Job hunting — in retrospect
What every young Designer should know about the changing landscape of employment & job hunting — what 2005 was like
Employee years…Corporate Industries
10 years ago I started my first job as Junior Designer. Since then I’ve worked for 15+ companies. Apparently, that’s a bad thing. Moving “looks bad” on your cv. But when a portfolio spans a decade, why worry? You learn more “just jumping in, unable to swim” than just staying in your first job.
Now I’m not saying everyone should resign and start looking for new employment. Stay wherever you’re happy and growing. If you see that there’s nowhere further for you to travel within your current position, then pursue something which will challenge you, especially within your current organisation. If you see something that could be better, fix it! You can’t sit day in and day out doing the same old thing at the risk of losing your soul in a year or less.
3 Rules to protect you as an Employee
There are only 3 things to remember as an employee, and it’s the only things that helped me:
Don’t get involved in office politics. I spent most of those years with earphones on, minding my own business. Saved by Sound Cloud! Here’s some nice music for working, in case you need it: https://soundcloud.com/tycho/sets/tycho-awake-deluxe-version
Whenever someone comes to you with office drama or wants to talk badly about someone else, just remember this Polish saying:
“Not my circus, not my monkey”.
…And walk away. Simple. Problem solved!
Remember Rule #1
Compete with your former self [ Measure your progress and work on improving yourself in every way, every day. Try to make each new project better than the last one. Keep researching. Keep learning ]
On the whole, each company will come with different problems, risks, challenges and most importantly different insights. Each has varied processes and cultures. Being adaptable will work to your advantage. In most companies, I was the only Designer, occasionally, there was a team for me.
Which was good and bad in a way. Ultimately, being on my own, it allowed me to see gaps in the company and try to fill those gaps. This also gave me creative license to some extent, depending on the company of course. Larger institutions can tend to be a bit fussier, and slower. The IT space never disappoints however. The downside of working solo, is that you don’t have a team to assist with critical feedback or bounce ideas off of.
“ …Job hunting …is a job of it’s own”.
For those who are currently job hunting, this is what worked for me:
If your portfolio/resume is on every recruitment site you can think of, that’s a good start. 2006 I uploaded my cv everywhere. Literally. I opted to create an androgynous brand which was closest to my personality “Design.erd”. [ This was before hipsters became a trend ]. To me this name fitted at the time, as I was a designer + nerd and wore glasses. Short, simple and to the point.
I sought out all the companies I loved. Revamped my cv to stand out, emailer and company-specific-cover-letter to match. I emailed 100 companies, got 30 responses, (legit ones, that’s not counting the people who waste your time), 10 interviews for postions I actually liked and wanted and took the best job. This was before Skype…so generally this was a lot of wasted time meeting the wrong people in person.
Do yourself a favour and meet your agents. Don’t just accept calls and be sent straight to the interview. Meet the agent, so they can understand who you are and what you’re looking for. Or you’ll end up being sent on a wild goose chase. Sometimes agents don’t understand exactly the difference between the various design disciplines. It’s your job to educate them.
This is what you can expect if you’re starting out (back in 2005):
100 emails , 30 (valid) responses, 20 agent interviews, 10 client interviews = ±3 good jobs to choose from [ pick the best 1 ]
Nowadays, if you regularly update your information on these recruitment sites you’ll keep getting calls. Update it at least once a year. [ I haven’t updated for a while, so sometimes I get contacted for DTP or Visual Design ]. But at least now, I no longer have to send out emails. Most contacts come from either agents who I’ve met previously or Linkedin invites. So, best make sure you’re on Linkedin. Find the best agent for you, and stick with them if you don’t want to play the game of chance of 100 emails.
Many years were wasted on a lot of crappy interviews that were completely wrong for me, before I learnt when to say yes or no. There isn’t a special trick to getting jobs or clients, you just have to be prepared for the schlep of the hunting process and to be patient with how slowly things can run.
Other tools for job hunting
Carrying a college A0 portfolio to clients was just impractical. Along with printed samples. I needed a better way of presenting my work. Around those years, I only had a desktop, so couldn’t carry that around either.
Back then as Visual Designer, this is what helped me: I created a hardcover designed portfolio 300mm x300mm. Just a note, when a client or prospective employer asks you to leave your portfolio with them, because they like it and really want to show their colleagues…DON’T. [ By the way, if you happen to be reading this, I want my porti back, stop telling your secretary you aren’t in…you know who you are ].
If anyone sees this portfolio…It’s mine, and it’s stolen:
Back then 2010, my work was a mixture of print and digital, so the book made sense. It was like, “here, see I can complete design and layout, I don’t just make pretty pictures”. I was armed with my book and cover letter printed as A6 post cards. [ Post cards were just more memorable than business cards, as it was as uncommon at the time].- damn I feel old now.
Postcards were kept for clients I actually liked, and business cards for the general public. [ You have to consider costs of printing the A6's…rather save them for the “nice” clients — the people you actually want to work with ]. After each interview/meeting, I’d leave my post card. The back had contact details and relevant links for them to review. I know it’s cheesy, but it worked.
Don’t judge my font choices…Helvetica is a good choice…call me boring, but whatever, sans serif rocks! (And yes, I still use it in too many designs).
It’s good to cover every area, from print to digital so obviously you need to have an online portfolio and website etc, but there will always be someone who will ask you to email your portfolio. You need to be prepared and ensure that your work is easily accessible to anyone. Even dinosaurs.
If you’re going to email it, I suggest landscape layout, created in InDesign as a booklet for them to page through. Reminding them it’s saved for screen use, and not suitable for printing. Because you’ll need to save down and reduce file size to around 2–5MB. If you’re sending work created in Illustrator, the resolution will still be perfect. For work created in others like Photoshop, InDesign rather use Google Drive or Dropbox and send them a link.
Nowadays, protypes saved online, with just a link sent to prospective employer will suffice.
Alternatively, create your cover letter as an emailer [ fluid grid layout], so they can just scroll. You can use Dreamweaver for this and just copy and paste code to Thunderbird. [ I’m not a developer, so this is how I do it ].
Presently, things are easier, I just take my laptop everywhere. Keep some items online always available for them to stalk and do background checks. Behance has helped me greatly as well as my website. New work saved just for meetings, so that at least clients can view a variety. You don’t want to bore them showing work they’ve already seen.
Prior to the interview, find out what the company aims for and where exactly you fit into their space. Research. Review their website and Linkedin accounts as well as any articles written about them. During the interview, find out what their goals are or 5 year plan. How can you help achieve them? Find out what they expect you to accomplish within the first 3 months. Let them know what your goals are. So that everyone can manage expectations.
Remember, you’re interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.
By the way there are actually right and wrong things to say in interviews.
[ Who knew?! …].
It’s appropriate to ask for a tour of the place after the interview, so you can meet those you might end up working with, and see your intended work space.
You wouldn’t want to end up in a little broom closet without windows and working on outdated hardware/software without anyone to talk to. Especially if you’re creative, you need to work in a room where there’s enough light and no clutter. Well, maybe that’s just me. As a creative, the environment you work in, your surroundings, can affect your work. Rather eliminate possible problems and choose carefully.
Don’t be too “helpful”. I once asked a client why they opted for their chosen logo. I told them that their logo really needed my help. The logo completely missed the mark and didn’t speak to the user. It said nothing. [ Their logo was utter nonsense ]. The client literally stopped the meeting and walked out. I didn’t get that job obviously.
They still use that logo
…it still doesn’t work.
What qualifies as a “Good Company”
When it comes to deciding to give up your freedom and devote yourself to a company, there are 5 factors which are important to consider. To help assist in your decision, they are listed in order of importance:
- Work [ Will the work actually change the world? Impact lives positively? Work with purpose? Or will it just end up being a bullsh*t job? Will this work challenge me? Will I be able to grow? What kind of projects will I work on? Will there be variety? Do the fun projects outweigh the boring ones — or visa versa? Will I be a cog in a machine, or will I be in a flexible role where I can help anywhere from field research, UI, UX and UT or devoted to one thing? ]
- Environment [ If sharing a desk, do I have my own clutter free space, [ which I can clutter up later when brainstorming ] where I can work without being bothered, but still have some people around to talk to in between when their input is needed. Is there enough natural light in the workspace? — I once worked in a very dark office without any natural light for almost a year, and became depressed. Get a feel of the place, is it fun, calm, clean, comfortable? ]
- Culture [ What are the people like? Variety? Diversity? Or just another corporate army of clones? If I spent a year around these people, and they happened to rub off on me, would I be a happier person? Do they look happy? Or do they look overworked-underpaid? Or overpaid-micro-managers-who-don’t-lift-a-finger? Does the work look balanced and equally shared amongst the team? Evidence of hierarchy? Nepotism? Favouritism? What are the company values? Can you see these values demonstrated in their actions or way of talking, thinking? Or is it another buzz word company? What are their thoughts on technology, the environment, humanity, the media, art? What are they talking about? Do they sound like thinkers and dreamers or robots? What would a normal day be like? (whether you like them or not- remove your assumptions and get to know them- try sitting in for the day, and doing something with them- test the waters) What processes exist? Where would you fit in? Do they live in the past, present or the future? Or a healthy balance of all 3? What does the team use for collaboration? Is there software that is a standard, or is everyone working in different tools? Are they up to date or out-dated with their software? Will they be keen to introduce new methods to improve productivity? Are they keen on training, do they keep their skills current? Is there a culture of learning in the office, even though they are experts? Or is everyone hating Monday’s and waiting for the weekend? Family orientated or only party people? Healthy lifestyle promoted or binge eating and drinking culture — decide what is best for you in the long run. Fast forward 2 years, and imagine what you’d be like if you hung around this team daily? If you have to “fit in” can you fit in by being yourself? Do you have to “fit in or f* off”? Does it seem like a company who appears to co-create, but simply is trapped in groupthink? (The answers to these questions, you can only find out after working there awhile — you can’t find this out in one day, I am simply giving you some ideas of questions to ask yourself. Observe then reflect. Interact then reflect.
- Boss [ Is this someone I can talk to easily, open door policy? Is this someone who is a good mentor? Would I want to be influenced by this person? Is she/he someone I can look up to? Can they help lead the team to reach their personal as well as company goals? Do they have a track record to prove it? ]
- Location [ Will I waste more time travelling to and from this place? If it’s too far, will they be flexible with options to work remotely from time to time? ]
I usually will rate each company on the above 5 points [ give each a score out of 10 ] and if there is a score less than 60% then it’s not a good option. If the company already doesn’t fulfil the basic requirements — don’t take it.
There will probably be other unforeseeable problems which will arise and which you haven’t accounted for, this will bring the score lower. Or there will be new opportunities and things you hadn’t considered which will improve the score. But the above 5 are critical to job satisfaction. Ideally opt for 70% — 100% [ 100% is rare, but don’t sell yourself short…keep looking instead ]. Above 70% on this scale, and you’re safe.
This is just based on my experience using the factors I value and which I believe contribute to a successful company. You can replace my list with things you value. I haven’t added salary to the list, because if the score above is still less than 60%, all the money in the world isn’t going to ensure job satisfaction.
Here’s a board to assist you in your job hunting, just copy board to use for your endevours:
Startups…Employee to Independent Contractor
When I left corporate stability to work with startups, my family thought I had lost my mind. They said the risk was too high. I’m a risk-taker. It was a calculated risk.
How much would I learn from staying where I am doing the same old thing vs uncharted territory?
— The decision was simple.
I don’t regret it. 2 Startups which really stood out for me, were Mpilo Tech and You Source. When I worked at “Mpilo”, there was so much to do. I came in as UX/UI Designer and CEO said he needed someone who can be both Business Analyst as well as UX. He wanted me to work closely with another lady, she was BA. I was over the moon. From day 1, he trusted me, and that left me free to complete my work without worry. Because I knew I was capable, and he knew too. I learnt so much, and grew from working with a team who each had a personal responsibility to make it work. Got to work on some fun projects. This environment helped build the foundation or set a standard for how a team should be.
At another company “You Source”, I learnt the most. The CEO was a Software Engineer, and he needed a UX Analyst to assist with his sprint process. I learnt all about sprint planning, customer journey mapping, crazy 8’s to name a few…this was also the first time I had to work on user research, user testing, validating MVP’s…This is what the end of day 3 of a sprint week would look like [ all 4 walls full of ideas ] :
In this experience, I had to find ways which were professional and still solved the problems without incurring more costs. That’s when, I found Lookback for user testing.
You don’t actually need a recording studio and a 2 way mirror for user testing…All you need is to be able to set up Skype to share screens, one person with the user, and the rest watching in another room. Record via Lookback and ensure the screen as well as user are being recorded. [ If there’s a better way, I’ll eventually find it. For now, this works, it’s simple to use and effective ].
How awesome…just saw now, they have Lookback Live! Can’t wait to try it.
Each company relies on their own process, [ in some cases outdated methods ], but generally most are implementing lean startup principles, using agile methodology. The larger outdated ones, by their lack of motivation for internal change, will force you to improve and refine your own process, [ generally you will have more time on your hands and can find new things to improve ].
The smaller startup ones, either by their lack or resources or processes, will force you to move from your comfort zone. You will be able to wear many hats and cover various disciplines.
Both types are good for learning…if you’re open to it.
I still haven’t perfected my process, it’s just a matter of adapting it to each new place.
Right now, the Sprint process used by Google, mixed with the Lean Product Playbook is ok for me.
On the downside, if you’re the only designer, a one woman/man show in your team, you know the deal…every department wants a piece of you and all their projects are “important” and need your urgent attention. Best to to deal with it professionally…Here’s how:
Prioritise & manage your time carefully
Design your time. Set up a system where all requests must go through someone else first. Preferably, a Traffic Manager, so that you don’t have to be interrupted with silly requests. If there isn’t one available in your company, automate your email to let them know that emails are reviewed and responded to between 11:00–11:30 and 14:00–14:30 each day. [ Pick times which work for you ]. If you don’t do this, you will never get any work completed.
Check out the Agile board from Trello to help you manage your time efficiently:
Project Management has never been my gift, so I’ve had to try many different techniques to find which works for me. For now, Trello and Slack, Google Inbox & Calendar are the best. Still refining my planning process. I need a P.A.
If you want to be happy as an employee and get everything done…WAKE UP EARLY! [ Trust me I learnt the hard way ]. Just get in early if you’re expected to be onsite daily. Arriving 1–2 hours before everyone else does, gives you the extra time you need before they start wasting time with meetings.
Each company has their own methods for making things work. Some remove critical parts while some add in new ones. Somehow things still flow and companies big and small survive. Ultimately, there is no “right” way of doing things. There are faster and more productive ways though. You just have to find which works best for you and for your team.
When choosing a company, you have to find one who’s moving to the same beat as you. One who can help you develop into the best version of yourself, so you can contribute best to your team and the company as a whole. Sometimes choosing a Boss who’s harder to please can be the better choice. Because you have no option but to push yourself further to excel.
My journey may have been harder in some aspects, but it has also been more exciting. Each role contributed to my learning and has made me better equipped to handle the next role I had to fill. Each gave a piece of the puzzle I was missing at the time. And each I could give something back which they didn’t have.
For now, I am over job hunting. I think I have had enough for 4 lifetimes.
I haven’t got my puzzle fully completed, there’s so much more I still want to learn. But the bits I am missing, I can find in the real world offline & online…somewhere in the big digital universe (and in real life)…all the information is waiting for me to find it. Experiences yet to be felt. Skills yet to attempt to master, people yet to be understood. To prepare me for this next part of my journey.
Just remember, there isn’t a company which is going to give you everything you’re looking for. You won’t always get along with everyone (you can’t please everyone- and that’s ok). You won’t always have fun projects. The art is in taking the good (projects you care deeply about) & bad (boring-nonsense) projects, and putting in your best none the less. Taking something boring, especially something you’re uninterested in, and finding a way to understand it and improve on it. In doing so, you can find a way to solve it creatively and produce something of excellence. Without compromising on quality. But this is why it’s best to know upfront what kind of projects, journeys you’ll be working on. So you don’t have to come up with hacks to learn to enjoy a journey you didn’t want to be part of in the first place.
I have hardly touched the surface of what you really need to know to survive job hunting and employment, if you choose that route. This is simply a broad retrospect of those periods in my journey.
Remember, there are many things you can do after leaving school. Jumping right into a job as an employee to gain experience is one way. Creating your own job is another way.
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