If you’re new to the field of design, you’re in an interesting spot – you’re excited, bursting with energy and passion, but you’ve hit a wall when trying to find somewhere that will pay you to put that energy to work.
Landing that first job is tough. Few companies hire people without experience, even though you’re awesome (and yes, you’re awesome).
So how can you improve your odds when you’re going after one of those opportunities..? There’s no sure-fire method, but you can improve your odds of being noticed.
Getting hired is no different than any other challenge we face as designers.
As with a design challenge, you should start by understanding the goal (yours and the company’s) and the needs of the “users” a.k.a. the hiring team.
Invest time in researching the company. Move beyond the job post and those ever-present company values. What do they do? Who are their customers? How big is it, and if it’s spread across more than one location, how big is the office/group you’ll work in?
Once you make it past the recruiter screen and have time set up to meet people (yay!), ask who you’ll be meeting with. Then spend time on LinkedIn to learn about their roles and background.
Once you have the chance to talk with someone, take full advantage of the opportunity.
Seriously. Show that you’re interested and prepared. Come with questions ready, both general questions you’ll ask every company as well as some specific to this team and this company.
Questions demonstrate that you care and they help the team know what matters to you.
This is also a great way to learn about the reality of the industry; even when you don’t get the job, you’ll be that much smarter because you asked questions. Over time you’ll be able to refine your questions.
Asking the right questions is a skill that you develop in the same manner as any other—through practice.
Questions to get you started
- The company:
- I see you make software for X market. Who are your biggest competitors?”
- What does the company do well? What could it improve?
- How would you describe what it’s like to work here?
- The team:
- Can you tell me about the team(s) I’ll work with?
- How does the team work on projects?
- What are the biggest challenges you’re facing?
- What does your average day look like as a [their role]?
- Your potential role:
- If I joined, what would I work on and what would you need me to learn right away?
- What would my first month look like?
- What type of mentoring will
I receive? Is it formal or informal?
- How do you think I could help?
- How will you judge my success?
Think about what you want the answers to be for each of your questions ahead of time.
Think about your answers
Now to the other side of things, be ready to answer their questions.
Interviews can be stressful, and for many, that stress makes it hard to reply well in the moment. Here’s the thing though, you’ll get a lot of the same questions from different people, so you can prepare for the most common questions ahead of time.
Interview superpower: have some key data and logic ready to weave into your answers to common questions. You’ll stand out from other new grads, and even many experienced designers when you demonstrate that there was more to a decision than preference or habit.
Here are a few common questions you’ll be asked:
- Why are you interested in [company or industryname]?
- What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
- What are you most proud of?
- Where do you want to improve? What do you want to learn?
- For [a project], what was your role and what did you do?
- For [a project], what challenge were you trying to solve and for who?
- Tell me about a time you failed.
Rehearse your answers. Yes, in front of a mirror or by taking a video. Doing this a few times will make it much easier the next time you have to answer it.
After each interview, write down what they asked you and think about your answer so you’re ready next time.
Tighten up your portfolio
It’s great to show that you’ve learned about the right processes to use when designing, but so has every other recent graduate. All of them.
It’s cool that you’ve added a proposed feature into Yelp or Spotify in school, but you need to make it crystal clear that it was for a class project. If any of your work was for an actual client, highlight that, even if it was volunteer work.
Focus your portfolio on real-world projects as much as possible, even if it’s a small feature or problem. They are ten times more valuable (if not 100 times).
If it’s actually in use or will be, that’s huge.
Clearly lay out the challenge to be solved, who you were designing for and your role on the team. Explain what success looked like and how you fared.
Break the mold
Take a look at your friend’s portfolios and those of other recent grads.
Yeah, there’s a distinct pattern that new portfolios follow.
Figure out how you can do yours differently (and better).
Acknowledge that what you did in school is different than what you’ll do at work
A common point for recent
The sooner you embrace flexibility, the better.
In time you’ll learn when to apply which tools and processes, but for now you’ll need to take your cues from the team. Letting them know upfront that you understand the reality is a big win.
It may seem cheesy, but yes, you should follow up
Sending a thank you email to the hiring manager, is always a good sign, though it is a common practice.
Some disagree with this, but I hold that a reminder of who you are serves you well and it never hurts to be polite.
Now, to stand out, include a question or two that is specific to something you discussed during the interview. This shows that you’re fully invested.
Following up on a challenge people shared to get more insight is powerful and may prompt a dialog that keeps the interview rolling.
If you didn’t make the cut, ask why
We’ve all been turned down for a role. After you’ve spent all this time and energy preparing, it stings when you’re told that you won’t be hired.
You may want to shift gears to the next opportunity forgetting this ever happened.
But that’s not what you should do.
Thank them for their time (they’ve spent a lot more time interviewing than you realize). And ask them why you weren’t selected.
You need this feedback to help you become a better candidate and a better designer.
If they provide feedback (many won’t), thank them for it and then apply as much of it as is applicable.
Do not argue the points made.
There’s a hidden bonus when you do this – you’ll be remembered as someone who seeks feedback in order to improve. That’ builds your reputation, so when you encounter those folks again down the road, you may well be remembered.
Keep it up
It’s a hard process, but you’ll get there. Iterate on the challenge of finding a job, just as you would iterate on a design to make it better.
And keep being awesome.
Links & Such
The web is an infinite source of inspiration and knowledge. Here are some that I've gathered. Enjoy.