The Employment Hustle

Even guerillas need work.

Unemployment is high.  While growing, the economy seems to be hovering in stasis, barely nudging up or down each month.  The news has been mediocre to bad for several years, and, given a deadlocked Congress and crumbling Euro zone, seems unlikely to change any time soon.  Blah, blah, blah-di-blah.  We've heard this for so long, it's become background noise, static, fuzz.  

Architecture, as I've mentioned before, has been a particularly bad industry to be in.  The business of making buildings is based on the real estate market and the ready availability of credit, the two things at the center of the Great Recession.  After the overheated boom of the early aughts, there is a large surplus of available buildings in the face of low demand, which further disincentivizes new construction.  

I've had about a job a year since I graduated college in 2007.  Since August of 2011, I've been embarked upon a new, and uncertain, path as a freelancer.  It hasn't been the easiest.  I moved to a new city in July, knowing only a few folks, and have worked the connections until now, five months later, I have two part-time jobs and a number of side gigs that add up to a decent, hard-earned income.  So, as we roll into a new year, a couple of thoughts on finding work, focused on the design and architecture industries. 

Hard at work at my first job out of college, at Arcosanti.  

Social Media

I was a late adopter to Facebook, coming to it at the end of 2008.  I have many reservations and issues with it (that I may address in another blog post) but it is a powerful tool.  For instance, I could search my acquaintances by city, which turned up a couple of people I knew in Chicago -- old friends I'd lost close touch with.  One was in architecture, and gave me some leads.  It is easy to friend people you may meet at events, but didn't get a card from them or can't remember their full name.  Once friended, you have access to their friend list, email, and information about their employer.  It is easy to subscribe to pages for companies, non-profits, and professional associations, so you can get event reminders and information delivered to your inbox.  I find that Facebook's ubiquity is its main strength, as you can find nearly anyone on it.  

Set up a profile on Architizer, Archinect, and any other architecture/design portfolio sites.  Troll them, Craigslist, and your local AIA website for job openings in the area.  Aggressively pursue anything that pops up.  If you make those sites your first stops on the web each morning, you'll be able to get your resume in at the top of the heap.  


I am not, by nature or nurture, the most outgoing, naturally self-promoting person.  But, as advanced as our culture has gotten over the years, getting a job still largely relies on knowing someone.  Before moving to Chicago, I cold-emailed probably eighty firms, people, and non-profits.  I got roughly a dozen responses, but no job offers.  However, each person that responded to me was a potential conversation, which led to another person, and so on and so forth.  A concise cover email, a decent teaser portfolio, and a few well-placed details about their work, showing you've done some research, can get your foot in the door.  I found it helpful to pursue folks that I had heard give a lecture, or seen their work on a well-known blog -- a little flattery never hurts, and, if you have something thoughtful to say about their work, they're more likely to remember you.

Events are the flip side of networking.  Once I got to Chicago, I went to a bunch of events of all kinds, from Architecture for Humanity meetings to art openings to AIA tours.  Have a business card, and give it to everyone you stumble across.  You never know. 

I made these, but business cards are super-cheap from dozens of sites.  

Cover Letter

My first stabs at cover letters were horrendous.  They read like War and Peace, a thousand-page autobiography that no one wanted to read.  People's attention spans are short.  I eventually condensed my rather eclectic resume down into a concise recounting of where I've been and where I would like to go.  Here it is:  

"I am a young designer and builder who just moved to Chicago a few weeks ago.  I saw your [insert project here] in [insert blog/magazine/book here], and was really intrigued by your work.  

I graduated with a B.Arch from Virginia Tech in 2007.  The economy has more or less been in a recession ever since, and I have viewed that as an opportunity rather than an obstacle, taking time to pursue a number of non-traditional experiences.  I've poured concrete at Arcosanti; built cabinets at LukeWorks; designed and built 20K House 9.0 at the Rural Studio; and taught carpentry to low-income young adults in Alabama.
I just wanted to see if there was a time I could come by and see your studio and bend your ear for a minute.  Please find a small work sample and resume attached.  

Thanks so much for your time and consideration -"

Short, tight, and to the point.  The links tell my story without me having to go into too much detail.  Don't ask for an interview; just ask if you could meet them, see their space, and check out their work.    

Using that as a framework, I would work in some details about the particular firm I was applying to in the first paragraph.  Have a generic template saved in your mail, and insert relevant details.  Try to find a contact person instead of just sending it to the "info" email address on their site.  Be careful with your cutting and pasting in the template, as using details from the last email you sent by accident will guarantee a non-response.  Follow up after about two weeks; a second follow-up in a month or so.  If no response from either follow-ups, let it lie for six months, and, if still interested, try again.

By using the same template, it makes it easier to go back into your sent emails and do a simple search, using terms common to all the cover letters, which will bring up all your inquiry emails in one swoop.

If you get a contact through a friend or acquaintance, use that in your subject line, e.g. "John Smith recommended I get in touch with you . . . ".  This helps prevent your email from automatically getting deleted.  


I am fortunate in that my girlfriend and my brother are graphic designers.  So, I've had a lot of help in my print portfolio.  I ran it by them, as well as old professors and friends, working through about eight iterations.  Generally, there are no hard-and-fast rules, but I go no more than ten projects and/or thirty pages.  Keep the copy simple and to a minimum, free of pretentious language.  If you need five paragraphs to explain a project, it means the visual representation of it is not very compelling.  Architects and designers communicate though images; make them kill.  Bind it somehow.  Fancy boxes and gimmicky folding things are a pain in the ass in an interview, and loose sheets get lost.  I've always found it best and easiest to present a book to people.   Design is a detail-oriented profession.  Sloppy margins, bad cropping, pixelated images, spelling and grammar mistakes, cheap paper, and crummy bindings are all things people pay attention to.  If those things are perfect, the focus is on your work.  Make a PDF screen version that's under five megabytes for emailing.

I also keep a teaser portfolio, which is three pages, each with a dominant image and three lines of text.  Send that with your query letter; I made the mistake of sending the whole portfolio at first, and people could see everything I had, decide they didn't like it, and not consider me.  A teaser draws 'em in . . .

A web presence is also important.  I have this blog, an intermittently maintained Flickr, Etsy, a personal website, and Facebook.  Websites are simpler than ever to set up, especially with the rise of template sites like Cargo and Indexhibit.

The first page of my portfolio (after an introduction).

2nd page.  

Third.  Learn to love white space.  Let the images breathe a little.  
The Interview

First impressions and all that:  dress sharp, show up early, and do some homework on the firm.  Find out what they do, know some of their projects, and be able to draw parallels to your own work.  Have a firm handshake, look people in the eye, and remember their names.  That is one of the hardest things for me, as I have a crummy memory.  

Write a thank-you email as soon as you get home, and follow-up within a week.  I've had eight interviews since July, and, have learned, in this era of intense competition and lots of applicants, that employers don't feel the need to even let you know if they've hired someone.  It's rude, and rough, but that's the way of the world now . . . so it's on your shoulders to follow up and find out if they've filled the position or not. 


Competitions are a time-honored way to generate some attention for yourself.  The barriers to entry are low, and, even if you lose, you have a new piece for your portfolio that shows you're keeping your head in the game, even while out of work.  If you do win, the publicity is priceless.  DesignBoom sponsors regular competitions on variety of topics; the aforementioned Archinect and Architizer are other good places to check.  


One thing that has helped me survive in this economy is having a broad spectrum of skills.  I have one realm of hand/construction skills: frame and finish carpentry, concrete work, cabinet making, furniture building, silkscreening, and welding.  I'm no expert at any of these things, but I've gotten paid to do all of them over the years.  I have another realm of studio skills: experience with different software, hand drafting, teaching, some experience in photography and graphic design.  

Broaden yourself as much as possible, especially while still in school.  I came late to 3-D modeling software, but hustled to catch up, learning SketchUp and becoming passable in Rhino.  It's hard to know what a firm wants now; it used to be just AutoCAD, but now there are a lot more competing software packages out there, so it pays to be at least knowledgable in as many as possible.  That goes for other software as well, everything from Excel to Photoshop to InDesign.  Basic web knowledge is always a plus.  If you're good with a camera, put that on the resume.  Learn how to write well, a broad-spectrum skill that will help you in nearly any industry, especially in our txt-msge-handicapped generation.   

Nickel Generators

In the past six months I've written articles; made cabinets; built furniture; taught folks some woodworking skills; entered one competition on my own; worked on another competition for a firm; sold things on eBay; and sold furniture on the side.  Not all of these things paid much, but they stanched the bleeding from my bank account until I found steadier work.  My Etsy store has provided a slow drip of background income for the past six years, and another web presence that allows people to find me.  Nickel generators are just that: not a full-time income, but some bits and pieces that can help preserve the savings as long as possible.  


I have gotten several paying jobs by first volunteering or working as an unpaid intern.  This is more common for non-profits, I think, in general, but it never hurts to show some hustle and drive by working for free for a minute.  It gets you in front of people, it demonstrates your capabilities, and it maintains your skills.  On the other hand, volunteers are the life-blood of non-profits, and, if you're not a little aggressive about getting on the payroll, they will happily take advantage of your labor.  Unpaid internships are increasingly common in this economy, especially in creative professions.  Set a limit for yourself, in concert with your employer -- say two weeks -- and then evaluate at the end of that time and see if they have some budget for you to be compensated.  Don't let it drag out or let them string you along with vague promises or fringe benefits.  

Keeping Down Expenses

I live as cheap as possible.  It's not glamorous, it ain't always fun, but it's been important to keeping myself solvent.  The big city is full of temptations to spend, but an equal number of opportunities to save.  My apartment is furnished with things I built, things found in the alleys around my apartment, and gifts.  My clothes, especially my work clothes, are largely thrift store finds.  I pack a lunch every day and cook dinner at home, heavy on the vegetarian options because meat is expensive.  We splurge on cheese, hummus, and sometimes get some nice beer, but for the most part buy store brands and cheap staples like rice, beans, and eggs.  I make coffee at home every morning instead of dropping a Lincoln on some Starbucks.  With gas how it is, I only drive if it's raining.  So far, I've still been biking, though it's been in the twenties and dropping . . .  We live in the smallest apartment we could fit in.  We have internet, but no cable or landline phone.  TV is a time and money-suck.  I try hard to only use the credit card sparingly and pay it off every month.  

There are things to do for free or cheap everywhere -- I went to the beach a lot when I first arrived in Chicago, took walks, went for bike rides, cooked meals with my girlfriend, went to open houses and art openings and events that didn't charge a cover.  Living frugally doesn't mean giving up pleasure, it just means you have to be a little more creative in finding it.  

Pride, Hustle, and Honesty

Keep your chin up.  Never be too proud to turn down work.  No job is permanent; get something until you can find something better.  I know folks I went to school with that waitressed, slung espressos, and hung drywall until they could get into a firm.  Work honestly.  Hustle.  Know that it will get better.  It has to.  


  1. Great write-up! Especially with that Yahoo! article that was published last week about arch being the most unemployed major. Creativity is key! Designers have the ability to make work from anything! That's what I'm talking about. We must stay busy until we land that position.

  2. Sorry for my poor english but I was reading Charles Eames Biography few weeks ago and I discovered that he lived very poorly during 30's recession.
    I remember some words of him : he said he discovered one day that we need only few things to live ...
    So what ?
    I just have to tell you that some of your design projects are very effective (english ?)...
    i.e : look at one of best european design editor : www.droog.com and compare this project : http://www.droog.com/store/furniture/avl-shaker-table/
    (about 2500€) to your scarp table ... and your unfinished scarp armchair #1 ...

    So why not create something new ?

  3. Thanks for the comments, folks.

    So much good design has come out of times of economic uncertainty. Constraints tend to push creativity. From ReadyMade magazine to Instructables to the proliferation of scrappy design of all kinds, people are reacting to the times we live in. Press on, press on . . .