Five tips for young designers looking for their first professional job
By Michael Sasorith | April 2018
Looking for your first professional design job can be draining. Many resources suggest researching the company, preparing your portfolio, and being ready to answer several go-to questions—all essential for preparing for an interview. To add to advice out there for young designers, Michael shares five tips that can help fresh new talent put their best foot forward in the interview and application process.
A co-worker tagged me on a LinkedIn post in which a person was asking her connections if there were professionals who had advice for students who were pursuing design as a career.
It wasn’t too long ago that I was in the same position as those students—close to being done with college and energized with the belief of changing the world, but still harboring doubts of my skills and potential.
Then suddenly, I was out of the structure of higher education and on my own. Sending out resumes and doing interviews, I was filled with anxiety waiting for that one reply that said I got a job, a real professional paying job.
Like most people, I looked online for advice. Most resources already say exactly what a designer should do for a prospective job: research the company, prepare your resume and portfolio, be ready to answer certain questions, etc. In an attempt to not repeat what many have said before, here are some things that I learned throughout the process of finding a design job.
1. Learn to speak their language
In college, there’s a luxury in being surrounded by other student designers who are learning the same design principles and methods. Outside of college, designers interact with many people from different fields, and often times they are the ones who are looking at the resumes and doing the interviews.
Some interviews that I have done in the past have been with different types of managers (project, marketing, and sales) who work with designers, but don't necessarily have a design background. It was actually rare to have an interview with another designer. I would try to flex my design knowledge during interviews, but it would be reciprocated with blank stares.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t talk in a way that shows your expertise, but it is an important skill to learn how to explain your design rationale and process in terms that would make sense to anyone. This is not only essential for interviews, but for future client presentations.
2. Understand how design is related to business objectives.
The projects done in college have a little more flexibility, and allow more self-expression than the work done with real clients. Similar to the first tip, when explaining your projects to fellow classmates the conversation is typically focused on solving stylistic issues, such as a balanced composition or establishing figure/ground. But when working with clients or coworkers from other departments, people often want to know how design relates to their business objectives.
Being able to connect design to business will not only benefit you, but also the industry as a whole. Although more designers are holding important positions that impact key business decisions, design is still often seen as a job to make things look pretty. Good design accomplishes much more, and establishing it as a solution to business problems will show that you are thinking beyond an aesthetic point-of-view.
3. Know your strengths and hone in on them.
Although personality tests like “which of the four Hogwarts houses do you belong to?” or daily astrology readings will unlikely help you get a job, there is at least one important personality test that can help you understand your strengths and sell them in interviews: the Gallup’s StrengthsFinder assessment. The test provides you with your top five strengths, and once you learn how these strengths are defined, they become great material to use in interviews to describe what type of worker you are.
For example, when I was freshly out of college the majority of my work experience was non-design related, and I also shared similar technical skills as any other designer. Therefore, I had to find better ways to distinguish myself from other applicants. After taking the StrengthsFinder test, I found out that my top two strengths were adaptability and positivity. I used those traits to describe how I would handle common design situations—like tight deadlines—and the mindset I maintained when under pressure.
Although it’s always good to learn, it’s just as important to refine the strengths that we already possess.
4. Understand your skills and be confident in your value.
The aesthetic component of design will always open the door to subjective opinions, and that, unfortunately, leads many to believe that design is a simple profession—it’s just colors and fonts, right? Yet, before making any opinions on a design, people often preface their critiques with, “I’m not a designer, but…” The subtext of that statement reveals an odd paradox—people think that design is easy, but also understand that it’s not a skill that everyone can do.
It is very easy to internalize others simplifying your work and believe that the value of your skills is minimal—which will affect how you present yourself in interviews. If you don’t believe in the work you do, then the person interviewing you won't either. Remind yourself that all of the design methods and tools, whether that is sketching or being adept in a variety of programs (Adobe, InVision, Sketch, etc.), is not something that everybody intuitively knows how to do. Design requires time and training, and all of that is the equivalent of valuable knowledge and skills that businesses need.
5. Sometimes it’s not about your work, but rather how you would fit in the work environment.
Employers are often looking for a person who is not only capable of doing the work, but also how they would fit into the work environment. Although this can seem shallow, especially if you didn’t get a job, in hindsight it is actually beneficial for you.
If a work environment is too different from how you work and who you are, you’ll spend your time either changing yourself or trying to change the environment. Change is good, but monumental change takes time. You will have to assess how much time and effort it requires, and if that doesn't match your willingness to work on that change, then you will likely feel stifled and unable to grow in your position—which is bad for you and your employer.
It's easy to forget that most interviews are two-way streets: you're looking for a job, and a company is looking to fill the position. Make sure you take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions at the end of interviews. This gives you the chance to get a sense of the environment that you'll be working in (the management, co-workers, and the company as a whole). Determine how you want to grow, and assess if the company's work environment will foster that growth.
There are many factors that play into getting a job and hiring a person for a position, and following these tips do not guarantee that you will get a job on the spot. But, the overarching theme is about understanding yourself. The more that you know yourself—the knowledge, skills, and strengths that you possess—the more that your passions will be clear and come through when you speak about yourself and your work.