May 3, 2018
5 simple ways to not suck with your design job application
I have a very selfish motive behind writing this. I want people to write better emails when they respond to design job openings. After going through tons (actually just a few hundreds) of applications, I identified some of the common traits (not mistakes) that do more harm than good for the applicant.
So, if you’re applying for a job anytime soon, here are 5 simple things to consider before hitting the send button:
1. Read the job description carefully (multiple times even)
It is very important to understand what does this role specifically require of you. Do you check all the boxes? If not, which ones? Can you pick those missing skills up easily? Are the unticked boxes critical for the role? Here are two examples with the possibility of a mis-match:
The role requires you to have “3 years of relevant experience as a Product Designer at a consumer facing product company.”
However, you have 3 years of professional experience as a designer, but only a year’s worth of experience which is directly relevant for this role. You may have been a Graphic Designer for 2 years or have just designed websites (without going deep into product solutions).
Action: Don’t apply. This role may not be a fit for you. You may be the smartest but there are a lot of learnings, day-to-day operational maturity that nurtures one to truly have that “experience” and just no. of years of professional experience will not prepare you for the role expectations.
The role requires you to have “managed a design team in the past”
But: You have a current title of Sr. Designer or Design Manager or Design Head but, have managed just one person. Or, you have managed a team of 3–8 but you have basically been responsible for allocating tasks and such.
Action: Apply. “Managed a design team in the past” is a bit ambiguous. You should, along with your application, ask for more specifics around the expectations of managing a design team since it could mean a lot of things — are you expected to take care of day-to-day execution, resource allocation and reviews? Are you expected to hire and form a design function in the company? If there are designers already, where is the company struggling and what are they expecting you to fix?
Understand that these questions are important to ask so the recruiter knows that just the role of managing a team is not luring you to apply but you want to evaluate if it’s something that you can contribute to and really help them with.
A job requirement document is really the first, but very important, step towards committing yourself to associate with the company, the product, and its people. Be thorough, self-evaluate, ask a lot of questions if you have even a pinch of doubt with any line item.
2. Mind your portfolio
I’m not speaking for other design recruiters but just me. I would appreciate more if you’re a bit more mindful with the portfolio you send. (read: I hate it when it’s a portfolio mixed with your drawing sketch book photos, illustrations, static web page designs and such).
I’ll mention one of my favourite real life instances when the candidate understood the role and presented to me what was relevant:
The role was for a Product Designer.
The position had been open for about 3 odd months and I did not even move a single candidate to the second round. One fine day, this guy pings me saying he wants to interview with us. At the time of interview, he brought with him a few open sketch files but before showing me anything on the screen, he spent a considerable amount of time in explaining how he finds business problems, how he approaches them and how he has been able to solve some of it and how he iterated on them. We talked about just one project — for hours. Now, this was perfect because that’s exactly what I was looking for a Product Designer to be — to identify and align with business problems and work on how design could solve them. He was hired as a Senior Product Designer.
If you have worked on 20 things, trim it down to your best 2 that resonates the closest with the product and role you’re interviewing for (which is exactly what the aforementioned applicant did). Demonstrate the thought process, approach, execution, problems, compromises that you had to go through to make it live. It’s 10x more valuable to the interviewer. Your medium could be a blog, a detailed case study, a video recording or in-person (if feasible).
Refrain from sending a bunch of links of different websites and apps expecting the recruiter to go through them one by one and understand what you might have done there. In your application email, you may choose to put direct links to specific projects incase your Dribbble or Medium or Behance or personal website has a whole lot more that you don’t want to archive.
3. Do not oversell. I repeat. Do not oversell.
Quite often, I come across applications that start with a huge sales pitch:
“I’m a design entrepreneur”
“I have worked with the who’s who in the startup ecosystem”
“I’m a seasoned design thinking practitioner”
“I’m a two in one package — an entrepreneur and a great, out of the box creative thinker”
“I was solely responsible to ship everything”
to quote a few.
Well, don’t do this. This, to a certain extent, kills your chances for further, healthy consideration. I understand your intentions are sound but you should work on your communication as well. Let me explain with the same examples:
“I’m a design entrepreneur”
At this stage, the recruiter is interested to know you, the kind of work you’ve done, and if it’s relevant for the role. So, instead of of starting with design entrepreneur, explain how you got into design, how you’ve been designing solutions and how you’ve started a few things on your own — an initiative at your company, owning up a few products and business or even your own studio, company etc. Then spend some time in communicating how is all of this is relevant for this role. Lastly, let the recruiter perceive you as a designer + entrepreneur or design entrepreneur without you having to explicitly state it.
I have worked with the who’s who in the startup ecosystem
It’s great actually, that you have. It makes a very solid case for your application. But don’t stop there. One of the problems we face while scanning through applicants is to see past all the name dropping and gauge how much did this designer really contribute to the multi-billion dollar valued startup’s app or learn from that rockstar CEO, or the popular startup’s head of design — Recruiters fail to see how you knowing someone or having worked with someone developed you to become a better designer — does it reflect in your portfolio? Is there is a gradual improvement with the quality of work produced year on year?
So start small — it helps the recruiter understand in bite sized packets about your contribution in the mentioned startups or people. Hold on to your bragging for a bit later in the interview process when the right conversation strikes — e.g. “Hey, yes I have worked on a similar problem during my tenure at XYZ and here were few learnings there”
"I was solely responsible to ship everything"
This is the most common one and especially amongst those who come from a slightly bigger team. If you are someone who manages a team of more than a few, it’s completely okay to tell that you did a few things and your team solved a bunch more. You’ll be evaluated based on this so be as honest as possible and paint the correct picture so recruiters can truly understand how you enable your team to deliver and while doing so, you take care of some of those yourself, hands on. Anything otherwise is usually not bought.
4. It’s more than okay to ask
More than guidance, this is actually a pledge. I urge everyone to ask a lot of questions when you’re applying for a position. It helps both, the applicant and the recruiter, with the following:
There will be a few things in the job description itself which may be crystal clear to the recruiter but a bit ambiguous to the applicant — do not leave those to assumptions. Ask for more clarification if required. This also helps companies be more articulate with their job descriptions.
Go through their Glassdoor page, browse through their current employees on LinkedIn and so on and I’m sure you’ll find a few questions to start a healthy conversation
Ask about specific expectations from the role —
“Will I be asked to work on marketing collaterals?”
“Will I have the liberty of budget while conducting user research?”
“I see that you have mentioned 2+ years of experience.. does it have an upper limit — will my application be competing with someone who has 6 years of experience as well?”
These are very legitimate questions and you’ll be surprised to know how much design recruiters would welcome these.
Some might argue that these questions are best reserved for a later conversation and preferably during face-to-face. I choose to differ. I value the time of both the applicant and the recruiter equally and believe it’s very important to ask a lot of questions to check for early match or red flags — saves a lot of time investment.
5. Don’t apply for the title. Apply for the role.
In one of my stints in the past, I applied for the role of a UX designer. I was hired as a Design team lead. In another, I never asked for a title — at the time of shaking hands, I was offered the title of a VP. I’m sharing this with you because something was non-negotiably important to me — the role. I focused on just that and the title came along with it.
Your role is the set of responsibilities you’d be entrusted with once you’re hired. Your role is to do the good work that the company believes you can. Your role is your contribution to the users of the product, the team, the company and to yourself, of course. Your title, on the other hand, is an enabler and identifier in the organisation.
Do not apply for the title of a Visual Designer, apply for the ground breaking visual design work you would be expected to do in the organisation. Do not apply for the title of an AVP of Design, apply for the opportunity to mentor a team with all that you’ve learned over years and learn from smarter people than you. If you have a good recruiter, you’ll be entrusted with the right title to empower your job.
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