The Secret Handshake is a resource for student designers and young creatives looking for insider insight, honest answers and solid solutions to go pro. We provide year-round advice, local events and one yearly conference to help as many young professionals as possible.
Ninety-five percent of the people who come through my door are students who have little interview experience. So I usually take far too much time—an hour or more—trying to set them on the straight and narrow, as one particular guy did for me many years ago. This is what I learned:
1. Ask how much time you have. This lets the interviewer know you appreciate the value of time, and allows you to then take control as much as possible.
2. Divide your interview into thirds.
First third: Get personally professional. Ask about things you quickly observe in the environment. For example, “Did you climb Machu Picchu? I see that photo… I noticed you love art deco and modernist posters… I see that you collect shrunken heads and Victorian dildos…” Or you can ask about the interviewer’s path to the business, etc.
Second third: Show your portfolio. Never say anything negative about it. And be sure you don’t explain each piece, because the work should speak for itself. Also, if there is a relevant way to bring some of the information gleaned from the first third of the meeting into play, do so, because it shows the ability to connect ideas. When you ask for feedback, make sure to take it professionally, not personally.
Final third: Build your network. If the company you are applying to isn’t hiring, ask for referrals, ask for directions, ask for advice, but make sure not to overcompensate with heaping portions of prattle.
A resume that is poorly designed tells us that you are not detail conscious, or that you are incapable of making sound judgments about something as marketing- specific as a resume when left to your own devices.
It is easy to overlook, and impossible to dismiss, since your resume, left on the interviewer’s desk, is the sole reflection of you once the interview is over and you have gone home.
I once saw a portfolio PDF with 85 projects in it. I stopped paying attention at about 10 and the designer immediately weeded themselves with no chance out because they proved they didn’t understand how humans handle data.
I suggest ten to twelve projects, maximum. If projects include multiple components, or fully designed books, eight to ten projects will be enough.
One of the main parameters for a portfolio review is limited time. Presenting the work should take a maximum of thirty to thirty-five minutes.
Many designers show, and say, far too much, leaving little time for an authentic conversation to develop.
It’s better to show fewer great pieces, than a whole bunch of mediocre work. Show systems (i.e. logo, printed collateral, packaging, web, etc.), not one-offs: it’s about great ideas, and how they extend well beyond one singular expression. And show a variety of work: varying styles, varying industries, varying touch points. Again, it’s about showcasing your ideas, not your acumen for one kind of thing.
Contact the people you want to work with, not just places with job postings.
Personalize your cover letter.
Know shit about the company.
Make sure you thoroughly understand the role: UX is different than UI is different than Communication Design.
Have a personality, be friendly and warm, but not weird.
Follow up once, tops.
Always thank the people for their time and consideration.
You should never make excuses about anything.
Doing this tells the reviewer more about personality issues than anything about the work. Also, make sure you proofread. Typos in the work say one of two things: either you didn’t see the error, or you saw it and decided it was okay to leave it in.
Both of these are unacceptable and will eliminate you as a candidate.
I look at portfolios more quickly than their owners would like. I can usually—almost right away—tell whether or not someone’s work appeals to me. If I’m reviewing in person, I try to say something constructive.
If it’s a drop-off, or something e-mailed to me, I almost always write a note.
Get a website. Seriously, you need a website! You don’t have to update all 17 social media/portfolio sites, but it doesn’t hurt to be present on several. The majority of my client work comes from the internet. I try to populate & edit each site I use (behance, dribble, working not working, instagram, twitter, Facebook, and my portfolio) with different projects and glimpses of my process. You never know where work will come from. Also, keep that in mind when posting bathroom selfies.
Make it clear and readable, with just a touch of your personality. Approach a résumé like any other design process. Think about the project goals, the context, and your audience. Your résumé needs to present your intangible expertise—most likely it will be viewed on a screen within an email.
Remember, the person reviewing your resume is very busy and has seen hundreds of résumés.
Send your resume and portfolio. Follow up. Do your research, know the work of the studio you’re applying at, know the people you’re interviewing with.
Walk that fine line between being persistent and interested and respectful of everyone’s time.
Show your work to the person you are presenting to, and not to yourself. Don’t position your work in such a way that you have a clear view of it, but the interviewer has to crane his or her neck to see it.
Unless you are sitting side by side with the person interviewing you, this is disastrous. Your work should be placed directly in front of the viewer, and not sideways. It’s glaringly obvious, but the number of young designers who commit this error is staggering.
The work should be current—ideally from the past year. It’s not a retrospective of your time in school, or proof of all of the classes you attended. It’s good to think of the collection of work in the portfolio as evidence of your skills and conceptual abilities.
Be sure to present your work professionally. Appearance is important because that gives the employers an idea of who you are.
Use good photography, use a clean binder with clean sheets. Or speaking digitally, be sure the user can access your body of work easily and navigate swiftly.
Portfolio presentation is performance. Consider each piece in your portfolio to be a short story. Write the story about each piece as a script in a beginning, middle & end manner or a context, action, & results approach. Memorize the script. Rehearse the presentation – preferably in front of a mirror – until you can tell each story in a casual, articulate manner.
Passion, knowledge and confidence (and your great work, of course) are the keys to a memorable presentation.
Don’t lump too many things onto one page. Give the work some breathing room. This is especially true of logos, which many students tend to present together on one page. They each represent different ideas, so why show them as a group? This is even more problematic in that truly great logos are hard to pull off, so you shouldn’t be showing a ton of them anyway.
Remember this advice, paraphrased from Dale Carnegie: get in the other person’s shoes, and adopt their desires as your own. If you can stir in me an eager want to hire you and you show how you will give me what I want, you have a much better chance of being hired than someone who comes to the table with their list of needs (or worse, demands).
Create something for yourself, by yourself. It shows craftsmanship—an ability to create something from a blueprint. If well-executed, it will land you a job. After all, it worked for me.
I don’t mind seeing one or two examples of personal work; though I’d much rather see how a young designer tackles an identity for a local dentist, or something equally mundane.
How designers design the everyday is a good measure of their ability. Anyone can makea gig poster look good .
Present the work simply and well.
Show how you took initiative and did more than you were asked…how you made the project way cooler than the brief required.
Show projects that relate to the real world (or even better the studio you want to work for). It may seem awesome to mock up a blind embossed book with one word on the cover, or a logo that is just a hairline slash across helvetica, but it’s hard to know what to do with that skill in a studio that does real, client-driven work.
Submit your resume, a link to your portfolio on the internet and a short brief about why you are sending the email. Keep everything under 3 paragraphs MAX and all attachments under 3MB.
Be careful is sending a link to a portfolio PDF on a file sharing site. Sometimes companies are blocked from accessing those files.