How Not To Apply for a Design Job

John Freeborn
Jun 17, 2019 · 7 min read

As a design manager, I’ve looked at several hundred applications for open design roles over the last few months and I’ve noticed a series of painful missteps from the applicant pool. Some of these are no-brainers, so hopefully this ends up being at the very least, a checklist to keep us away from the obvious mistakes. Other issues might be my own personal preferences, expertise that I’m looking for in my open roles, or simply how I view a solid design candidate. Every hiring manager has their own method and criteria.

My hiring process hasn’t changed dramatically and I intentionally keep it simple. I’m not trying to trick people, create some mysterious puzzle to solve or play emotional mind games. I want to find smart people who want to help me create a supportive team culture full of human beings who like being around each other and augment each others skills. So easy? No, not really.

These errors hurt my heart

The grievous errors

#1. No link to your portfolio (not even a PDF)

The worst of all application mistakes is not including a portfolio link. If you don’t include samples of your work I can’t begin to evaluate your fit for the role. It’s great that you went to the best art school in whatever country and that you have 2 master’s degrees. I can’t hire you. I can’t even consider you. I have nothing to go on. Sorry, you are in the rejection pile.

#2. Applying for a role that you are not at all qualified for

I will readily admit that I did this myself when I was a younger designer. I probably did it a lot. Now that I’m on the other side–I can clearly see the problem this creates. When some recent jobs were posted online, I started to get a lot of applications. This is a great problem to have. But, reading resumes is nothing like the time consuming task of looking at portfolios. Portfolio evaluation takes time and it is usually the first thing I look at. I will glance at the resume, but I don’t want to get biased by a resume, so I try and focus on the work. When I get to the work, I will try to dig into at least two of the projects (unless the first one is really bad) to get a feel for the applicants visual style, skill and approach. By this point, I will have an initial reaction of some kind and it could be many things: wow, great, what is this?, why? pure confusion, sadness, anger, etc.

It’s at this point where I will go back to the resume to attempt to understand why I’m feeling the way I do. Where and what did this person study, why did they choose these projects, Why do they think that showing high school drawings is helpful in applying for this job?

If I see that they have never held a full time design job and they are applying for a senior level role then I know that I just wasted 10 minutes of my time. The easy argument here is that I should spend more time on resumes. Fair argument–but I like to give a lot of leeway for applicants. Good designers come in all packages and with wildly varied experiences. If the work is amazing and they never graduated high school, I’ll probably still want to talk to them.

The resume does shed more light on the history of the applicant and then I will go back to the portfolio if I have more questions or want to dig in deeper to the work.

How do you know if you are qualified for a role?

Read the job description. Simple answer and maybe, depending on who wrote that text, it might not provide the complete picture. I do attempt to make my descriptions accurate and clear. I’m probably in the minority on this. I don’t use jargon and I don’t expect people to be unicorns or rock stars. If the description says that you need 10 years of experience, don’t try and convince me that two Summer internships have prepared you for the role.

#3. Watch the attitude

This hasn’t happened a lot, but it did happen. I posted some openings in a Slack channel that I’m in. Someone connected with me and then sent in an application. I took a look and I didn’t love what I saw and the applicant was rejected. This applicant then scolded me (privately at least) for not looking at their portfolio and rejecting them without consideration. I did not respond to this. I was surprised by the assumption and honestly amazed that someone would come back on the offensive like that. You don’t win by attacking the gatekeeper.

Just look away

Not fatal, but really not helpful

#4. Applying for multiple roles at once (at varying levels)

This is again, one that I’m probably guilty of myself in the past. It does depend on the scale of the organization, but you need to understand why you’d apply for three roles with required experience of 2 years, 8 years and 12 years. It doesn’t make any sense most of the time and comes across as desperate. You appear to have little understanding of what is expected in the role and what your own value is. I don’t reject all of these automatically, but it’s hard not ignore this.

#5. No cover letter

It’s hard to write a good cover letter. I’m telling you that it does matter. It doesn’t matter more than your design work. Once I’m interested in you as a person, it really helps me understand how you communicate, what your priorities are and why I should really want to talk with you and progress to the next step in the process. I’ve never read a cover letter that changed my mind about someone’s portfolio — but I have rejected applicants who were kind of interesting, but didn’t include a letter to bring the application story home.

#6. Showing every project you’ve ever done in your portfolio

Yes, I did this too–and for way too long. We all want to show the world all the amazing things we made, crafted, our skills, interests, instagram, hobbies and party tricks. I get it, you don’t want to forget to mention that you did some background scenery design in your first semester freshman year. You will have my attention for 5 minutes, maybe 10 if I’m in between meetings and in a good mood. Use that time wisely. Show me the most relevant projects, the work you are most proud of that showcases the skills for the role that you are applying for. I don’t need 50 projects. I won’t look at more than a handful. When I simplified my portfolio down to four projects, I got a lot more calls.

Kind of Annoying

#7. Immediately trying to connect on LinkedIn

This isn’t a deal breaker, but it’s a little pushy. I understand that it’s another connection point and we’re all looking for an angle but unless I’m posting the role on LinkedIn, you shouldn’t expect a response on that platform. We’ve all cyber stalked someone (right?) and that doesn’t make it less creepy. After we’ve talked on the phone or had some actual correspondence, then request that connection.

My advice is not as good as Yoda’s

OK great, so what should I do?

I can give you a little guidance but I do not have a solution. There are way too many variables to provide a recipe for landing a design job. But, let’s try and end this on a positive and productive note.

  • Think about your audience: the hiring manager. They have to look at hundreds of applications and after a few days it gets harder and harder to see straight. The time you have with their full attention will be very limited, so be precise about the story you want to tell.
  • Try and create a narrative about your experience and why your skills are a good fit for the role.
  • Read the job description and reference it in your cover letter. Yes, you should write a cover letter. And yes, it needs to be specific for the role you are applying for. The human brain is hard wired for stories. Tell your story through your work and words.
  • Be nice. We’re all complex beings with feelings and goals–that includes hiring managers. A little positivity can go a long way.

If you are a good fit and you catch a little luck then you might just make it to the next step in the process–the phone screening call.

Good luck!

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