Nailing your design internship application

Tips from a once-upon-a-time design intern, now interviewer

Hi! I’m a Product Designer at PlanGrid. We build collaboration technology for construction. All sorts of construction projects use us, from hospitals to schools, to art museums like SFMOMA, to incredibly big projects like Hudson Yards in New York. It’s a rewarding, super complex industry to design for.

We’re approaching our third term hiring student intern designers. We’ve loved the awesome contributions our past interns made, and we couldn’t be more excited to meet the newest bunch of candidates! After looking through literally hundreds of applications, here are my tips to make sure you’re showing your best self in your application and during the interview.

Application Stage

Treat your application like a design exercise

Our first design internship position posting had 142 applicants, and we looked through every single one. It was a lot of resumes!

So, how do you stand out? Treat the application process as a design exercise and think of me, the one going through these 142 resumes, as your user. Before your expend your limited energy creating a totally unique layout, make sure you’ve created a great user experience for the person reading your resume.

What does good usability in your application look like? Consider:

  • Is the link to your portfolio easy to find? Scavenger hunts are fun in games; they’re not so fun when trying to select candidates to interview. If the link is too hard to find, the interviewer may just give up. Make it super obvious and ideally linked from both the cover letter and the resume.
  • Is the link clickable? I’ve seen a few resumes in png and jpg form. Not only is the portfolio URL not clickable, it isn’t copy-and-paste-able, either. Don’t make your users jump through unnecessary hoops to get what they need.
  • Is the copy readable? You’re a designer and you have some cool fonts installed! I get it. But not all of those typefaces are meant for body text. After reading so many applications, my eyes are weary; make sure your copy is at least 12 points and set in a readable typeface.

A good user experience doesn’t sacrifice usability for aesthetics. If you can check all three of these boxes, you’ve started your application off on the right foot. To stand out, consider what else you could do to make your resume a positive user experience.

Portfolios are important

As someone hiring for a design position, portfolio websites are key. Even if you’re in your first year and have no prior professional design experience, I highly recommend throwing up a website of some kind with whatever design-y stuff you’ve got: coursework, side-projects, anything works. Even something as simple as a Wix, Squarespace or Github.io site will work. This brings me to my next point…

Include case studies in your portfolio

At PlanGrid, design interns need to be able to communicate the rationales behind their design decisions. The more detail you can tell us about a project, the better! Help us understand your constraints and the reasons you chose one design over others. And, be sure to share the final mocks.

If your project is under NDA, explain what you can, or, consider adding a locked section to your portfolio (example A, example B, example C) and including the password in your cover letter. Having a locked section of your portfolio is a standard industry practice when there are NDAs in play.

Cover letters can help

Okay, I’ll admit it, I didn’t read all 142 of them. But once we whittled the list down to a manageable number, the cover letters and the portfolios are what moved people to the interview stage. A thoughtful cover letter discussing your interest in the role and your past experiences may not get you the interview all by itself, but it can help!

Interview stage

You got an interview — congrats! We’re excited to meet you. Here are a few tips to make sure your interview goes well.

The hiring team wants you to succeed

We took the time to sit down and interview you, maybe we even flew to the interview. We’re cheering for you! We want to give you an offer, and we want you to do well in the interview process. If we ask questions during your portfolio presentation, it’s not because you’re doing something wrong, it’s because we’re trying to get to know how you think and your work better. Keep this in mind when you interview. :) We’re on your side!

Bring work examples with you and be ready to talk about them

Do you have mock-ups, prototypes, or other pieces of work? Bring them with you! Anything you have that helps tell the story of the project is useful for us to see, especially artifacts from the messy part of the process, like sketches and diagrams.

Be prepared to talk about your work

We’d love to learn about your project, and we’ll ask you questions, like:

  • What were the goals of the project?
  • How did you make design decisions?
  • How did you work with the rest of the team? (How did you divide work? How did you handle disagreements?)
  • What constraints were you working with?
  • If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?

We recommend you prepare a few bullets points on each project you’ll be sharing and practice before the interview. If you’re really serious about a company, consider creating a slide deck. This will help us follow the story of your work, and help you remember all the important details.

Are we your #1? Tell us! But, be honest.

We know students are interviewing at lots of different companies. If you’re really interested in our company, let us know! It is helpful to know if you’re really interested, and what about the position has piqued your interest. But don’t go around telling every company they’re your #1. The world is a small place, and people remember this sort of thing. :)

Post-interview

Ask for feedback

We send notes to every potential intern we interview and ask if they’d like feedback. Please, take us up on it! We’ll share what went well in the interview and give you constructive steps on next steps for your growth. If you’re interviewing elsewhere and they don’t offer feedback, don’t be afraid to ask; it can’t hurt.

Try, try again

Hopefully the process will result in a job offer. But, if not, don’t take it personally. Ask for feedback and use it to grow your design practice. I can personally talk your ear off about all the places I was rejected from when I was early into my design career. It’s perfectly normal, and not at all indicative of later success.

And that’s a wrap!

Questions or comments? Do share! Hope to see you in an interview soon. Interested in applying? Check out our Careers page to see open positions.

Thanks to Cody, Peter, Mudmie, Jessie, Joe and Grace for their feedback on this post.