I don't really want to go into too much detail, but my life took an unexpected turn and I haven't been able to transfer into a 4 year college. I only have an AA degree but I've taken loads of random classes and also have a couple of certificates. I've been working at a completely unrelated job for the last 6 years but have been doing quite a bit of freelance work on the side and even more personal art/illustrations. I think over the years I've built up a pretty good and diverse portfolio, even though a lot of it is from personal projects. I spend just about all of my free time working on some kind of design project.

Anyway, I want to start looking for an actual design job and was hoping to get some tips on getting an interview. Also, I'm not sure what to do about my resume since I've never actually worked as a full-time designer. Like I said, all the paid design work I've done has been random freelance stuff whenever I could find it. I feel like my portfolio is pretty good at least, but I did spend a lot of time and effort on it. I figured it should be top-notch if I didn't have a degree so I'm really hoping that's the important thing. Anyway, I would really appreciate any tips. Thanks.

  • So, is your AA degree in a related field or completely separate? An AA or AAS degree in design is still a degree. Often 2 year degrees can be as good as BAs because you get more lab time with Applied Sciences.
    – Scott
    May 31, 2013 at 17:36
  • Sorry, but for me and others who don't live in your country: What is AA? A high school degree?
    – paddotk
    Jun 7, 2013 at 9:05
  • @poepje: AA = Associates Degree. It's a 2-year degree you usually get from a community/junior college. Jun 27, 2013 at 11:59

7 Answers 7


Your position is unusual but not that unusual, and you're lucky that, more than in other trades, good design recruiters are usually more interested in the quality of your portfolio and what it shows of your aesthetic sense, creativity and ability to meet a brief than they are in doing a box-ticking exercise on your resume. (but not all recruiters are good recruiters...)

It varies by recruiting conventions from country to country, but I've seen a lot of people here in the UK in your situation do something like this:

  • Link to your online portfolio prominently, at the top of both CV/resume, and introduction/covering letter/personal statement or whatever it is that goes with the CV/resume. Ask them to look at it.
    • Have a short easy to type URL as well as a live link because often, they're going through a stack of printed papers.
    • Consider linking to something like a Behance or Dribble profile before a link to your own site because if your own site is being slow to load today, a frustrated reviewer with a big stack of applications might use your unconventional background as an excuse to put you in the 'No' pile rather than sit and wait.
  • Have a detailed entry for something like 'Freelance designer (part-time)' as the most recent prime job in the work section of their resume, dating from the present day back as long as you've been doing freelance work (this will overlap your other jobs, but 'Part-time' should make it clear why this is). This should be by far the most detailed work entry on your CV/resume:

    • Include a list of clients (or, what industries your clients were from). This is important: it's what shows you weren't just playing around or just doing odds and ends for friends.
    • Detail the range of types of work, skills used and developed, what deliverables you produced, etc.
    • (It's probably better to be honest that it was part-time, rather than risk giving a misleading impression then be shown up in an interview!)
  • Do include your other non-design jobs, below the 'Freelance designer' job, but give the bare minimum on these: job title, employer, dates. If you worked as an accountancy assistant and go off on one about how great you were as an accountants assistant, the reviewer is more likely to think "Not a designer, rejected".
  • In the education section, if you've done any design courses at all, mention them as the most recent item (assuming they are...). Again, even if they're a bit weak, it makes it clear you consider this to be your career and your focus - that you're a budding designer, not a desperate non-designer who's applying to every job they see. I once saw a design CV where the designer had a non-design degree, and above it, something like "Self-managed design training, lynda.com". I laughed, but didn't count it against them because their portfolio was good; and my non-design colleague who was ticking off against a fixed matrix ticked the 'design knowledge' box based on this. Something is always better than nothing.
  • When you write a covering letter (or whatever your local equivalent is - the introducing bit), write it as a budding part-time designer looking to go full time (assuming that is an accurate description of what you are). There's no need to mention your other work: it's all on your resume and it's not how you - a budding designer - identify yourself or your career.

But do bare in mind that conventions vary from region to region.

Finally, be aware of your weaknesses and allay your recruiters' worries. There WILL be gaps in your knowledge - print production, typography, composition and grids, colour spaces and theory, and formats e.g. resolution and vector/raster are some common ones. You will need to make it clear that a) you understand all the core basics relevant to this position and b) you are actively learning - so that if a gap in knowledge does come up, your recruiter knows you'll go and educate yourself without being a burden to colleagues.

  • Thank you very much for your comment. You answered all of my questions in much detail. I appreciate it. I wasn't sure about including the non-design jobs on the resume but if I spent 6 years at a same place I think it's at least worth mentioning it. Thanks again!
    – John Smith
    May 31, 2013 at 10:51

In my experience, a good portfolio is (almost) all you need.

Experience is of course very, very valuable, but if you have been freelancing and you can showcase your work, everything else will come second. If I have to hire another designer, I don't care about their training. Now, of course, I am not a company or a studio. For them, having experience in the field and in similar positions might be more important, but if you can prove your transferrable skills (explain how what you have been doing so far can help you in the job) would go a long way.

I'd also recommend a strong online presence (from LinkedIn to Behance or Dribble or similar). This is also a great way of meeting new people and, as Lauren mentions, do some valuable networking :)


Write a really good cover letter

Your prospective employer, if they're worth working for, wants to know where your passions lie and that you can communicate well. Depending on what kind of org you want to work in, show a little personality and skip the overly formal accountant-type letter.

Make sure your work samples rock

Once you have their interest, they'll jump to your portfolio site and it's all up to the work to get you in the door. If you have to go back and rework some pieces, do it now. If you're showcasing some weak work to fill out your portfolio, dump it. Quality is the key.

Typeset the most beautiful résumé they've ever seen

Personally, I don't pay much attention to the info on résumés. They're mostly fluff. Just be honest about your freelance status and explain some of your accomplishments in that role.

What does matter is the structure of the information and your handling of type. Make sure it is fantastic. Keep it simple but show your eye for typographic detail. 90% of the time, I can tell you all I need to know about a prospective employee by the typographic handling of the résumé.

Please don't send me portfolio pieces in an attachment

To counter something from another answer, I hate getting big attachments for just about anything these days. In this case, it tells me that you're a little old school and probably aren't very confident in the digital realm. And you just stuffed my inbox with an oversize attachment. I might not even read your email at that point.

Good luck in the biz. Once you get past this hurdle, it's going to be a blast!


What I'd suggest is first check if there are any open positions that fit your skills, and then maybe also write cold applications (they may not be very likely to get you a job, but you never know). Write a short letter explaining why you are valuable (as usual) and add a portfolio with your best pieces.

As it was said before, I also think it counts a lot more what you are able to do than what your paperwork quality is. What might be helpful is to offer them that you'd do trial work, so they can see how you fit in, how you work and whether your skills and also your ability to learn new things are what they like.

I did the same thing for a web development and design position, and although I did not even have a portfolio and an education that is pretty far away from design, I got a job (for a position that was not even published, as a foreigner who needed special procedures to even get the work permit, etc.). Simply because I called in, asked if they got my application (it was accidentally deleted), and then got invited to visit so we could have a talk. I volunteered there for two weeks and after that period I had the job.

But, as others said before, this may vary from region to region. If you do not know how the region you want to work in functions, ask around. Check out linkedin or xing (for Europe), and look for groups for that specific region. Check the web about tips, because it might be very important how you build your portfolio and everything. Networking is also very important, so talk to people.

I hope this helps a bit =) Good luck!

  • I won't downvote as the rest of your answer is good, but I have to say, as someone who was part of a hiring team, cold-sending an application when there's no opening is not going to get you far. If we have no positions open, we'll shrug and smile and either file the letter or bin it, and I guarantee we won't remember it when a position does open up. It's not impossible to get a foot in the door that way, but I would not recommend it as a strategy. May 31, 2013 at 17:17
  • Thanks, that's a good point. I put that in the answer and hope it makes more sense now.
    – Aurelin
    Jun 1, 2013 at 7:33

I wouldn't give the satisfaction of a link. Pick a few of your best pieces and put it into a well designed PDF along with your résumé. Include that as well as the separate résumé file. Be wary of resolution to memory balance, you don't want it to be too large because different companies will have different limits on their email. State in the cover letter / email that attached is a sample of your work as well as a separate résumé for their convenience (this is important because they may want to print the résumé but not your entire portfolio) with more extensive work on your website/behance/whatever and the link. And yes if there was any confusion I would still have that link on my résumé too.

In the résumé I would focus on a clearly stated Objective and any design work you've done. Be sure to also include in the résumé any production experience. There's a big difference for a company if they can hire someone that can illustrate vs someone that can illustrate and understands the printing process so if you have those skills be sure to let people know.

Then network a lot.

  • Good point about including a few pieces in the pdf itself, I've seen some applicants do that and it helps - sometimes a couple of pieces on the reverse side of a one-page pdf. I'd always include a link as well though May 31, 2013 at 11:06
  • @user568458 thats what I meant by stating more is available on website/behance/whatever but I edited to make sure thats clear
    – Ryan
    May 31, 2013 at 11:09
  • Also good point about file sizes, but I'd suggest trying to send just one pdf, resume and examples, unless they invite you to send a portfolio or are a small dedicated design agency. Many companies have very rigid processes for handling applications and a second other PDF might just be forgotten or ignored or lost in a folder full of applications May 31, 2013 at 11:10
  • @user568458 nah I mean for large rigid companies its going to be very difficult regardless without knowing somebody since they'll also be more closely looking at your resume in HR long before anyone looks at your portfolio. So I was thinking more about smaller agencies. Also find that companies appreciate if you include the separate so they can print it out easier.
    – Ryan
    May 31, 2013 at 11:13

Get / create a damn good website that effortlessly shows off your work and your diversity. Link to other places people might find you like a Behance or Dribbble profile. For digital design show any interactive or coding work you've done (link to GitHub etc); just make it easy for people to look at your work.

C.V.s are made to be ignored. Seriously they are so often boring, long and badly designed that most people read so little that it's not worth spending hours on it. Get the right information on there: skills first, personal statement last - I couldn't care less if you like snowboarding and archery if you don't have the skills for the job! And again make it easy for people to find you.

That's how I got my job after no formal training - having a good portfolio, C.V. and website.


It's all who you know.

If you feel you don't have the formal education to prop up a résumé, then you need to make contacts and spread the word so that people learn about you from your work first. If your work is then good enough, that becomes the path to the interview and potentially the job, rather than the résumé and the classified ad.

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