As May transitions into June, the subject of interviewing (for design jobs) has been on my mind a lot recently. We’re six months into 2012 and I’ve gone on a TON of interviews in the last six months, I had two interviews just yesterday. With each interview I learn something new: a new (or better) way to talk about my work, what to say (and more importantly, what not to say), and other trips and tricks that make the process a little less painful. Let’s face it, interviews are awkward and uncomfortable. I say it many times, interviewing is just like dating. And that first interview is just like a first date. You’re nervous. There may be awkward lapses in conversion. Will they like me? What should I wear? Will they call me again !??! It’s exactly the same!
.. why hasn’t s(he) called!?!?!
That said, if you prepare for interviews the same way you prepare for a first date (or vise versa!), the whole process can be a little more natural. In the last six months, I’ve probably been on about 15 interviews, for new jobs, freelance projects and full time positions. From those interviews, I’ve held design positions at two companies, won three new freelance projects and even turned a few jobs down. So my interviewing/dating odds aren’t that bad! But I’ve had some help along the way, and I’d like to share some tips with you (and to remind myself as I continue to interview).
Many of my tips come from the wonderfully amazing Debbie Millman, former president of the National AIGA and president of Sterling Brands. In January 2011, I meet with Debbie at her office at the SVA Masters in Branding studio to talk about my Pratt MFA thesis and show her my work. I blogged about my experience in full here. Debbie gave me tips on how to arrange my work, what to show and how to present myself. Other tips I’ve learned the hard way, some from making mistakes, others come from experience and the experiences of others. So here at my top 8 tips to interview for design jobs!
1. Pick a format that works for you. I’ve heard lots of debate with print vs. digital portfolios (i.e. iPads, laptops, pdfs, etc), and the solution is simple. If you’re a print designer, or showing print pieces, use a printed portfolio! Or bring the physical piece, if it’s not too large. Your book may look great on a iPad, but if you’re interviewing to be a print designer, or that’s part of the job description, people want to see the actual thing. Digital portfolios can hide a lot of details and mistakes, and designers look for that type of thing. I think iPads are great, but best to be safe and bring both. I’ve heard horror stories of designers only bringing an iPad to a print design job, or even worse, someone bringing a USB and needing to use someone’s computer to show their pdf. Bring everything YOU need to interview!
I use this black 11×14 portfolio I got it at Michael’s. It’s big enough to see work clearly and also small enough to carry easily on the subway. It also zips on the sides so I can store work and resumes inside.
Use a simple intro page to start off your portfolio. And KEEP IT SIMPLE.
Small detail on right, full size on left. This format is applied through entire book. Keep it consistent.
I keep physical pieces in the back, such as books and fold-out posters. If you’re showing spreads of the book, why not show the actual book?
2. Never put a piece in your portfolio just to show you can do something, or worked somewhere. It seems to be established that a good portfolio should be between 6-10 of our strongest pieces. When I met with Debbie, my portfolio had way too many pieces in it. For example, I had a piece I designed during my internship at Diane von Furstenberg. I needed to use name, and thought it would impress people. Debbie told me, so what if it’s DVF – is it your best work? She was right, while the work looked fine, it wasn’t my best. Names are for resumes, your best work is for your portfolio! Also never show something just to say you can do something. Don’t show a brochure just to say, “I can design brochures!” Is it something you’re most proud of? If not, then leave it out.
3. Start and finish with your strongest pieces. Your portfolio should tell a story of who you are as a designer. One of the best things you can do is show your work to someone that has no idea about any of the projects, someone objective (I’ll expand on this later). I used to arrange my work in chronological order. And why not? I always thought presenting work in this way would show my growth as a designer, and how far I’ve come. Big mistake. If this is true, then I’m opening with my worst piece! Always start (and finish) with your strongest work. It sets the tone to start, and is that last thing they’ll remember. As a recent design school graduate, a lot of my pieces are still school work. I like to mix them up, show a school project or two, then show a corporate freelance project. It shows variety and tells my story as a designer.
4. LESS IS MORE! At this point you’ve picked your 10 best pieces, so how do you display them? This applies for a digital pdf and a printed book. When I showed Debbie my book, she was painfully honest with me. She said you have a lot of work; too much work in fact and too many little things on every page. For the next 45 minutes, Debbie literally cut my portfolio apart. She took scissors and tape and rearranged my portfolio in front of me. See – painfully honest. Projects that I really liked were discarded .. only showing two spreads of this book, you’ve can’t be serious! But of course she was right. Let me show you some examples:
Before (above), 8 things in a spread.
After (above). Do we see why this is better? Less work allows the design to actually be seen!
Another example, before (above).
And after (above). Clean and minimal.
5. Show up early. This will save you lots of stress. I can’t tell you how many times I’m frantically running out of the subway to get to an interview. One should never be late and you always have to make a good first impression. When I’m early, I’m so much more relaxed and that continues into the interview. Also, while you’re waiting there, 10 minutes early or so, look around you. See who is working there, are they young or old, how big is the team, what is the office like? Does it look like somewhere you’d like to work everyday? Is it in a area you’d like to work? All those things matter, at least to me.
6. Interview your interviewer. Always come to an interview with questions. At the end of the interview, they always ask, do you have any questions for me. Think of one. Ask them something and extend the conversation. If you can’t think of anything about the company, ask about your interviewer. Flip the script (to a reasonable degree – don’t go crazy). This interview is just as much about them is it is about you. If they’re leaving the position, perhaps ask where they’re going to, what is their favorite thing about working there, favorite project? Try to keep things positive and not ask, what is your least favorite, who do you not like, what is your least favorite thing about this job. Instead ask, what do you find most challenging, or what was your biggest challenge working here?
7. Seek feedback. I can’t say this enough. Before interviews, take time to show your work to someone objective. This has helped me so many times. You know you work, you designed it, stayed up hours into the morning or night finishing it. It makes sense to you. But it may not make sense to the person you’re showing it too. You need to know the most effective way to present your work. Meeting with Debbie was a great experience because she didn’t know anything about the projects and she objectively told me what was working (and not) and helped me order my work more effectively. I took a moment to show a coworker my portfolio after work one day. She is an ADC Young Gun and MFA graduate – so I figured she’d be the perfect person. One project, she couldn’t tell if it was a poster, website, brochure or an installation. This happened with several of the projects. I went back and created a consistent way to showcase my projects on my website. She also gave me another good piece of advise; don’t mention that your student work is student work. Don’t say, “in this studio, or in this class.” On your website, or in your book – just don’t mention that it was created in school. At the time, I mentioned that every project on my website was designed for such and such studio in such and such class. Not good.
8. Lastly … BE YOURSELF. Be excited. Let your personality shine through. Be passionate about your work. As important as your work is, and it is very important, so is you as a designer and your personality. Think of it this way, this person is going to have to spend AT LEAST 40 hours a week with you, they want to work with someone they get along with. In most cases, you’re working on a team. What do you bring to the table, beyond design? Your personality is important and people really don’t talk about this in school when you’re starting out. If you’re an douche bag, people aren’t going to want to work with you. No one likes a know it all. You can be the most talented designer in the world, but if you’re an asshole, unless you’re a creative director or something, it probably won’t work out. And you’re going to get the, ‘this isn’t working conversation’ … just like dating, I keep telling you!
9. Okay I lied – not lastly. Never show your work upside down! I made this mistake on my first interview out of college! For my in-person interview, I brought my portfolio, and was interviewing with the Creative Director AND the Vice President of the company, a surprise to me. We sat at a round table, myself in the middle. I opened my book, and just started going through it, the work facing me. I figured that would be the best way for me to present and describe it. I didn’t realize the entire time, the work was upside down to the Creative Director i.e. the person hiring me. After the interview, on my way out he says, let me give you a piece of advice, for the future. When you’re interviewing, never show your work upside down to the person hiring. While I think he’s a bit of a dick for waiting until the end of an interview to say anything, he was right. Months later I was reading, How to be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul, by Adrian Shaughnessy and he had a story about this very thing! Had I only read that chapter earlier, the job might have been mine.
10. Lastly, (for real). No creative resumes. Seriously, where to begin. Creative resumes are a horrible idea and I hate that design programs encourage students to create these. I had a class at Appalachian State where we each designed our own “creative” resume to apply for jobs. The class was called ‘Graphic Design Research & Practice’ – with tips on how to be a working designer. Sounds legit right? People designed the weirdest, most-confusing and tacky/overdone/hard-to-read resumes you can imagine. Just search “creative resumes” on Google and see for yourself. Creative resumes are a cheap trick … just because you can use a drop shadow with a lens flare on it doesn’t mean you should! There’s a time and a place. Resumes are to be used. They should be cleanly and clearly designed. If designed well enough, they can be a strong design piece. But please … don’t get “creative” … get rational, polished and professional!
And for a trip down memory lane … I’m going to show you another before and after … my first creative resume!
So many things wrong. Grunge typography, quotes, cut-off type, flipped letters. I couldn’t even print this on a normal printer because it had to be trimmed !!
Now isn’t this better (above)? My current resume. Clean, easy to read. No grunge type and prints easily on 8.5×11.