Connecticut Creatives

Veronika Zhikhareva

Veronika Zhikhareva received her BA in 2017, and her Masters in 2021, both from Central Connecticut State University. She is now a designer at Rebel Interactive Group in Southington. We caught up with her to talk the CCSU program and her work at Rebel.

Tell us about the CCSU program, in relation to your undergrad and grad degrees.

I started the undergrad program for Graphic/Information Design in fall of 2014 after doing my associates degree for graphic design at Manchester Community College. At the time, I didn’t think I could afford a four year program, but after going through MCC’s program, I understood that I didn’t learn nearly enough of the stuff I was expecting to learn. The design program at CCSU, at least when I started, was in the stages of being restructured, so my graduating class was kind of like the guinea pig for the changing class structure. Honestly, I really liked it — the first two semesters of classes really focused on the fundamentals and doing things with your hands, which was met with mixed interest from a lot of my peers, but I feel like it helped me gain a better understanding and appreciation for the field once I had more experience.

I started my graduate degree immediately after graduating because I still hadn’t figured out my niche (I still don’t have one and that’s okay) and didn’t feel confident enough in myself to start job searching. My hope was that getting my graduate degree would open up some options for me, but I don’t think that CCSU’s graduate program is for everyone. It’s very research based and there’s a lot of writing, and the bulk of the designing comes with your capstone project. You have to be very understanding of the role that research has in design, because it’s an incredibly important skill, and you also have to be incredibly self-motivated to make your capstone project your own.

How did the program prepare you for entering the workforce, and why should someone hire a grad of CCSU programs?

There were a few key things towards the end of my undergrad that really helped me feel like I was a designer about to enter the workforce, not just a student who finished her degree and got presented with a fancy piece of paper. There was an entire semester dedicated to reworking and finessing old projects, workshops to help set up our portfolios, and we were also asked to create LinkedIn profiles and start connecting with each other. On top of that, our professors encouraged us to go to design workshops and conferences, whether it was for AIGA or CADC or something adjacent, so we would see the importance of networking. My graduating class was a tenacious bunch, and the amount of skill and talent spread between them was always impressive—beyond our ability to design, we were also taught to think. At the end of the day, graphic design is about solving problems, not creating something pretty.

What do you think made you stand out and get the interview/get hired?

My first interview came at the end of my first semester at grad school. I didn’t have a lot of work experience, but I had a spruced up portfolio from my previous semester when I graduated. The position was for the New Britain Museum of American Art, and while I had no experience working in non-profits or museums, my portfolio showed a level of creativity that the Museum wanted to see. I had varied portfolio pieces, from package design, to poster design, to package design, to typography, and I think it was the variation itself, showing the breadth of work that I was capable of doing that helped me stand out. When I applied to Rebel, I had to tailor my portfolio to reflect digital projects, like banner ads, social media work, web design—basically more work along the lines that Rebel was consistently producing. I was also told, after, that I had a style without really having a style. My work reflected the fact that I could mold the aesthetics of my designs based on project and client needs.

Tell us a bit about your experiences at Rebel.

Fast. Really fast. I went from working in a very insular, client-facing environment to working with at least 15+ different clients on a variety of different projects. One client might need digital fliers, another client might need a website wireframe, and another might need a set of programmatic ads for the month. It took a bit of adjusting, but I think I’ve found my groove—I can definitely say that it never gets boring, and I’m way happier working with a team of designers rather than working by myself. It also takes pressure off me to be an expert in something. If there’s something I can’t do or don’t know how to do, I have an entire team of designers that I can ask for help. The team is also big on professional development, and we’re currently in the process of going through team training for UI/UX best practices.

I started my graduate degree immediately after graduating because I still hadn’t figured out my niche (I still don’t have one and that’s okay) and didn’t feel confident enough in myself to start job searching.

How should a graphic design student make the most of school while there, and what advice would you give to other recent grads in their job search?

Do not go to your classes and do your homework and believe that’s all that you have to do. Make an account on Behance. Look at other projects. Put together folders of stuff you love and stuff that you want to try to recreate with your own twist. Look at how other designers set up their projects, what mockups they use. Find some blogs for designers and spend some time in the mornings reading an article. I don’t remember a single thing from my Graphic Design History class, but I still have the book, and occasionally I’ll flip through it for inspiration or to learn something all over again.

Don’t be afraid of inspiration. I’ve had a couple of interns over the years that dug their heels into the ground when it came to researching for a project. Inspiration does not mean you’re copying a design. There isn’t a single original thought left in the world—it’s all about how you take all of these things that you’ve filed away in your brain, and how you execute them. Make a Behance account. Make a Pinterest board. Look up current design trends. Try them out.

Work on your portfolio. If you’re worried about the fact that you don’t have enough projects or you don’t like the projects you currently have, redo them. Make one up on the spot. Again, research. Look at what other designers are putting in their portfolios and see if you can use the project as a template to create your own. You want to be hired by a company that does merchandise? Design your own merch and put it in your portfolio. You really want to be hired as a package designer for a makeup brand that you love? Make your own makeup brand and design the branding and the packaging. Make a fake collection for a brand that already exists.

You don’t need to have a ton of projects in your portfolio. Five to six is a good number, but make sure that they’re full, robust projects. Make sure to sandwich your projects. You want to hook a potential employer into looking through your portfolio, but you also don’t want the last project that they look at to be bland. Be strategic.

Check your spelling! That goes for your projects and your resume. You’ll be surprised by how far good grammar will get you.

You don’t need a wild, over the top résumé. Always have a back-up, plain text version of your résumé for when you’re asked to upload it into a large database — applicant tracking systems don’t read graphics well.

If you’re worried that you don’t have your dream job, or you don’t know what your focus is, don’t worry about it. Your first goal is just to get a job. Find out what you like, what you don’t like, and use that to align yourself to something that you actually will enjoy. Graphic design is a huge field with tons of possibilities!