Turning the Tables: How to Canvas
by Taylor Slattery | February 24, 2022
When it comes to finding a job, there are a few important things to consider. You want to find a role that fits your current skills, allows you to work on projects you enjoy, while also providing room for growth. Finding a job that checks all of these boxes can be quite the task. Having to make concessions is normal, but searching for jobs using conventional methods may only yield results meeting one or none of these criteria.
While job boards and other sites that aggregate job listings take the hassle out of tracking down listings one by one, finding the right match can feel like searching for a needle in a haystack. The time saved through convenience is quickly lost to the time it takes to browse through such a large collection.
The sheer number of listings on these sites can also lead you to falsely assume them to be comprehensive, which leads to another shortcoming: plenty of valuable companies don’t use them. Unfortunately, companies more selective with their hiring, perhaps to serve as a primary filter of sorts, only list jobs on their site. I’ve noticed this to be the case more often than not when it comes to agencies, particularly so with smaller teams.
This means that job boards, while convenient and seeming to provide a wide range of options, are only providing a certain type of employer while excluding those that might actually be a better fit for you.
Finding these more elusive job listings requires a bit more legwork and opens you to a new set of problems. Say you’ve done your research and finally managed to find a company that checks all three boxes, only to find that they don’t have any open positions. What now? Should you just sit on your hands and wait for a position to pop up? That could take ages and even if it does happen, your chances of landing the job may not have improved much—unless you do something about it now to boost your chances.
In the meantime, you need to do something to ensure that you’re on their radar. That way, the second a spot does become available, you’ll be the first person who comes to mind. The way you’ll go about doing this is called The Canvas Strategy. The term was coined by the author, Ryan Holiday, and the method, as he puts it, is all about finding “canvases for other people to paint on.”
Essentially, it’s about finding a way to differentiate yourself from the crowd by making yourself useful to the person or company you’re trying to work with. To do this you must first accept the fact that creatives at your level are a dime-a-dozen and the odds of you landing a role based on your work alone is basically a toss-up. To shift the odds in your favor, you must take the initiative to do something that proves your worth and the value you can add to the team.
To do this, you need to find a way of making key people’s lives and jobs easier. This can take the form of grunt work, making connections, or time-saving improvements. Ideally, the solution will involve your particular skill-set so you can highlight your talents, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. Remove pain points, connect dots, do whatever you think provides value—just make sure that it’s of substance. Anything you can do to get them to notice your name in a positive way will give you a leg up. It should provide answers rather than raise more questions. Once you’ve found this thing, do it. Then just give it to them.
Say, for example, you’ve found an agency you’d like to work for. You notice that they do a lot of projects for smaller artisanal beverage companies. Based on the general aesthetic they seem to work within, you realize that a hand-lettering artist you follow on Instagram would be a perfect match for these types of projects. All you need to do is write them a quick email and pass on that information. Simple as that.
Perhaps you’ve found a musician on Spotify with a great sound but terrible album art. Draft up some alternatives with a quick explanation of your reasoning and send them their way. Treat this kind of work as a passion project. The difference between this and spec work is that nobody is asking you to do it. You’re using it as a means of introducing yourself to someone you might not meet otherwise while attaching a positive experience to your name.
By making your name more recognizable, you’ve got your foot in the door and increased your odds of landing future opportunities. The reason this works is because people tend to not turn down help that’s offered up to them on a platter. It’s a bit like a Trojan Horse except once you’re inside you don’t pop out and wreak havoc—you just continue to be useful.
By using this technique you can build a name for yourself and develop a reputation with people on the other side of doors that would likely stay shut via a conventional approach. This puts you in a prime position to capitalize on some of that sweet reciprocity, making you a natural choice when the time comes.
Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.