when we create a new brand identity. 

That’s why I advise anyone looking to break into the brand design world to think about their own iconic brand assets. For the past 39 years as founder of Elmwood, and then Born Ugly, I’ve been evaluating portfolios and running placements, and it’s the people who do something distinctive, fresh, and relevant who tend to stick in the mind and find success.

Applications – think big but be targeted with your portfolio

Most obviously this is about your work. How you present a portfolio and application makes all the difference. Focus on what’s relevant to the reader – they probably don’t need to hear about your Saturday job at Costa. What’s your piece of work that makes people sit up and pay attention? Put that front and centre.

Think too about your medium. I get hundreds of emails a day. When I’m looking at them I’m looking for reasons to delete. But I hardly ever get post (mail for our US readers) anymore, so an application through the letterbox is more likely to stand out. I still have an egg someone sent me years ago. They drilled holes into it, so you can play a tune on a real eggshell. I thought it was genius when I received it and I still do – a truly iconic brand asset of the young designer who sent it. 

Then there was the person who was into drag racing. They created a car liveried in the Elmwood brand. Standing out in this way obviously takes time and effort, and so I think it’s important to do your research on firms before you apply. Do you really want a role or even a placement there? It’s far better to send one or two outstanding applications than spray mediocrity at every agency you can find.

Maximising a placement – showcase ‘you’ the individual

Technical skills are only half of what we look for. We also want to see curiosity, a desire to discover more, and we want to know you’ll be a fun person to work with. Don’t spend all your time showcasing your work and forget to put the same effort into making yourself stand out.

This is more than aesthetics. It’s also about how you behave. Sit there with headphones on and no one’s going to remember you. Make an effort to connect with people and they will. Smile, make eye contact. Find out what people are working on, what they’re into, where you might have shared interests. Offer to make tea. 

Even if you’re nervous, force yourself to do these things. It makes all the difference. Remember, we were all there once. We expect you to be green and to get things wrong. It’s ok, and very often what you fail at because you put yourself out there is what you become remembered for. Your iconic brand asset becomes that you gave it a go.

View your application and placement as your first branding job in the world of work and you’ll give yourself the very best chance of success. With placements so rare at the moment, it’s more important than ever that you carefully consider both the personal brand assets you can send in, and, if you do get one of the few placements currently available, those you can exhibit in person.

It’s a competitive field so don’t give up if it doesn’t work the first time. Keep developing your assets, putting yourself out there, and before you know it you’ll land the opportunity, and be on your way to creating your own version of the four interlocking silver rings, fairytale castle or brown cardboard packaging.

Friends of D&AD, the Design Community Hub is a destination for everyone in design to talk to one another for help and advice. It is a digital platform for professionals across the design world to give their time, knowledge and expertise – supporting the talented UK graduates and design professionals whose careers have been affected by the pandemic. Join in at The Design Community Hub.

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