Everyone knows it and everyone hates it. The process of applying for a design job. But why so? Probably because everything counts. Because every little detail on how the application is put together is perceived and valued. How it is structured, which font is used, and so on; it is the whole package that indicates your value in the market. While a finance-guy could simply use a template on Word, you would dig your own grave with that in the design realm. Applying into a design agency is a science for itself.
The world-wide-web nicely caters hundreds of checklists, how-to guides, and videos on that topic, but as it seems like, it is still not done properly. What already sounds frustrating in the introduction and seems like a hopeless task, is actually a good thing, my friends! With a little bit of focus, this means there is space for us to excel in our application. What that differentiating focus could be and mean, you will find here. Step by step.
The observations I made with these endeavors so far are that I often got lost early on, started wrongly altogether or straightly dove into a strict portfolio-mindset, all of which resulting in an unfinished and non-satisfying outcome. That’s why I decided to get to the bottom of that seemingly hateful process and find out what thinking could guide us in this self-portraying project.
1. Do some soul searching
First and foremost, ask yourself what you want to do and where your passion lies. There is plenty of other fish in the sea, but no one is just like you. So this initial question is fundamental. Not only for your professional career but more in a general context. We all know the classic: “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”-question. This one will follow sooner or later and we should all be able to truthfully answer it to ourselves. Be sure to know what you want to do in your life and on what to focus, it will make planning your future much easier. Ask yourself questions like “what did I enjoy the most in my studies?”, “what was I specifically good at?” or “what made me smile or feel like opening a bottle of champagne?”.
If this is not enough and you’re still unsure, the next step can be to find someone who is already working in an agency or corporation and talking to the people from this profession. This can give you guidance and vision about the direction you could go. Also, it will get you some understanding and sense of reality and could set straight false assumptions or underline correct ideas of yours about the job itself.
This is a very important point. How can you show yourself in the best light if you don’t even know where it is yourself?
2. Tell your story well
As soon as you know your strengths, your style, and your preferences, it is time to show them well. As a designer, you know that I’m talking about the portfolio, this is where you can give a good account of yourself. The general idea of a portfolio has shifted a lot in recent years, it nowadays is more about telling a story and presenting yourself as a human being, instead of a worker and performer only. People hiring for design roles are keen to see your versatility, want to feel that you can display a set of soft skills and that you can work in a team. So, when you think of the portfolio, you should think about the document that contains more than just your work. A proper representation of yourself, your experience and your personality.
In what form you wish to set up your portfolio is all up to you and your own judgment. Keeping in mind that we live in the age of digitalization, which not only means you should be able to set up and build your online presence, but also take into account that the potential employers can much easier access your data. It definitely does not shed a bad light if you can show your affinity of using modern ways of communication and maybe even your ability to learn new things. On that note, there are quite a few simple-to-use online services that can help you build your portfolio as a non-professional (Squarespace, Wix, Readymag, to name a few). Be aware though, the professionals easily notice the difference between templates that have been altered or not, so this is a great opportunity to bring in your own style and show that effort has been put into it. This will make your online presence authentic and, again, shows your creativity.
The portfolio is the first impression your desired company will have from you, so here are some tips to consider when introducing your projects:
- What was your role?
- Was it a group project or individual work?
- What was the background of the project?
- What were the goals of the project?
- Who were the users you design for?
- What problem needed to be solved?
- How were you planning to solve those problems on that matter?
As designers, we know that it is not only about making things beautiful but much more about using the right processes and storytelling to create great solutions, tailored to the end-user. So this is where you can proudly document how you work, what methods you are familiar with and how you apply them to reach that final result. Short and punchy background information of your skill-set completes it nicely.
3. Research like a real designer
A job application in design always means entering into a collaborative environment, where you will work with other professionals. So when it comes to looking for a job opening or a company that would fit your dreams, which I would personally suggest going for in the first place, it is crucial to make sure to build your career in a corporate setting where you can thrive in. In the end, people who you surround yourself with will be the ones that really affect your further career. So how would you know beforehand, if it would be the right place for you to work? Through extensive research.
Think about it that way: Who is out there, moving into a direction which you would want to be part of? What do these companies have to offer to you? What do they do well, and what not that much? What are the corporate guidelines and how do they portray themselves and their co-workers? Design agencies mostly take good care of their online presence and you will surely be able to detect some characteristics of their internal culture. Look out for the design language they use and see if it seems familiar to you. Overall, actions mostly speak louder than words, so go and explore their latest projects or upcoming events. You might even want to consider going to public events of theirs to network and talk to the people directly.
Get to know a company in-depth before you decide to apply for it, this will not only save you a lot of time in the whole process but also broaden your horizon on the market situation and what is happening in the field. The insights gained in the detailed analysis hopefully ignite your motivation and provide reasons for why they are the perfect fit for you and why you are theirs!
4. Cover letter as your entry ticket
After you sparked their interest in the portfolio they will turn to your cover letter. This is your personal voice, speaking to the company. It could be your entry ticket to the table, so don’t waste this opportunity to show that you went the extra mile in this application process. After you’ve done all the research, you will be able to not only present yourself in a professional, promising and surprising way, but it will also allow you to show them how well you know them already and what your contribution to their operations could be. Tell them, where you imagine yourself within their organization, how you would embrace their values and where you possibly even see potential opportunity areas for the future of their company – positively and enthusiastically.
For the heads of design, the application stands and falls with the cover letter, which could be the deciding factor over an interview invitation. This is where your designers’ mind comes into place, how far can you switch perspectives and put yourself in the position of the other, in this case, the company’s allocated person reading your application?
The bottom line
What it all comes down to is:
1. Do your homework, not only on the company but also on yourself.
2. Know what you’re talking about and don’t just tell them how great they are and how much you would want to work for them, but state what and how you could contribute to their success and what they’d gain from having you in their lines.
3. See it as the opportunity to differentiate yourself from others.