Interview Advice for Designers

Recently I’ve started to get involved with the Graphic Design Course at LCC, I participated in a mentoring evening where I met with second year students, and offered a little advice on both projects and careers.

I’ve also been involved in the recruitment process, interviewing potential candidates for a new job in Design Research. Also, before my current job I was freelance for about two years – so I’ve been through my fair share of interviews (successful and less so).

As is often the case with advice like this I find myself suggesting the same things to people each time, so I’m capturing it here to shape my thinking and hopefully to be a useful reference for others.

Edit: since beginning to write this post, Duane Bray – a fellow IDEO, has also posted a similar article on Core77 have a read for another IDEO perspective.

1. Choosing projects

Pick the projects that let you tell a story about yourself. Any job interview is as much about you as a person as it is about your portfolio of work, so pick out projects that show of your particular approach. In the space of an hour you’ll probably have time to talk about 4–6 projects, any more and you might be rushing. Any less and you miss the opportunity to demonstrate a breath of work.

If you think about the projects that sum you up (and not just your 5 ‘best’ projects) then you’ll see the value of a small freelance job, whilst not the highest profile piece of work it might be an example of your interest in charity work. Or pick out the 2nd year university project that taught you how to write JavaScript, talk about how it was the beginning of your coding skills. They might not be the best and brightest, but if they demonstrate your passions and skills then they’re worth putting it.

Make sure you pick out work that shows more than just a series of final deliverables, it’s important to pick pieces that show a wide range of skills and techniques. For example, I’m always really interested to see the research work that went into a project as we do so much of it at IDEO.

2. Talk about your process, including the things you left out

When explaining a project or your process a good guide for the tone and level of detail to use is to imagine you’re explaining the work to one of your intelligent friends. You won’t need to cover the basics but the more complex elements might need a little explanation.

Talk about the process of your projects – and not just the outcomes. By explaining the research you did, the refinements you made and the things you left out, you’ll be illustrating your thought processes. Designers are equally interested in the journey you took towards the final outcome as the outcome itself; the person interviewing you is trying to imagine you as part of their team and process is as important as final execution on a day to day basis. (Of course, if the beautiful work you’re proud of is important too.)

Design is a process of elimination and the things that you cut from the final design will say as much about you as the final design does. Talking about process is also a chance to show off the other skills you have, the ones that aren’t immediately obvious from the work. For example if you’re interested in working for a design company that does a lot of coding then tell a stories that let you mention the various languages you’re learning.

3. Find out as much as you can about the company you’d like to work for

Do your homework on the company and people you’re meeting. I remember when I first did this and it almost seemed like cheating, I thought it seemed really obvious when I spoke about a recent project on the interviewing company’s website. But amazingly they were very happy to hear about themselves (but then don’t we all). By demonstrating that you already spend time in their world you show that you’re interested in the same things, and that you will probably get up to speed with their world more quickly. Of course this isn’t about cutting corners or being sycophantic, but finding out about the company will help confirm if they’re right for you, and if you’re right for them.

It’s also really important to be clear in your mind about why you want to work for the company, and why you want the job title your applying for. Duane Bray’s Core77 article gets into this issue in more detail. One of the most likely questions you’ll get asked is ‘why do you want to work here?’ so you’d better have an interesting answer.

However, as a counter to the two points above, don’t just try to explain why you’d be the perfect fit for the company; it’s also good to call out the things you offer that they might not. Very few companies will want exact replicas of the staff they already have – diversity in the workforce is important to any good company – so don’t be afraid to point out the difference you might bring.

4. Ask questions, have a conversation

I’ve often found the most comfortable and flowing interviews involved the interviewee asking as many questions as the interviewer. Ask questions yourself, get them talking. It’s a basic truth of human behaviour that most people quite like telling you what they think, I often treated interviews as an opportunity to ask the interviewer to share their opinions – in essence you interview them – even if you don’t get the job you’ll learn something interesting along the way.

Furthermore, don’t be afraid to let a conversation wander a little. This is perhaps a point of personal preference, but occasionally getting lost in an interesting conversation isn’t a bad thing. (But I appreciate this isn’t to everyone’s taste).

Ask what projects are passing through their studio at that moment (I always find this a fascinating question, to ask). Ask them the areas and topics that are interesting to them. Ask what the future holds for their company. This last question is always revealing as it’s not something most people think about day-to-day, so you tend to get some interesting answers.

5. Being in the right place at the right time

I’ve sent my fair share of unanswered emails, one of the most disheartening things is to put together a CV and write a specific covering note and then get nothing back. But don’t be disheartened, this is all part of the game. Just because you don’t hear back doesn’t mean you didn’t get through, remember that the people you’re getting in touch with might be in the midst of a busy day, so don’t be too hard on them. Follow up with a phone call and remember that sometimes you need to be in the right place at the right time.

Even if you’re not lucky when you first get in touch, you might also find that after few months or years that you become that right person. Getting on a company’s radar isn’t easy but it’s amazing how, once you’re there, there’s a chance you’ll pop into their head when the time is right.

I also think a trick to being in the right place at the right time is just to be in lots of places. Follow blogs, chat on twitter, write on Medium. Being good at self promotion and socialising (both on and offline) might just mean that you pop into someone’s consciousness at just the right moment.

6. Good luck

A few final tips from me:

  • – Have an up to date portfolio online and PDF format and a cover letter ready to go.
  • – Make sure you write a specific cover letter for every person you contact. It needs to be tailored to the recipient. Every time.
  • – I found a non-linear iPad portfolio really useful. Save your projects as a set of jpegs and then keep them in iPhoto folders. This way you can jump freely between projects (rather than clicking though one sequential list). It also forces you to summarise your projects in a series of images, and not ramble on too much.
  • – Don’t rely on an internet connection to share your portfolio. Although we live in an age of 4G and wifi, it’s far too patchy to entrust with anything as important as your portfolio and future career. Save it for offline viewing, or use a PDF/Keynote.
  • – Freelance can be a great way into a company, I was lucky enough to get a shot at IDEO as a freelancer. I never Left. My thanks to Mike at Represent for that.
  • – Finally if you want a job at IDEO, follow @ideojobs and keep an eye on ideo.com/careers
  • – Good luck! Let me know how you get along.