My name is Matt Conway and I’m a Creative Director at frog, a design and innovation consultancy that’s always looking for great talent. To find that talent, we sometimes finding ourselves at large, university recruiting events.
Reconnecting with students can be a ton of fun and really invigorating, but the reality of the typical academic recruiting fair is that they are stressful, frantic, and chaotic.
Your job as a student is daunting too: you have just a few minutes to make a memorable impression and your competition is quite literally lining up behind you. The signal-to-noise ratio here is terrible. Believe me, after I see 20 students, most of whom have taken the same classes together, the portfolios really do blend together. (This is one reason why frog prefers to engage academia with 1–2 day-long design challenges instead of attending job-fairs, but that’s not always practical.)
This article is meant to arm you with some hints and tips for how to make a good, fast, first impression on a recruiter trying to figure out in 10–15 minutes if you’d be a good fit for their design studio. Some might seem obvious, but I’ve seen all of these errors over the years so they’re probably not obvious to everyone.
By the way, most of these hints are applicable to longer interviews too. Some might not admit it, but seasoned design professionals will usually know 10 minutes into your 60 minute interview whether you’re a good fit.
So here goes:
Own the Conversation: Start your interview confidently by taking initiative in the conversation. You can start by telling your interviewer up front what you are looking for.
Try this: “Hi, I’m Alice and I am looking for an internship (or fulltime employment)”
Knowing what you want helps me listen more carefully for what you’re telling me. Don’t imagine that your desire is so obvious that it can go unspoken.
Pick One Thing: Okay, so we’re through introductions and we’re looking at your portfolio. The first thing you need to do is to assume you only have time to show me one thing. What’s your strongest work? Show that. Don’t bounce around from project to project, and don’t ask me what I want to see. I have no idea what’s on offer. Go with your One Best Thing.
Tell me why before you tell me what: Now we’re looking at your One Best Thing: before you start describing the thing you designed, you need to explain why you designed the thing you’re showing me — what problem are you solving, and why it was important to solve it?
Hint: “I Was Using Contextual Inquiry” isn’t a good answer to why you designed your One Best Thing. It’s the reason you did the homework problem.
Don’t Confuse Doing Homework with Doing Design: School projects are tricky: I know you’re in school and sometimes projects are just a way to learn a specific design technique or technology. That’s ok — the job of your teacher is to expose you to these various techniques — but remember, your job is to integrate that new technique into the deeper, larger process of doing Design. Show me that you internalized the lesson enough to know how it made your design artifact better.
One way to get to get at this is to describe your project like this:
So, the work I want to talk to you about is a <thing, service, interface, process>,
designed for <some sort of person/group/demographic/audience>
so that they can <solve a problem, do something interesting, remove a pain, feel a certain way, achieve or triumph in a certain way>.
(optional) This has never been done before because <provide reason or caveats about simplicity, cost, complexity>
and is important to have a designed solution to this problem because <say why>.
See how the homework of learning-technique-X doesn’t show up? If you can’t fill in those blanks what you got there is homework, not Design.
Tell Me What You Did: Another tricky thing about class projects is that they are often group efforts. When you’re showing something off that is only partially your stuff, make sure you can tell me what your role was in the project. Knowing how you play well with others is one of the things I am looking for.
Ideation Isn’t Enough: When you’re explaining your unique role on a group project, please don’t just say “ideation.” Having good ideas is important of course, but it’s not nearly enough. Of course you contributed ideas. I assume you are creative. Show me what you do in group projects. Ideation isn’t a contribution when it’s decoupled from execution. Also, saying “I coordinated the others on the team” tells me that you’re likely more of a project manager than a designer.
Show Me Something Personal: Showing a smaller side project you did by yourself is a fine trick for showing what you can do on your own and what you might do when unconstrained by the constraints often present with class projects. I know that means showing a second project, so there’s a stretch goal.
We Love To See Process But Don’t Waste a Lot Of Time: Don’t be shy about showing sketch work, notebook pages, post-its, or scribbles that lead to your finished answer. A slide or two goes a long way to showing what your hand is like, how you think visually and how you approach work in all its messy details. The goal would be to show how you deal with ambiguity during the early stages of design and how you might be able to reframe questions into better questions. Show it, then move on.
Practice your pitch. Please. Smooth, confident, efficient delivery is damned hard. Don’t imagine that you can just wing it. Find your classmates and practice on each other.
Show me you care. Show drive, passion, and a thing that Matt Walsh from Green Stone brilliantly refers to as “bounce.” Some people are quiet, introspective types, and that’s ok. Be yourself. But find a way to communicate that there’s something in this line of work that is a calling, not just a job. Why do you do design?
Some Final Notes on Your Leave-Behind
The Portfolio: Having a leave-behind print portfolio isn’t always necessary — much of our work these days lives natively as a digital artifact, but a one-sheet summary might not be a bad idea. If you go that way, be sure that sheet has a link to your online work.
Jog My Memory: Have a resume. Your interviewer is going to have a long plane/train/car ride home and will appreciate having something to remember you by in the days ahead. You might consider putting your face on it somewhere. It helps people remember you.
Avoid Really Dumb Resume Errors. Resumes should include your first and last name (really). And an email link (yes, really). And a link to your online portfolio (seriously not making this up). You’d be amazed how many times these errors come up. If you scored yes to all three of these things, you can feel pretty good about yourself, odd as that might sound.
Don’t worry about a business card or a cover letter. Maybe other recruiters disagree, but I don’t find these artifacts very helpful. At recruiting events in particular, I am going to be buried in these things — I honestly won’t read your letter and I will probably won’t use your card. I have your resume and hopefully a way to get to your portfolio.
I’m sure there are other points I am missing and I would love to hear everyone else’s comments for tips and tricks that candidates (and interviewers!) can take to heart.