How to present your work (and yourself) when applying for a design role
I’ve been a hiring manager for over 6 years now and have reviewed countless applications for various roles. During this process, I’ve come to realise that there are a few key attributes that either attract me towards a candidate or deter me away. I’d like to share some of these learnings and observations, which will hopefully help when you’re applying for a new role.
Attaching a cover letter with your application is by no means mandatory but I always appreciate it when someone takes the time to write a well-crafted cover letter. You’d be surprised how big an impact a thoughtful and engaging cover letter can make. Most hiring managers are going through dozens of applications every week, so you want to make sure that you’re conveying something meaningful enough for them to stop and pay attention to. A few things that I look for:
- Is it personal? I want to know how you can help us take our mission further. What skillset do you bring to the table? How your past experiences have prepared you for this role at this company in particular?
- Does it exude enthusiasm? I’d like to assume that you’re applying for this role because you’re excited about it. Make it clear in your cover letter. Tell me why you’re passionate about the company or the industry.
- Is it concise? It’s best to keep your cover letter short and sweet. Get the most important information in there and leave the rest for your phone screen or in-person interview.
Here’s a great post about writing strong cover letters.
In this day and age, I honestly prefer to browse through an up-to-date LinkedIn profile than going through a PDF resume but if you are going to submit a CV with your application, here are a few things that I’d suggest paying close attention to:
- How well it’s designed. You might be thinking, “well, duh!” but you’d be surprised at how often I review CVs that don’t have any type of story to tell. Your CV (and other pieces that are part of your application) is an opportunity for you to showcase your talent. It’s your chance to leave a great first impression. Make sure you tell a compelling story through your CV. Another thing to pay attention to is the hierarchy of the information. Your CV should be scannable. If the hiring manager is spending 30 seconds looking through it, he/she should get a good sense of your background.
- The content. The most important components of a CV are your name, email address, link to portfolio, your past experience, your education. That’s all. You don’t need to add your bio or your skills or all the languages you speak. If you think it’s important for the hiring manager to know these things, mention them when you speak to them. Try to only have the essentials on your CV.
- How long it is. Studies show that hiring managers spend an average of six seconds reviewing a CV. Just six seconds! This is why it’s important to keep it snappy. I’d advice you to keep your resume down to one page only. List only the most relevant roles to the position that you’re applying for. For example, if you’re applying for a Brand Designer role, it’s not useful to list your experience as a barista when you were in college. Doing this will ensure that you’re only presenting the most important information and that the hiring manager can get to that information as quickly as possible.
It really doesn’t matter if you have an awarding-winning portfolio website or a PDF portfolio, as long as you have a golden thread, a story running through all your pieces. Again, just like your CV, your portfolio is the perfect medium for you to showcase your awesome design chops. Take some time to craft that personal story and showcase it through the pages of your portfolio. A few things to keep in mind:
- Tailor it for your audience. No better way to impress hiring managers than to show them a portfolio that speaks to their needs. Hand-select projects that you think will resonate better than others considering the industry that the company belongs to, the type of problems they’re trying to solve, and the role that you’re applying for. Most hiring managers would appreciate that you’re willing to go the extra mile to showcase your most relevant work.
- Quality over quantity. This one’s quite obviously but definitely worth a mention. Choose your absolute best projects that you feel 100% confident about and only include those in your portfolio. Busy hiring managers would rather go through 3–4 high quality projects to understand how the candidate thinks and works than have to go through 10 mediocre projects trying to make sense of them. So, pick wisely.
- Show your process. I’ve reviewed countless projects that didn’t include any kind of rationale or process behind the final solutions. In situations like this one, I’ll either reach out to the candidate asking for documentation on process for a given project or right out skip over them because I have other portfolios in front of me that have a clearly defined process included. Don’t rely on that phone screen or an in-person interview to describe your process, you may never get that chance. Do so upfront in your portfolio.
Below are a few examples of portfolios that hit the nail on the head.
To sum it up, putting some extra thought and care into presenting your work is definitely worth it. Don’t worry about standing out from the crowd too much. Make your “packet” a representation of you and your work ethic. As long as it reflects your voice as a designer, you’ll be in a great place to succeed.