I often get asked by young, inexperienced designers how to find their first client. My usual answer is: find a cause or a non-profit that aligns with your values and your interests, and offer to volunteer.
There are thousands upon thousands of experienced designers out there, and clients can pick and choose who they want to work with. Even if you set a very low price, there is always someone willing to do the work for less. The way you demonstrate to your clients that your work is worth investing in is though your portfolio projects. If the only works you currently have in your portfolio are student assignments, that won't convince them that you have the necessary skills to succeed on real world projects. It's quite different when your client is a living, breathing, human being with their own tastes, opinions, and expectations.
Unless clients are already seeking you out, you need to put in more hours to improve your skills, and build a portfolio that shows what you're capable of.
Volunteering benefits everyone
Let me preface this by saying that I only condone volunteering for nonprofit organizations and causes where no one else gets paid, apart from maybe a few full-time staff. If other creatives working on the project get paid, then you should also get paid, even if it's a symbolic amount. Clearly the funding for creative is there if someone is getting paid.
I believe that internship in for-profit companies should always be paid. Not paying your trainees means that only people with economic privilege can get internship opportunities and advance in the field, while less well-off people can't do it, because they have to earn a living wage in some other way.
As an inexperienced creative (designer, illustrator, photographer, copywriter, etc.) you need portfolio pieces and case studies that demonstrate your abilities so you can get better paid gigs. An organization with limited funding needs creative to promote their campaigns and events. Working together, both sides can get their needs met in a way that's fair to everyone.
Any non-profit that can't afford to hire a top notch designer with 10–15 years of experience will likely be quite satisfied with a less experienced designer who takes feedback well and is dedicated to learning. Of course most would prefer to work with seasoned professionals, but if they are not available, a junior with growth potential will do.
Any designer would prefer working for fair pay, but unless you're getting job offers and client inquiries already, volunteering gigs and personal projects may be the only work available for you at this stage. The sooner you get it out of the way, the better!
Volunteering is superior to design “contests”
Design contests suck. Don’t do them. They will not teach you how to work with clients, you won't earn any money because you're not very likely to win, and “losing” entries don't make for good portfolio pieces. Personal projects and volunteering look much better to potential employers and clients.
Rikon 2011 poster, the first one I made for this event
My volunteering story
I used to volunteer long before I started making money as a designer, and I continued doing it even when I had a full-time job and started my own business. It was a mix of wanting to do good in my community, and combining my social interests with pro bono work.
My volunteering journey started in earnest in my first year of university, when I joined a student organization and immediately became the official webmaster. I joined another similar student organization a few years later. I was mainly designing graphics for our programs in addition to other volunteer work.
The nonprofit I was a part of for longest (from 2007 until 2020) organized cultural events, and for many years I took care of anything and everything graphic design and art related. It all started when a friend asked if I could design a couple of web banners for them, and I quickly got roped into the role of webmaster (again!), which lead to other design projects. (That's also how I got into teaching creative workshops, which later lead to my public speaking career.)
Prior to this I had very limited experience with design for print, and no experience whatsoever with printed or digital publications. I learned additional software that I'd never had to use before, and I learned how to communicate with printing companies in their jargon. This became very useful in my commercial work. My experience as a fanzine graphic editor was especially useful when the time came to self-publish my own book.
Today I have a respectable career and mentor other designers, but back when I started I was a nobody, and my work was not always great, to be honest. I made some pretty questionable creative choices along the way, but it was the best I was capable of at the time, and this experience helped me improve. Even this very last year, I had the opportunity to do things I've never done before, for example a design for a screen-printed T-shirt with gradients.
By the time I got to work on the complete rebranding of the Rikon convention and developing a set of design standards and templates for the promotional materials, I was a seasoned designer and had a clear vision of what I wanted to achieve with this project. I took great pleasure in doing this “right”, because I knew what it was like to be doing it “wrong”.
Your most rewarding work might come from volunteering
Most of the time, working for no pay means that you get complete creative freedom. At least, that's a condition you should negotiate when agreeing to work for free. The client has to brief you on the project's goals, target audience, desirable emotional impressions for the campaign, and of course the deadline. It is then up to you to satisfy the brief. Hopefully, you will do so successfully, and the client will accept and use your work.
If you miss the mark on your first proposal, you'll need to decide whether to agree to the changes (if it would indeed make the work stronger and more effective), or say “Take it or leave it” and refuse to make changes. This is dependent on the situation and the client. If they're normally reasonable, it's worth listening to what they have to say, because they know their audience best. “This looks a bit too drab, our audience is young and responds better to brighter visuals” is helpful feedback. “Add more unicorns” may not be. Conflicts like this teach you about the working world, and balancing the client's needs and expectations with established rules of good design and your creative vision.
If you choose to work with an organization that totally digs your style, the work you do for them may be the most interesting and authentic work you'll ever get to make as a design professional. Thanks to this opportunity, other clients who are interested in similar work will have all the more reason to seek you out.
I normally work on branding projects which don't involve a lot of illustration. But in my volunteering projects, art direction and illustration were often a part of my responsibilities. Since I rarely got any direction apart from the convention theme for the year and what text and sponsor logos to put on the materials, I got to experiment with different illustration styles, from vector drawing, through digital painting, and photo-manipulation. This allowed me to learn which style I like best for commercial work, and what I struggle with the most.
Illustrated posters for the Fantasy month event
Rikon 2016 poster featuring my illustration Kastav Witch
You may get an opportunity to grow in other directions
When a client hires you for a specific role (eg. a designer), they're not necessarily interested in your side-interests that you're only dabbling in. Some may be if their budget is limited, but most would prefer to hire contractors with more experience to fill other roles. Even if you're employed full time, usually the workload in your primary role will be so high that there's no time to take on additional responsibilities.
In the nonprofit world, it’s common for people to wear many different hats.
Even expressing an interest in learning a new skill might be enough for someone to give you a chance. If you show initiative and learn about this on your own time (and dime), the client will be even more happy to hear that they can rely on you for additional assignments that no one else has the time and interest to do.
During my long-term volunteering gig, I developed an interest in public relations. I attended a workshop, and asked a friend for advice on how she handles PR for their events. That was enough to get my foot in the door, and I learned everything else in the process. Thanks to a few years of handling press inquiries, I got quite comfortable in front of the camera and radio microphone, which is very useful today, when many of us are expected to show up on camera.
When is it time to stop volunteering?
I'd say that if your workload, finances, and family life permit it, creatives should never stop contributing to causes we believe in. No one is “too good” to be giving back to the community. But as our career and our personal life change, we might not be able to do as much hands-on work for free. Instead we might offer to mentor junior folks who are doing the hands-on work, or offer free training to other volunteers who want to learn how to do this. Maybe instead of being the lead designer for a certain organization, we can offer to help with a specific campaign on a one-off basis.
You can set your own boundaries around how you want to contribute, and this is especially true once your work is in demand.
Leaving an organization that you were a part of for a long time is not easy.
You might feel like they'll be lost without you, that no one else can fill your shoes, and that it's your responsibility to find a suitable replacement before you get to leave. Don't put so much pressure on yourself. Your work was a gift, and you don't have to keep giving for longer than you're comfortable. And it's certainly not up to you to find someone to replace you. You can ask around and suggest who might be a good fit, but your resignation doesn't depend on the role being filled. They will have to manage without you.
Ideally, if there's a way to have a transition period where you can work together with the volunteer who will take your role so you can teach them, that's great. If that's not possible, it's not your fault. Non-profit folks know that volunteers leave when they've had enough, and need to account for this.
My transition period has been very long, due to the fact that I've committed to an event 4 years in the future before I decided it's time for me to resign. In 2016 I was severely burned out. I wanted to redirect my creative energy into my own projects that I simply didn't have time for. I was basically “done”. Because our bid for hosting the 2020 Eurocon was already in motion, I didn't want to leave my team in the lurch out of a sense of loyalty. For the next couple of years I switched into an advisory role so I can take a break, and returned in increased capacity in 2019 and 2020.
Unfortunately, some volunteers don't give any notice at all, and this causes problems and stress for others who have to pick up the slack while already handling a workload that's too much for one person. Giving people plenty of notice so they know not to count on your is a good idea, though 4 years is probably too much :)
Leaving on good terms makes it possible to ask for references and recommendation letters when applying for jobs. I get asked by hiring managers about people that I've worked with, and I always give an honest answer. People who don't take volunteering seriously, won't have a great work ethic in their paid jobs, either. Make sure that the organizations you've worked remember you for your positive qualities, and are willing to vouch for you when you need it.
If you have more time than money, don’t hesitate.
I'm not sure why more young creatives don't volunteer. Perhaps they really can't afford to work for free, and their day jobs are too demanding to squeeze more effort out of their off hours. But for anyone who isn't really struggling, I'd recommend that you look around for opportunities to volunteer that speak to your interests.
Options range from homeless shelters, animal shelters, domestic violence crisis centers, human rights organizations, nature preservation campaigns, non-profits that support cancer patients, or people with rare diseases and disorders, or special needs children and adults... There are science, culture, arts, and sports related non-profits. There must be something that matters to you personally, where you can make your mark.
Creative professions are powerful. They shape the media we watch, and through it the public opinion. The messages you help spread make a bigger impact than you might think. Use your skills wisely, and I don't doubt that you'll have a great career.