How to Ace a Product Designer Interview

With a bit more emphasis on VMware’s hiring process

April Yang
Apr 2 · 10 min read
Illustration of a women on a mountain holding a pencil with flag that says “You are Hired!”
Illustration of a women on a mountain holding a pencil with flag that says “You are Hired!”

Maybe you’re about to graduate from your design school in 6 months and can’t wait to start your career as a product designer, or you’re looking for a summer internship opportunity so you can gather some real-life work experience, or you might have worked at a company for the past 5 years and just want to try something different.

The common theme here is that you have to get your resume ready, your portfolio updated, your LinkedIn profile polished, and put yourself out there to start interviewing.

In this article, I am going to share with you the typical hiring process of a product designer, along with my personal interview experience. The process I outlined here may not apply to all roles. For example, interviews for management roles and Sr. Staff Designers might look different depending on their specific requirements.

1. Apply Online or Reach Out to Recruiters

If you’re a student who’s about to graduate in a couple of months, it’s time to get your job-hunting website profiles up. Websites like Hired, Indeed, Glassdoor, etc usually have plenty of designer positions listed. Don’t forget to set up a LinkedIn profile as well and start following/connecting with people you're interested in working with. If you’re already a professional designer and just seeking a change of environment, LinkedIn might be the best place to start because you’ve already had some networks built up.

There are usually tons of new openings every day and it could be overwhelming if you’re new to this process. So if you already have a list of companies you’d like to work for, my personal suggestion is to reach out directly to their recruiters on LinkedIn or submit your application on their career website.

Once you’ve accumulated some industry experiences under your belt, you’ll start to get contacted by recruiters from multiple places. In my case, I was approached by VMware’s recruiter on LinkedIn. I have always had a great impression of VMware’s design community so I decided to give it a shot.

2. Recruiter Phone Screen (30 min)

Typically there won’t be any deep-dive design conversation during the phone screen. The reason being that this round is usually done by recruiters instead of designers, and it’s also a shorter interview so there’s not enough time for a project deep dive. This doesn’t mean you don’t have to talk about design at all though. The recruiter might still want to learn about your past experience of being a designer/design intern/student.

Some of the questions asked this round would be: What makes you want to leave your current company? What makes you want to work here? What kind of position are you looking for? What are the enterprise/consumer or mobile/web design experiences you have so far?

My personal experience is that this interview is more about getting an overall picture of you as a potential hire. The interviewer tends to ask broad questions about your past experiences, your expectations, and inspirations in order to ballpark you as a candidate.

Don’t be afraid to go deep when answering these questions. If the interviewer believes she has gotten enough information about a certain topic, she would kindly interrupt you and move the conversation along.

3. Designer Phone Screen - Portfolio Review (1 hour)

Illustration of a resume with various objects surrounding it such as a lightbulb, UI screen, and pencil & paper.
Illustration of a resume with various objects surrounding it such as a lightbulb, UI screen, and pencil & paper.
You should take the portfolio review opportunity to showcase the thought process of your design

If you’re a new grad/student and don’t have any real-life projects to showcase, school projects are totally fine. What the interviewers love to see here is the thought process of your design. Things like how do you know there’s a problem in this area, how did you make certain design decision, what other alternatives have you considered and what are the trade-offs of those? You should pick a project that gives you an opportunity to talk about the end-to-end experience. Try to frame your narrative as a story in a compelling way. Spending some time honing your storytelling skills will really pay off here.

My personal experience for the portfolio review at VMware was pretty amazing. Back then, I was trying to wrap up some project work at my previous company, so sometimes it’s pretty difficult to juggle 5–6 meetings while trying to squeeze in an interview call (discreetly).

Unfortunately, on the day of my portfolio review, my client decided they want to change some of the requests and wanted me to stay longer for those changes. I decided to stay and finish the work responsibly. In the meantime, I emailed VMware’s recruiter saying I will be at least 15 min late and it’s ok if they would like to reschedule. To my surprise, they decided to wait for me.

I made it to the interview 20 min late. I also need 10 seconds to catch up with my breath because I was running between meeting rooms located in different floors. It was chaotic. But the interviewer gave me peace of mind and told me don’t worry about it. Throughout the call my interviewer made me felt I could fully express my work in any format I want. I learned that whether or not you’ll perform well in an interview has a whole lot to do with the interviewer on the other end. In the interview with VMware, I was lucky to have a professional yet chill interviewer that makes me feel safe and be able to showcase my design in a confident way.

Picture of April on a video chat with another designer for the portfolio review interview
Picture of April on a video chat with another designer for the portfolio review interview
Virtual portfolio review during the initial designer phone screen

Since I have been working at VMware for a while now, I also started to host portfolio reviews. As an interviewer myself, sometimes when I think I have a good grasp of a candidate’s design process, I would suggest doing an app critique together. This not only gives me an opportunity to know how the candidate approach critique other people’s designs, but it also allows me to see their reaction when unexpected changes happen during the interview.

Read more on How to Ace the Product Design Portfolio Review by Kevin McBride

4. Onsite (All day)

April being taken on a tour of the VMware campus by a designer on the team, with cherry blossom trees along a pathway
April being taken on a tour of the VMware campus by a designer on the team, with cherry blossom trees along a pathway
A team member will pick you up and walk you around VMware’s beautiful campus if you arrive early

So here comes the big day! You’ve passed all the screenings and did well presenting your work to some of the team members. Now it’s time to finally meet the team face-to-face and learn more about each other. Nervous? You’re definitely not alone.

One thing to keep in mind is that the interviewers would have to spend a whole day with you. A WHOLE DAY! They must have seen something unique in you and think you are potentially a great addition to the team. So amp up your confidence and stop worrying about not being awesome enough for the position.

There are usually several rounds during the onsite interview, meaning you’ll be meeting with different people with various backgrounds/levels in the company. The exact order might differ, but you get the idea.

Portfolio Review (Again, really?)

April in front of a conference room presenting her work in front of 3 other designers for the onsite portfolio review
April in front of a conference room presenting her work in front of 3 other designers for the onsite portfolio review
The best way to approach portfolio review is to frame your project as a story

Yes, portfolio review again. It’s not uncommon for companies to do another round of portfolio review before they make the final decision to hire you. The primary reason for this is to give the broader team a chance to know you and your design process. Think about this: most of the people on the team have never seen your work and know very little about you. It’s a great opportunity for you to take the lead and show them what you’ve accomplished so far.

Portfolio reviews are all about storytelling. The best way is to frame your project as a story so that you can talk about different elements that interviewers care in an organized manner. VMware definitely values communication skills for all of their employees, so I believe being able to frame a story during the interview will not only make the interviewer's job easier but also have a positive lasting impression of you.

During the portfolio review, the audience might interrupt you for questions (This happens 99.99% of the time). They do this not because they want to nitpick your project. They are actually trying to understand your thought process and learn more about why you made certain design decisions. When asked a question that you don’t have an answer for, my personal suggestion is to be honest and tell the interviewer that you don’t have the perfect answer and provide your best guess, along with the willingness to learn if the interviewer happens to be the expert in that field.

You might get asked about accessibility, which is an important aspect that we care about at VMware. You might get asked what changes you made to make the design more accessible, or how did you evaluate your design from an accessibility perspective. Read more on A Commitment to Accessibility by Jeremy Wilken.

Towards the end of the session, the interviewers would set aside some time for you to ask questions. This is a very good opportunity for you to learn more about the team and understand if this is the team you want to work with when joining the company. You can ask about team dynamics, compositions, remote team members, etc. depends on what you care about the most.

Lunch with a Designer or Design Manager

April enjoying lunch with a designer
April enjoying lunch with a designer
Lunch with a design team member is not part of the interview, you can talk about non-work-related things

You will be having lunch with one of the design team members in one of the cafes on the campus. I had my lunch with one of the design managers. The first thing she mentioned when we met was that this is not part of the interview, meaning that I can relax and talk about stuff that’s outside of work.

We talked about cats, dogs, and plants while having the chef special from the sushi station (Yes, you heard me right, VMware’s cafe has sushi every day!). I felt refreshed after the meal and was ready for the next round of interviews.

Sketching Session / Design Challenge

Illustration of a hand sketching out a UI with a pencil
Illustration of a hand sketching out a UI with a pencil
The sketching session reveals a candidate’s problem-solving skills and ability to collaborate

Here comes the fun part! I used to find any form of design exercise dreading. I know a lot of you do, too. The reason behind that is we tend to look at design exercise as something that evaluates our design skills and qualification as a designer. Therefore, we think if we don’t pass the design exercise, we are not qualified to be a designer. That’s not 100% true. While VMware’s design team would definitely value the craft of your design, the equally important aspects that we look at during the sketching session is your ability to listen and collaborate with others, along with how you think and your design process. For example, what’s your reaction when someone disagrees with your design decision? How do you communicate the trade-offs between your and other people’s ideas?

April doing a sketching session with 2 designers
April doing a sketching session with 2 designers
Don’t be afraid to ask questions and lead the design discussion during the sketching session

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Asking questions shows you’re curious about the challenge and want to learn more about it. It’s actually a red flag if someone immediately starts designing without asking any clarifying questions. At the end of the day, good solutions usually stem from being curious and asking lots of questions.

In my opinion, VMware’s sketching session is challenging but fun! It was challenging because I only got 45 minutes to come up with a solution. I didn’t generate as many ideas as I would like to due to the time limit, but it was ok because the interviewers care more about the thought process than the quantity of the ideas. It was fun because it felt more like a workshop/collaboration session with fellow designers than a formal interview.

Read more on How to Ace the Design Sketching Session by Molly Yee.

1:1 Interviews

April sitting with a designer during a 1:1
April sitting with a designer during a 1:1
1:1 interviews are more about soft skills (communication, collaboration with different people, etc.)

There will be 1:1 interviews with members from the design team, it could be a mix of designers, managers, or directors. Both of my 1:1 interviews were with directors. One heads up to the team I will be joining, the other one leads another design team. My guess is that since designers work with each other a lot, VMware wants to make sure that the candidate is not only a great addition to a particular team but also to the entire design community.

Each of the 1:1s lasted 1 hour and were deeper conversations that focused on my experiences, my design inspirations, and what I would like to learn at VMware.

Some of the conversations circled around how I developed my leadership skills when I was leading client workshops in my previous job, and how I handled challenges when the clients were not easy to deal with. We also spent quite some time talking about different VMware products along with the opportunities and challenges the company is facing.

In my opinion, the interviews were more about soft skills rather than technical ones. Both of the interviewers asked questions that focus on my ability to communicate, collaborate, and coordinate with different people and teams. In today’s design community, soft skills are as important as hard skills.

Personal Thoughts

One of the things I learned from my interview experiences is that interviews should be comfortable for both interviewers and the interviewee. At the end of the day, both you and the interviewers are deciding whether you want to spend at least 8 hours a day with the person in front of you. Don’t expect the interviewers to keep on asking you questions. Lead the conversation when you have a chance and show the interviewer your interest and what you’re passionate about. Package yourself, and story-tell it!

Everyone I interviewed with at VMware was open, friendly, and incredibly nice. We’re also a dog-friendly office so many people bring their adorable furry friends to work. I have realized why VMware holds the record for the Best Place to Work for several consecutive years.

Chow chow (dog) at VMware
Chow chow (dog) at VMware
Ran into this adorable guy one day, how could you not love working at VMware?

During this time of shelter-in-place, we’ll still be providing the same interview experience, just virtually! So if you’re interested in working at VMware, don’t hesitate to apply!

We’re hiring!

Interested in helping us define the user experience for next-generation enterprise solutions? We’re hiring talented UX researchers and designers.

VMware Design

The VMware Design team | Transforming enterprise user…

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store