RGD Headstart Conference: Part 1


I was generously invited to attend the RGD HeadStart Conference by the kind folks over at Creative Niche. HeadStart is RGD‘s largest conference for emerging designers and students. There are various presentations and panels that discuss the latest trends in the design industry, how to land your dream job, how to start a successful freelancing career, and more! Their experienced speakers guided us through the process of creating a strong portfolio, and also gave invaluable interview tips. One-on-one portfolio review sessions allowed industry professionals to give us constructive criticism on our work. It also gave us the chance to practice our interview skills. It was a full, jam-packed day, and I learned so much that it couldn’t be contained in one blog post. Let’s begin!



The room was jam-packed with designers wanting to improve their portfolios.

Russell Gibbs started the day off with a look into how to create an effective portfolio. He is a designer who has his own branding and design office in Dundas, Ontario. Although his presentation was directed towards print portfolios, a lot of what he said also applies to digital work. His key point was that a portfolio should be the best representation of your work, and you should love everything that you put into it. Like a good story, it should be memorable with a strong beginning, and a strong end. While talking about your portfolio, pay attention to the interest of your listener. If they’re losing interest, blast through the piece so you keep their interest high. You should be in control of showing your portfolio, so hold the mouse and flip the page—you are the storyteller, and your portfolio tells the story of you.


Russell’s online portfolio shows a wide range of his cutting-edge design skills for both traditional and digital media.

What should you do with concept work? Russell advised us to show concept work only if it makes sense and adds to your story. Too much process pieces could bore your viewer, especially if the final product falls flat. Another piece of advice is to get your friends (preferably English majors and other designers) to look at your work and ensure that there are no typos or design flaws. He stressed the point that presentation is everything! Not only will your portfolio be judged—so will you. If you know that the company you’re applying to dresses casually, dress the part so you’ll fit in—but don’t fake it. Talent and great work will only get you so far; you need personality and fit to grow in the company.


The next presenter took a humorous approach to “bad” clients—or rather, good clients who do bad things. Our speaker was Doug Dolan, a communications strategist who has many years of experience in dealing with clients who’ve been a challenge to work with.


Doug’s online portfolio is very clever in form. Its design delivery is truly unique, and his content is clear and minimal.

Doug went over various types of “bad” clients, some of which include:

The Coin Counter – Clients who focus too much about money and don’t care for anything else.

The Carrot Dangler – The client who promises that there’s something big coming if you do this project for them. Regrettably, the “big thing” never happens.

The Buck Passer – “I’m sorry. It’s not me, it’s my boss.”

The Foot Dragger – Clients who delay for every good reason.

The Absolute Beginner – #1 Symptom: They hold excessive amounts of meetings because they’re not confident in the team or themselves.

The Game Changer  – Clients who change things at the last minute. For example, they tell the designer at the eleventh hour that they won’t be using photos anymore.

The Marriage Councilor – The client who gets ideas from someone else (like their wife) and changes everything based on said person’s opinions.

The Doomsayer  – “That colour doesn’t look good. It reminds me of [insert terrible personal experience].”

The Mouse Grabber  – A client who takes your mouse and does the work himself. They have no experience in design, and opt for re-designing your work in Powerpoint instead of InDesign.

The Web Searcher  – Be weary of clients who find you randomly through the web. It could mean that they don’t have any other design connections, or have no experience in the field.

The Transformer  – A “bad” client who transforms into a “good” client.

There were a lot of laughs shared throughout the presentation, along with the nodding of heads. These types of clients do exist, and more often than not, they make these mistakes simply because they don’t know any better. I’d argue that client’s can’t always take the blame. It is our job as designers to make sure that we aren’t taken advantage of. We need to do our homework so we know what we’re getting into, and we must take responsibility for the projects that we undertake. I think it’s better to finish a project you aren’t proud of for a client, rather than quit halfway because of design disagreements. I understand that there are certain situations where the smart thing to do is to quit—for instance, if you’re not treated well, or taken advantage of—but minor things like disagreeing about colour or font choice, however, is not worthy of rage-quitting. I’m grateful to Doug for sharing his experiences with us. It shows that all designers, both young and old, are united in these struggles, but we don’t have to face them alone.



After lunch, our next presenters were Antonio Lennert and Symon Oliver, two very bright and innovative designers who founded the award-winning studio, ALSO CollectiveThey spoke about data visualization, mobile and web apps, and interactive forms of digital and time-based installations. Just one look at their extensive online portfolio shows that they’re big on interactive design, and enjoy creating unique user experiences. They encouraged us to apply to places we wouldn’t normally seek, and challenged us to develop a hybrid design practice by integrating our designs into different things that add value to our practice.

One of their projects that captured my interest was their work on the Kayapo.org website. The site spreads awareness and support for the Kayapo rainforest preservation efforts in Brazil. It is a fantastic example of interactivity and the use of successful calls to action.


The use of strong photographs and videos makes the Kayapo site a pleasure to experience.

Coincidentally, I am also creating a rainforest conservation website for my independent project at Sheridan College. I was curious to see how Antonio and Symon approached the design of their site—maybe I could learn a thing or two. Using vibrant colours, minimal text, and auto-play videos, they created a fun, interactive site that got its message across very clearly. ALSO Collective is currently looking for a summer intern for 2014, so those interested in working at a cutting edge design studio should definitely apply.


portfolio reviews

Industry professionals met with design students to review and critique both digital and traditional portfolios.

The portfolio review session was definitely a memorable experience for me—for all the wrong reasons (don’t worry, this story has a happy ending). I’m so grateful to have made many, many mistakes in this mock interview rather than in an actual interview. Long story short, I built my online portfolio so that it could be viewed without internet connection, only to realize that I had linked certain projects to actual URLs! —I can already hear my web design professors wagging their fingers and saying, “I told you so!” Lesson learned, and many apologies later, I trudged through the first mock interview in utter embarrassment. Thankfully, my interviewer was gracious enough to let me find the wifi password. The rest of the interview went on without a hitch, along with the two other interviews that came afterwards. I felt that I really needed to have the gift of the gab in order to describe my work and process in detail. I’m not usually much of a talker, but I tried my best. A comforting thought that one interviewer told me is that the ability to interview well is not a normal skill to have; it takes a lot of practice.


• Show the employer how you’ll be a good fit.
• Push the boundaries of conventional design.
• Be ready and willing to articulate your work.
• Don’t act like you know it all.
• Be positive.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of my RGD HeadStart Conference experience!

Until then,


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