How to get a UX/UI design job in Canada. Step 1 — Portfolios.
There are over 3000 design jobs in Canada with Toronto and Vancouver listing almost 1000 and 500 jobs, respectively. Every 3 months there is an influx of freshly graduating UX and UI designers from tech schools like RED Academy and Brainstation. So, what does a girl (or boy) need to do to get a job around here?
I get asked this question a lot. So I wanted to put together a guide that would be accessible to all, not just my students and mentees. This guide is a compilation of all of my wisdom and experience of the last 13 years as somebody who’s been hiring, placing students in companies, as well as a friend to a lot of amazing people who kindly shared their own experiences.
This step-by-step guide consists of 3 parts:
- Prepare to apply for jobs. This is about your personal brand, your portfolio, your resume and LinkedIn. It’s about getting all your ducks in a row so you are armed to your teeth with everything you need to make sure your application stands out from the crowd.
- Apply for jobs. Shotgunning for every job out there is rarely successful, so this step is about picking 10–15 jobs you really want (and qualify for), and then going after them like the laser focused killer ninja that you are.
- Ace the interview. For some people this is the biggest hurtle when it comes to landing a job. Here I will talk about the typical process you should expect, white-boarding exercises, how to create a top-notch presentation, and give example of questions that you will be asked.
So, read on. Follow the steps. Put in the work detailed below and you will get a job.
Step 1 — preparing your portfolio.
Before you apply for jobs, you need to prepare. To do that you need three things: online portfolio, resume, LinkedIn profile. These, if done well, will get you invited to the interviews. Consider them your ticket to an in-person experience with you, which, for a lot of people is the hardest part. The biggest challenge here is to stand out from, potentially, dozens and sometimes hundreds of applications. To do that you need:
- A personal brand. This brand will be consistent and prominent across all 3 channels (resume, portfolio, LinkedIn)
- A value proposition. This is your “why”. The core of your existence as a designer. The summary of what you can bring to a new company.
- Unique, personal website. To stand out, you need to be remembered. You need to create a memorable impression, so when the hiring manager is looking at your resume, they can see a human behind this application. So, add those quirky details about your background or the past, what you do when you are not at work, or the peculiar jobs you’ve had in the past.
- High quality content. Although I’m mentioning this last, this is, by far, the most important part of your application.
Let’s take a closer look at each of those.
1. Your personal brand
Consider this your digital face. It needs to represent YOU, with all your quirkiness, peculiarities, specific skills and values. I strongly recommend you put some serious time into discovering who you are and how to manifest it digitally. If you’ve ever gone through brand discovery process with a client, this is no different.
- Start with why. What gets you out of bed in the morning? If money wasn’t a factor in your life, what would you do be doing? What are you most passionate about? What recent experiences made you feel excited about the future? If I were to talk to 5 of your closest friends, how would they describe you?
- You as a designer. Why did you decide to become a designer? What excites you most about design and its future? What area of design do you excel at? If money wasn’t a factor, what kind of projects would you be working on?
- Your top 5 values. There is a really useful tool that I like to use called “Mountains and Valleys” (you can download PDF here) that helps you identify your core values by looking at your past most significant milestones and values that were present (or absent) during those events. I’ve used it A LOT with my clients and students. There is also another, similar framework that’s called “Peaks and Valleys” by Matt Hryhorsky that can be used for identifying personal and professional opportunities — super useful!
- Survey your friends & colleagues. Why should you be doing all the work? Get your friends/colleagues/social media involved! What colours do they associate you with? What 3 words that come to mind when they think of you? What top 4 qualities do they value the most in you? What images come to mind when they think of you?
All these above will help you figure out what values and core objective of your brand is; that, in turn, will lead to colours, typography, certain mood and tone of voice.
Let’s take a look at some examples.
Professional, serious designer.
These portfolios are using simple, 2 -3 colours, bold typography, the focus is on the content. There isn’t much of a “creative flair”, most of the creativity and uniqueness comes through interactions and animations.
Quirky, fun designer.
Looking at these portfolios you can instantly imagine the type of person who’s behind them. And just like the unique representation, they leave a lasting impression. You don’t have to be an illustrator to add that unique flair to your site. Typography, colours, shapes are equally powerful when you are trying to create that unique feel.
2. Your value proposition
Value proposition is a short summary of who you are and the value you bring as a designer. It’s a good idea to have a summary that is consistent but varies in length, so you can use it across all channels, for example:
What not to do:
- Be generic. Something along the lines of “I enjoy creating user-centric, delightful and seamless experiences” — because who doesn’t?
- Be pretentious. “Saving the world one pixel at a time” just makes me think of you as somebody with a very big ego
- Say something that isn’t 100% accurate or true — for example, “I solve business goals by creating seamless experiences”. If you’ve been in the industry long enough, you should know that some business goals don’t need seamless experiences (just check Slack’s 10 step sign up process, not quite so seamless, but effective at getting people engaged in a product right away)
- Make grammatical errors or typos
- Be too broad. “I create multi-faceted products on multiple platforms” — this doesn’t tell me much. Which platforms? What products?
3. Unique, personal website
So what makes a good portfolio? As I mentioned earlier, it should be representative of you. You the person, and you the designer. It should show me — the hiring manager — that you understand basics like information architecture, visual hierarchy, content hierarchy, accessibility (device, browser, visual, physical). That’s at a minimum. You get extra brownie points if your portfolio also wows my socks off through relevant, polished content, and a story.
What is your story? Is there a narrative that underlines everything you do? Is there a common denominator to all of your projects?
About 7 years ago we were expanding our team and we looking for a web designer. Among multiple applications, I remember seeing one resume that among accomplishments listed that this person wrote a cook book. This one little fact was so irrelevant to his application, and yet so unexpected, that I remember it to this day. These little facts humanize resumes. They add depth. They create a picture of an actual person in my head. Those applications are much more likely to stand out and leave a lasting impression.
So, tell your story. Dig through your past and find 3 random facts about your life. Add those to your portfolios. Here are some examples that might give inspiration:
There are lots of things to appreciate about her website. The distinct, clean style. The amazingly well-designed case studies. But what I personally love the most is what she says and how she says it. She’s open about her personal life, what she enjoys and what she does outside of work. I read her content and can almost hear the voice behind it (she sounds like Dakota Johnson for some reason). That imagined human voice is a sign of a good brand.
One thing I appreciate the most on Elias’ website is how genuinely unique it is — from the style and interactions to how he chose to display the content. It’s clear that he has multiple things going on at the same time and doesn’t just have one label. At the same time, it’s short and sweet, and allows users to go on and explore on their own.
I chose this portfolio, because I don’t see this format a lot, most of the UX/UI/product designer portfolios look like this. But Dex’s is unique — it focuses on the content; specifically who he is and what’s he’s been up to in the past. One thing that I love the most is his Book Shelf section — this INSTANTLY tells me what kind of thinking I should be expecting from him.
From the very first glance on Bethany’s page, it’s clear that typography is a biggie with her. There are elements that are mystery (like what’s up with the halo and the horns? I want to know more!!) and elements that are subtle (like the smaller icons for categories of content). She’s also got one of the best, most well-designed case studies out there.
All these portfolios tell a unique, personal story. And that’s the second most important thing.
The first most important thing is the actual content. Here are few rules of thumb to consider:
- It’s better to have fewer but high-quality projects. And by high-quality I mean aesthetically pleasing, clean and scannable case studies that clearly demonstrate challenges you had and how you solved them. I see a lot of pictures of sketches and whiteboard flows or affinity diagrams, and, personally, I don’t see a lot of value in them. Sure, it shows me that you go through some iterative process. But they are also messy, hard to decipher and don’t mean anything without context. Instead, I encourage you to make a digital copy of it and present the same information in a clean and clear way.
- Categorize your projects. If you happen to be a UX designer, as well as gif meme master, as well as a painter, and a graffiti artist; then don’t add it all into one big gallery. Separate your professional work from other things and name them appropriately. It will help me judge your work and your hobbies independently from each other.
- Pay attention to details. There is nothing worse than seeing typos and grammatical errors. If you have a learning disability or don’t feel well-versed in English, get other people to review your website for inconsistencies and grammar errors.
- Share your thoughts. Don’t limit yourself to just case studies. Write about design, the latest trends, how you optimized your morning commute or UXed your kitchen. This shows that you truly do have design thinking and it extends beyond your 9 to 5 projects.
- Have an ongoing personal design project. Something like this shows me that you are intrinsically motivated to be a better designer. Just PLEASE don’t do UI redesigns. If you are tempted to redesign Craigslist, Facebook or Instagram, read this first.
I’ve written before about how to write a good case study, you can find a ton of really good examples there.
I hope this is a good starting point for you and your portfolio. Good portfolio is like a good mattress — it will cost you more upfront, but it will be worth it in the long run.
In my next post, I will talk about another important ingredient you need when it comes to applying for jobs — resumes and LinkedIn. Stay tuned for a link!