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I passed the ACE exams for InDesign and Photoshop a few months ago, but I am stumbling on how to get practical experience.

I have a couple of years of news page design, and a very small number of non-newspaper work samples. I'm a mid-career professional and have spent most of my time editing.

I'd be very happy to do some jobs for free to beef up my portfolio, but I've had lousy luck finding any. Unfortunately, most of my editing clients are not design-friendly so I'm not having much luck with referrals that way.

Any suggestions would be very welcome!

How can I gain practical graphic design experience, without an existing network of clients?

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7 Answers 7

It's probably time to hang up a shingle and promote yourself as a freelancer, at least for the time being. Acquent is one good place to start. Make yourself a fantastic-looking business card, carry everywhere and give out freely.

Although you can always poke around for pro bono work for local charitable or religious organizations, these aren't the best for building a portfolio. You can more profitably (in both senses of the word) find work by surveying your local area and finding small to medium sized companies with awful identity designs and just dropping in to see the owner(s) with a proposal to revamp their look for a modest-but-not-too-modest fee. A complete identity program or a coordinated series of ads says far more about your abilities as a designer than a collection of one-off pieces.

Local performing arts or music groups that don't have good design expertise are also good places to promote for work.

Your approach should always be in the "what can I do to help you be more successful?" vein. Not everyone will bite, and in some cases you won't want to take them on board after meeting them, but with some legwork and a little persistence you'll have a steady trickle of work that you can turn into a good portfolio.

Make sure everyone you come in contact with knows you're a designer. Get in touch with your local InDesign and Photoshop user groups, and ask those folks. Situations where a small design shop needs extra hands come along, and you can make a reputation for yourself by being the heroine of some huge production crunch.

At this stage, it's all about finding lines of communication to people who need design, finding out what they want and tailoring your delivery to the market.

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Thanks very much to both of you -- great perspectives and specific ideas, and I am looking forward to trying them out! –  Amanda May 5 '12 at 3:38
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Alan's advice is solid. It's all about making yourself known. Attend some local design groups and un-conferences. And don't shy away from the slightly geekier ones either; a group of web developers/engineers are often looking for someone to help with a side project, or may know of a job opening with their current employer before it's posted.

Head over to Meetup.com and look at what's going on in your area. Attend a few that stand out to you; go out of your way to meet new people; ask them about their work. If you find you don't have the skills people are looking for, then great, now you know what to work on!

In summary: build a network, and you'll have plenty to do.

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If what you want is experience and a bigger portfolio of work to go alongside your new qualification, and you don't urgently need cash, think of people you could approach who would appreciate a bit of designer input but who wouldn't normally be able to pay for it. Choose some you like, and approach them - explaining clearly what you are offering and why.

Since it's indesign and publishing, think of places and things that produce a lot of written material. Here's some suggestions:

  • Small charities and community, activist or religious groups will often have a backlog and a production line of documents, booklets, leaflets etc that would benefit from being made more presentable
  • Clubs and societies who write (like, writers groups, historical societies) or have catalogues or menus of things (like, sports clubs, school groups...)

It doesn't have to be presitgious to be useful experience and look good in a portfolio. Important tip: make sure that they genuinely want what you're offering, and that you have a clear point of contact and clear information up front.

Also, don't be afraid to just do things off your own back. It's not uncommon for people to see a household name brand campaign, think "how would I have done that" and just do it as an exercise. It's fine so long as you're completely honest about it. The classic answer to "How do I become a filmmaker" is make films, and the answer to "How do I get experience as a designer" is to design. Designing to real briefs are best, but never be afraid to just be bold, make things and get feedback on them from whatever sources are available.

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You could join http://www.aiga.org/, the professional association for design. They have plenty of opportunities to meet others and network as well as post what you have done to look for more jobs.

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Since you are thinking of changing design fields, I would possibly look for observation internships. This way, you can get a feel for the type of work you want to transition to but most importantly, you can meet people that are networked in the field and if you left a good impression, they will remember to call you if they have extra work.

Keep in mind that if you want to beef up your portfolio, you can also do personal projects. Some clients are great but I feel that most aren't likely to help you raise the bar on your portfolio for various reasons (deadlines, budget, client requests, etc.).

Best of luck!

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Really don't like to do long answers, it is boring for everyone. As a chief creative officer I regularly get emails about internship or free practice in our agency. I am sure you can find agencies and studios opened for such experience with new talents in any country you are interested in. You can check large aggregator of jobs at Mashable. Work in team will provide best results for you now.

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I think that a good place to start is design contests. I suggest sites like 99designs.com and freelancer.com. Participate there and later pick some designs to put in portfolio.

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I strongly recommend NOT to participate in contests. Some of the reasons are stated here: graphicdesign.stackexchange.com/questions/2025/… –  Yisela May 27 at 6:43
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