For students and new professionals looking to land their first job. Learn best practices for how to navigate your education path, build a portfolio, and prepare for an interview.
Depends on what kind of person you are. Personally, in my decade of experience, I've worked roughly half of my career in agencies/freelance and a half in startups/big companies. Where you start doesn't really matter as much as what you learn from each opportunity. Each caters to a different working lifestyle as well as how much of a generalist vs specialist you can be. Here are some questions I recommend you consider when making your decision.
Am I interested in working on multiple projects at the same time with tight deadlines? Am I interested in selling my design work and the value that's tied to it in every presentation? Am I interested in creating ideas from the ground up? Am I interested in reimagining something that already exists? Am I interested in working with a new group of people every few months? Am I interested in working on something that I may not have contact with the dev team? Am I interested in working on a variety of projects (branding, physical, software, advertising)? Am I interested in being part of the Seal Team 6?... See more
Am I interested in working where people might not fully value design as much as dev or sales? Am I interested in working fast to validate something that may or may not eventually make money? Am I interested in changing direction on something I've put a lot of time and effort into? Am I interested in dabbling in front-end dev, design, and product management? Am I interested in getting paid less but have equity in the company? Am I interested in managing designers but still getting to play in the pixels? Am I interested in innovating on ideas big companies wish they had time for? Am I interested in more stability even if I mess up? Am I interested in being on the Police Force but also the SWAT Team?... See more
Am I interested in working on a very specific piece of an application with a lot of constraints? Am I interested in breaking up a design vision into bitesize releasable nuggets? Am I interested in collaborating with hundreds of designers to collectively make something together? Am I interested in well-defined processes and career ladders? Am I interested in managing other designers? Am I interested in getting a lot of access to mentorship? Am I interested in being part of the Navy?... See more
Each have their pros and cons. It largely depends on what you think best compliments your work style and where you think you'll find the most growth opportunities. I'll outline a few (but not all) of the pros and cons I've seen and heard about most...
Pros: Highly generative, work with a variety of clients / problem spaces, often good processes. Cons: Often detached from development, often not involved in problem & opportunity definition, no validation of design decisions.
Pros: Highly generative, productive, fast-paced, designers usually have ability to take multiple roles through product development. Cons: Processes often less-defined, often lacks user research, often times do not value design.
Pros: Well-defined processes, usually bigger problem space opportunities available, more stability, easier to find mentorship. Cons: Less productive, more bureaucracy, metric driven.
Where you land your first job may seem like a paramount decision. I assure you, it is not. Your career will be long. There will be ups and downs (hopefully not many, though!). For example, my career has taken me from agencies; to freelance; to startups, and now to a big company. Each role has its pros and cons. The important part is to view each stage as a learning experience. Each experience should inform your next adventure. The key is to identify the environment you will be the most happy.
Take the time to have open conversations with professional designers. Talk to designers who work for an agency. Talk to designers at small and large companies. Ask them what their day-to-day looks like. How is their work/life balance? Even more importantly, if you're serious about a particular company - talk to designers who work there and ask them open and honest questions.... See more
Identify the type of environment in which you'll learn the most. At an agency, you will most likely be doing a lot of pitch work and collaborating heavily with other designers and even clients. You may also be juggling multiple projects of varying context. At a small startup, you will be one of a few designers or maybe even the only designer. While that can be a great way to flex different skillets, it can also be a high-pressure position.... See more
Compensation can vary between these three company types. Typically, agencies will pay you the least. Startups can vary, but you may be able to offset this with equity. Large companies will most likely pay the most. This is solely based on my own experiences and should be taken with a grain of salt.... See more
Approach the design of your portfolio like a design problem. Your user is a hiring manager or recruiter and you need to convey who you are and what you'd bring to the team as effectively as possible. You know they're constrained by time and are trying to get high, confident signal on who you are in a sea of other portfolios.
Curate, curate, curate. It's more impactful to highlight fewer projects that you're proud of, rather than a ton of projects that aren't your best work. Bias towards sharing work that's recent, had strong results, and showcases what your strengths are as a designer.... See more
Portfolios often just showcase process for the sake of process. Don't just show that you followed a linear or typical process. Projects are rarely linear and they hardly follow a standard process. What were the unique considerations you had to make for this project? How did your process accommodate those things? What were the hardest decisions to make and how did you make them reasonably?... See more
Hiring managers don't have a ton of time to spend on each and every portfolio. If they're scrolling quickly through a case study of a project, they should be able to pick up within a few seconds, the gist of the project and what your contributions were. Choose and curate effective visuals, use effective hierarchy and titles to bring main parts of the process to the forefront.... See more
Put yourself in the shoes of a hiring manager. They're looking at portfolios all day long, so help them out and be really specific about the value you can bring to the team. Figure out what your "design superpower" is, which ideally highlights a combination of several of your best skills. Then, use that as a narrative thread throughout your portfolio. Don't give a hiring manager the time to think, "OK, so, if I were to hire this person, what would they *do*?" Answer that question for them by the time they've reached your homepage.
It may be smaller than you think. Maybe it's that you're really passionate about designing for accessibility. Maybe you spend all your time thinking about what's going on for your users off-screen. Maybe you're obsessively detailed oriented or work best when the problem you're trying to solve is really ambiguous.... See more
If you're passionate about accessibility, you probably have a lot of empathy for your users. You might do a lot of research. You've probably learned some valuable accessibility do's and don'ts that you could bring to your new team. That's a big deal! Everyone knows their product should be accessible, but having someone in the room advocating for that effort or driving it forward might be a game changer. If you love ambiguity, you might be really good at brainstorming, creative solutions and prototyping. Maybe you take a lot of initiative and jump right into complex problems. Not a bad asset to have on the team! If you're really detail oriented, you probably care a lot about final polish, which requires a well-trained eye and lots of effective collaboration and communication. That's good, because effective collaboration and communication aren't always a given.... See more
Accessibility: "By improving the accessibility of feature X, we improved the experience for Y% of our customer base." Ambiguity: "By moving quickly on some creative prototypes, we were able to agree on the feature direction one week early, adding an extra week to development time." Detail oriented: "By collaborating with the designers and front-end engineers, we were able to come up with repeatable patterns and components, reducing inefficiencies in UI development."... See more
Put it front and center on your homepage. Help the hiring manager picture you adding value at their company. "Hi, I'm A, a designer who puts accessibility first." "Hi, I'm B, and I like solving big picture problems." "Hi, I'm C, and I'm passionate about design systems."... See more
Think about how your superpower has informed your work and tell the story of each of your projects from that point of view. You should, of course, mention any other relevant skills and strengths, but leading with a superpower helps compensate for skills you don't have or need to work on.... See more
Not every company is going to need your superpower. Some might already have that skillset covered, some might not be at the stage where that skillset is valuable. That's OK! It's better to work somewhere that's compatible with your passions than try to mold yourself in a random company's vision of what a designer should be.... See more
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Culture is never about perks, its about relationships.
A friend of mine started a new job. The unofficial policy is that when a new employee is hired, you take them out for coffee or tea the first few weeks they are there to get to know each other 1:1. He was shocked.
I consulted with a fifty year old company and met a guy who had been working there for forty years. That says something about the company. I later heard that it was common people are there for 10 years or more. That's a culture people really loved working in because I know they don't pay competitively and they have zero perks.... See more
Ask indirect but relevant questions to try and figure out the truth. Because if they have something to hide they aren't going to lay it all out on the table for you.
If breakfast is served, thats cool and may mean they just want everyone to be alert and healthy. If dinner is served this is a big red flag for me. This can mean that they only value your time spent in the office and don't want you to leave to try and have a healthy work/life balance.... See more
Is it "unlimited" and no one ever takes it? Is it a required amount each year? I've come to find that when there is a minimum of required time you have to take off that the company as a whole is typically healthier and has more positive, happy people within it.... See more
I do this by asking about their process and trying to get a sense of how many layers of approval and individual contributor needs to go through before shipping. The more layers, the worse the cake in this instance. Also try to dig into how the interworking of the approvals to see if it's even a process you'd be willing to endure. You can watch peoples' body language as they answer these questions to see how they feel about the process and/or their managers.... See more
How this is handled, what the roadmap is, and how designers are chosen for each individual project. This can provide invaluable input into the companies goals, ambitions and pitfalls.
Find the things you care about and dig into them. Figure out ways to sneak questions into casual conversation and disguise them as something else if need be. There is no dumb question, so don't be a dummy. Ask away.
The questions you ask to understand the culture of a company and design team are contextual to what you yourself value. Jot those down. Your questions should help answer if an organization exhibits the traits that you value.
Is it collaboration? Is it a team that values people uplifting each other? Is it an inclusive work environment with a diverse workforce? Is it a company that values employee growth? Is it where colleagues regularly get together outside of work? Is it a company that's mission-driven? Jot down what you value. Ask questions that help answer if the organization exhibits the traits you value.... See more
While it's important to know about the design team, you're likely going to work closest with your cross-functional peers (my advice here is primarily from the lens of working at mature organizations. It's perhaps different for newer teams). What you likely want to find out here is what the designer to product manager, designer to engineer, designer to insert-other-cross-functional-peer working relationship is like. You also may want to ask questions that help answer if designers are involved in product strategy and if the Design to PM relationship is a true partnership where design is coming in at Quarterly Planning, or if it's more of a waterfall process.... See more
A lot of companies have these. Both Lyft and Facebook are great examples of organizations that have a solid set of values that are shared and explicitly listed. Once you've found out what an organization's values are, you can ask questions that help answer how it permeates throughout the organization, how/if it helps to drive decision-making and its impact in practice, and how the values shape the organization. What you want to find out is if the values are contrived and there as lip-service (or because all the cool kids are doing it), or if the values are there to shape and guide the organization. The idea of "culture-fit" is often perceived to be a euphemism for not hiring people that aren't like the hiring committee (and often negatively impact marginalized groups), while "values-fit" recognizes the importance of having different voices while maintaining an inclusive and ever-evolving culture.... See more
Sometimes you can get a sense of this from walking through the office (typically, you'll get a tour of the office before your interview starts or at some point during). While I believe diversity is multi-faceted and goes beyond gender and ethnicity, I also believe that an organization where you can visibly see diversity values inclusivity more than organizations where it's not evident. In my experience and the experience of friends, when it's not visible, when there aren't many women in leadership positions, when there aren't many women in product development (design, eng, pm), the organization is more resistant to a diversity of thought, is less collaborative, and bad behavior may be rewarded, forgiven, or overlooked.... See more
Similar points as the above Action Item. These are the folks that will be evaluating you. How diverse is it? (Reiterating my above point: diversity is multi-faceted). Keep in mind if the team or org is newer/smaller, they may value inclusivity but are perhaps not yet at a point where interview panels are visibly diverse. If it's a more mature organization, then it may be acceptable to be more critical.... See more
Are designers silo'd from each other? Or do designers regularly interface with each other on some regular cadence (weekly design crits, bi-weekly team crits, etc). Asking questions around team structure will help you understand how designers are allocated to teams. Asking questions around collaboration will help you understand how designers from different teams work with each other (often times, decisions made in one team can impact another team, so collaboratively working together is important to ensure positive impact).... See more
When interviewing, showcasing not just the solution but also how you arrived at the solution is what will set you apart in a sea of talented designers. As you start thinking about how you're going to go about doing so, consider taking a deeper look at your process, your contributions to the projects that you've worked on, and why you landed where you did. I often start off with a brain dump before I organize my thoughts into a more presentable format. A few tips on what to do pre-interview and during the interview.
Work backwards The first step is to organize your thoughts. For this, you'll have to start with the final solution(s) and work backwards from there. Most meaty projects that are worth mentioning during an interview process are projects that have been in the making for months and sometimes, years. It can be difficult to remember all the little details. Make sure you dig up all the important aspects of a project that were a part of the process, from the project's conception to the final solution. For example, mood boards, creative briefs, sketches, scribbles, etc. Show AND tell As designers, it's important for us to not just be able to show what we can do but also talk about our work. I like to find a balance between what makes sense to show vs. tell. I usually divide it up into three parts: Conception, progress, and completion. Make sure you show your thought process for how you chose to tackle the problem. What were some of the main goals of the project? How did you think about different solutions? Which solutions were more effective than others? Why? After showcasing how I chose what to focus on, I proceed to illustrate my progress towards the final solution(s). It's helpful to tie your solutions to the initial goals that the team agreed on. This will always add more credibility to your work and you as a designer. The third and final step is to wow the interviewer with the final results. Explain a bit about how the final decision was made. What was the post-launch plan put in place? Was there any sort of testing done? How did you know that the solution you picked was better than other solutions on the table? How did you convince the decision makers?... See more
Tell a story When walking someone through your work the number one thing to remember is to be confident in yourself and be proud of your work. Walk them through your work as if you're telling them a story about your design career. Make it conversational. Pause while presenting to ask if they have any questions for you. Engage them in a dialogue as opposed to simply going through everything in one go. Conversations often lead to interesting revelations. Things that you may not have considered before. They also show the interviewer that you're eager to learn and aren't afraid to discuss topics in more detail. Talk about collaboration but don't forget to also highlight your contributions When I interview designers, I often want to understand how they collaborate with other teams and also what role they play in each project. While showcasing your work, it's important that you strike a balance between talking about your achievements as an individual designer and your moments of success as a collaborator as well. I think this is a key skill to showcase when interviewing. Lone geniuses are rare, collaborative work usually shines.... See more