A Page From the Heart
How to reimagine your resume
Let’s face it. You already know a ton about resumes. Chances are you have a resume of your own. It has probably taken you weeks to create, years to polish. You have poured your heart into it, perhaps even your spleen. You’ve squeezed your history for every drop of juicy narrative. And there it is, on a page, a statement of your professional worth.
Your resume is an ambassador. It speaks in your stead. It vouches for you, reassures its readers that you are valuable, that you can be trusted, that you are worth their time.
Your resume is also a spermatozoon. There are a million others floating around. They all look awfully similar, stacked in a pile, swimming in anonymity. But somehow, against bewildering odds, yours has to be the one that makes it.
A question to consider: how do you know if your resume is doing you justice?
Earlier this year, I reimagined my resume based on a number of techniques I learned in design school. Here’s a link to the final product. If you find it hideous, I respect your aesthetic. If you rather like it, feel free to steal it. Or better yet: read about how I did it, and make the process your own.
Imagine staring into darkness. Suddenly, a dot of light appears. You start walking toward it. The dot gets bigger, more distinct. It becomes a square, then an upright rectangle. You begin to discern blocks of gray on it. The first block you see is bold and bright. As you approach, more blocks appear. The larger blocks disintegrate into smaller ones. Eventually, even the dullest blocks start to pop. At some point, you realize that the dot of light you saw from afar is a resume.
Progressive disclosure defines the sequence in which an object reveals itself as you approach. Take a look at your own resume. How does it reveal itself to you? What is the first block of color you see? Perhaps a name or a title. What are the blocks you see next? Section headings. What do you see at the very end, when you are up real close? The fine print of reach role, perhaps.
Now, consider a recruiter who’s never heard of you. How does your resume reveal itself to them? What might they see first? Is this what you want them to see? Are there elements on your resume that are competing for their attention? Is that desirable?
A resume in two colors (i.e., black and white) is safe, if a little boring. A resume in too many colors reads like a warning: “I dare you to hire me.” With just the right amount of color, however, a resume becomes the document equivalent of a quirky, reliable adult who occasionally smokes a little weed.
Color theory is a complex, tremendously difficult field, not least because colors have a mind of their own (some examples here). Fortunately, you don’t need to be an expert at color in order to spice up your resume. Begin your experiments with the following pointers.
Value describes the lightness or darkness of a color. A deep red has a darker value than a light red. Carefully consider the values of the colors you pick. For example, when a piece of text and its background are widely different in value, the text is easier to read.
Hue describes a color’s position on a rainbow or color wheel. Scarlet, crimson, and maroon are all similar in hue. Use differences in hue to capture and hold your reader’s attention.
Finally, although it may be tempting to play with many hues, you mustn’t ignore the importance of neutral colors, such as creams and grays. Neutral colors soothe your readers’ eyes; they help readers focus on the important stuff. Your resume must be more meditation than riot, and the inside of a potato is your friend (not my words).
The word text is derived from the Latin word for cloth. The origin is literal. Step far enough away from a body of text, and it begins to resemble threads woven into fabric. Pack the letters of a body of text close together, and the text looks like cloth. Blink at a page of a dense textbook; again, cloth.
Typography is the art of painting with text. Your resume poses a typographic challenge with significant constraints. You cannot get away with using just a few letters; you must use a lot of them. How do you weave letters into fabric that is both sturdy and breathable?
First, choose a font (or two) that works. Fonts must articulate the goal of the document in which they are used. For resumes, I would recommend picking a font that falls away. The best fonts are those that do not draw attention to their presence. Instead, they allow the light of your story to shine straight through. Read more about fonts here.
Second, use formatting with caution. Formatting is like a stain on fabric. It can be tempting to bold a term here, italicize a number there, but remember that these stains will draw your readers in against their will. When they inspect a stain, they should ideally discover something valuable, a treat of sorts. Otherwise you’ve wasted their precious attention.
Read more about typography here.
You are the world’s preeminent expert on your own life and experiences. Therefore, the content of your resume should be determined almost entirely by you.
It is common to group content under one or more of the following headings: name, title, profile, contact, work experience, education, skills, awards, and publications. Much of this organization is driven by the field to which you belong. Break a couple of rules if you want to, but do not rock the cruise-liner.
Remember to be consistent. Do not use “Aug 17” in one section and “September 2012” in another.
Write for impact. Short sentences signify power. Active verbs are your most prolific allies.
In design, a collection of average ideas is often more valuable than a single good idea. Generating lots of ideas is like trawling the bottom of your fish tank of creativity. Once you’ve brought everything worth considering to the surface, you can begin to pick and choose the elements that work best.
On blank sheets of paper, sketch at least six alternative layouts for your resume. Evaluate each sketch for its merits and demerits. Then, combine the best elements of the different designs.
Get a friend to critique your draft. Iterate on it. Then take your resume to a professor or co-worker. Iterate on it again. Finally, show your resume to a stranger at a bookstore. Give them a $10 Amazon gift card and ask them to respond to your resume out loud. Incorporate this final round of feedback.
Voila! You’re home.
Karen Berntsen, for constant inspiration.
Emily Deng, for sharing her process with me.