Images from (clockwise from top left) LUNAR, IDEO, Google X and frog
Yesterday, we ran the last of our nine Getting Hired interviews, in which we solicited job-seeking advice from key hiring personnel at LUNAR, IDEO, Philips, BMW Group Designworks USA, Smart Design, frog, Google X, Ziba and Teague (whew!). To wrap up the series, we asked our intrepid interviewer, Bryn Smith, to distill those conversations into a shortlist of essential strategies for landing your next design job. Did we miss something? By all means, share your own I.D.-employment wisdom in the comments.
1. Be proactive
Have you always dreamed of working at IDEO? Or perhaps Philips or frog seems like the perfect fit? Don't wait for an invitation. Many of the firms I spoke to welcome unsolicited applications, so it makes sense to apply even if you don't see a job opening. "As a consultancy, it's important to keep a pipeline of candidates," explains frog's Kerstin Feix. Perhaps even more important than submitting an application, however, is doing whatever you can to connect with someone inside the firm, via your alma mater or good old-fashioned networking at conferences and other industry events. When something does open up, firms often start with people they already know, so having that foot in the door is a huge advantage. "It's getting to know people and starting a conversation," notes Paul Backett of Ziba. "So when the right place, right time comes along, the discussion can be our focus."
2. Tell a compelling story
"A lot of designers have beautiful portfolios, but it's really important for us to have an understanding of how they got there," says Smart Design's Sarah Szeflinski. Think about your portfolio as an exercise in storytelling, and be sure to highlight all the ups and downs along the way to the final product. "We love to hear about the challenges that people come across—failures even," says Ziba's Paul Backett. "We want to hear what they've learned," adds Sean Hughes of Philips. Pacing is also important when laying out your book (or PDF or website)—don't get too template-happy; instead, use different projects to showcase different skills. And then edit. "If you have weak work in your in your book it can bring down the whole portfolio," says Lisa Olivia at Designworks USA.
3. Master the basics
Sometimes the most obvious step is the easiest to overlook. Before an interview, do background research on the firm so you have a solid understanding of the kind of work they do (as well as the kind they don't). Practice walking through your portfolio with a friend, or on your own out loud. Then practice it again. Lisa Olivia recommends asking how much time you'll have before the interview even begins. That way you can adjust your pace, and you won't end up in a situation where there isn't time to present your favorite piece. Once the interview begins, "stay in control of the dialogue," advises LUNAR's Jeff Salazar. Asking questions and being engaged in the interview as a conversation demonstrates your interest in the position, as well as your respect for the interviewer's time. And don't forget to make eye contact! As Teague's Alysha Naples points out, those basic social skills are extremely important—the firm wants to know that it can feel confident putting you in front of a client, and that you can handle curveball questions with dignity and charm.
4. Ditch the suit and tie
One of the perks of being a designer is more flexibility when it comes to the office dress code; this applies to interviews as well. While being formal doesn't always send the wrong message, several of my interviewees felt strongly that candidates should err on the side of authenticity. If you don't normally wear a suit, don't feel obligated to don one for your interview; chances are, you'll just end up feeling uncomfortable, and interviewers will pick up on that. Duane Bray of IDEO's advice: "Just be yourself, wear whatever." Talent is talent, tie or not.
5. Know your audience
Fine-tune your application to the role you're applying for, not just the company in general. A good tip from IDEO's Duane Bray is to ask yourself if you're truly passionate about the position, or just the idea of working at a specific firm. Would you still apply if the job was somewhere else? (The answer should be yes). For Teague's Alysha Naples, a demonstrated understanding of the company's goals and struggles goes a long way, and it's important to show interest beyond simply wanting a paycheck. Having a good handle on your audience is especially imperative if you intend to go for the grand gesture, which can either show your irrepressible creative spirit or backfire horribly. Whether it's writing out your resume on Post-its or sending a life-size cardboard cutout in your stead, make sure there's real substance behind an over-the-top pitch.
6. Keep it real
Forget glossy renderings, and focus on showcasing core skills: sketching, modeling, prototyping. If you can bring in physical products you've worked on, all the better. "We love it when people come with boxes of things," says Paul Backett, noting that it's not uncommon for designers at Ziba to have their own collections stowed beneath their desks. The same goes for carrying a sketchbook—when in doubt, "just bring it with you," suggests Lisa Olivia at BMW Designworks. It can't hurt, and it may help distinguish you from all the other applicants with slick portfolios.
7. Remember, there's no "I" in team!
Design is often a collaborative process, so don't forget to highlight the contributions of others on your team, and be clear about your role in the process. This applies as equally to potential projects as to the work already in your portfolio, points out Google X's Ricardo Prada: "One easy way to mess up an interview is to spend it talking about things that excite you, rather than figuring out what exciting and useful stuff we can do together."
8. Think of the interview as a trial run for your working relationship
Don't treat the interview as just an audition for your design skills; it's also your chance to evaluate whether the firm is a good fit for you, professionally and personality-wise. "This is their opportunity to learn about us as much as we're learning about them," says Smart's Sarah Szeflinski. For Teague's Alysha Naples, sometimes it comes down to whether or not you're someone they want to see every day. "Do I enjoy having this conversation with you? Are you someone we would feel comfortable putting in front of a client?" she asks. Be yourself, and don't shy away from discussing side projects or other things that interest you. Szeflinski summed this up best: "The most interesting candidates we have, they're really passionate about design—that's a given—but they're also really passionate about life."
Bryn Smith is a writer, graphic designer, and critic based in Brooklyn. She is currently at work on a collection of interviews with legendary designers, and a book about the design studio Open. She teaches in the graduate graphic design program at RISD.