Q: I’m reaching out because I feel stuck in my career. When I graduated with a design degree, I was hired by a company that I’ve now been with for 7 years and I’m ready to move on. I have applied for Art Director positions at many companies with no luck so far. It seems like I’m getting a lot of no’s instead of a yes but I don’t believe in giving up so I’m wondering what else I can do. Maybe my portfolio needs a big improvement? I’m willing to do whatever it takes.
A. To this very day, the most common questions that land in my inbox relate to portfolios and landing a job. And trust me — I get it. As a designer, your portfolio is the link to your next big opportunity. Have you ever heard of that saying, “Show, don’t tell?” Well, a portfolio does exactly that. There’s only so much you can say about your accomplishments and the notable clients you’ve worked with. Showing your interviewer actual outcomes is the proof.
Though I’ve written a handful of portfolio-related articles in the past, today’s is a little different since the writer isn’t a freshly graduating student but someone with years of professional experience looking to transition out of her current role and into a new company.
Without ado, here are 10 pieces of advice to succeed when you’re prepping for an interview for a design position:
1. Show relevant work
This is a big one. Think about the company and the industry it is in. What types of projects do you have in your arsenal that would be a good fit? Once you’ve been working professionally for a few years, chances are that you’ve weeded out most of your school projects and have a mix of both corporate and smaller freelance projects to share. Remember that your interviewers have a limited amount of time and usually, there’s no need to share more than 6 to 10 projects. So, how can you make the most impact?
When I was looking for a full-time job a few years back before starting Branch, my previous position had been mostly production work but I was interviewing for a spot on a brand team. Because of this, I left most of the work from my previous employer out and showed mostly branding projects I’d personally completed with freelance clients since these were more relevant. If you do have a project you’re proud of and want to include but it’s not super relevant to the position, just make sure you have a really good story to go with it!
2. Self-initiated projects are fair game
I know how hard it can be getting the right types of projects you want during the first few years of your career. If you don’t feel that you have the ideal mix to share with a potential employer, that’s totally fair. I felt that way for a long time, too but the easiest way around that is to create a project or two for your ideal fantasy client.
This isn’t misleading as long as you’re clear that it’s self-initiated and if anything, it’s a strength to be able to show that you took the initiative to complete a large-scale project on your own time…and finished it! My brother interviewed at Nike years ago and though he didn’t have a lot of work that tied into the job he wanted at the time, he designed his own dream shoe and included it at the end of his portfolio. He got the job!
4. Keep descriptions short and sweet
For the most part, designers have a harder time writing than they do putting together visuals and oh boy, do I get stuck when describing my own projects and the outcome! The thing to remember is that you really don’t need more than 3 sentences max to get your point across. If you’re struggling big time with getting to the point and keeping your descriptions short and snappy, I’d recommend hiring a copywriter. It’s worth its weight in gold to have a second set of eyes that can tighten up your writing.
5. Do your homework
When I think back to the best interviews I ever had, yes, my portfolio mattered, but equally important was having a personal connection to the company through a story I could share. When I interviewed for my first-ever design job, I was familiar with the studio’s work and style because I’d attended many of their art openings and parties so it was easy to make them feel like I already fit in.
Be friendly, sign up to newsletters and follow your dream company on social media. The more integrated into their world you are before the interview, the easier it will be to make a great impression. My current employee, Samantha had been following this blog and knew about key Branch projects I’d shared on social media so when she interviewed with me last year, I felt like she was already familiar with our culture and shared common interests. I hired her by the end of our interview because she felt like the perfect fit — I could sense that her integration would be seamless.
6. Conduct market research
This is one of my favorite pastimes! Some people would call this stalking (ha!) but hey, I look at it a little differently —everything you need to know about a company is already out there. Take some time to read through your potential employer’s website, scan their social media accounts and get familiar with some of their notable projects and accolades. What are they most proud of? If they list employees on their website, get a feel for the kinds of work they personally produce. Look at as many portfolios as possible to find ways you can improve — because I have news for you — your portfolio is never really done! Preparation is key for any interview and the more you know, the better chance you have for sealing the deal.
7. Mock it up
One thing I’ve learned from redoing my own portfolio dozens of times is that the work you show can always be presented better. There’s always room for improvement and a lot of that has to do with mockups. I am a big fan of mockups because I don’t always have hard copies of printed materials from projects (90% of Branch clients are remote) and also, I don’t have pro-level photo equipment to consistently capture the work I do have on-hand. Mocking up your work allows you to present your ideal scenario of the outcome of a project and create a level of consistency with backgrounds and lighting.
If you need some fantastic, free mockups to get started, I highly recommend Graphic Burger. And, if you have a bit more of a budget and need very specific items, give Pixeden a try.
8. Simple is best
I know it’s hard to avoid because as designers, we’re naturally overachievers, obsessing over the tiniest details to built the best portfolio ever but perfectionism can also paralyze you. When in doubt, keep things simple. White space speaks volumes about your confidence as a designer. Allowing your work to breathe instead of overwhelm is key. Let your crisp, concise visuals and short and sweet descriptions placed on white backgrounds do the talking.
9. Always send a thank you
If you truly want the job, always follow up the same day with a short but specific thank you message. While actual thank you cards are nice, it’s important to be immediate with this step so I’d recommend an email. Reiterate that you appreciate the interviewer taking time out of their busy schedule to meet with you, include one specific fact about the company that stood out in the interview (it shows that you care AND that you were paying attention!) and finally, let them know you think you’re the ideal fit and are ready for the next steps. You can definitely be forward and confident without coming across as pushy.
10. In the meantime, gain experience
If your dream job doesn’t pan out right away, that’s okay. I know it’s easy to say that but I speak from experience. In 2009, I interviewed at a studio I’d always wanted to work at. While the interview went well, they didn’t feel that I had enough experience. I’d only been out of school for a year and while I showed potential, they needed a more senior-level designer. Instead of getting upset, I threw myself into freelancing at every studio I possibly could.
In 2012, an unexpected email landed in my inbox from that same company. What I thought was a quick informational interview morphed into a meeting with the owner and by that night, I had an offer letter in-hand. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. I was able to jump in with both feet and all that additional experience I’d gained was priceless.
Playing the waiting game is hard and building out a portfolio is a monumental task but all that preparation eventually pays off. You’ve got this — sometimes it just takes awhile to get what you want.
If hunting for a design job is something that interests you but you need a boost, I’m working with career strategist Ellen Fondiler and digital product mastermind Paul Jarvis to create Future So Bright, a new course dedicated to helping designers find their dream jobs. The best part is, this course will have a digital portfolio and resume template included. We’re launching later this Summer and I can’t wait to share more!
In the meantime, let me know if you have any portfolio questions in the comments. Always happy to help!
Featured work: We Are Branch.