Over the past few years, I have reviewed several thousand graphic designer and product designer job applications. I have interviewed dozens of candidates and hired ten.

All of the designers who landed an interview and were hired took specific actions that made them stand out from their peers. This post details five steps you can take to gain a similar competitive advantage.

Step I: Optimize your portfolio.

Always approach your portfolio as a design problem.
Imagine you are an employer. When you look at a portfolio, you are seeking to determine if the individual’s experience and skills are a great match for your team’s current needs. Is it helpful to see every CD cover and flyer a candidate has ever designed? Probably not.

Never force a potential employer to search through a large body of work to find great design examples that are directly relevant to the position for which you are applying.

The best portfolios I have come across usually have the following qualities:

  1. Quality is given preference over volume. All of the portfolio pieces are of a similar high quality.
  2. The body of work is focused. The design examples are almost all directly related to the position the candidate is applying to fill. If a designer is applying to become an illustrator, a majority of the portfolio contains illustrations.
  3. The work is easy to navigate. The design examples are logically grouped by type of design – e.g. “graphic design,” “product design,” “web/app design” – and the client or stakeholder is well-indicated.
  4. The design process is described. The candidate describes the why, how and, ideally, when of the creation process for each portfolio piece.

Check out the website of Industry Dive Design team alum Nan Copeland to see a product designer’s portfolio that meets these criteria.

Nan portfolio A preview of Nan Copeland's portfolio.

Step II: Customize your intro email and cover letter.

Craft a powerful opening statement.

Many candidates do not lead with a strong opening statement in the intro email or cover letter. This is a key missed opportunity. First impressions matter.

Here is a real opening line by a full-time applicant that grabbed my attention:

“I graduated from __ with a Bachelors in Graphic Design in 2012. 3,000 applied, 30 got in, and only 19 of us graduated on time.”

Spend thirty minutes tailoring the body of the letter to the position and company. If you use the same intro email and/or cover letter for every job application, you are doing it wrong. Cookie-cutter applications usually end up in the “to regret” folder.

The best intro emails and cover letters answer two basic questions for the employer:

  1. Are you the best fit for their team’s current needs?
  2. Are you interested in working on their team and their problems, specifically?

Make it easy for the hiring manager. In your intro email or cover letter, explain, as briefly as possible, how your background matches key requirements and expectations listed in the job post.

Impress the potential employer by making it apparent you have carefully researched and are excited about the possibility of working with their team. Get creative. Talk about some feature in the company’s app or on its website you think is well-designed. Basically, show the employer you are willing to put in effort just to get an interview.

Below are brief excerpts from intro emails I found compelling. Both of these designers went on to join the team as interns and were eventually offered full-time positions.

“The front-end design internship at Industry Dive is a way that I can combine my love for design and programming. I am also interested in trying out one of your treadmill desks.”

“I want to intern at Industry Dive so that I can have the opportunity to work with the best in my field. I want to work with the innovators who are at the forefront of building the future of journalism and to be in an environment that challenges me and pushes my skills and ideas to the next level.”

For more intro email and cover letter tips, I would recommend reading “How to write a cover letter that gets you a job.”

Proofread.

“I am applying for the graphic design position at Industry Drive…”

Over the years, I have received many applications with our company name misspelled.

Read your intro email, cover letter and resume out loud before EVERY submission. Details are significant! This should take five to ten minutes. Not doing so could easily cost you a potential interview request.

Step III: Nail the interview.

Keep in mind that most interviewers are trying to answer a handful of key questions:

  • What drives this candidate?
  • Is this candidate passionate about the type of design work they will be doing at our company?
  • How successful has this candidate been in the past?
  • Does this person have the technical competencies in the area(s) of design we need them to possess?
  • How does this candidate think through difficult design and task management problems?
  • Is this person likely to make the team stronger?

Make it evident you have thoroughly researched the company and are excited about the opportunity.

“What is your understanding of what Industry Dive does as a business?” This is a question I always ask during preliminary phone screenings of applicants. Sadly, many talented designers seem caught off guard and are completely unprepared to provide an articulate response.

Some candidates stumble around as they pull up our corporate website and read directly off of the home page. Others take shots in the dark – e.g. “You are a marketing agency” (we are a business news publisher) or admit that that they are not really sure.

Competitive applicants have clearly read about our company in advance, checked out our products online and can effectively summarize what Industry Dive does as a business – e.g. “You are a business media company that publishes news for professionals in a range of different industries.”

A graphic design intern we hired went the extra mile during her interview. She referenced insights from a blog post written by one of our senior designers and asked me to explain how members of our design team contributed to a logo redesign we recently completed. This is the level of preparation that will lead you to success.

Demonstrate your high design IQ in meaningful ways.
Thoughtfully talk about design-related side projects you have worked on and what you learned. Reference designers that you follow and how aspects of their work influence your perspective.

During her in-person interview, one of our now full-time team members mentioned how she did not like designers who promoted a “do whatever you want” philosophy. That is “art,” she said. “Design” requires you to “mold” your style to the needs of each project and client. She went on to reference a few designers she believes do this well.

Be prepared to describe your design process.
How did you create “x” portfolio piece? What was your process like when designing this document in InDesign? How did you receive feedback? What might you do differently next time?

Whenever possible, tell engaging stories.
Vague, general answers seldom reveal a candidate’s competencies and personality. You need to talk about specific design projects, challenges and triumphs. Pull the interviewer in and get them excited to hear more. Listen to the way Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb, tells the story of a design challenge he faced while studying at RISD.

Get the interviewer talking.
Find out key design problems the team is facing. Then ask questions that reveal “you understand their wants and needs.”

When you do not have a great answer, think about showing initiative.
During a round of interviews for a graphic designer position, a number of candidates could not answer a specific technical question about InDesign. Most of these interviewees then asked me for the answer. When I shared it, the standard response was a head nod and silence before the next question. Only one designer broke the mold. “Wow, that’s really cool. I wish I had known about this sooner,” he said as he jotted down a note. This was a great response. The candidate found a way to reframe a lack of knowledge as evidence of his hunger to grow as a designer.

Step IV: Send a follow-up email.

Always always send thank you emails. Surprisingly, most candidates do not send any follow-up messages. The applicants who take a couple of minutes to write a thank you email definitely stand out. The best follow-up emails I have received mention a topic the candidate and I discussed on the phone or in-person. It is also great when the candidate shows excitement for the team and position.

Here is an excerpt from a great follow-up email by a graphic design intern applicant:

“Thanks so much for carving out some time today to speak with me. I really enjoyed learning more about Industry Dive and the company’s design work. Before the interview, I was browsing around the company’s social media and noticed the recent logo update. It was really cool to hear about the design process behind the change and the decision factors leading up to the final design. Looking ahead, I would love to contribute to these design projects and the needs of Industry Dive and their clients.”

Step V: Go the distance.

  1. Follow the company and design team on Twitter and LinkedIn when you submit your application.
  2. Blog about your professional and personal design projects. Write about the typefaces you love and hate. Tell engaging stories. Show that your passion for design extends beyond your 9–5.

Other useful resources:

This article focuses more on the application and interview processes than the steps it takes to find a design job you will love or become a better designer. If you are interested in something along those lines, check out the recommended reading links below: