Fast Company

The Pan-Disciplinary Future of Creative Employment

dellCreatives today need to be "superpeople" who can write, be personable and--gasp!--talk finance as well. That's the takeaway from a panel of design professionals convened at SXSW by Coroflot, the design jobs site well-known for its annual salary survey. Moderated by the site's editor, Carl Alviani, the panel included Jon Kolko, senior design analyst at frog design, Michael Smith, head of industrial design for Dell's consumer division, and Nathan Shedroff, chair of the new MBA program in design strategy for California College of the Arts (proprietor of Nathan.com and sustainability expert). In about a month, Coroflot plans to release its Almanac, an analysis of both job listings and creative portfolios that looks at keywords to see how trends in skills and qualifications have changed over time.

Designers especially must approach their careers with a "pan-disciplinary" approach, agreed the panelists. In fact, says Shedroff, look for a program or position where everyone else is not like you and make your individuality felt. "You need to have a point of view and differentiate yourself," says Shedroff. "It might turn some people off."

When it comes to applying for jobs, create a PDF of work ("No bigger than 2.0 MB," Smith and Kolko sang in unison) that not only shows your work but explains the projects and tells a narrative of your career. Resumes? One page, and again not just bullet points, it needs to tell a story. "Our program is all about helping people be change leaders," says Shedroff, who often has to evaluate designers with portfolios vs. non-designers who just have an essay for entry into the MBA program. At frog, Kolko says the decision is about 50% culture and 50% attitude. Smith notes that at Dell, interviewing can be a 6-7 hour process.

project-m With companies cutting staff, the opportunities for getting contract work are growing. And that requires building relationships: Both frog and Dell don't look much past a small stable of close-knit freelancers. Kolko noted that he's seeing a trend where firms are less likely to have in-house designers now. You could also take a more proactive approach and actually reach out to a company when you know they're laying people off.

Since some creatives might have a little, ahem, free time in the near-future, each of the panelists had some different advice. Kolko said at frog they're taking the time to do more meaningful work, like a collaboration with Pop!Tech where unused cell phone minutes are used to send messages about getting tested for AIDS in Africa. Spending your free time to get a second degree might not guarantee you a better salary but there's something to be said about the experience. Smith says experience is king, appropriate since founder Michael Dell famously never graduated from college. Shedroff says no matter what, make the committment to keep giving yourself assignments, even if no one else will: "Keep investing in your portfolio so you'll come out of this with better work."

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