In this series I talk to people at some of the most admirable companies and studios out there, simply asking: How do I get a job at your company?
Our fourth feature: Refinery29 aka R29
Even if you think you’ve never heard of Refinery29, you’ve probably read or seen something they’ve created. The digital publication shares all kinds of content every day for more than 331 million readers, much of it related to lifestyle, fashion, beauty and entertainment. Its vibe is smart, inclusive and celebratory, just like the team who works there. James Cabrera is on that team. He’s the senior product designer at Refinery29, and he was kind enough to answer all my questions about getting a job at this kick-ass company.
Hey James, let’s get right into it. Assume my dream job is joining the Refinery29 design team, but I don’t know where to start. So here are some questions – some are so basic, it might surprise you. But we’d love to hear your answer.
Looking at your current design team, how many of them came through internal referrals and how many came through the traditional application process?
We have a relatively small product design team. It’s a pretty even split between referrals, transitions from other departments, and traditional hires. Our most recent hires have come through the traditional process. We keep a constant pulse on who’s applying and will bring in anyone for an interview who we may find interesting.
Would you say the majority of designers you hire have been pre-selected and head hunted by your team, or do you get a lot of cold applications as well?
We get applications from every avenue possible, but they all funnel through our recruiting team. For the most part we get candidates from three main areas:
Through applications submitted on our careers page
Through personal contact where someone on our team is personally given a resume/portfolio
Head-hunted by our recruiting team, or even one of us on the team who may have stumbled upon your work
Regardless of how we find you, we still point you to directly applying through our careers page. If we know you then we’ll also send a note to the recruiting team.
I’ve been handed tons of resumes. I try to submit everything through our applications system just so we have everyone on file. I will personally send a note to the person hiring if a portfolio or resume catches my eye.
If we do decide to reach out to you directly, what kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us? Or should we just fill out the job posting form?
Keep it short and sincere. We like to find people who are truly passionate about our mission, already know a lot of the little details about our brand, have genuine curiosity for our business, and are always full of positive energy. Keep it conversational, yet pointed.
How important is a visual and complete portfolio for you? Can I get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at Refinery29?
It’s usually the portfolio that will spark our interest and get your foot in the door. The only way I can see a visual and complete portfolio not being necessary is if your past experience is overwhelmingly impressive and aligns with the industry. Even then, if we bring you in to meet in person we would expect – at the least – to talk through past work with visual examples.
Personally, when looking at candidates, having practical examples of your work is a very important factor. It doesn’t need to be flashy, but it needs to be thoughtful and give an idea as to the challenges you’ve faced and how the actual finished products you’ve made turned out.
Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio website. Anything you wish you saw more?
We’re product designers so don’t get too flashy with your portfolio website. The focus should be on the work you’ve done in its purest form, not the packaging around it. I’ve gotten links to some pretty “unique” websites where I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to view the individual projects. If I don’t know where to find your resume and clear examples of your work in that initial few seconds of landing on your site then I’m probably bouncing. I am impressed with websites that can clearly mix style with utility.
I wish more portfolio websites included little descriptions of what the designer’s role was in a specific project, or even pointed out some specific problems or personal thoughts about aspects of their designs. Too many portfolios now are just vanity shots and client name-dropping without actually communicating what was done. To me, the way you communicate what you’ve done is just as important as the work itself.
Besides having a portfolio, do you like the idea of designers being invested in other interests? For example being active bloggers or otherwise outspoken in their community?
We like to see that designers are passionate about the work that they do. That’s not limited to the work they may be doing for us. It’s also the work they enjoy doing for themselves. Blogging and participating in their community are just common ways designers might express that passion. Of course there are other ways to show you’re passionate about your work, so if you’re bad at writing it doesn’t mean you’re at any disadvantage.
What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at Refinery29? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us! (:
It’s a natural for designers to only show us their best work where everything went perfectly as they expected and the final product ended up just as they envisioned. 99% of projects are not like that. I want to see the ugliest thing (in the designer’s mind) that they shipped with their name on it, and hear why that project ended up the way it did. No one should ever feel shame about that type of work. The discussions that come up from those projects will impress us more than the most beautiful thing you felt you created.
Do you have a favorite story of an application that really impressed you?
This wasn’t on a formal application but I was once forwarded a Medium article by someone who explained their whole process for how they would design a content app for us. It was really cool to see someone make an attempt to dissect our business on their own without being in it, and see what types of questions they were asking themselves. Some people around the office were even muttering “Are they looking for a job?” so I guess it was just as good as submitting an application.
Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?
For the Product Design team this is how a typical process might look:
First get screened by someone from our recruiting team by email/phone
Come in for an in-person interview with one of the directors of the team you’re applying for (about 1 hour)
Depending on how impressed they are by your portfolio and explanations of your past work, we may or may not ask for a design exercise (1-3 hours of a designer’s personal time)
Come back in for a second interview to meet with a couple members of the team who could potentially be peers (1-2 hours)
Would you hire someone who is a cultural fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?
There isn’t a clear-cut answer to this but I can say that both are very important to us. While proper experience and hard skills will spark our initial interest, what we ultimately look at most is your ability to learn. We like to see how you handle situations and problems that you may not have seen or encountered before. You should also have the ability to communicate your ideas, keep an open mind, and handle feedback well.
What are the secondary skills you look for in a designer besides common soft skills? For example, do you prefer business skills over coding skills? Illustration skills over coding skills?
In a product design role it would be advantageous to have some knowledge of code, since you will need to be communicating with engineers on a daily basis to turn your designs into an actual working product. It’s not required but closing that gap between designer and developer will make things go a lot more smoothly.
After that I would say having knowledge of the business/industry comes next. Especially in media and publishing, you will face some counter-intuitive requests that you need to navigate around to find a solution that pleases both advertisers and users. Understanding the nature of the business will help you find solutions to the problems you’ll face much easier.
I know that Refinery29 is a bit different than your usual tech company. You have designers working on the actual website, but also designers who work on content such as illustrations, look books and Snapchat stories. Would you say everything you mentioned above applies more or less to all of these roles, or are there significant differences?
It’s funny because what we actually call “The Design Team” is our group of 15+ kick-ass illustrators, graphic artists, motion artists and art directors. They produce all of the custom artwork and graphics for our stories and feature pieces. We also have dedicated photo and video teams that produce custom photography and video content.
We have a separate team that I’m on called “Product Experience” which is a group of product designers, product marketers, and user researchers that work together to improve the design, structure, and user patterns for our .com site, custom CMS, and other distribution platforms. Distribution platforms include but are not limited to Facebook Instant Articles, Google AMP, Apple News and Snapchat templates. We’re constantly designing features for all of the aforementioned. But wait, there’s more! Our Product Experience team also experiments in future technologies and how our content might live on platforms such as VR, AR, and AI.
We constantly collaborate to see how art, photo, video, and technologically-driven experiences can come together to tell the best story.
Do you take interns? If yes, when and where can we apply?
We do. You’ll see various intern spots open up on our careers page. More of them tend to open up just before summer.
Last question: Does dressing with style give me extra points when interviewing at Refinery29? I’ve visited your office a couple times, and boy do I feel underdressed.
We want you to dress in whatever you’re comfortable and most confident in. You do you. You’ll see me on most days in joggers and t-shirts, but I’m also known to sport some metallics and colorful animal prints when I’m feeling in the mood.
So you’re saying I should wear a cheetah print jumpsuit to my interview. Got it (:
Hey, thanks for your time, James! For those looking to get a design job at Refinery29, James provided several gems we thought are worth noting:
Nr. 1 - Show your process and provide details.
James said he doesn’t want to just see your best work in your portfolio. He wants to see the failed projects too, and your process for working through them. It’s more important to have practical examples of your work than a flashy website with only client logos.
Nr. 2 - Research and show your passion for the industry.
Refinery29 wants to know you understand their business and feel excited about the kind of work they do. Read and watch the stuff they create to get a real feel for who they are, and show that you’ve done your research. (P.S. My friend Piera Gelardi, one of the Refinery29 founders & Creative Director, embodies the company’s spirit. We actually had an interview with her here on this blog a while ago.)
Nr. 3 - Learn code and broaden your skills.
Refinery29 produces many forms of content. The more you can do, the more likely you can collaborate with different teams and contribute to the awesome things they create. That makes you interesting and valuable as a potential hire.
I hope this interview has been helpful to you! Now go get a job at Refinery29 and start making cool shit with James and his team.