Surviving first (HR) contact: The dirty little secret about graphical resumés in the age of AI

How I bit the bullet and designed a resumé for natural language processors. Spoiler: Typography.

Examples of beautifully designed resumés I’ve been inspired by, but now realize might have hurt me in getting job interviews.

Every graphic designer I’ve known—including me—has agonized over designing a resumé that will stand out and reflect who we are as creatives. Color palette, typography, interesting layouts, clever headings, perhaps a monogram and/or headshot: all sources of angsty indecision. This approach made perfect sense—in 2008, applying for graphic design positions.

Over the past decade, resumé fashions have come and (mostly) gone: infographics; using progress bars to communicate your skill level; headshots; listing hobbies with cute icons. (Coffee? Srsly?) Even a timeline from birth. Really.

From DesignerNews, a critique of skills progress bars in resumés.

Over the years, I collected a lot of examples to inspire my own resumé designs: one used the infographics approach; another used two columns and included a monogram. They got raves from fellow designers, art directors, and coworkers. Hooray for me!

ATS is where it’s at 🙅

Here’s the thing: before a hiring manager at all but the smallest studios sees your work-of-art resumé, it’s very likely going to get pulled into an applicant tracking system (ATS). If you’ve been in the job market over the past decade, you’ll recognize—and likely dread — these names: Taleo and ICIMS. Sure, you can upload your resumé as a pdf and think it’s good to go.

You’d be wrong.

The ATS systems use parsing software to extract the content and identify keywords, saving HR time in having to read through dozens and dozens of resumés manually. Here’s the dirty secret: all those design details you sweated over, all those clever headings you word-smithed, all those charts and graphs you lovingly built in Illustrator? Not only are the natural language parsers not impressed, they actually will (unintentionally) penalize you.

I’ve fallen prey to the same design fads. Above, a rough timeline of versions of my resumé for different design-related jobs. On the right is the one I upload for parsers. All text, one column, two pages.

How do I know?

I created an account with an online “talent exchange” used by a firm I was seeking a job with. I uploaded my resumé and got to see how it was “parsed” into sections. What a wake-up call! The parser got job titles and dates mostly right. What it failed miserably at was reading down columns, even if I tagged the reading order in the pdf. So for a given job, it read across a “row,” mashing together the first line of description with a skill listed in the same line in a column to the right. It made me look like I was incapable of writing grammatically or coherently explaining my achievements.

Not so intelligent intelligence 😖

Speaking of keywords: if the parsing software a company uses in their ATS is outdated, it may not even correctly pull out keywords. An example: I’ve been in the hunt for jobs in UX and UI design recently. Those abbreviations are used in the job ads. UX and UI have been in my job titles. As an experiment, I ran my resumé through a parser used by a well-known job board. According to the parser, I had multiple grammar and spelling errors, and it “guessed” that I was a UNIX programmer, because no one had entered UX and UI into its database.

A resumé for the parser

After seeing behind the ATS curtain, I swallowed (most of) my design pride and created a resumé a parser can love. Parsers don’t care if your resumé goes to two pages. Out with columns (Google Docs will tell you you can use columns, but it’s actually a table masquerading as columns). Out with a monogram. In with headings that make HR do a happy dance.

In case you’re shuddering by this point: as a designer, you have one core weapon in your arsenal: typography. Use it and you can still have a good looking resumé.

And for those occasions when you can talk directly to a hiring manager, you can always whip out a copy of that work-of-art resumé, too.

Getting through the hiring funnel

The purpose of a resumé is to get an interview. Seen in that light, my parser-friendly resumé has been a success: since creating it, I’ve passed the first hurdle far more often than in previous hunts.


Looking for a full-stack designer with solid UX, UI, and interaction design skills, startup experience, and outstanding writing ability? Email me.