1. Do Your Research
It’s important that you know about the company you are interviewing with. Do your research. Check out their website, read their history, and study their work and their clients. Go over the job description, job requirements, and any other information you can find. Why? Not only is it expected, but it is important for you to know what this company is looking for.
Do they work mostly with corporate clients? You may want to bring up your experience with corporate projects during the interview. Do they do work all over the country or world? You may want to chat about your love of travel. Nobody likes the guy who is a fake kiss-up, but if you see something that they’ve worked on that genuinely interests or impresses you, it won’t hurt to mention how you’d love to work on a similar project.
As a designer, you already know how important it is to know your target market if you’re going to sell something. In this case, you are selling yourself. Know your target market. Do your research.
2. Prepare Your Portfolio
It is important that you prep your portfolio for each interview with each specific company in mind. A corporate web design company doesn’t want to see your character sketches for a new video game or your pencil drawings of your cat. Be choosy. I’m sure your teachers have told you, “Your book is only as good as your weakest piece.” And, even though we’ve all heard it a million times, it is the absolute truth. As someone who has interviewed and hired designers, I can tell you that it is ALWAYS the weakest piece that sticks in your mind.
Only choose your best work, and try to choose pieces that relate to the work that the company does. If you have spent the first part of your career working on children’s game and toy packaging, and you are interviewing at a corporate web design company, do a few corporate websites as samples for the interview. They will understand that most of your samples will be child-related because of your past experience, but they will be impressed that you took the time to create something corporate for the interview. The only way they know if you can do the type of work that they want is if you show them.
3. Dress the Part
Dressing for a design interview is tricky. Some companies have a very laid-back dress code, and others have a strict business-attire policy. Sometimes you can get an idea for the company dress code from the website. Are there photos of the designers? How are they dressed? If you are seriously in doubt, it doesn’t hurt to call and ask what the dress policy is for the company.
You’ll want to come slightly more dressed up than the rest of the employees. Even if they have a jeans and t-shirt environment, you’re still on an interview and still want to make a good impression. Maybe try a casual jacket with your jeans, or even bump up to pants with casual shoes. In this case, a suit would be over-the-top. No matter what, show your creativity. Even in a suit, designers are expected to have some style, so don’t tone down completely.
4. Everybody Counts
It might sound obvious, but be friendly. Be nice. To everyone. Most design companies are fairly small, and the people who work there are close-knit. The person answering phones may have lunch with the art director. In some places, he or she might BE the art director. Don’t assume that anyone is beneath you. You’re the new guy (or girl) — be nice to everyone.
5. Be Willing
I read a while ago that the number one complaint that companies have about new graduates is their attitude. They don’t want to work their way up, and they think they deserve a certain type of job or pay right out of school.
During your interview, let them know that you are willing to learn, willing to work your way up, willing to do anything. If they want you to learn a new skill or a new program, jump at the opportunity. If they want you to start out in another department to learn your way around before you become a designer, be honored to do it. Be flexible, be agreeable, and be happy about it.
6. Be Yourself
Your portfolio is important. Your attitude and your personality are MORE important. Because many design firms are small, it’s essential that the people that are hired fit in with the office dynamic. Unfortunately, this is not always something you can help. If they are a bunch of crazies and you are more conservative, it’s just not meant to be. Move on when they turn you down and don’t feel bad. The best thing you can do is be yourself, and don’t try to change to fit in. You’ll be unhappy, and it’s not worth it.
There are a group of designers somewhere out there looking for someone just like you, and it may take some time, but you’ll find them. When you finally do click with a firm, you want it to be your real personality that they fall in love with.
7. Focus on the Positive
Be proud and be honest. You can read as many of those “How to Interview” books as you like, but in the end, you want to sell you and your work. You only sound like a robot if you use the textbook answers. The important thing is to put a positive spin on everything (nobody likes a negative person in the workplace).
Are you just out of school? Point out how you’re eager to learn everything about this company and the way they do things. Don’t have an extensive work history? Talk about your freelance projects and how doing freelance work has given you not only the design experience, but experience working one-on-one with clients. Didn’t enjoy your last job? Talk about the positive things that you learned there that will help you as you take this next step in your career. Made a mistake on a design piece, with a client, etc.? Talk about what you learned from your mistake, and what you’ll do differently next time.
8. Pay Attention
Pay attention and listen. It’s important that they know that you have the ability to take in information and remember it. When you are introduced to someone, remember their name and title. If someone gives you an instruction, follow it. It sounds simple, but when you are nervous, sometimes your nerves take over — consciously force yourself to be a good listener.
9. Study Up
Be prepared for a test (or multiple tests.) If they like you, chances are they will be testing your design skills. If it’s a web job, they may ask that you code a site. If it’s a print job, they may ask that you design a brochure and set it up for press. In my own experiences interviewing, I’ve been asked to take math tests, vocabulary tests, comprehension tests, proofreading tests, and personality tests — and those were all for design positions!
If you have been away from the programs for a while, do some retraining or just put together some projects on your own to sharpen your skills. Be ready to test on any programs listed in the job description — even Microsoft Office.
10. Give Thanks
I’ve worked for companies that would skip over their number one candidate for a job if that person failed to send a thank you. It is an absolute necessity. A thank you email is better than nothing, but it is not preferred. Take this opportunity to show off your design skills one last time. Create a card yourself, or hand-write something witty. Be sincere, be thoughtful, and be thankful.
Be sure to mention the names of the people that you met. Be specific about what you liked about the company, what you learned in the interview, and why you think you would be a perfect fit for the job. Try to mail your note as soon as possible (the day after the interview if you can) and be aware that this one action could make or break your chances at a second interview or even the job.