The 2 Keys to a Successful Design Interview

Many of you will be graduating this spring, armed with resumes and portfolios, ready to take the design industry by storm. Your professors, your friends, and your parents have probably given you lots of advice — and you feel prepared to blow away any company that gives you an interview. That job is going to be yours. But has anyone told you the truth?

Design is a competitive field. If you get a call for an interview, you passed the first test. Your resume and portfolio were good enough to make the first cut. But, they won’t get you the job.

You’re just one among many: many impressive resumes, many creative portfolios, many eager designers. Tons of talent — all after the same position.

So, how do you stand out?

It doesn’t matter how big or small a firm is. Every office has it’s own environment, it’s own pulse, it’s own character. Every piece in each distinct company puzzle has to work together.

More often than not, a company will hire the individual that “clicks” with the vibe of the office over another who may have a better portfolio or a more impressive resume.

The hard truth?

There isn’t really anything you can do about it. You are who you are. You will interview with some companies where you just don’t fit in. Maybe you’re more or less outgoing than they are, maybe you work better individually when the company operates in teams or groups, maybe you just don’t have the same sense of humor. Maybe you’re in a different place in your lives.

I remember one interview where the interviewer was bragging to me about their Monday-Wednesday-Friday after-work martini parties. He was so excited, like it was this great selling point. All I could think was, why would I want to stay late after work three days a week just to drink? I wasn’t 21 anymore. It just wasn’t a good fit for me.

You will probably know it as soon as they do — this just isn’t the place for me.

And you know what?

That’s a GOOD thing. It’s not fun working with a bunch of people who you don’t “get” you — who don’t make sense. Nobody wants to go to countless interviews — but just keep in mind — in order for you to land in the right place, you’re going to have to try a few times.

Don’t get discouraged. Don’t give up. And DON’T pretend to be someone you’re not. Eventually the real you will come out, and you will have just wasted time that could have been spent interviewing with firms that may have liked you for you. There is a good fit for you somewhere. It’s worth the wait.

Of course, your personality doesn’t mean anything if you can’t do the work.

Any company seriously interviewing for a position will put you to the test before they commit to hiring you. Web designers will be expected to design a few pages on the fly, art directors may be asked to come up with a campaign idea, print designers may be asked to set up files for press. I’ve been asked to take spelling tests, proofreading tests, math tests and personality tests. Be ready for anything! Take these tests seriously.

They are looking to make sure:

  • You actually possess the skills you listed on your resume
  • You actually have the talent to do the work you showed in your portfolio
  • You can do work in a timely manner
  • You do things the right way (CMYK separations, writing your own code, etc.)
  • You can handle the pressure of a real timeline and project restrictions
  • You can follow instructions and take direction
  • You have the right attitude while you work

Once upon a time, I had a part in interviewing candidates for an open design position. We had narrowed it down to two designers. One had a better portfolio, but we tested them both. In the end, candidate #2 won the job — even though #1 had the edge going in. They performed equally on the test — they both did very well and created solid web pages, coded from scratch. But candidate #2 had a great attitude. He came and took the test in the evening, after he had put in a late day at his current job. He didn’t complain, he jumped right into the work, and he even cracked a couple of jokes. That’s the kind of attitude you want to work with every day. It was his combination of personality and skills that got him the job — and years later, we know we made the right decision. He is a stellar designer, and still one of my favorite co-workers.

You’re ready to hit the pavement — to do what it takes to get your first design job. You know the basics: proofread your resume, put together a killer portfolio, and sell yourself to each firm individually. That’s what gets you in the door.

But, don’t forget to brush up on your skills, and cross your fingers — because it’s going to be a combination of skill and personality that lands you your first design job.

Good Luck!

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