The Uphill Battle of Making Yourself Employable


For better or for worse, it’s probably fair to say that design is commonly perceived as one of the coolest career options. There is definitely truth in that, as in most stereotypes - designers DO sometimes get to make beautiful things and be wildly creative and influence the way things are perceived by the rest of the world. Very cool stuff to get paid for, no doubt. However, like every other type of job out there, design has some less pleasant sides to it. As in other careers, job hunting and interviewing are stressful for designers, but the process of getting hired is much more difficult and time-consuming for designers.

As a designer, it is your job to make things look good and interesting and to understand what your client wants. This all begins with how you portray yourself - YOU are your own client, and your creative brief is to make yourself impossibly attractive to potential employers. This last part is true of nearly anybody applying to any type of job - nurses and lawyers and business analysts also want to look attractive to potential employers - but this is even more true for designers because of the visual nature of the work. You can and will be judged instantly based on the work in your portfolio and on how you present it. Your portfolio is a reflection of your experience, interests, and understanding of the design field; there are a ton of things that can send the wrong message to a potential employer if you don’t get your portfolio right. Here is some advice to help you present yourself correctly on your portfolio:

Avoid these 5 things when building your design portfolio — Part 1
Building your design portfolio? Here are 8 things I wish I’d known.
Applying for a Design Job: How to get in the door with a great portfolio

As always, read those articles as advice and not written-in-stone rules. Make decisions based on what you feel will work best for you. There are, however, some common takeaways that are always true. Show work that relates to what you want to do. Be selective in the work that you show. Make your portfolio site easy to use and understand. Always be clear about your role on a project. And I would like to add one more: Never stop working on your portfolio.

Getting your portfolio ready to show is a huge step, but it’s only the first step. The next scary step is to actually apply to jobs. So you’re job hunting, and find something that looks interesting, and they ask you to send over a cover letter, resume, and a link to your portfolio. Cover letters and resumes are a really big deal! They are your actual introduction to a potential employer, and like your portfolio, how you present yourself in your cover letter and resume matters a lot. They should be on-brand - they should visually relate to your portfolio, business cards, and so on. Remember, you are your own brand, and should appear branded.

In a cover letter, you want to show why you are interested in working with them. Show that you specifically understand and are qualified for what they are looking for, and you want let a little bit of your personality shine through without being overly casual. It’s not easy, but here are some useful tips:

Ten common mistakes in résumés and cover letters
How to write a stellar resume/CV: 9 simple tips to get hired!

Cover letter advice that is always true: Don’t make it too long - if it looks like a chore to read, it won’t get read. Proofread it several times before you send it, and always spellcheck it. Make each letter specific to the job - DO NOT just copy/paste and plug-in the company name. Find a way to say “thank you for your time.”

For the designer, the resume is as important as the cover letter and portfolio. Your resume MUST look designed. This does not mean that it needs to look fancy and have graphic elements all over the place or a crazy avant-garde layout; having your resume look “decorated” is as much of a bad look as a resume that looks haphazardly slapped together. Having a resume that looks designed does mean that you need to really design your layout to have clear hierarchy so that it appears organized and easy to read at a glance. Use a grid and pay attention to small details like aligning baselines and margins - if you mess this up, the experienced designers that are looking at your resume will notice and have less trust in you if you get the chance to interview. There is nothing that will cast doubt on your design skills faster than having a poorly designed resume, so be sure to get feedback on it from designers you trust before you send it anywhere.

The Usability of Résumé Design
4 Beginner’s Tips on Making a Great UX Designer Résumé
The Ultimate Graphic Design Resume Tip Sheet

Resume advice that is always true: Keep it brief. Make sure it is easily legible. Use hierarchy so the reader can find the most important information. Be honest on your resume. Proofread and spellcheck it before you send it.

I also have some subjective resume advice. I believe strongly that a design resume should not be longer than a single page, although some designers disagree.
Another thing: there is a current trend for designers to have extremely designed resumes, especially ones full of power bars and pie charts that are meant to show their abilities, like the examples in this article: Design — Resumes I am of the belief that these are distractions and don’t actually say anything - how is a hiring manager going to know what you actually mean when you score yourself a 4 out of 5 in Photoshop and a 3 out of 5 in Illustrator? Does that mean that you are 20% better at Photoshop than Illustrator? Does it mean that you are able to do 80% of the work that would be required of you in Photoshop in the design position at their company? It is meaningless and has a lot of potential to be more damaging than it is informative or fun. Just keep it simple and be honest and have a list of things you have “Advanced Knowledge” in, and a separate list of things that you have “Working Knowledge” in.

The best advice in regards to portfolios, resumes, and cover letters is to never stop finding ways to improve them. There is always something you can do to make them better.

Your portfolio, resume, and cover letter are tremendously important to your career prospects as a designer, but they are only the initial scary obstacles to solve on your path to a successful career. Things like salary negotiation, networking, pricing your work, figuring out all the aspects of freelancing and invoicing, hitting intense deadlines, explaining design decisions to clients, and struggling with creative block are all things that you may encounter in your career that are especially problematic for designers. Just remember that taking on the scary stuff is worth it, because you aren’t going to get the chance to do the coolest stuff if you don’t conquer the scary stuff first!