January 12, 2021No Comments

The opportunity you’ve been waiting for

Smart companies hire people who are passionate about what they do and determined to work there. 

These people might not come along on the company’s timeline. They may not have an open position or a defined role on the team. But when that person comes along, they know better than to pass them up. They make the space. They create a role.

And so, the best question when job searching is not “are you hiring?” 

The question is: “Do you want to hire me?”

Mikael Cho, co-founder and CEO of Unsplash, put it nicely: “I love people who apply when we aren’t hiring. It signals conviction and people who don’t need permission to get started,” he wrote on Twitter. “Don’t wait for permission to apply to places you want to work. Every company I know will make room for someone great, even if they aren’t hiring.”

This couldn’t be more true for the creative industry. It’s like falling in love. You may say you’re not looking for it. You may turn down countless suitors, saying you don’t want anything serious. But when the right person comes along, it just happens. You weren’t looking for it. But you found it.

The majority of people I currently work with came through my internal network or random encounters. Hiring these people was as much an opportunity for me as it was for them.

If you want to work with a specific company, don’t wait for the door to open. Open it yourself. Make yourself the best person for the job, then go after it.

January 8, 2021No Comments

Why you feel uncertain about everything you make

Ask one person you trust for their opinion and you’ll get qualified feedback you can take into consideration for improvement.

Ask two people for their opinion and you may get conflicting feedback that prompts you to dig deeper and form your own conclusion.

Ask three people for their opinion and you may see a trend that confirms or invalidates a theory, swaying you in one direction or the other.

Ask four people their opinion and you have yourself a focus group, whose feedback can support your decisions or make you doubt them.

Ask five people, ten people, 20 people for their opinion and you will get answers across the board, sending you in every possible direction.

Ask enough people for their opinion and you’ll receive whatever answer you’re looking for – plus plenty more you didn’t want to hear. The feedback cancels itself out.

Getting others’ opinion can be valuable, until it’s not. So we must choose carefully when and how we get it. And realize that ultimately, our own opinion is what makes our work original.

January 4, 2021No Comments

How to future-proof your creative career

The world is changing fast, and the creative industry is no exception. The idea that robots might steal our jobs was laughable at one point. It’s feeling more possible by the day. That’s not to mention the growing competition from regular human beings. So how do we maintain our edge?

While artificial intelligence is still a long way off from being creatively coherent, it’s close enough to make us feel uneasy about the future. And in the meantime, the internet is lowering barriers to the creative industries. These days, you can’t turn around without bumping into another UX designer. Every week, we’re required to learn some hot new tool. In the tech and creative fields, the thirty-something folks are beginning to feel like old-timers. 

The creative industry already looks different since you entered it, and the pandemic has only accelerated the rate of change. Whether that’s a blessing or a curse is up to you.

You could see it as more people flooding in, saturating the field, snatching up your job options and making you irrelevant. Or you could reach for the same opportunities you fear others are taking from you. 

How do we stay relevant?
How do we stay valuable?
How do we stay on top of our field when the ground is shifting beneath us?

We continue learning and growing.

After interviewing some of the most admirable creative people we know here on DESK, we’ve begun to see a pattern. Those who rise to the top have something in common: They never consider themselves too good to be taught. They never stop pushing themselves to be better. They are forever curious, endlessly excited to learn something new or add to their skills. 

And this is where the perceived threat becomes a gift. The internet and advances in technology mean we don’t have to go back to school and get a four-year degree. We can learn and build on our skillset on our own time. Whether it’s taking a short course, following a YouTube tutorial or making a personal study of a skill you want to master, you can maintain your creative edge by continuing to sharpen it.

The New School, a creative university based in New York City, calls it Continuing and Professional Education.

Continuing and Professional Education at The New School is now offering online courses for creative professionals to grow their skills or pick up new ones. If you're interested in learning within a guided environment, registration is now open for courses starting in Spring 21:

Putting Sustainability into Practice (Fashion Sustainability Certificate)

The environmental crisis can no longer be ignored, and that's ringing true in the fashion industry. Things needs to change. Much of the 20th-century fashion system is outdated, destructive and quickly becoming irrelevant. This class is geared toward people in the fashion industry, at any level. Within the course, you use your business, project or idea as a case study or "tester" to contribute change within the current fashion industry. You will finish the course with an actionable project that can be a portfolio piece or plan ready to be implemented.

Become a more sustainable fashion designer  →

Lighting Fundamentals and Technologies (Interior Lighting Design Certificate)

This course is an introduction to the world of lighting design. It covers the fundamentals of lighting, including developing a basic understanding of light and human vision, lighting measurement and color. You'll leave having a working vocabulary of lighting terms and a knowledge base of lighting technologies and their characteristics. (Which applies to everyone from lighting designers to 3D designers).

Learn the fundamentals of interior lighting design →

 

Design Futures 101 (Futures Studies and Speculative Design Certificate)

In this course, you'll get an intro to the academic field of futures studies and design futures. The course will also touch on approaches such as discursive design, speculative design, critical design, strategic foresight and design fiction.

Get a better understanding of design futures →

 

"There's no 'finishing,' there's only moving forward."

For those interested in design courses: The New School's Parsons School of Design is ranked #1 in the United States. And since most certificate courses are 100% online, you don't have to be located in the U.S. to take them. They have what they call non-degree "adult courses," for those looking to pick up a new skill without pursuing a full degree, as well as certificate programs for professionals looking to advance in their careers.

The beauty of this approach: you don't have to commit to four years of study or work toward a far-off university degree. There's no "finishing," there's only moving forward.

Whether you decide to take a course or not, you can keep pushing yourself on your own time. Start with just 10 minutes a day. Recreate a piece of art in the style you’ve been wanting to try. Watch a YouTube video while you make your morning coffee. Ask a friend if they’ll spend one hour with you on Zoom showing you how to use a specific tool.

Instead of telling yourself you’re too old, or out of the loop, or too behind to catch up, take one little step. After a little while taking those small steps, you’ll look back and see you’re much further ahead than you thought you’d be.

November 18, 2020No Comments

Running a design studio where design is underappreciated

In April 2021, it will be five years since we started Dá Design Studio. Hurray! The dream was to build a design studio that was much better than what was available in the country – a design studio that put Nigerian design on the map of global conversations.

We wanted to build a studio that thrived on creating work that could compete anywhere in the world. Have we nailed that dream? We think we’re still on our way there, but we’ve come a long way from just a dream. What started with two founders has grown into a vibrant team and has impacted designers in and out of Nigeria. We’ve checked some awesome things off our to-do list, and we’re very optimistic about our future.

Nigeria is a recovering nation or developing, one if you may. We have a rich history of arts and culture, but we haven’t translated that into a strong design culture, at least not in the contemporary sense of what design is. We have many problems that give the illusion that design is a luxury.

That said, the world is changing rapidly. There’s more competition. Tools and educational resources are much more accessible, so these days, there are many stubborn Nigerians (ourselves included), doing amazing work in product design, brand identity design, etc. – choosing to defy the odds to create a culture and career around design.

Defying the odds is chaotic. When you add running a business in a place like Nigeria, plus selling a service people don’t fully understand or appreciate, plus the persistent mission to create great work, you set the game at probably the highest difficulty. The point is, we’ve had to make a ton of mistakes, we’ve had to be inventive and for that, each win has been beyond rewarding.

So, for anyone who’s curious, or anyone (masochists) who would love to try this sport, we’re sharing with you our top dos and don’ts. Here we go!

Do dream

Have a clear dream even before you’re sure of what goals will get you there. The dream will keep you grounded and unify your team, even when things are difficult.

Do amazing work

This one sounds cliché to say, but it’s by far the most important thing on our list. Amazing is relative, but if amazing is the uncompromisable goal, you will impress someone regardless. This sort of developing space has its cons, but it definitely has its pros. Consistently doing good work in such a young space makes it easier for you to get noticed, in comparison to places where design already has an established presence. People we've never dreamed we'd work with have been watching and reaching out to us for collaborations.

With the gift of the internet, think of good work like something that stinks (in a good way). People will smell it whether they want to or not. This is especially helpful because not only does it force those around you to pay attention, it expands your audience beyond your immediate environment where design is underappreciated.

Do solve problems

We know you’re probably thinking “Duh! We’re designers, we should solve problems, that’s the whole point of design.” We agree, but think of it this way: Go out of your way to find problems to solve, especially problems that are unique to you and your client’s environment. Be obsessive about finding these contextual problems and their solutions. There’s no better way to end the myth of design being a luxury than revealing its purest form: problems solved.

People see value in solutions that matter to them. We’ve had clients tell us we made them fall in love with design and truly mean it.

"People value and show off what they have to pay well for. You don’t need to be underpaid to get exposure."

Don’t joke with your money and value

When you’re doing design in this sort of space, you have to bring out your inner Mr. Krabs. Money is an issue, because people are more likely to pay for what they truly appreciate or need, not what they think is a luxury. So for the little you can get, especially in the beginning, be very intentional about how much your work costs and how you manage your money. You will find yourself doing a lot of the don’ts in this article if you don’t have money or you undercharge.

You really don’t need all the money, you just need a structure around the money you have. Budget everything. Don’t be shy to ask for your money or to charge well; if you do good work, clients will come. Besides, people value and show off what they have to pay well for. You don’t need to be underpaid to get exposure. Cheap clients typically refer you to more cheap clients. A smaller, well-paying market is actually bigger than a large market that won’t pay or won’t pay well.

To be fair, money isn’t everything. So the occasional “pro bono” or small fee isn’t a bad idea, but you have to be clear about the value you’re getting. Even if it isn’t monetary. In an environment where your line of work isn’t yet fully understood or appreciated, working without getting value is a bad habit and leads to low designer-self esteem.

If it’s exposure you want out of the engagement, outline what that means in clear terms. Meaning: How many referrals are you getting exactly? How many promotional posts? Do you appear on the client’s public sponsors list? Is that meaningful for your business? In what way is it meaningful?

This applies for all the work you do. Clearly define the value you’re getting. Monetary or not.

Do carve a niché

Carve a niche that’s tailored to your dream. You may be tempted to spread yourself thin and do everything remotely design-related you can find, just so your customer base is bigger and you can make more money to sustain your studio. (Whispers: “It’s a trap.”)

In our experience, when you have a niche, you build a reputation faster. People see and respect you as a specialist and people are far more likely to think of you when they need exactly what you offer. It’s like, how you’re more likely to be scared to pop your back if a spine surgeon told you not to, than if a general practitioner told you the same thing.

Plus, doing a singular thing over a period of time makes you a badass at that thing. This increases trust, as opposed to being good, but not excellent at many things, or doing what everyone else is doing.

To be fair, this particular ‘do’ is mostly our personal opinion. If doing multiple things is important to you, that’s OK too. We just think expanding from a successful niche is even better than starting out wide in a tough space.

"It’s funny how people come to you because you’re good, then make demands that make it harder for you to deliver your best."

Don’t compromise on your standards

It’s funny how people come to you because you’re good, then make demands that make it harder for you to deliver your best. Choose confidence and pride in yourself, even when you don’t have it.

It’s your duty to pace the engagement and paint a picture that reminds you and the client why you’re collaborating. It’s easy to get sucked into the culture vortex of not giving design the effort and credit it deserves. In the short term, compromising your standards may bring more money, more clients and make it easier to scale your business and team. And that's OK. But for us, we think if you’re crazy enough to come this far, you might as well focus on truly making an impact.

A good way to avoid money-related compromises is working toward at least one long-term-retainer arrangement with a client with whom you have a good relationship. No matter how small the money is, it’s a positive engagement, and at least you won’t die of hunger.

Do get excited about briefs over big names

Good design can come from a lot of different types of briefs, but great design only comes from good briefs.

Good briefs bring out the best in us and our selling point is being our best. Sometimes big names are distracted by the size of their names, so they may not put enough effort into their briefs. Getting too excited about your client’s status may make you shift your boundaries in ways that harm your work, studio and process.

Also, a lot of them in Nigeria for instance, are very familiar with the underappreciation status quo, and may knowingly or unknowingly force you into it. Bigger companies also have longer processes for sorting out payment, resolving any dispute and giving feedback. All of which may not be the most efficient or beneficial for your growing studio.

Don’t get us wrong – working with established clients with strong reputations does a lot of good for a designer, their reputation and most likely their pocket. But it’s far from everything. We’ve created rewarding work for our larger clients. But some of our most rewarding work, the work that has gotten the right attention, has also been from our smaller, growing clients.

"In a difficult environment, there’s no way a design studio is a sprint project. It's a marathon."

Don’t work for bad clients.

Please, not everyone is your client and yes, there are bad clients. Protect your energy and your dream.

Clients who have no intentions of shifting from the current state of things for the better, who show no interest in seeing the value in your work or any design work for that matter, are not good clients. Having short periods of financial dryness is better than always bringing in revenue that doesn’t allow you to get closer to the dream of your studio, or challenge your team in a positive way.

In a difficult environment, there’s no way a design studio is a sprint project. It's a marathon. So think long-term when choosing clients. Bad clients only bring unsatisfying work and more bad clients. It's also OK to fire your client.

Don’t take contracts and documents for granted.

Be careful what you sign or don’t sign. If people don’t even understand design, they may unintentionally or intentionally try to put you in agreements and situations that don’t favor you at all. Read everything twice and have an affordable lawyer read it twice. Document everything you agree with your client no matter how small. In some cases, even an email will do. You don’t want to ever feel forced to continue with a bad client or to compromise your standards because you signed something bad, or forgot to document something you all agreed on.

Don’t lie to yourself.

There’s always something you can do better. Find it and even if you can’t do it better now, set a plan to do it better in future.

Because the environment is tough, it's easy to blame it for everything and never look inward. If you think all your clients are bad, you probably have a lot of issues to work out yourself. If you’re honest with yourself, you are more likely to push your work further, learn and look at things from your client’s perspective too.

"Encourage those in your community who share your dream."

Do cherish good clients

Good clients allow a positive work environment, give helpful feedback and they keep you hopeful. Don’t take them for granted.

Good clients bring good clients. A lot of times, good clients take it upon themselves to be ambassadors for your work. They value your work, and they usually come back with more business. Especially if you’re a small studio that doesn’t have the time or resources for proper marketing, referrals are your saving grace.

Find out what makes them happy with you and your work. Support them. Try to connect to and genuinely care about their goals and business. It’s very fulfilling.

Do collaborate

It’s hard, but it’s easier when you have a support system. Encourage those in your community who share your dream, and if there are projects that you can’t handle by yourself, seek to collaborate. The work gets better, you feel inspired by others and you don’t stay stuck in your own head. As a studio, we don’t totally have this on lockdown, but we’re working at it.

Don’t be dismissive of what exists

We know everything we’ve said seems somewhat contrary to this last 'don’t.' It isn’t.

What exists in your environment is your opportunity to have a unique position, especially in the larger global conversation. That design is underappreciated here doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist here at all, and because it isn’t as good as it can be, doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer. At the very least it offers lessons on what you shouldn't do, and at the very best it offers a whole world of context and authenticity.

Do know when to compromise

Not everything on this list is absolutely set in stone all the time. That’s not the way life works, we think. Sometimes, we trust our instincts and objectivity to make compromises. The big questions for us are:

1. “Is the compromise worth the reward?"

2. "How much does this reward matter long term?”

Finally, do have fun

The situation is hard. There are enough challenges as it is, challenges will always be there. Don’t burn out for burning out sake. Don’t romanticize hard work just for the sake of it. Breathe. If you have team members, enjoy having them on this journey with you, laugh, play, eat good food, be optimistic, relax when you can and enjoy yourself. It is also important to note that everyone agrees Dami is the funnier and sweeter partner. Thanks for reading. xo

October 15, 2020No Comments

Establishing your identity as a designer

We like to say designers are not artists. It is not our goal, so we've been told, to express ourselves. Our goals are our clients’ goals. Our style is the brand we’re designing for. And yet, we are expected to have a point of view. To stand out and make a name for ourselves.

Early in our career, it's a confusing conflict. We don't have much work to show yet that sets us apart from countless other designers. And we probably don't have the luxury of choosing projects and clients that align with who we are. Yet we feel an existential drive to be unique, find our style and become known for something.

So how do we establish our creative voice and identity while doing work for others? How do we offer our perspective within the constraints of a brief? How do we meet modern design expectations in our own way, without settling for a trend or style that might box us in?

Or, when we’re working within established systems and best practices anyway, does it really matter?

We asked a few established, independent designers for their take.

"Our point of view and the willingness to express it as designers will be the most important asset when robots take over our industry."

First, how does style play into it?

Voice and identity and style tend to get wrapped up in the same conversation. While they are inextricably linked, there is a distinction. Think about it in terms of writing:

A writer's voice is their unique perspective, their way of seeing and filtering the world.

A writer's style is the technical choices they make (specific language, words and turns of phrase) which may change depending on the piece they're writing.

Their identity is how they fit into the world. It's how they are perceived as a writer, where voice and style coalesce.

A writer may choose a specific style again and again, and become known for it. Or they may write a range of novels over their lifetime in varying styles. No matter what style they write in, their same voice will come through. Their voice is their point of view. Their style is how it's expressed. Their identity is the result.

The same is true for designers. Our style preference may change over the course of our career, and from one project to the next. There's nothing wrong with that. It's our voice that will, hopefully, come through loud and clear no matter the style. And that's how we make a name for ourselves.

So how do we find that voice?

Pranjal Kaila, who goes by the moniker "ajeeb," primarily creates visual identities and brand strategies. Image from ajeeb.in, made with Semplice.

Trust your instincts 

For our voice to emerge, we have to listen to it ourselves first. As we work and learn, those instincts will get louder. And the more we trust them, they get stronger. They may even guide us in an opposite direction from what we or our clients expect.

“Usually when clients approach me they tend to have a certain expectation in mind or are looking for something similar to what I had already done. But I don't let that drive my creative process,” says Pranjal Kaila, an independent interdisciplinary artist & designer based in Gurgaon, India. “I approach projects from a tactical standpoint and make decisions based on my intuition."

Your intuition is formed, in part, by your education and experience. But it also comes from who you are. The more you trust your gut, the more you begin navigating the world on your own terms. Eventually, that defines the work you do.

Work toward the project goals. Follow the brief. But also follow your instincts and see where they lead you.

Libby Connolly creates thoughtful identities & branded content, including beautiful typography design. Image from libbyconnolly.com, made with Semplice.

Play to your strengths

For Libby Connolly, an independent designer and art director based in Portland, Maine, establishing her identity means catering to her strengths and unique eye for design. 

"A lot of my work is type-driven and usually layered with varying elements and fine detail," Connolly says. “This is my personal style, however, those stylistic preferences can take many different forms.”

If you also have a love of detail, or color, or words, embrace it. Whether you're working on a product UX or on branding projects, we will see that love for detail or color come through. We'll begin to know you by it.

When possible, choose projects that fit those strengths. For many of us, it's a luxury to turn down work that doesn't feel like a natural fit for us. But anytime we can proactively and intentionally seek those projects, our shape as a designer comes clearer into view.

“That is why a client hires a creative person – to bring the style and voice to the project," says Tracy Doyle, an NYC-based creative director and brand consultant. "If you are starting out and receive a brief where the client is asking for a specific style that doesn't feel inherently right for you, perhaps it isn't a good fit. I understand that saying no takes courage, especially in a tough economic climate, but sometimes it is the wisest decision you can make.”  

Tracy Doyle is a creative director and brand consultant working with clients like CHANEL, Tiffany & Co. and Gucci. Image from tracydoyle.com, made with Semplice.

"Having a distinct identity is the very essence of any creative medium, and design should be no different."

Absorb everything 

“Be a sponge,” says Connolly. “Browse design blogs and just look at other work, a lot of it. Take note of what you gravitate towards and why. Then try it out on your next passion project. This is what will ultimately become your own unique eye for design. Just absorb as much as you can. I still practice this exercise to this very day.” 

Doyle seconds that. 

“Ingest everything — especially when you are starting out. Visit museums; dissect typography; binge-watch cinematic gems; read voraciously; attend performances and study how movement, sounds, set, and costume all come together to create a performance."

While design handbooks and tutorials may be handy in the moment, won't find yourself there. It's the greater world that teaches you, inspires you and shapes your unique perspective.

"Different mediums all contribute to your creative capacity to produce ideas and form your point of view, but they also teach you how different types of work can evoke an emotional response," says Doyle. "That becomes a powerful tool when considering what you want the audience to feel when engaging with your own work.” 

Don't discount self-expression

We may say art and design have different goals, but design is still an artistic practice. No matter how hard we preach otherwise, our designs are a visual expression of who we are.

“Design should be approached like any creative medium,” says Doyle. “A Fellini film looks, sounds, and feels remarkably different than a film by Agnès Varda; a painting by Modigliani is distinctly unique from, say, a Rothko or Alex Katz. Having a distinct identity is the very essence of any creative medium, and design should be no different. In part, this is about differentiating yourself from others, but it is also about your own sense of expression.”

Kaila agrees.

“Unlike economics and science, design problems can have more than one right answer,” Kaila says. When every brief is broken down into formulas and processes, your creative voice is what will make a design solution unique. Our point of view and the willingness to express it as designers will be the most important asset when robots take over our industry.”

We don't just "find" our identity. We can shape it.

We talk about "finding" our identity, as if it's already out there and we just have to stumble upon it. But we have more control than that implies. Just like you'd craft an identity for a client, you create one for yourself.

“Creating a distinct creative identity for me means putting my best foot forward in attracting like-minded creatives and clients,” says  Connolly. “For example, if I wanted to appeal more to tech companies, I’d portray myself much differently."

A client or company has countless options when selecting a designer for a project. It’s not your years of experience or your mastery of specific tools that make you their perfect choice. It’s the clients you choose and the work you create. It's your attitude, your voice, your process, how you describe yourself. It's who you are aligning with who they are. 

The place where all of it comes together? Your portfolio.

It's here we see the picture of you develop – a story you tell through your website design, your case studies, your bio, even your typography choices. It's where we see your style and hear your voice without the filter of your client or the medium. It's where you tell us who you are on your own terms.

Celebrate the continuous process

Our interests and tastes will change over time. And that shapes the work we do. Even the most recognized designers don’t have it pinned down – or even define themselves by that unsatisfied state. It’s what motivates them to learn, experiment and evolve.

“Trying to find your own identity is hard,” says Kaila. “I think I am still in the process of discovering it."

Cover image by Pranjal Kaila.

September 10, 2020No Comments

A counterintuitive way to get noticed

The typical marketing strategy goes like this: Promote yourself and what you offer. 

That may be a product, content or your own personal brand. Tell people about it and why it solves a problem for them, then repeat. 

An alternative strategy, especially for those just starting out, is this: Promote others’ work to get noticed.

Share work from those you admire, who align with your product. Be the champion of your users. Allow others to take the stage on your own platform.

Jack Butcher built his business on this strategy. He started Visualize Value, a creative source of wisdom and motivation, by posting visual quotes from people he admires on Twitter. His page slowly grew, and his business did with it.

“In retrospect, this idea could be called ‘reverse influence,’” said Butcher in an article reflecting on his business journey. “If you want a shot at more exposure: Make other people look good. Give yourself the job of a remote, unpaid design intern for anyone you admire.”

In doing so, you cast your net wider. 

Share your platform with someone who has a large following of their own and they may retweet you, reaching a whole new audience of like-minded people. 

Promote someone who faithfully uses your product, and they will be all the more loyal – the makings of a brand advocate. 

Become a resource of quality, curated content, content that naturally ties back to what you do, and your product or offering will fit seamlessly into that conversation, when the time is right.

September 8, 2020No Comments

How to make a career change into a creative field

It couldn’t be a better time for a career change. 

The current state of the world presents many challenges, but also opportunities.

We are more online than ever. Companies are changing how they operate, some hiring remotely for the first time. With no commute in our schedules, many of us have gained time back in our days to pursue new interests. 

If you’ve been thinking about switching careers to a creative field, now might be your moment.

Of course, it can be hard to know where to start. Do you quit your current job to focus on your new creative pursuit? How do you get a job when you have zero experience in the field? Can you be an intern past your early 20s?

While the answer depends on you, your situation and the specific line of work you want to get into, it doesn’t need to be as complicated or intimidating as it seems. 

If you can, explore your new interest from the safety of your current job

With most creative fields, you can easily dabble before making the full jump. By reading online, trying tutorials, testing out tools and playing around, you can gauge whether this is a passing phase or lasting interest worth investing in. 

In doing so, you’ll have a safety net to fall back on as you determine which way to go next. You’ll buy yourself time to make a sound decision before making the leap.

Do you lose track of time late at night while creating design experiments or tinkering with 3D tools? Do you find yourself winding down by doodling on Procreate? That’s a good sign this is the right direction for you.

Of course, you may not have the luxury to do this outside a full-time job. But if you have a couple free hours in the week, it’s worth researching and experimenting in your field of interest while you still have a paying job. 

Don’t default to what’s trendy – see where your curiosity leads you

It’s tempting to choose a direction that seems the most lucrative or popular, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right decision for you.

Always start with curiosity. 

What are you always reading about online? What ideas and dream side projects do you find yourself returning to again and again? What do you do in your free time, not because you have to, but because you want to? It may not directly translate to your new creative career, but it can be a helpful place to start.

By following your interests and seeing where they lead you, you may uncover where your natural talent lies, and what you’d genuinely enjoy doing eight hours a day. And that’s worth a lot more than a job that only pays well.

Talk to those in the field you admire

Ask your friends in the industry about their experience. Reach out to professors or experts in the field. Learn about the industry you’re entering and make as many connections as possible. 

This can be as simple as a Twitter DM or a cold email to someone whose skills or career path you admire. Just be thoughtful of their time and get to the point – vague emails simply asking for “advice” or to “pick your brain” are a waste of both your time and theirs, and likely won’t get a reply.

Reach out to friends of friends and ask for their honest feedback on your beginner work, or their opinion on the courses or type of work you’re interested in doing. That 30-minute Zoom call could clear up any imposter syndrome you may be feeling, give you the boost of confidence or reassurance you need, or even lead to your next job down the road.

The beauty of the world today: Everything is online

Most of us don't have the option to just drop everything and enroll full-time in school. And you don't have to. You can learn on your own schedule, from wherever you are.

Open Campus at The New School is bringing their entire fall lineup online for the first time. Their courses are designed for the working professional, and with non-credit and credit options available, you can take just one course or pursue a certificate. 

If you're curious, here are some of their online courses starting October 12:

Graphic Design 1

Build your visual communication skills with an introduction to graphic design and experiment with creating powerful, effective imagery.

Introduction to Web and Mobile

Learn to create engaging websites and mobile apps using HTML, CSS and SEO principles.

Information Design for Infographics and Visual Storytelling

Bring ordinary numbers and complex data to life using research, typography, design hierarchy and more.

Storytelling for Time-Based Design

Be one of the first to pursue this innovative field of creating high-impact motion graphics. This course is part of the brand new Motion Design certificate at Open Campus.

AutoCAD 1

Start your interior and architectural design career by learning the industry’s go-to software: AutoCAD. This course is the first in the brand new Interior and Architectural Design Software certificate at Open Campus. 

Just start creating

In the creative industry, it always pays to continually learn new tools, best practices, processes and trends. But education, research and inspiration can also be a clever disguise for procrastination

If you’re always talking about this creative thing you want to do, reading books about it, looking into courses, doing online tutorials, asking friends and tweeting about it, when are you actually creating?

Just begin. Whether that means sitting down in front of your computer and finally signing up for a course, or creating your portfolio to start your freelance business on the side, there’s no better way to do what you want to do, than simply doing it.

September 2, 2020No Comments

The most valuable designer

You could have one or ten years of experience.

You could have dozens of awards and an abundance of praise from the press.

You could nail the brief on the first take, no revisions needed.

You could have a way with clients, the ability to sell or smooth over with charm and grace.

You could approach every project strategically, with the user in mind.

You could be a jack of all trades, willing to switch between design and video and 3D and coding and illustration and writing and photography.

But the most prized designers, and the most rare, are not defined by these traits.

The most valuable designers are those who do what they said they were going to do, when they said they were going to do it.

August 6, 2020No Comments

An ancient, long-forgotten trick for doing good work

In this industry, we live and breathe productivity. We tap our forearms and inject articles about optimization and efficiency into our veins. We are rabid for hacks, tips, shortcuts, templates, tutorials that allow us to accomplish as much as possible, in as little time as possible. We praise the people who consistently ship new work.

We are conditioned this way. Rewarded for coming in under hours, under budget, ahead of the timeline. We are taught to create workflows and follow standards that allow us to function like Ford factories. 

And all the time, we wonder: Are we doing good work? Can it be better? Are we proud of what we’re creating?

No matter the industry, we want the job to be done fast. Production increases, profit margin improves, money flows. 

But the secret to truly great work – work that lasts, that is noticed, work that makes a difference – is taking the time it requires.

“Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.” Raymond Joseph Teller

I pride myself on the ability to work fast and work well. But when I look back on some of my best work, the projects that changed my career, it wasn’t the work I knocked out under budget. It was the work I spent laborious, painstaking hours on.

Sometimes, the secret to great work is simply time. 

Time you didn’t scope for. 

Time the client may not have budgeted.

Time that doesn’t necessarily make you the most productive, efficient designer in the business, but does make you a better one.

July 27, 2020No Comments

How to land a design job at Instacart

The pandemic has, in many ways, accelerated the future we knew was coming soon enough. Those companies that were already positioned toward the future were among the few that thrived, despite economic shutdown. Instacart is one of them.

When most of the country was forced to stay in place, Instacart was uniquely positioned to help – and has continued to adapt and meet the needs of its customers in a changing environment. As the New York Times put it regarding shopping trends during the pandemic, "In grocery delivery, there is Instacart, and then everyone else."

Now Instacart is in high-growth mode, and they're looking for designers to help lead the way. We talked with Himani Amoli, design manager, and Ryan Scott Tandy (RST), design director at Instacart, about what they're looking for in designers for their team.

Hey Himani and RST, thanks for doing this with us. Let’s dive right in.

Instacart is growing fast, and I imagine you need designers for several areas of your product and/or marketing. What kind of design opportunities exist right now and where do we fit into the bigger picture of your team?

RST: Design at Instacart covers a wide range of experiences; from designing for the customer placing their first order, to the Instacart Shopper making a delivery, to brands managing their ad campaigns, or even grocery retailers building on our platform. Design plays an important role, taking something that is inherently quite complex and making it simple.

Partnering with product management and engineering teams, our product design and brand design teams are actively working on the next evolution of this essential service.

Himani: We are hiring across the board for brand and product design. Looking for product designers, researchers, and also design leaders to help grow and manage the teams! 

Say we decide to reach out with a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us? Or should we just fill out the application form?

RST: We are a people-based business so tell us your story. What brought you to design? What inspires you? Where are you looking to take your design career next? 

I love hearing about how people personally use the product. What brings them delight or surprise. What role does food play in your life? Even potential areas of improvement.

It’s always great to highlight areas of expertise that clearly align with the work we’re doing (ecommerce, marketplaces, ad platforms, enterprise).

Himani: Something that highlights how the work you’ve done is relevant for the role that we’re trying to hire for. Better yet, tell us how Instacart’s mission fits into what you’re passionate or excited about. And link us to your work that you think we need to see. 

If you’ve worked with someone who works at Instacart, opt to come in through that route, especially if they can speak to your work or share how awesome of a teammate you are!

The majority of our applicants are sourced by our recruiting team. They work with the hiring managers to understand the skillset of the designer, so the most important thing you can do is make yourself discoverable online. Link your portfolio to your LinkedIn/Dribbble. If there isn’t any work under NDA, don’t hide your work behind a password

"Portfolios are the best way for you to tell the story of your career. In the absence of that, a story is unfortunately created for you, either by the recruiter or the hiring manager."

How important is a complete portfolio? Can we get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at Instacart?

RST: It’s critical to have your portfolio up to date and polished. It’s your best opportunity to highlight your creative process, output and achievements across your career.

Portfolios that clearly demonstrate results through strategic design work are great, but ones that also showcase these projects in a beautiful way, even better! (A good mix of systems thinking and visual design).

Himani: Portfolios are the best way for you to tell the story of your career. In the absence of that, a story is unfortunately created for you, either by the recruiter or the hiring manager. Portfolios also help us understand how you tackle problems. 

Your portfolio doesn’t need to have all the work you’ve ever done but 1-2 case studies of work that you’re proud of, showing how you process problems. 

A portfolio also helps us visualize you in that role, and helps us figure out how to cater our recruiting process to you based on your skills, interests and background. 

"A prototype is worth a thousand mocks. Show me how the thing you build works and you stand out immediately!"

What do you wish you saw more in portfolios from Instacart job applicants? 

RST: More products in motion, less static states. Portfolios that show prototypes (or videos of their products in action) tell a much better story of how something works or how it’s used.

I love it when designers share insight behind small details. Why a particular interaction was chosen or breaking down the thinking behind an icon set. Anything that shows commitment to craft, polish or quality.

Show us how data and research informed the work. Answering, why was this the best solution?

Himani: When we’re reviewing candidates, we’re trying to get a quick overview of their work so we can decide where to schedule a portfolio walkthrough or not. When looking at their online portfolios, we’re spending a few minutes on each and making a call, so be methodical about what you have on your online portfolio – remember you won't be there to voice over the work, so it has to tell a story on its own.

  • Your portfolio should highlight your best work. You only have 1-2 in-depth case studies to stand out so make sure you pick your best work, the stuff you’re most proud of.
  • For the case studies, don’t bury the lede; show the final polished product first, then you can follow up with the problem statement and how you arrived at the solution. Every time I land on a case study that doesn’t do this, the first thing I do is scroll all the way down to see the finished designs. No need for a grand reveal in the end. Get me hooked from the beginning. 
  • For any additional work you want to share, it's OK to just show the final polished mocks. Hiring managers will likely make a call on bringing you in based on the 1-2 case studies we already talked about above.
  • A prototype is worth a thousand mocks. Show me how the thing you build works and you stand out immediately!
  • Finally, tighten up the visual design for your portfolio. We want to know that you have a high bar for craft and the UI of your portfolio will be a signal towards that, not just the work you shipped.

Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?

RST: Like a lot of companies these days, we’re conducting our interviews fully remotely over Zoom, and the entire process lasts about half a day.

We start the day with a portfolio presentation where it’s the candidate’s opportunity to shine and tell their story. After that, the day is broken up into one-on-one sessions with members of the team and hiring manager.

We make sure to carve out time in each session for discussion and for any questions the candidate may have.

How the interview process at Instacart might look for you

  • Remote portfolio screening

    Here you'll meet with a senior designer or a hiring manager to share 1-2 projects that you’re most proud of.

  • A full “onsite” meeting

    In pandemic times, this means more remote interviews.

  • Another portfolio presentation

    This time, you'll present to a larger group of people including other designers, the hiring manager and some cross-functional partners like researchers, engineers or product managers.

  • One-on-one sessions

    Here you'll meet with a designer to do a deep dive on your work. You’ll also chat with the hiring manager, a product manager and a few more designers. One of those sessions will also be a design exercise.


PRO TIPS  For Instacart, your past work is the strongest indicator of your abilities as a designer. Spend time preparing your portfolio and perfecting your presentation. Instacart also wants to know that you're interested in them – ask questions about the company, the team or the culture.

Do you have a favorite story of an application that really stuck with you? Something that stood out and got passed around between your team?

Himani: We interviewed a candidate remotely after shelter in place, and she anticipated the animations in her Figma presentation might not work well during the portfolio presentation on Zoom. So she shared the Figma link of her presentation with everyone and asked us to follow along in Observation mode, which was awesome! It showed me her creative problem-solving skills because she anticipated a user problem and preemptively solved it. 

You’re in high-growth mode, which is no joke. On your blog, your head of design says he’s looking for designers who are open and resilient, with critical thinking skills. Any other qualities or skills that allow someone to thrive on your presumably fast-paced team?

Himani: I’ve seen people glamorize working at a growth-stage startup and not really understanding what it means for their day-to-day. But some things that aren’t everyone’s cup of tea:

  • You have to be able to handle a fast-paced environment with a lot of ambiguity. 
  • You have to be able to operate in a nimble way, be open to feedback on your work and able to switch gears quickly.
  • Processes break when teams continue to grow, so you have to be able to handle changes and operate in an environment that doesn’t have all the structure in place. 

But there are a lot of upsides as well:

  • There’s still a lot of company building left in this stage, so you’ll get to define processes and culture for the team.
  • And most importantly, you have the opportunity to take on large projects that make an impact.

Would you hire someone who’s a cultural add over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?

RST: Given you’ll be working with someone on a daily basis, I believe soft skills to be critically important. We see “culture-builders” as a requirement as much as technical skills or domain expertise.

Himani: We believe you need both at Instacart. Great craft is essential, but we care about many other soft skills as well. When interviewing we look for a signal on visual design, interaction design and product thinking, along with how this person communicates and collaborates with others. 

Self-awareness is also very important, along with a growth mindset. Humility is also such an important trait to look out for. 

Portfolio tips for your Instacart interview

  • Share prototypes over static images.

    Showing how your final product works will count for a lot to the Instacart team. Instead of the standard device mockup, Use Figma or a similar tool to create a prototype they can interact with.

  • Show a love for detail.

    "I love it when designers share insight behind small details," says RST. "Why a particular interaction was chosen or breaking down the thinking behind an icon set." Use your case studies to show you sweat the small stuff, which ultimately means you care deeply about what you do.

  • Include only your best work.

    Instacart spends only a few minutes reviewing you portfolio before making a call. Prioritize your best projects (ideally launched projects), and be sure to highlight your attention to both user needs and business goals.

     

  • Evaluate and refresh your portfolio design.

    "We want to know that you have a high bar for craft and the UI of your portfolio will be a signal towards that, not just the work you shipped," Himani explains. If you haven't updated your portfolio design recently, now's the time to make sure it feels fresh and modern.

  • Show the research, data and thinking behind your decisions.

    In your case studies, show what informed your designs and why you approached your project the way you did. Give Instacart a glimpse of how your mind works.

  • Think through your portfolio presentation.

    You'll spend the majority of your interviews at Instacart reviewing your past work. Walk through your portfolio beforehand and perfect the timing of your presentation, so you're not ad libbing on the call.

     

 Your product design job description includes: “You are a generalist who can drive the design process end to end.” What secondary skills do you look for in a designer, besides common soft skills? For example: Do you prefer writing ability over coding skills? Photography skills over coding?

RST: An eye for good taste, prototyping, working with data, partnering with research, creating excellent documentation and presentation skills. 

Himani: Prototyping skills are a superpower that designers should use as often as possible. They can help bring ideas to life and also help get everyone on the same page.  

Strong writing skills can be such a valuable tool for designers. Both in their work and also when documenting design decisions.  

Strong storytelling and presentation skills can help designers convince others of their vision and rally people behind an idea. How you communicate about and present your work is an extremely important part of being a designer.

Finally, a high bar for craft quality.

As we all know well, the nature of work has changed drastically over the last few months. Are you open to remote hires for your team, or do we need to be on-site in SF?

As a company, we’re still figuring out how open or not we are to remote working. We’re continuing to hire in the Bay Area, as well as Toronto, but beyond that we’re considering US- or Canada-based remote candidates by exception only, and only at very senior levels.

Diversity and inclusion are more relevant than ever, and I see Instacart is part of that conversation online. How does this fit into your hiring process and current team?

RST: This is something we are taking very seriously. As a growth stage company, things move fast and we’re hiring quickly, but the design leadership team is taking a moment to stop and make sure we’re being deliberate about our hiring practices, especially when it comes to diversity. Everybody buys groceries, and it's our job to ensure that the people designing our brand and products reflect the communities we serve.

We know diversity is a critical ingredient of successful teams, especially a team that will design the next evolution of a product that’s universally needed.

We work hard to find candidates from a wide variety of backgrounds and handpick our interview panels to be as inclusive as possible.

Areas we, as an industry, need to invest more in: highschool and college education, internship programs, coaching and career development programs.

Himani: In 2020, we started using Textio, an AI writing platform that detects and flags unconscious bias in writing via job descriptions, job postings and email outreach – the design team is piloting the tool.

We are focused on building more diverse pipelines and a more inclusive hiring culture. We have 5 active ERGs that partner with us to celebrate cultural heritage months company-wide, with a full-month of programming dedicated to each. The design team is an active partner in developing, designing and helping to bring these cultural heritage months to life with multiple touchpoints across the employee experience.

How do you think Instacart is different when hiring new talent compared to other companies?

RST: At Instacart, you’ll have a very special opportunity to both work on an important product, and at a critical time of company growth.

Designers at Instacart will have a tremendous amount of ownership and the chance to help build a company.

Himani: I’m not sure if this is different compared to other companies but some of the things we care about:

  • An entrepreneurial spirit with a bias for shipping
  • People who are self-starters and don’t feel the need to wait for someone to tell them what to work on next.
  • Ownership over their work. This helps people have a high bar for quality and motivates them to get everyone else on the same page as them.
  • Comfort in dealing with ambiguous problems 

Any parting advice for us? Something we forgot to ask that a potential candidate should know?

RST: Always do your homework. Know who you’re presenting to, be sharp on the timing of your presentations, and come with a set of thoughtful questions that will spark conversation.

Himani: Don’t shy away from showing us who you are! Let your personality shine. Let us know who you are beyond your work. Also: 

  • Make yourself discoverable online. Let us find you! 
  • We believe good design comes at the intersection of user needs and business goals, so when choosing projects to present, prioritize projects that highlight that. 
  • During portfolio review, always opt for showing projects that launched. Seeing concept work is nice, but showing work that made an impact for the users and the business is best. 
  • I’ve seen designers come underprepared to portfolio presentations and just scroll through their website, and it never goes well. Overprepare for your portfolio presentations! Work on your timing and come prepared to walk us through your story.

Since I’ve seen this question answered from multiple members of the Instacart team, I have to ask you now: What’s always in your cart?

RST: Doughnuts, always doughnuts!

Himani: These days, bananas. I’m making and consuming too much banana bread thanks to shelter in place. 

July 21, 2020No Comments

The art of pricing freelance projects

You’re a freelance designer. Your core capabilities are solid, you navigate software well, you have a good eye. You produce results for people across multiple mediums. Your skills have been honed and your work is your art. But you feel that you don’t get paid what you’re worth.

I get it. As a freelancer in any field, knowing what to charge is tricky.

The good news is, by making pricing a topic of priority, you can use it to help better portray your true value to people.

Alongside the art of design, seek to understand the art of pricing to get paid what you’re worth.

The problem

The problem with pricing freelance work is that there are an often overwhelming number of ways to do it:

  • Hourly billing
  • Daily billing
  • Fixed pricing
  • Value-based pricing 
  • Retainers

You’ll likely have heard of them all. Perhaps you’ve had experience with applying one or two of them. But which one’s the best? Which pricing strategy should you use when billing your client for work? Herein lies another problem.

The methodology to use will depend on multiple factors:

  • What the work is
  • How long it might take
  • What your position is
  • Who your client is
  • How much you need the job

There’s too much variability to declare a singular route as the winner for every freelancer and every project. These issues highlight pricing as an art form as opposed to an exact science.

Pricing is personal.

"Attributing yourself to one pricing method across the board isn’t always the best approach to getting deals over the line."

The fallacy

One person will tell you “hourly billing should generally be avoided” and another that “retainers are a great way to secure recurring revenue,” without clarifying or expanding on it.

While I agree with these statements, you can’t blindly apply this knowledge to every engagement that comes your way. This brings to the forefront why freelancers find pricing so difficult: there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The idea that you can apply one pricing strategy to every freelance project in an attempt to maximize profit, for the length of your career, is, in my experience, impractical.

I don’t doubt that some people choose one pricing methodology, stick to it and are incredibly successful. There are always exceptions. But this isn’t always realistic, especially when starting out. I know I couldn’t afford to be so selective with my first client. It was only once I raised my value that I could start to exert more of my pricing preferences.

Even as a new freelancer, there are still certain pricing methodologies that suit certain projects. Attributing yourself to one pricing method across the board isn’t always the best approach to getting deals over the line.

There’s more to it than that.

Pricing is fluid.

"Price mirrors risk. Because you present as the least risky option, you can charge a premium for your work."

The reality

Value is the true constant that informs price. I’m not just talking about value-based pricing. Whatever pricing strategy you use, it should be based on value.

What do people perceive your value to be? In over a decade of freelancing, this question has informed many of the prices I’ve given.

I mentioned earlier that pricing is personal. This couldn’t be truer when giving and receiving prices for freelance work. When you present yourself as a jack-of-all-trades designer offering branding, web design, print design, UX, UI and illustration, is it really perceivable to a prospect that you can produce high-value work in all of these fields?

When you position yourself like this as a freelancer, you’re often seen as a commodity service provider as opposed to a specialist service producer. And the latter is commonly seen as someone who can provide greater value.

So because pricing is personal, you need differentiators that increase your value:

  • A specialism in service
  • A highly individual style
  • Credibility within your wider industry
  • Excellent soft-skills
  • An attractive personality

If you’re the stand-out freelancer, you become the safe bet in the eyes of clients searching for services. Price mirrors risk. Because you present as the least risky option, you can charge a premium for your work.

When a client can’t see the difference between your service and someone else’s, your chances of charging a premium for individuality are low.

When you’re the obvious choice, your value is high and so are your chances of getting paid in line with this. Your perceived value forms the basis of the art of pricing your freelance services.

From here, choose the most appropriate strategy for the task at hand and your current circumstances.

Are you looking to get your foot in the door? Be aware that your choice of terms may be limited.

You might want to avoid hourly billing, but are you in a position to blanketly reject that right now? Your play here would be to get an initial agreement, prove yourself to be indispensable and renegotiate to more preferential terms soon after.

Do you want to stick to fix-priced projects only? There’s always a client who comes along with an iterative project that they can’t fix the scope for.

Paid discovery can work to solve this, but when you can get started quickly and achieve a top-end day rate as an alternative, does it make sense to skip the engagement if they don’t go for that?

The reality of pricing is that there’s more than the price at play. It will benefit you as a freelancer to:

  • Understand a range of pricing strategies
  • Gauge the value of your service to people individually
  • Take an honest overview of your current circumstances

These all make up a part of the art. 

Pricing has layers.

"It’s more important to get started than to never start based on terms."

The Solution

How does a freelance designer solve the pricing matrix? Start with the methodologies:

 

Hourly Billing

When you bill by the hour, you’re punished for getting quicker. There is no incentive to do things efficiently as doing so directly reduces the amount of money you’ll earn.

Hourly billing also comes with additional paperwork in the form of estimates and hour logging. Which, quite frankly, isn’t always the best use of your time.

If you want to use efficiency as a tool to maximize your earning potential as a freelancer, hourly billing is generally not the way to go. Directly tying a unit of your time to a price caps your earning potential. There are only so many hours available in the day.

But it’d be naive of me to say that there aren’t outliers in this scenario. You might command an uncommonly huge hourly rate and only wish to work four hours per day, for instance.

Equally, it’s important to consider your current position in the market. Hourly billing might be a way to get a chance. It’s more important to get started than to never start based on terms.

If you do use hourly billing to gain a foothold, have the goal to stop using it as soon as you can. Make yourself indispensable to your current hourly client and build an audience of other people willing to hire you. This will give you the leverage to move toward more preferred methods of pricing projects.

"If results are being delivered, does it really matter exactly how many hours and minutes are logged each day?"

Daily Billing

Freelancers can approach daily billing in two different ways. I’ve found one to be more effective, in terms of getting paid what you’re worth, than the other.

It’s common to assume that when you give a price for a day’s work, that equates to 7/8 hours of your time. Clients will then assume that your day rate / hours worked = your hourly rate, and you’re no better off than when you started billing hourly. In fact, you’re worse off because a day rate is typically given at a lower price than if you were to bill the same amount of hours individually. As with hourly billing, daily billing in this guise shares all the downsides.

The alternative is to price a day as a day, and not a number of guaranteed hours. Providing you’re clear with your collaborator, this is how you unlock more autonomy. If you want to work an hour less one day and an extra hour the following day, for example, then you can.

The point here is that if results are being delivered, does it really matter exactly how many hours and minutes are logged each day?

In either fashion, you’re still tying a unit of your time to a price, which comes with its negatives. But it can work well. Especially in instances where the day rate is high and the work you’re doing is particularly difficult to scope.

Fixed-Pricing

In my experience pricing freelance work, fixed-price terms are nearly always the best. When you give a fixed-price for a piece of work, you know exactly what you’ll get paid and your client knows exactly what they’ll pay for it. There’s a level of safety in a fixed-price for both parties.

However, you need a watertight scope.

Scope creep is frustrating and costly for a freelancer. Make sure that whenever you give a fixed-price for a body of work, it is clearly briefed and agreed upon by both parties. Be clear that any work outside of this comes at an additional cost. 

Another rule to follow when working to a fixed price is to get a deposit. You can’t be fully sure that you have someone’s commitment to a project unless money has exchanged hands.

The key benefit to fixed-pricing is the converse of hourly billing: you are directly rewarded for efficiency. The better you get at performing your skill, the quicker you’ll get. And the quicker you’ll get, the more you’ll get paid in less time. The paramount thing here is to always retain quality, thus preserving your perceived value.

Value-Based Pricing

Value-based pricing is similar to fixed-pricing in its delivery; it’s a set price for a set body of work.

However, there’s one big difference: The figure that you present is wholly based on the value of the business outcomes of the project. The price that you give is usually a percentage, which can be justified as fair based on quantifiable metrics.

Here’s a short and simplified example:

Your client's average lead value = $500

You estimate that your work will get them 100 leads in year 1. That's $50,000 of value.

You give a price for your work based on a % of that figure.

If you can show the value, you can justify the price.

Although this differs from country to country, the problem with value-based pricing is that it’s often a tough sell. Because it can be a tough sell, the effort involved to do the research can often be quite costly.

The key to using value-based pricing is to gauge, on a per-client basis, how presenting a proposal with this method will go down. It takes much research to uncover the information that you need, and if you’re doing a lot of leg work for a client who won’t receive a value-based proposal well, it’s wasted time and energy.

Value-based pricing is more well-received when presenting to prospects who have significantly more money than they have time. If you’re speaking with someone who does not see the value in hiring you as an individual, other than another service provider, a value-based price will often fall flat.

Retainers

When you work well with a client and they’re happy with the results you’re providing, a typical route forward is to bump up your level of involvement. Retainer agreements, in this scenario, provide a level of safety for both the client and freelancer. It’s guaranteed work for the client and guaranteed income for the freelancer.

But naturally, there are pros and cons to retainers too.

With the uptick in guaranteed work, often comes with the expectation of a reduced rate. This has always felt wrong to me as it assumes that you have a problem selling your services. When you reduce your rate in this instance, you reduce your perceived value to the client.

A major benefit, on the other hand, is that you can sell a chunk of your availability and spread out your involvement throughout the month, which allows you more day to day flexibility.

Ultimately, for the long term growth of your freelancing business, place a priority on those retainers that give your availability to deliver knowledge, not direct labor. Direct labor is often linked back to time, and as with hourly billing, your earnings ceiling becomes limited.

When you deliver knowledge through a strategy engagement for instance, there is no limit on what the value you add to the project is worth.

Look to study all of these pricing methodologies, and create a list of preferences that suit the work that you do and your current position. Form a short-term approach that helps you arrive at your long-term, ideal pricing strategy. Charging by the day initially may lead you to a high-value ongoing strategic retainer, for instance.

Apply methods where appropriate. 

"Giving a price without researching your prospect is a sure-fire way to give the wrong one."

No matter which methodology you choose, use value to price

You don’t have to use value-based pricing to take value into consideration when giving a price for work.

Understand your value metrics:

  • Individuality
  • Credibility
  • Availability
  • Risk reduction
  • Results provision 
  • Price itself

Take time to understand what your overall value is compared to others in your field. Look into the worth of the results your services create on a client-by-client basis. Before giving any price, ask yourself this question:

“How much am I worth to this project?”

Knowing your worth better informs price.

Research your prospect

Giving a price without researching your prospect is a sure-fire way to give the wrong one.

You need to know who you’re potentially going to be working with: Can they afford your services? How large of a business do they have? Have they worked with freelancers before? Do they want to work with you specifically or do they just want the job done?

Know your client to guide your price.

Acknowledge your current position 

How’s your cash flow?

Are you just starting out?    

Are you a few years in?

Have you been a designer for a very long time?

Are you new to your industry or do people know of your work? What’s the current demand for people who offer your service? Be aware of where you are to help you make the right offers.

In conclusion

Pricing can form a barrier to entry for many budding freelancers. It’s a skill in itself that designers who are looking to go it alone must learn. No one can tell you it’s easy.

What I can tell you is that it becomes easier with research, practice and time. Each book you read, article you absorb, mentor you speak with and project you offer on, brings you closer to becoming better at pricing your work.

There’s no magic formula that will help you decipher pricing forever. Nonetheless, you can give yourself the best chance of getting paid what you’re worth through a focus on value. 

Pricing can’t always be solved by science alone.

Pricing is an art.

You can learn more on this topic from Tom in his book, "Pricing Freelance Projects."

July 17, 2020No Comments

Working for enterprises vs. startups: A designer’s playbook

Since 2018, I've been chronicling my journey as a designer, beginning with my design internship here at House of van Schneider. Now, after nearly two years working in an agency, I've grown more confident as a product designer and directly seen the impact I can make on a project. Interestingly, that impact is much different depending on the client.

If you are a designer, you’re most likely working in-house, for a startup, in an agency or as a freelancer. And for those of you just starting your design career, you might be wondering what the differences are between these work environments as you decide where you want to work.

Many designers want to work for an agency at the beginning of their career because it exposes them to a wide range of projects and industries. Here I’ll detail some of my thoughts on the spectrum of work you'll do in this role – and how your impact differs depending on whether your client's an enterprise (a larger, established company) or startup company.

Established processes vs. creating new processes

No matter where you work or who you're working with, you'll quickly learn the agency life revolves around process. It's the regular meetings, specific communication practices with the client and defined timelines that keep the machine moving and the work flowing.

Enterprise: If your client is a larger, more mature company, it will likely already have its own processes in place. For example, one enterprise project I worked on had already defined a thorough process for conducting user testing. The product designer would prepare a prototype and complete a research specification template for the UX researcher, who would conduct user interviews on a specific platform, summarize their findings in a deck, and present the deck to the product designer and team.

Startups: A startup, depending on its stage, might not have a process in place. Recently I worked on a project where we were the first designers to touch the product. In cases like this, it’s important to bring our best practices to the project to help shape it, so we can do the best work possible and provide guidance for the client.

Rigid vs. fluid roadmap

Product roadmaps are a high-level strategic document to help align teams, stakeholders and priorities. Depending on your client, you may be following a structured roadmap or navigating your way through one that's more loosely defined.

Enterprise: Within an enterprise, the product roadmap may be established by management or product owners, and product designers might have little to no influence on shaping the roadmap. Because many teams touch a product, there will be interdependencies; this makes it critical for all teams to adhere to the timeline prescribed in the roadmap. Practically, this means there may be strict deadlines to meet so your work isn’t a blocker for other teams.

Startups: Startups have fewer and smaller teams, or perhaps there isn’t even differentiation between teams within the company. As a result, the roadmap might be more fluid, with the opportunity for a designer at any level to have an influence on the roadmap or timeline. However, because the roadmap is fluid in nature, it may change frequently depending on budget, shifting priorities or investor opinions. So don’t get upset if you spend a month designing a specific feature, only for it to be deprioritized.

Slow and steady vs. busy bee

Businesses are just like school projects; the more people on a team, the longer it takes to get things done.

Enterprise: At bigger businesses, there are more opinions, competing priorities, the usual company politics and processes. This results in a slower pace than that of a startup. Remember, with enterprises, any proposed changes to a product have to be greenlit by the teams it might impact. 

Startups: Startups are able to be more agile because of their size, but this can be a double-edged sword. In cases where a start-up has a short runway, there can be immense pressure on the employees to increase their output so the company doesn't fail. 

User data and feedback

Enterprise: Enterprises are usually of a certain maturity level; they’ve been around the block a few times and have history within their industry. These companies should have data on their user demographics and understand how they use the product. Even better, they have a user research team to handle user testing and data aggregation. Having data to work from is incredibly valuable. It eliminates the guesswork, saving the company time and money.

Startups: On the other hand, a startup in an early stage, without a product on the market, will have no data on their users, what they want or how they will use the product. In fact, they may still be searching to see if there is a product-market fit. For design, it’s difficult to work with a lack of data. Of course, there are general design principles and UX patterns you can follow, but without quantitative data, there will also be a significant amount of guesswork involved. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself having to double back on work once user feedback starts flowing in.

Why work with an enterprise?

The most valuable thing I learned while working with enterprises is how to communicate and collaborate cross-functionally within an organization. This might not be explicitly stated on a job listing, but you can be sure every company will look closely for these soft skills when deciding whether to hire you. It will help you become a designer who others enjoy working with, which can propel your career even more than your technical skills. Through my enterprise clients, I also learned how to cater my design presentations to a wide range of audiences (you won't present to a product manager or engineer the same way you do to another designer).

With an enterprise client, your design work has the potential to make a huge impact. If you help redesign a landing page for a company that operates in multiple countries, your work will be seen by hundreds of thousands of people. That’s exciting, and something to be proud of. Just keep in mind that while the potential is great, it will be a large mountain to climb.

Why work with a startup?

Startups test your grit and design competence. You likely won’t have access to the design support you’d find at an enterprise, but you will have an opportunity to take the lead and bring your expertise to the table. Given the high stakes for a fledgling business, you'll likely feel more skin in the game and personal satisfaction from its success. Plus, you’ll have more of what all designers covet – creative freedom. 

Your work for a startup can contribute to its success or failure, which can be thrilling (you may be the only designer on the project, so anything user-facing was created by you!). But due to the fast-paced nature of startups, there’s a chance it could be easily overhauled in a short time frame. 

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These are of course generalizations based on my personal experience working with these types of companies as an agency designer. It’s completely possible that an enterprise might have no design processes in place, or that a startup doesn’t need much from your design team. Whatever project you work on, take the challenges in stride, and try to capitalize on the unique opportunities you have in your situation. 

July 13, 2020No Comments

The welcome death of agency speak

By now we should all know phrases like “holistic 360° approach” are tired in this industry. It seems we’ve recycled these agency terms enough, they’ve finally deteriorated. Yet even as old buzzwords die, two new ones pop up like weeds to replace them.

Burned out on the well-intended “storytelling,” we now choose to say “narrative.” And we’ve found new words like “solution” and “enterprise” and “sustainable” and “operationalize” and “bottom line.” Perhaps these terms meant something at some point, but now they don’t say much at all. 

It’s not clear why our industry takes empty words and phrases and runs them to the ground, but I suspect it’s an endless feedback loop. We use these terms while speaking with our clients, and in turn, our clients start talking this way too. They send their RFPs saying they’re looking for scalable solutions that leverage all channels and distribute their content across all mediums to reach a targeted audience and drive conversions, so we promise we’ll do exactly that. We win the business, we’re validated, nobody knows what the hell anybody just said but now we got paid to do it. 

Sometimes it works. We spread some dollars across the standard channels, have a few meetings and get some results that sound impressive in a report at least. And then we turn around and do it all again. Most of the time though, we distract ourselves and our clients with smoke and mirrors to the extent that nobody really knows what’s good or bad, successful or not successful, real or bullshit anymore. It all looks the same.

Imagine if we started talking like normal human beings with our team and our clients. If someone had the nerve to say: “Honestly, what the hell do the clicks on these banner ad even mean? Are people buying and loving your product because of these ads? If not, let’s do something different.”

What if a creative director said to a client: “I don’t have a strategy. I just think it would be fucking cool.”

Picture the heads that would positively spin on shoulders if we admitted, in a stakeholder meeting, “We tanked this quarter. We did a shitty, shitty job. But we have better ideas now.”

Yet we persist in creating the illusion of expertise, intellect and, notably, culture.

These agency marketing ploys have, somehow, managed to hang around for almost a decade:

“We are not just a digital agency. We are family.” 

“We are more than a branding studio. We are storytellers.”

“We’re just a bunch of kids who have no idea what we’re doing. Failure! We celebrate it. We also love dance parties.”

The “hip agency” angle feels like a button some kid pushed on an animatronic baby doll so many times it’s short-circuiting. “Me want ping pong! Me want beer keg!” it proclaims in a robotic voice, legs and arms gyrating mechanically in a dark hallway, reaching for nothing.

I’m all for teamwork, failure and dance parties. Currently, though, it seems like a yawn-worthy tactic to lure new hires. In 2020, trade “beer keg” with “diversity” and “ping pong” with “inclusive” – admirable values, but usually a half-hearted facade in reality.

Of course, some agencies live up to their own hype. The rest though, bury their blandness under ten-dollar words and performative, half-baked blog posts. Get the job and you’ll quickly learn it’s a hair-on-fire, back-stabbing, soul-sucking place to spend the precious 8 hours of your few remaining days.

Here are some fundamental values that will never be tired in this industry or elsewhere:

Honesty - By this I don’t mean simply listing “transparency” as a core value on your website. I mean creating a culture that actually lives up to the smiling faces on your Team page.  I mean having straightforward, no-bullshit conversations between team members and with clients. Every time.

Clarity - Clarity comes naturally with honesty. When you’re not trying so hard to impress, things become a lot more simple. Eliminate the buzzwords and you’ll find yourself saying something both you and your client understand and believe in. It makes everything a whole lot easier. 

Humor - Granted, there are some agencies out there that lean a BIT too heavily on puns. But humor, when done right, is timeless. 

As designers, we perpetuate the cycle just as much as anyone. We love boasting about our design systems and waxing poetic about our workflows. We’re so busy one-upping each other about who’s the most accessible, the most empathetic, it’s a wonder we get any work done.

It may just be human nature, our survival instincts evolving to the modern age. But I feel confident, with just a little effort, we can still do better.

June 17, 2020No Comments

Senior portfolios vs. junior portfolios

I am always trying to understand what makes a good portfolio. What features do today’s designers need to show off their work in the best possible way? What do recruiters want to see in an online portfolio? What will portfolios look like one year from now? Five years from now? 

A question we’ve been asking ourselves lately: Does your portfolio change depending on your seniority? Of course, we know the work will evolve. But does the way you present it change too? Should it? Here are our thoughts on the subject.

As a junior designer, your work does not speak for itself. 

As designers, we are lead to believe our work should do the talking. That it should be so good it needs no further explanation. If that were true, Apple wouldn’t do Keynotes every time they released a new product. Even the best designers need to explain their work on their portfolio, or it’s just a bunch of pretty meaningless pictures. But this is especially necessary for young designers.

Your work might suck when you’re just starting out, and that’s fine. What we need to see as a company hiring you is how you think and approach your work. We need to understand how you process complex problems and find solutions. We want to see your personality, how you communicate yourself, your attitude about the world. That happens in your case studies. 

"Designers with experience know that half of excellence is simply a love for detail."

Senior designers obsess over the details.

View a successful senior designer’s portfolio and you’ll notice the beautiful typography, the perfect color choices, the sense that everything just works. It’s because designers with experience know that half of excellence is simply a love for detail.

They pay attention not only to their headline typography but also their body type.

They perfect spacing and kerning on every page, for every screen size.

They don’t overlook tiny elements and interactions like link states and favicons.

They know a simple, subtle hover effect can change the entire feel of their site.

After years designing, they know the little stuff makes all the difference.

Every image, link-state and typeface on Ayaka Ito's portfolio is beautifully considered. ayakaito.com

Junior designers share every piece of work they’ve done. Senior designers curate.

Many portfolios I’ve seen from young designers tend to feel unfocused. It makes sense. When you’re new in your career, you’re still figuring out what you’re good at and what you enjoy doing. You also haven’t done much work yet, so you’re pulling together whatever you can between school, self-initiated projects and your first paid jobs.

Senior designers, on the other hand, have learned where their skills lie and what they want to do more of in the future. They have more work to choose from, so it’s easier to curate. They have the confidence to show only their best work, not all the work they’ve ever done.

Junior designers could benefit from a senior designer mindset when it comes to choosing their projects. Even if curation narrows your projects down to two or three, it results in a stronger portfolio and a more clear picture of who you are as a designer. You can read more about creating your first portfolio here.

Henrik & Sofia feature only five of their best projects on their homepage. henrikandsofia.com

Junior designers write novel-length case studies. Senior designers write confidently. 

There’s a lesson we spend years unlearning after school: That the longer something is, the better it is. In school, we’re rewarded for more pages and extra word count instead of simply clarity and quality of thought. How strange, considering we’re also taught to be concise in Grammar 101.

I see this carry over into young designers’ portfolios. They’re taught a specific formula for a UX project, for example, and feel the need to hit each part of that formula, in exhaustive detail, to get an A+. That may please your professor, but it likely won’t impress your potential employer.

Senior designers learn how to tell a story rather than write an essay. They still walk through their projects and process, but without exhausting us. It’s a fine balance that comes with confidence and frankly, hard work. Writing a 1,000-word case study is easy. Saying the same thing in 500 words takes effort.

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Cover image from ayakaito.com

For more on building a portfolio & working as a young designer:

Creating a portfolio as a student
When you dreamed about doing what you're doing now
How to make a graphic design portfolio in 15 minutes

June 16, 2020No Comments

You could monitor your team, or you could motivate them

Given the past several months, it’s no wonder everyone’s feeling tired, distracted and unproductive. Employees and managers are doing their best to navigate uncharted waters. And those waters are choppy.

Companies, concerned about their employees’ productivity and with little experience managing remote teams, are turning to micromanagement. Technology is even being developed to monitor employees’ performance, going so far as to record screen behavior and users’ keystrokes. When I talk to friends accustomed to working in an office environment, they say they’re having more meetings than ever. When do they get their actual work done? Apparently, late at night after the Zoom calls are finally over.

I suspect the insecurity from the top is doing little to motivate employees and instead having the opposite effect. After managing a fully dispersed team for the last six or so years, I’ve learned what keeps my team’s spirits up, and unsurprisingly, it’s not surveillance technology or constant check-in meetings.

Our industry’s obsession with productivity was in question long before this year, so let me first state that this isn’t about squeezing more work from your employees. It’s about maintaining excitement about the work you’re doing together, and enabling your team to do their best.

Self-management over micro-management

If you’re constantly breathing down your employees’ necks, reminding them of their deadlines, checking their work, redoing their work and picking up after them, they will learn to lean on that. They’ll wait for you to check on a task instead of running with it on their own. They’ll look to you to make a decision instead of owning it themselves. They will do the work exactly as you tell them and nothing more.

Instead, set an expectation of personal responsibility. Make it known that you expect your team to manage themselves. Show you trust them and leave it in their hands. Of course, you are still here to support and lead. But when your team knows they are personally responsible for the success or failure of a project, they will own it more.

If you try to control every aspect of your team’s workday, they will eventually throw their hands up and let you have it. If you trust them to manage themselves, they will feel more invested in the work they do and feel ownership for the finished product.

Remember one management technique doesn’t apply to all

This is why so many creative companies today have their potential hires take a personality test during the application process. It may seem a bit hokey and pointless, and sometimes it is. But when managers understand how their individual employees think and work – what drives them, what discourages them and how they fit into a team – it makes a difference.

I don’t force my team to take a personality test, but I do pay keen attention to who they are and what they need from me as their manager. Some of them are social types. They need a sense of teamwork and camaraderie to stay motivated and feel connected to what they do. Others prefer to work silently alone. Others are right in the middle. They like to work independently but still need frequent one-on-ones to stay on track and feel excited about what they do.

There’s a balance for all types, but what may work for one person can completely demotivate the other. Learn their personality and working styles and try your best, within the context of your company and process, to make it work for them.

Recognize and celebrate even small achievements

Some people need this more than others. But everyone likes positivity and recognition of hard work, especially if they’re working behind the scenes. Aim to not only celebrate your team, but encourage them to celebrate each other.

My customer support team is always sharing positive feedback on Slack from our users. Our developer is building our product every day but doesn’t interact with our community like some of us do. A screenshot from a customer that says “Semplice is the best” can make his day and shows how his work is meaningful.

It takes little effort to screenshot an email and share it with the team, or give a shoutout in a group channel to someone who did particularly good work that day. These little gestures show your team that you’re paying attention and see value in even the small stuff they’re doing.

Challenge your team without breaking them

If someone doesn’t feel challenged, they will quickly lose motivation. But if you constantly throw them in the deep end where they feel like they’re just trying to keep their head above water, they will quickly fizzle out.

Find the balance. Give people space and support to own what they do, but challenge them along the way. They should feel like they are constantly learning and having opportunities to grow. The minute you or your team feels comfortable, you know something is wrong. If they are continually learning something new and pushing themselves, you’re on the right path.

Reward loyalty

That said, it’s easy to take those with a strong work ethic for granted. The people who, with or without validation, consistently show up, put in the hours and pay attention to the details. It’s these people you feel like you “don’t need to worry about.” They always do the work, they seem fine and you have other people you actually need to manage.

While we should expect everyone’s best work, it’s rare to find the person who is steady and self-motivated on their own. Don’t take these people for granted. If you value them, try to always give them opportunities to move forward, take on new responsibilities and feel fresh in their work.

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Read more thoughts on working remotely:

Running a remote company for the first time
The #1 key to successful remote working
How to work from home

May 4, 2020No Comments

Month two as a design intern: Lessons in perfectionism

Two months have flown by and I've had more responsibilities added to my plate as I train to become an efficient and more creative designer.

It is both overwhelming and exciting (especially given the surrounding global crisis) but once I got into the groove with set routines and expectations, I’ve felt more empowered and have learned more about myself. I’ve also learned some foundational practices I know I’ll take with me to every design job after this one.

Perfectionism is the enemy

One of my biggest insights so far in this internship is that perfectionism is my Achilles’ heel, and it influences every area of my work. Most significantly: It slows me down.

At the beginning of my internship, I was always concerned about overstepping my boundaries and living up to my team’s high standards. Looking back now, those hesitations and concerns only did me a disservice.

I soon learned I had to shift my mindset and look at each task as an opportunity to level up as a designer. Right now during this internship, the process is the journey. Recognizing this instead of focusing on the end result removed some pressure. Once I realized this, I welcomed each new challenge with a smile on my face.

Before, I would get mentally stuck on one idea or task as I tried to perfect it. Now I know creating ten different not-so-perfectly executed versions gets me much much further, faster. It gives me and my team a place to work from, rather than sending me down a deep hole of perfectionism.

Working with this team has helped me overcome my overthinking, perfectionist nature and “just do it.” Day by day, I am becoming a more confident designer.

Organization is underrated

This may sound like a no brainer, but not everyone on your team will understand your method of personal organization. And when you’re working with a team, you need to work within a system that makes sense to everyone.

While working on a recent article for DESK, I named the files to be quick and simple with numbers and letters. I didn’t realize how unclear and vague it was until my team kept asking me where to find assets. In trying to save time with simple naming, I created more work for myself and my team.

More than anything, naming and organization should be consistent. It streamlines the process for everyone and circumvents unnecessary mistakes and wasted time.

Save everything. Everything.

Designing DESK covers has been the perfect challenge to design within a constraint. It’s taught me to experiment and be creative within the guidelines of a brand and timeline.

After experimenting with several versions, a final cover is decided to be published. My automatic Virgo mentally at this point is to delete previous versions to make the Figma file feel more clean and organized. I’ve since learned it pays to save the “rejected ideas.” You never know what might be useful as a reference or work perfectly for a future project, or whether you’ll need a certain element from one iteration. It may only be the use of typeface or a certain color combination, but it’s a springboard to work from.

No matter how crazy or far from the brief a concept is, my new motto is that it's better to be safe than sorry. Especially when any design tool or app we use now offers essentially unlimited space.

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This second month was a little lonely and scary with unexpected quarantine and social distancing, however working with the HOVS teams is a reminder how lucky I am. Lucky to have the luxury to work remotely from home and feeling productive to distract myself from the news.

In the upcoming final month, I hope to become a confident designer and proud to take on the world, making the most of my last month as a member of the HOVS team. Lastly, to constantly remind myself to be in the right mindset by being optimistic and empathic – to myself and others – because we need more of that in the world right now.

April 28, 2020No Comments

Designing in quarantine

Many of us are nearly through our second month working from home during the pandemic, and if you’re like me, it’s been difficult to navigate how to be a good employee and maintain focus.

Every week, there’s something new to worry about. Are my loved ones staying safe and healthy? Will I still have a job? If so, will my salary be cut? Why is my throat suddenly itchy?

At my agency, we’ve always had a very flexible remote working policy, so we didn’t have much to worry about in terms of logistics. The biggest challenge for me was changing my daily routine and my mentality toward working. And for the company as a whole, we’ve had to learn how we can best support one another from a distance.

Can company culture exist online?

It’s awesome that we live in a time where we can connect with one another so easily across locations, but no matter how many Zoom calls and happy hours you have, it’s just not the same as sharing a physical space with your team (at least, when that’s what you’re used to). Meeting and interacting with people face to face helps us connect and empathize with each other better.

While I do miss my teammates and love seeing their faces on my screen, I don’t always love calling in to our huge Zoom calls. I don’t like being put on the spot, and in a Zoom call of 20 people, only 2-3 people can really talk at a time, as opposed to a meeting room where multiple conversations between smaller groups of people can occur simultaneously.

And of course, without being in the same room as my coworkers, I lose the ability to read any physical cues such as someone’s body language or facial expressions. This makes collaboration and presentations even harder. For example, during our regular show and tells, I can present my work and read the room – are people interested in what’s on the screen? Are they confused by what I’m saying (in which case I would elaborate or clarify)? Does it look like someone wants to ask me a question (I would then pause and allow them to speak up)?

"Company parties or the office ping pong table weren't solely responsible for our culture before, just like Zoom calls and online happy hours aren't now."

I also miss the opportunities to engage in “water cooler” conversations with my teammates as I bump into them in the kitchen or pass by their desk. Now that our interactions are limited to the digital space, it means I have to be much more intentional about keeping in touch. And I haven’t been great at this. Before, I’d happily chat with my desk neighbors or whoever happens to be eating lunch at the same time as I am, but now I’m mostly talking with the people who are working on the same project I am. It’s not hard to shoot my teammates a DM, but it feels strange for me to message them just wanting to chat without a work-related purpose.

In comparison to other workplaces, I’d say our team is tight-knit. We attend each other's birthday parties and dinner parties; some of us work out together, and others have even taken vacations together. We’re a family, and one of the reasons I love working where I do is because of the genuine culture I’ve become a part of. But the longer we’re forced to be apart, I wonder how much we’ll lose.

Company parties or the office ping pong table weren't solely responsible for our culture before, just like Zoom calls and online happy hours aren't now. What makes the culture are the people. So I've concluded I need to step up and do my part in maintaining my work relationships, beyond the scheduled events. While I might feel uncomfortable randomly messaging coworkers to ask them how their weekend was, or scheduling my own one-on-one call with them, a unique situation like the one we’re in requires changing my mentality.

How do I maintain a work/life balance during this time?

I’ll first preface this by saying I’m in a comfortable living situation; I don’t have any children and I don’t live with a Craigslist roommate (although I have in the past!). Next, I’ll say that a bulk of my sanity has been retained thanks to the expectations my company has already set for employees. Like any good relationship, there’s trust. We are trusted to get our work done and do it well, and in return, we have a lot of flexibility.

Yet after the first week of our mandated work from home schedule, I felt exhausted and sad due to the sudden shift in my daily routine, along with my growing anxiety around the unknowns of our company, economy and global health. So in the weeks to come, I set two goals for myself: creating a new daily routine and setting boundaries for myself.

"It’s much harder to 'leave work' when the area where you do all your work is just a few feet away from where you’d normally relax and unwind."

Creating a new daily routine

While I used to love waking up and eating breakfast while watching the news on TV, these days I choose to eat breakfast while reading a book or journaling. Personally, I hate watching or reading the news now – there’s just an overload of information that doesn’t seem to do me any good. Instead, I’ve found that beginning my day with some reflection and intention-setting while journaling, or consumption of some inspiring content (I’m currently reading Becoming by Michelle Obama), has done wonders for my day. If I do decide to tune into any COVID-related news, it’s usually in the form of an email newsletter I like that discusses business and finance, or a short YouTube clip from John Oliver (the humor really helps bring some lightness to the serious situation we’re in!).

I also do my best to maintain the breaks I would normally take if I were working in the office. That means an hour or so for lunch, and a few breaks in the morning and afternoon. Usually, I’ll use this time to walk my dog, which doubles as getting some fresh air and physical exercise since I’ve undoubtedly become more sedentary these past few weeks. Taking my breaks as usual also gives me some semblance of continuity from my pre-COVID life.

Setting boundaries for myself

When working remotely, we don’t have the luxury of physically “leaving work.” You know that feeling when you’ve had a hard day and finally leave the office to enjoy a nice dinner or drink out, or maybe just relax on your couch for a bit? It doesn’t seem so significant at the time, but now I really miss those moments. It’s much harder to “leave work” when the area where you do all your work is just a few feet away (or maybe in the same area for some) from where you’d normally relax and unwind. What we do physically has a strong influence on our mental states, so now that that element of physicality is gone, I need to work that much harder to make a mental switch from “work mode” to “home mode.”

While I’m no workaholic, it can be difficult to commit to “home mode” after I’ve logged off for the day. I’m probably using my computer in the evenings for one reason or another, and I’m definitely using my phone, both of which have my work email, Slack workspaces, and access to work files. When we’re stuck at home, we’re all more likely to be using our screens, and what’s one more reply to my client or one quick design fix? I’ve had to learn that adhering to the boundaries I’ve set is important for my well-being and for client expectations, even if I do slip up and give in once in a while.

I’ve also found it useful to turn on Do Not Disturb mode for Slack while working. I used to do this at the office if I was in deep flow, but now I find myself in DND mode much more often. While I enjoy seeing all the memes my coworkers are sending and catching up on our many Slack channels, it seems there’s been an increase in online noise since we’re all desperate for social interaction of any sort. It’s easy to get sucked into Slack threads, but 30 minutes later I realize I didn’t get anything done and now I’m even more stressed than before.

Likewise, I use a Chrome plugin that allows me to create blacklists during working hours. Included in my blacklist are any social media and news sites. Early on during our work from home mandate, I found myself scrolling through Twitter or Reddit under the guise of “reading news” when I was really just being unproductive.

Lastly, an important learning for me is letting go of the idea that working from home means working 24/7 because I have “nothing else to do.” I’ve felt guilty taking my regular breaks, fearing I’ll miss a Slack DM or that someone will be wondering why I’m not online, even though that has literally never happened during my time at Funsize. Now, more than ever, we need to prioritize our mental, emotional, and physical health, and for me that means knowing when to work and when to rest.

April 17, 2020No Comments

How to cheat your way into a design job

It used to be that your resume meant everything. Where you went to school, the grades you got, the sorority or fraternity you pledged, your years of experience in the industry. While that’s still true for certain industries, it’s not for mine.

In the design industry, even high-school dropouts (like me) can still get hired and be successful as a designer. It’s not about your resume. It’s entirely about your portfolio.

You might have 10 years of experience as a designer but with a poor portfolio that doesn’t reflect it. Or you might have 2 years of experience with a terrific portfolio that gets you hired at a top company right away.

In this way, you can cheat the system. Create a compelling portfolio with excellent case studies and nobody will ever know, or care, whether you have a design degree. You’ll be ten steps ahead of the person with a master's in graphic design and five years of experience – because they either haven’t updated their portfolio, or they have and it’s not good.

Thanks to the internet, you can be working in your parents’ basement in your underwear running an “internationally recognized design studio” of one. It doesn’t matter what you look like, what age you are, where you’re located or how many jobs are on your LinkedIn page. It’s entirely about the work.

Your portfolio is the biggest investment you can make in your career. Doing your best work makes your portfolio better. Making your portfolio better leads to more great work. And the circle continues.

April 8, 2020No Comments

3 reasons to work on your portfolio right now

No, you don't have to use the quarantine as an opportunity to be productive or improve yourself. However, from what I've picked up from my friends and the creative community online, there's a lot of fear around work and our income right now. Rather than letting that panic or paralyze you, you can do whatever you can to be proactive and set yourself up for success. That begins with your portfolio.

The competition for creatives is high right now. With more designers, artists and illustrators looking for work, it's more important than ever to position yourself well online. Here's why your portfolio might be the perfect project while you're stuck at home.

1. The future is uncertain

As you’re well aware, the creative industry hasn’t been spared in this crisis. Many have been laid off from their agency jobs, are freelancers struggling to line up new projects (while competing with an increase of new freelancers) or simply don’t know what the next week or even the next few days hold for their company.

Whether you feel secure in your job and financial situation right now or not, it’s worth being prepared. And this applies outside the context of the pandemic too. We simply can’t predict what will happen with our job or our company, financial crisis or not.

Update your portfolio and you’ll remove the added stress of doing so in the middle of a job search.

2. We all need the distraction

I don’t know about you, but I need a break from the news and social media to stay sane right now. Giving myself new projects, new skills to learn (yes, I’m caring for a hungry and healthy yeast starter like everyone) and new goals has proven helpful.

Working on your portfolio on those sleepless nights or wide-open afternoons, or hopefully more-open evenings (for those with kids) might be more fulfilling than turning the same anxious thoughts over and over in your head. Or, you know, a long bath might do the trick. You decide what's best for you.

3. It’s a unique creative challenge

You don’t have access to your studio’s photography equipment right now. You can’t print anything, secure special backdrops or props, or get any in-person videos of your work for your site. This makes it fun.

Can you stage your own photoshoot for your work using natural light and the props you have at home? Can you collaborate with a friend online to build their site while they design yours? Use the constraints to your advantage and create your site with the resources available to you right now.

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The good news is that you have everything at your disposal to do this from home. Of course, I'll shamelessly recommend using Semplice.com or Carbonmade.com for your portfolios because I (naturally) believe they are the best portfolios tools on the market.

But whatever platform you decide to use, I wish you luck and hope our portfolio articles will be useful to you. As always, reach out on Twitter if you need help deciding or want specific portfolio tips. We can do this!

April 6, 2020No Comments

How to be helpful

This applies whether you’re working with a client, running a business, doing customer support, trying to be useful within your team or simply trying to help someone out.

“Be useful.” As I’ve said many times here, I live by this rule. It’s what inspires my product, my work and my life day-to-day. Admittedly, it can take effort. Looking out for myself and my own time comes more naturally than going out of my way for others. And despite my best intentions, the efforts I do make aren’t always as helpful as I imagine they will be.

Through it, I've learned what works and doesn't work when I'm trying to help others, no matter the context.

Get to the point.

Cut out the disclaimers, small talk, excuses, buzz words or lengthy introductions. Help as soon as possible, as clearly as possible.

Especially when it comes to emails, we tend to pad our messages with fluff. Rather than helping, this wastes your time and the receiver’s time. Just give people the answer or the assistance they need from the start.

Don’t make assumptions about the person you are helping.

Our biases blind us. We assume people are using our product a certain way, or need a specific solution, or are struggling in a way we’ve personally struggled, and we act based on those assumptions.

This only wastes time and leads to errors. Instead of assuming you know what the painpoint or solution is, ask questions. Dig around about and seek other perspectives. When it comes to your product or company, this is even more important. Every time you help someone, you learn how your product can be better. Making assumptions about your users removes that possibility.

Don’t make people do more work for your help.

Aim to make it as easy as possible for the person you’re helping:

Try to answer your own questions before you ask them.
Anticipate the other person’s questions before they ask them.
Try to go as far as possible with the information you’ve been given.
Don’t make people chase you down for the help you promised.
Deliver your help in the time period you said you would.
When possible, exceed expectations and overdeliver.

Don't avoid or bury the bad news.

People can sense bullshit, and they don’t respond well to it. It may be tempting to circle around the truth, but it will usually backfire and lead people to lose trust in you or your business.

When you make it an unwavering policy, transparency is surprisingly easy. You find yourself in a tricky situation with your back against the wall and instead of panicking and scheming, you immediately know what to do: Tell the truth. Of course, you should have tact when you do so, but don’t mistake bullshitting for tact.

A good rule: If you find yourself working and reworking your message to get it just right, you're probably bullshitting.

Talking around the negatives causes more confusion and frustration. Honesty makes you appear confident and builds trust.

Apologize when necessary. And when not necessary.

Hearing an apology from someone (sometimes, even if no one is at fault), goes a long way for the person in need. If you’re not apologizing for something you actually did, be sorry they are frustrated, sorry the information was unclear, sorry your product didn’t meet their expectations. If you actually did something wrong, acknowledge it quickly and genuinely, then and immediately offer your best solution.

Swallow your pride and strive for genuine empathy. It can make all the difference.

March 19, 2020No Comments

The new school is YouTube. The new student is autodidact.

You may already be aware that I'm self-taught. That journey, for me, started almost two decades ago. I did finish high school, but that is pretty much everything I have on paper. Since then, the world has changed.

When I started out, there weren't many resources online. People in the digital space weren't disseminating knowledge the same way they are today. I would've killed to have someone I admire either share their thoughts or let me look over their shoulder. To get a glimpse behind the scenes.

The internet, not too long ago, didn't have YouTube. No design courses existed online. All we had was a couple IRC channels and forums – and most of these were invite-only, meaning you only mingled with those on the same experience level as you. You rarely had a chance to see what the "upper class" of design is doing. If I did happen to get access to a PSD file from a "famous" designer, it could keep me up for nights just studying the layers, replicating the effects, understanding how it was done. But that  rarely happened. Being self-taught in the early days of the internet meant taking the hard road and figuring it out yourself as much as you can.

Thinking about it now in 2020, things have changed massively. A self-taught education might still not be the most common path, but it's the one of least resistance, with an abundance of resources.

"The new student doesn't have to go to college, taking on a huge debt that will follow them around for the majority of their most productive years."

In 1990, the lack of resources made it difficult to be self-taught. In 2020, the abundance of resources almost has a paralyzing effect on people. Many people aren't learning on their own because there is simply TOO MUCH information out there. They don't know where to start. And isn't this an amazing problem to have?

We have YouTube: Completely free and ready to teach you pretty much everything you want to know about every topic you can imagine. You just have to search for it.

We have online courses, blogs, Twitter and Instagram. The tools and resources available today only mean that more people can and should be autodidacts.

YouTube is the new school. The new student doesn't have to go to college, taking on a huge debt that will follow them around for the majority of their most productive years. (I have slightly different thoughts on schools in Europe, which are mostly free to attend). Honest truth: I believe the majority of people shouldn't even go to college. I'm not saying that college is categorically bad, I just don't think it's the best solution for many, depending on the subject matter.

At least at this point in the digital age, schools have a completely outdated way of teaching and preparing young people for their professional career. Especially if this career is part of the new technology movement. The internet, however, is adapting and updating at every given moment.

I believe alternative learning scenarios, not bound to the rules of traditional education, will only continue to become more powerful. And I will do my best to support it, to contribute resources I would have loved when I started out as a self-taught designer. It might not replace a school, but it's my way of contributing a tiny bit to a system that is slowly changing.

March 17, 2020No Comments

Design school vs. the real world: My first month as a design intern

It's been just over a month since I received my offer for a three-month design internship with House of van Schneider. It has been an exciting time as I learn, for the first time, to be a productive and efficient designer in a fast-paced world. It's also quite different from my experience in design and graduate school.

So far, practical skills and a willingness to learn have been key to this internship. But I've already picked up a few new philosophies and habits I know I'll take with me after these three months.

Here's what I've learned so far as I work on Semplice, Carbonmade and all things HOVS through my design internship. If you're working on your first design job or internship yourself, maybe these insights will be helpful to you.

Go as far as you can on your own first, then ask for help.

Being a newcomer and understanding what DESK represents for many designers, it was intimidating yet exciting to design one of the iconic article covers.

At first, I would spend hours on a single concept, only to finally share my work and realize it wasn’t quite on-brand with DESK’s style. At that point, I had already sunk hours into one idea and didn’t have other options to offer.

I quickly learned that by exploring many different directions at the beginning, I could give my team more to respond to and save time obsessing over a single idea. This is a big difference from design school, where students tend to be concerned about one perfect execution, even if the idea isn't necessarily strong from the start.

I was also a beginner to the Semplice platform when I started helping out with the Semplice customer support. At first, I was slow and not 100% familiar with the Semplice interface and functionality. It was tempting to ask the team for answers every time I got stuck, but I realized the best way to learn is to try solving the answers myself first. If I still can’t figure it out, only then do I ask the team for help (and I always test their theory before I respond back). Now I am now more efficient, know the answers from the top of my head and speak to the customer the way I liked to be spoken to.

My attitude throughout this internship is to be an added asset and be useful in any way possible. I realized by testing and exploring on my own, I am opening new doors to new possibilities –instead of getting stuck at one closed door and asking someone else to open it.

"It’s better to set deadlines and provide hour estimates I can meet, rather than making grand promises and setting myself and my team up for failure."

Be realistic, not idealistic

Before I’ve started my internship, I’ve always been able to plan my schedule to make sure everything is done and my assignments are submitted on time. I now know the "real world" is more fluid than that. I might have a nice to-do list planned out for the day, then get three new tasks added to my plate the next hour. Learning to manage my time in this environment took some adjustments.

My perfectionist nature made me want to accomplish everything assigned to me immediately. This translated to jumping between half-finished tasks and finishing nothing. Now I try to be realistic about my work so I can follow through.

It’s better to set deadlines and provide hour estimates I can meet, rather than making grand promises and setting myself and my team up for failure. It's better to prioritize and re-prioritize my tasks throughout the day, rather than sticking to one rigid list. Planning my day and using my time strategically this way allows me to overdeliver, rather than setting myself up to fall short.

Don’t sit around and wait for approval. Keep moving forward.

In the beginning, I felt like I was a fish out of water as I developed my new routine as part of a team. I felt scared about doing something wrong and would always be waiting for the approval for each little detail, because I was afraid of making a costly mistake. While I was waiting for feedback on my design, I would halt on the project and even wait to move on to something else until I heard back.

I eventually saw that my waiting for the approval not only slowed down operations for the team, but halted my own momentum. The time I spent waiting, I could have used to iterate and explore further, or move on to the next task. Yet I was too afraid of doing it wrong, so I did nothing instead.

I realized this habit was developed during my design school days, where we would pin the work on the wall and wait for the professor’s feedback. In this way, the professor’s feedback becomes the law. When a designer gets accustomed to being told what's right or wrong, their self-confidence dwindles and they are less willing to take risks.

It made me realize my potential was hindered by not believing in myself. I feared making mistakes, but those mistakes can be better lessons than someone giving you a grade or saying yes or no.

On to the next month

Working with the HOVS team while doing my graduate thesis does take a toll, but it is important to remind myself about the long term gain. After working with the team for one month, I felt I am slowly becoming a better designer, more efficient communicator and a faster learner. I am learning to design for an established brand and a product while still allowing my personal stamp to be embedded.

My main focus for the next month will be to become more efficient, remain open-minded and be a motivator in a team. Not everything is flowers and unicorns, but I know I have a choice of how our day will be set out. I do stress out from time to time, but I remind myself that everyone has the same amount of hours in the day. I decide how I want to spend it.

March 12, 2020No Comments

Who am I trying to impress?

I ask myself this question regularly. It's a preventative measure to help me avoid getting side-tracked.

Humans are wired to seek approval from other people. We want to feel accepted. We want to be part of the inner circle. Even if we think we're immune to it, we still fall for it. It's survival instinct.

Unfortunately, this desire to be accepted can take you on the wrong path without you even noticing.

To stay on course, I ask myself this very simple question: "Who am I trying to impress right now?"

If I like the answer, then all good. But if I don't like the answer, I need to change something.

Early in my career (and it still happens), I put so much energy into impressing certain people, for the wrong reasons. Whether it was industry leaders I wanted to accept me, peers I was trying to compete with or my own family and friends, I was always seeking external approval. I spent so much energy just chasing one or two people's acceptance, I eventually forgot why I was doing it.

The desire to impress isn't always negative. It motivates us to get better, to take care of ourselves. But asking this one question, regularly, has helped me stay on my path: Who am I trying to impress, and why?

March 11, 2020No Comments

How to work from home

Until COVID-19 is contained, more companies are closing down their offices and sending employees to work from home. You might think of this as a chance to relax and slack off a bit. Or you can turn it into an opportunity.

We recently shared how to negotiate with your boss and turn a temporary remote work situation into a long-term one. If you want to make this an ongoing thing, you’ll have to first prove it works for you and your company. It's not about performing as well as you do at the office, but doing even better. Use these next few weeks to build trust with your employer and you can be working remotely even after the virus passes.

For those of us used to a structured office environment, here’s how to work from home for the first time, and be good at it.

Resist the beckoning whispers of your bed

You want to make this feel like your ideal work environment, not a makeshift one. Working from your bed or your couch may sound nice, but it’s not going to make you more productive. It’s going to make you want a nap. Working in a coffee shop on a laptop may seem like a novelty the first couple days. It’s going to be a pain in the ass by the end of the week.

Give yourself the tools you need to do your best work. Bring home your monitor, your Wacom tablet, whatever you normally use at work and set it all up in a corner of your house. If you can, choose a dedicated room where you won’t be distracted by your partner/roommates or the TV. Close the door and get to work.

You're working from home, not a remote island

More than anything, you have to be good at communicating if you want to be good at working from home. Your team dynamic now exists online and via phone. Without smart, intentional communication, relationships and productivity will disintegrate fast.

This doesn't mean you need to be chatting all day on Slack. Ideally, your boss would know you'll get the work done no matter when you're online, and hopefully soon, they will. It does mean you need to be available for your team when they need you – and even better, to communicate before they even know they need you.

Be proactive.  Send a progress report at noon via Slack or email, letting your team know where you are with your projects. Share a few WIPS throughout the day to show your progress. If you’re going out for lunch or running an errand, let your team know beforehand and tell them when you’ll be back. You wouldn’t present your work in person without some explanation or reasoning behind it. So don’t dump it in an email or Slack message without the right details.

It's easy to make assumptions when you're on your own, and a wrong assumption can snowball fast into wasted time and a frustrated team. Overcommunicating cuts off assumptions at the quick.

Nobody is annoyed by proactive communication. They’re annoyed by coworkers they can’t reach when they need them. They're annoyed with coworkers who go off on their own and waste time making assumptions. Be a strong, proactive communicator and you've already mastered half of the remote working battle.

Beware the dangers of laundry and snacks

When you’re working from home, you’re surrounded by distracting temptations. You realize the kitchen needs to be cleaned. You really should throw in a load of laundry. You could get a head start on making dinner for once. Before you know it, it’s 6 p.m. and you’ve only logged two hours of work.

The beauty of working from home is that you can feasibly do your work and also get some chores done, take a long run or meet someone for lunch in between. But you have to manage your time and create structure around it, and you can’t leave your team hanging while you do it.

Plan your breaks strategically. Tell yourself you’ll get two hours of work done before you break to do laundry or have a snack. Aim to start your day by 9 a.m. so you can take a luxurious one-hour lunch at noon. However you structure it, stick to your plan and always give your team a heads up so they can plan around it too. This way, they’re not freaking out when you don’t respond on a deadline, and you can actually enjoy that lunch break without angry messages from your coworkers.

You're creative. Draw some lines.

It’s a funny thing. When you work from home, your family and friends tend to forget you’re still working. They see you at home on your laptop and assume you’re free to chat. They need a ride and call you to pick them up. Sometimes, you can, and that's the beauty of this set-up. But if the people in your life get too comfortable interrupting your workday, your focus and productivity will decline fast.

The best way to address this is to set boundaries from the beginning. If your partner or roommate is also at home during the day, make your headphones a sign of focus-mode. Let them know if your headphones are on, you're workin and not free to chat. Try to only check your phone on your scheduled breaks. Put yourself in a quiet room and close the door, creating the same effect as if you left for work.

And make boundaries for yourself. It’s easy to find yourself working late into the night, long past your scheduled hours, when you don’t have a full office of coworkers that empties out at 5 p.m. If you’ve been distracted all day by yourself and others, that may be necessary. But if you’re treating your remote work as a regular day, you should be able to log off like a regular day. Creating boundaries from the beginning protects you from your well-intentioned loved ones and yourself.

A patented, innovated solution we call "getting your work done."

The best way to prove yourself while working from home: By simply getting shit done. You could send a million emails over this next week or two, or keep that little green Slack light on perpetually, but it will mean nothing if you're not showing results.

You want your boss and your team to notice how well this is working during this "trial" period. Aim to do your best work, so there's no question about it. Don't just get the work done. Do it well. Overdeliver when you can. Your goal should be to surprise your boss by how productive this week was, so they're open to the idea of continuing even after COVID-19 passes.

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Not everyone is good at working from home, especially at first when you’re used to office life. You can get better at it though, and if you enjoy it and prove yourself to your employer, you can make it happen long-term.

If working remotely sounds appealing but it’s never been an option for you, these next few weeks can play to your benefit. While your boss has no option but to send you home for your safety, take advantage and show them how well it can work – for you and for your company.

March 10, 2020No Comments

How to give better design feedback

As a junior designer who struggled to find confidence in my work, I’d often ask my peers or managers for their feedback, either hoping to gain more direction, or for confirmation that I was on the right track.

Aside from mustering up the confidence to ask someone for their time and mentally preparing myself to take what I hear gracefully, asking for feedback is relatively easy.

What’s not easy is giving feedback.

When I was studying UX design, my course taught me how to conduct competitive analysis and user testing, design user flows and wireframes, and myriad topics. But there was never a heavy emphasis on how to provide good feedback, and I would argue this is one of the most important soft skills to have to be a successful designer and teammate.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how much I appreciate those who have given me quality feedback. I’ve been on the receiving end of these fortunate relationships for a while now, and I’ve made it one of my personal goals for 2020 to get better at providing feedback. This is where I’m starting.

Ask “What feedback are you looking for?”

It took me a while to unpack why I had such a difficult time providing feedback. At times I would be so underwhelmed by my own responses to my peers that I began to question if I was really a competent designer.

I started looking at what helped me most when I was on the receiving end of feedback. One mistake I made early in my career was presenting my design and then asking, “Does anyone have any feedback?” Such a broad question makes it difficult for anyone to provide a specific response that helps drive the design forward.

So about half a year ago, I created a rule for myself: I must always specify what type of feedback I’m looking for, and ask the same of someone who wants my feedback. The goal is clarity. The more specific I can be, the better my teammates can help me, and vice versa. It’s small, but following this rule has helped me grow tremendously as a designer and has also improved my relationship with my teammates.

"By sharing my thought process rather than offering immediate solutions, I am giving someone advice they can apply again in the future."

Aim to give guidance, not answers

I attend multiple design reviews a week at my agency. When I first started, I felt scared to give feedback to my peers; what could I spot that they hadn’t already? They’re more senior than I am! But I needed to participate, so my approach would usually look something like this: Identify the part of the design I liked the least, phrase my thoughts nicely to the designer and offer a suggestion. For example, “The type in the header looks a little big. Maybe you can knock it down a little?”

This isn’t a terrible approach to giving feedback, but I soon realized I was giving prescriptive suggestions, instead of taking a step back and digging deeper to explain why I thought XYZ part of the design could be improved.

Telling someone “I don’t like the colors here,” or “This just doesn’t work” doesn’t give them useful information to extrapolate from. The only next steps from there are to ask someone else for their feedback or to take a shot in the dark with a new design.

There is a time and place for prescriptive feedback – say a tight deadline around the corner or if an element doesn’t align with the design system. But I’ve found in most cases, prescriptive feedback is less valuable than offering a nudge in the right direction and the reasoning for it. Also, people just usually don’t like being told what to do.

Instead of saying, “The type in the header looks too big” I could instead say, “The hierarchy on this page seems off. Have you considered reassessing the type sizes?” By sharing my thought process rather than offering immediate solutions, I am giving someone advice they can apply again in the future.

We all know the saying “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” That same philosophy applies here. Many of the guiding principles I use when designing have come from the good feedback I’ve received from others, and I want to pass that on the further I grow in my career.

When in doubt, refer back to the strategy

One challenging aspect of giving feedback is looking at the design objectively. Do I really think the CTA should have an outline, or do I just not like the current style?

To avoid imposing my subjective opinions on the design, I like to reference any guiding design principles written up at the start of the project.

Let’s say I’m looking at a design for a product detail page which includes an image, title, and descriptive copy. My team and I are discussing whether we should list out the features of this product below the description (Design A), or if we should hide the information behind a modal (Design B). Both options probably work, but I remember that one of our design principles is to progressively disclose information. Now, I can argue that hiding the features behind a link is more in line with our guiding principles and move forward with Design B.

Referencing the project’s strategy when providing feedback creates a neat system of checks and balances. It allows me to steer the design toward alignment with the brief while validating the design system, rather than struggling to articulate my subjective opinion in a persuasive manner.

"Sugar-coating your critique dilutes the message and deludes the designer."

Always follow up

Following up after you give feedback is important for three reasons: You stay in the loop with the how and why behind your team's design decisions (important if our work has interdependencies); it helps you become better at giving feedback; and it strengthens your team dynamic as a whole.

The follow-up allows me to see how the designer applied my feedback. Maybe they applied my feedback differently than I envisioned. In that case, there’s a chance I communicated my feedback poorly, or it was bad feedback. Or perhaps they iterated off my feedback and the design is even better than I imagined — then I learn something new! Understanding how my message was perceived allows me to improve for the next time around.

Personally, I’m still working on getting better at this. It’s easy to mark following up as a low priority task in comparison to my other to-dos, but when I do it helps build a community and culture that I want to work in.

Be intentional about positive feedback

There are times when I get so focused on how to deliver my feedback that I forget to celebrate all the work the designer has already done. The tricky part is balancing positive feedback with constructive criticism.

In an effort to spare someone’s feelings or avoid a tough conversation, we often default to the “feedback sandwich,” i.e. leading with positive feedback (to soften the blow), followed by critique, ending with more positive feedback. I try to avoid this approach because it’s rarely the most helpful or applicable.

I believe in direct and succinct communication, especially when giving feedback. Sugar-coating your critique dilutes the message and deludes the designer. Honest feedback is important for growth, and at some point, all designers need to learn how to accept feedback without taking it personally.

This is why taking little steps to build a positive team dynamic (see above) is so important. If your teammate already trusts you, difficult conversations become much easier. So celebrate their successes and give them all the clapping hand emojis when the work deserves it, and you’ll pave the way for productive feedback later when it needs improvement.

March 8, 2020No Comments

How to ask your boss to work remotely

Let's be honest here. With the recent COVID-19 going around, your chances couldn't be better to finally make the step and start working remotely.

Perhaps your company already has offered you to work from home temporarily until things get better. So now all you have to do is shine so bright and be so good at working remotely that you just keep doing it, even when COVID-19 isn't even a thing anymore.

But virus aside, what can you do to convince your boss to work remotely?

Let’s look at the challenges of working remotely. There are always three parties involved. It's you, your boss and the team you work with. They all have to somewhat agree this is a good idea.

Usually, when the boss is against working remotely, it isn't so much that they are against it because of you, but because it would mean a significant change for the entire team. If your boss allows you to work remotely, they probably have to allow everyone to work remotely — which is why most companies either decide completely against it or open it up for everyone.

Making exceptions for just a few employees only creates bad blood, with those employees' coworkers to thinking they've been cheated.

So if your company isn't really open to working remotely, there are like many reasons why.

But let’s see what we can do about it.

Step 1: Start small and simple

You're trying to convince your boss of something that goes against their ground rules. You need to first prove yourself. Instead of asking to work fully remote, ask if you can work just Fridays from home. Just one day of the week, what can go wrong?

If you still don't get approval, negotiate even further. What else could make your boss change their mind? Could you accept a temporary pay-cut for the chance to work from wherever you want? Could you promise to work some extra time as an experiment?

Essentially, you want to give your boss such a great offer they can't decline. And remember, that offer is just temporary. Say something like "Hey, I'd love to work from home every Friday. Let’s make it an experiment for only 2 months and I will also do XYZ."

Chances are your boss will be into it.

Step 2: Overdeliver and prove yourself

Once you've been approved to work from home every Friday for two months, take it as seriously as you can. You're now trying to remove any doubt for your boss and the team you work with. Don't chill at home. Work hard, overdeliver on the work you do and be as present as you can. We've collected some remote working tips right here and here that may help.

For the next two months, your Fridays have to be completely flawless. Even one colleague who complains that you weren't answering in a timely fashion will ruin your entire deal. Your boss is waiting to say, "See, I told you, it just doesn't work." Prove them wrong. Don't treat it like "working from home" but as a chance to make an impression.

Step 3: Re-negotiate

Let's assume you've completed your 2-month trial with flying colors. There was not a single complaint and people didn't even notice that you weren't in the office (that's really what you want to aim for). Now it's time to renegotiate your deal.

Go back to your boss. Don't start by asking for something else, but rather ask for feedback. "Hey, how do you think everything is going? Anything I can improve with my remote work? We got so much done the last two months, but I want to make this even better and more efficient.” Your boss is going to love you for your proactive attitude and eagerness to get better. They may give you some feedback, but you already know they can't say much because you've been incredibly good at everything.

Now you hit them. "Hey, what do you think we do another trial for two months? I'll also work from home on Wednesdays, so it will be Wednesdays and Fridays. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday I'm still in the office, no one will even notice."

Chances are, your boss will approve. So you repeat the entire process.

Step 4: Keep re-negotiating

The beauty of this process is that the better you get at working remotely, the easier it will be to renegotiate your deal. You've already built up trust with your boss. At some point, your team will appreciate how happy and productive you are when working remotely, so they won't question your petition to work remotely more often. And at that point, once your boss sees how successful this remote working trial was (thanks to you), chances are this eventually becomes an option for the whole team.

There are usually two mistakes people make when trying to work remotely:

1. They ask for too much upfront. Keep it simple, keep it small. Make bite-sized requests and enjoy the process of convincing your boss and team.

2. They're not good at working remotely. As I explain in this article here, not everyone works well remotely. Being good at it needs to be a requirement. Otherwise you won’t be able to get approval, or you'll lose the opportunity fast if you do.

Now, good luck with working remotely! I personally believe it is the future, but I also know that not everyone even wants to work remotely. Decide for yourself if you're the person who's right for it, and if you are, I hope the advice above helps you to make it happen.

March 3, 2020No Comments

Blurring the lines

One of Nike’s most influential design teams is tucked away in the northwest corner of Nike’s 286-acre Portland, Oregon campus. They don’t make a single physical product.

Visitors to Nike Digital Design’s office last fall were greeted with a strange sound: the distinctive buzz of a small motor. What was that noise? It was the whir of the Nike Adapt BB lacing engine — you know, those Back to the Future shoes — tightening and loosening, over and over again. The team was beta testing one of Nike’s highest-profile shoes of the past ten years, answering the question: Now that Nike created the shoes, how would people control them?

The user experience for the world’s first digitally-connected shoe couldn’t end at the aglets. After all, connected shoes have to connect to something. Enter Nike Digital Design (NDD), a team within Nike tasked to design the app that would let consumers control the lacing, customize the lights, and check the batteries of their shoes — all from a smartphone. Where the physical shoe ends and the digital experience begins, Nike Digital Design is there to seamlessly blend the two.

The NDD team includes creatives with a wide range of backgrounds— digital product design, visual design, user experience, research, motion, copy and operations. Someone looking in from the outside might associate Nike with shoes and apparel, but those physical products are just the opening salvo for a host of new digital experiences. “We’re going through an incredible transformation, from the company we were, to the company we are — a direct-to-consumer company — powered by digital,” says Josh Moore, vice president, creative director of Nike Digital Design. ”We’re building a world-class team to get after it. And this new model puts digital at the forefront.”

The digital work coming out of the studio is split between teams in Portland, New York and Shanghai. As the team grows, Digital Design is taking on a wider variety of projects. “Our work covers everything within the Nike digital portfolio, including Nike.com, the Nike App, Nike Run Club, Nike Training Club, Adapt app and SNKRS app... even the digital retail tools that support our in-store teams,” says Mariana Bukvic, senior creative director for Digital Design Studio. “Our brand is all about helping people make sport a daily habit. And digital is an amazing way to do that.”

Often a consumer’s first experience with Nike isn’t a physical product at all; it’s through the Nike App, or taking that first run using Nike Run Club, or trying to cop the latest pair on SNKRS. “It’s so much more than e-commerce,” says Moore. “It’s about creating one-to-one relationships that serve consumers.”

Digital Design’s involvement with so many different aspects of the Nike digital portfolio means that creatives work on projects of all sizes — from small iterations of a user experience to the launch of brand-new digital product offerings. “We were asked to come up with the design strategy for Nike’s first ever subscription service,” says Euny Choi, a senior designer who worked on the launch of NTC Premium. “We wouldn’t have had the chance to give so much input anywhere else. It was challenging to consider what drives subscriptions and how users would see their progress. These were things we hadn’t focused on before, but it allowed us to pour our passion for training into the experience itself.”

But the team’s input doesn’t stop at design. Nike Master Trainers recently worked through an upcoming program for NTC Premium in the same building where the design team sits. “Not only were the trainers here testing their workouts for flow, they wanted us to do the workout with them,” says Choi.

Over the course of a workday, even when the weather is a Pacific Northwestern mix of clouds and drizzle, team members roll to work on their bikes, duck out for group runs to workshop NRC features, and hit one of the five gyms on campus, free to Nike employees. “It's important to have a passion for sport, because it helps you understand the design challenges better,” says Bukvic.

But the less sporty need not panic. Not every team member can run a four-minute mile. There’s just two of them. “Every time I run, I wonder if I’ll be able to keep up, but it’s impossible to not love a culture where you can leave at lunchtime and exercise together,” says Jenny Hu, a director of operations.

Nike isn’t just uniquely situated from a business perspective. It’s in a prime location for adventure-seekers too. Road cyclists can do repeats in the West Hills of Portland; trail runners and mountain bikers can explore the miles of singletrack in Forest Park; skiers and snowboarders are about 90 minutes from Mount Hood; and surfers can reach the wild and wooly Oregon coast in the same amount of time.

Mike Wood, a senior creative director who’s been with the team since the beginning, is a fan of it all: he lives in an Airstream on Sauvie Island in order to maximize his time outdoors. “Mountains, trees and trails,” says Wood. “I love recharging over the weekend because I come back on Monday full of inspiration,” he says. “Nike Digital Design is about connecting people to sport. So it’s important to me to get out there and connect in the same ways we’re asking our consumers to.”

The city of Portland is also key to the way a lot of team members stay creatively charged. Trendy restaurants and food carts specialize in everything from Texas brisket to vegan New Haven-style pizza; the music scene is loaded with artists at the start of their careers; and the community prizes anyone driven to create art, irrespective of form. “As a creative, living and working in Portland is refreshing. We have a tight-knit design community, but without the ego or pressure,” says Alexa Martinez, a senior designer. “It's a great place to get inspired and build relationships with other talented, creative people.”

The creative freedom given to designers back on campus also translates into less work being sent to agencies in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles as more creatives join the team from those cities. “We went from outsourcing our digital experiences to agencies and partners — to having a super-talented team that does most of it in house,” says Moore. He’s clearly proud of what the team has accomplished since it started four years ago. “At the end of the day, we’re up here connecting people to the power of sport in new ways, through digital.”

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If you're curious about working on Nike's digital products, check out Nike Digital Design jobs and be sure to connect with the Nike team on LinkedIn. Nazia Haque and Jill Hundenski would love to hear from you.

February 27, 2020No Comments

How to get your work noticed

Getting your work noticed in today's distracted, overstimulated world isn't easy. The internet makes it easier in some ways, giving everyone a platform and the opportunity to be seen, but harder in others – you're now competing with all of those people.

The more I think about it, the more I believe getting your work noticed comes down to two strategies. Pick the one that suits you best.

1. The gamble for virality

Gambling for virality means you need a breakthrough idea or a spectacular piece of work that opens the door for you. The challenge here is that it's unpredictable. You either have to be incredibly lucky, or good at understanding and manipulating the mechanics to make it work for you.

If you happen to have one piece that goes viral, you need to be prepared for it. If that piece is the only thing you ever did, your spotlight will most likely flicker out after those 15 minutes of fame. To benefit from virality in a meaningful way, you either need a good plan for capturing this newfound attention with more work, or you need a solid amount of work already prepared that can satisfy all your new friends.

The good news is that "going viral" happens now more than it did in the past. The bad news is that the lasting effect gets shorter and shorter. Going viral usually means millions of people take interest in what you do for two minutes, but then they're already onto something else. A small percentage, let's say 1% (often less), may stick around for a little longer and see what else you can offer. If you're prepared to take great care of this 1%, you can eventually turn virality into something more. For the few who can make it work this way, it can certainly lead to true fans and supporters.

Sadly, in most cases, you see someone go viral and then never hear from them again. They usually win the luck lottery but don't have enough to offer after to stick around. The gamble for virality is cruel, but if you can make it work, it can be beautiful.

2. Consistency

The only other way is to put in the work. Show up every day and do something consistently, for a long period of time. Eventually, people will take notice.

Consistency is the slow but steady approach, the road less traveled because it takes a great deal of time and effort. But it pays off more faithfully and meaningfully than the first strategy, and it doesn't require an ounce of luck. Consistency helps you build up a body of work and makes you gradually better. And the better you get, the harder it is to ignore you. The best stuff usually rises to the top.

But you don't even have to be "great" to experience the effect of consistent output. We humans have a strange way of rewarding consistency when we see it, even if that consistency doesn't lead to outstanding results.

Say, for example, a designer decides to design one poster every day, for 10 years. The reason we find this worthy of our attention (and something that can potentially even go viral) is not because these posters are good. It's just the sheer amount of posters. The consistency, stamina and effort that went into a project like this makes it noteworthy. Of course, the posters can be good, but that's not why it caught our attention. It's the commitment behind it that made us look.

Of course, the real magic happens when consistency meets virality. The YouTuber who creates 200 videos before finally hitting viral success will be much better off than the YouTuber who has just one video that happened to go viral.

In the end, both strategies work, but they depend on who you are as a person and what kind of work you do. The best way is to focus on #2 while optimizing for #1. Then just let life do its thing.

February 23, 2020No Comments

How to be a self-taught designer

I always described myself as a self-taught designer. It was the best term I could find; I never studied anything at university and dropped out of high school at 15 years old.

But I believe that being self-taught is a bit overrated nowadays, mostly because it just makes a good story. Being self-taught isn’t the opposite of going to university. Most students are self-taught as well, even if they learned the “official” way.

Whether you are formally educated or not, you will always learn from someone else. It may be books, mentors or YouTube. The only difference between taking a class and teaching yourself is that you learn on your own agenda. When you're self-taught, you choose your teachers and you set your own goals.

Being self-taught is rarely an active decision. You never say, “OK, I’m going to be self-taught instead of studying something." "Self-taught" is just the result in retrospect.

It usually starts with curiosity.

If you are curious about something and you are willing to learn, everything happens by itself.

An example:

As a kid, I was always interested in how electronic devices work. I would grab whatever device I could get my hands on – my Walkman (the thing before the iPod, if you remember what an iPod is), our family TV or computer – and take it apart until I had a lot of parts and screws on my table.

Then I would start to assemble it back together, trying to see if the device would still work after its surgery. Most of the time it did not. But I repeated this process again and again until it eventually worked out.

I had no goal to learn; I was just curious. But I learned a lot while doing it. The process of taking apart and assembling made me better each time. While doing so, I'd create my own little problems and then solve them. At that point, I wasn’t even creating anything new, just playing around with what’s already there.

After some time, I learned which electronic part does what, and that’s where the magic came in. Now that I understood the basics, I tried to manipulate it to create something new. My first step at being creative & creating something from scratch.

The learning process is about connecting the dots. But to connect the dots, you first have to collect them. I collected my first dots when taking random devices apart . Then I connected them again.

Everything starts with curiosity and your first step. Just listen to your instincts. My instincts told me that I should take the devices apart, see how they work and then put them back together .  No one told me that at the time. When you let yourself follow this process, everything else happens on your way.

"Self-taught is a result, not a goal. It's a verb, not an adjective."

That’s why I started as a computer scientist first. I was curious about it, then decided to be a software engineer because I wanted to learn how to program my own piece of hardware which I just built. Without it, it was just a piece of electronics.

Then I started becoming a designer because I always spent more time designing my software and making it more useful. Coding, in my case, was just the step before designing. Turned out, designing was what I was really passionate about.

After becoming a designer, I learned how important the actual content is that you design around. That led me to creating my own content & products. I’m still in the middle of it.

People often ask me for advice about being self-taught. "Any secret tips for being a self-taught designer? And books to read?" I can’t recommend books because there is no such thing as “How to be a self-taught designer for dummies." Self-taught is a result, not a goal. It's a verb, not an adjective. It's not a decision you make up-front, but the process once you’re already into it.

Today, I try to apply the concept to everything new I want to learn about. That could be photography, trying to get into audio, building a product or simply figuring out how I can fix & understand myself.

Elon Musk is a perfect example of being self-taught in his own way. Sure he has a bachelor in physics. But prior to SpaceX or Tesla, he had no experience in mechanical engineering or astrodynamics — both needed to build rockets and send them to space.

He started at the bottom. Reading books about the fundamentals, asking other people and Googling his way up. Trying to build a rocket, blowing it up a couple times and figuring out what went wrong. Then trying again. I can just picture Elon Musk sitting at home in front of his computer, punching in “How to build a rocket” into Google.

“All I have learned,
I learned from books.”
― Abraham Lincoln

If Abraham Lincoln would have written this quote in 2020, it would probably be, “All I have learned, I learned from the internet and books.”

While I can't give step-by-step advice to being self-taught, I have learned a few guidelines along the way. Whenever I've tried to learn something new or get into a new field, I've found this to be true:

1. It’s about the organic process.

This isn’t something you can force yourself into. You just start with the first thing that comes to your mind. What have you been curious about? What are you feeling drawn to right now? That's your beginning point. The rest happens on its own.

The good news is: There is nothing you can do wrong. Breaking something is actually a good exercise, just so you can fix it again. Which brings me to my next point.

2. Don’t listen to other people telling you what’s right or wrong.

If I would have listened to anyone, they would have told me to not take a fully functional TV apart and break it with my stupidity, only to spend hours trying to fix it. But for a fact, that was what helped me most.

3. Surround yourself with people who motivate you and encourage you.

Make friends with people who are “better” than you. That’s what Donny Osmond said and I think it’s partly true. But I like to replace “better” with “crazier” or “different.” It's those people who will introduce you to different perspectives and make you curious about the world, rather than getting complacent.

And find people who believe in you and make you feel good about what you do, regardless of the outcome. These personalities are rare so if you find them, keep them.

4. Always help other people.

Even if you are a beginner yourself, you can always teach and give something back to those who are trying to catch up. Magical things will happen when you do. You don’t have to be a master to help someone out.

5. Breaking the rules is probably the most important piece.

Fear kills curiosity, which is a key element here. So don't be afraid. Break the rules, do it wrong. What if you fail? Great, you're learning. What if you don’t like it? Then don’t do it, do something else. It’s that simple. The good thing about being self-taught is that you just don’t know how to do it, so you do it your way and just make it work.

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Related reading:

My personal story of becoming a designer
University vs. self-taught
Faking it = making it

February 4, 2020No Comments

Some hobbies should be sacred

If you follow me on Instagram you know it's no secret that I love photography. I don't consider myself a professional photographer, yet I'm fairly serious about this passion of mine.

Over the years, multiple opportunities came across my desk from potential clients asking me about my photography services. Many of them were an appealing brand, aligned with my style, offered complete freedom and generally, presented a nice opportunity. Yet I've always declined.

I believe that some hobbies are sacred. I enjoy photography because it's a creative outlet for me, where I can do whatever I please. It's the closest to art I can get. Even if clients promised me complete freedom, it just wouldn't feel the same.

There is a certain purity to these kinds of hobbies. No outside opinions or motives, no creative briefs, just the simple pleasure of doing it for yourself. Some hobbies are just not meant to be monetized. Otherwise, we risk losing the enjoyment we get from them.

"To be really happy and really safe, one ought to have at least two or three hobbies, and they must all be real." Winston Churchill

Of course, it’s not uncommon for a hobby to become a source of income or even a career. A homebrewer opening a brewery. A writer turned best-selling novelist. A skateboarder going pro. Some might strive to pay the bills doing what they love. It’s their dream job. But making jewelry for fun is much different than making it to fulfill customer orders. Taking photos for a campaign brings pressure and structure I don’t have while wandering the city alone with my camera.

If you have that one special hobby — the one where hours go by without you noticing, the one that brings peace or joy in the way that nothing else does, the one that feels almost therapeutic — consider its value before accepting money for it. For me (and I realize this may not be the case for everyone), the personal value of these hobbies far outweigh the monetary value. My photography hobby, at least right now, is priceless.

January 15, 2020No Comments

Designers vs. project managers

If you’ve ever worked in an agency, you’ve been on one side or the other: The creative side or the accounts/project management side. And by side, I mean both structurally and physically. Oftentimes, the two departments sit at separate ends of an office or even different floors. Unfortunately, the separation can become a mental one as well.

Like any social system where groups of people are separated, it’s easy to think of the group outside your own as “other.” This is escalated in an agency setting, where neither side may fully understand or appreciate the other’s job.

The designer becomes frustrated because the project manager is Slacking them yet again to do a last-minute task, on top of all their other looming deadlines. The project manager is frustrated because they asked the designer to do this task already, two weeks ago.

Resentments can build fast, the two groups somehow becoming opposing sides rather than two parts of the same team. The creative side decides managers are stressful and unnecessarily frantic. The accounts side decides creatives are divas who have to be “handled” or tiptoed around.

In an ideal scenario, these teams allow each other to do their best work. But if you’ve worked in any agency (perhaps with the exception of very small, 4-5 person studios), you know the ideal is not always the reality.

I can speak better to the “creative side,” so I will. As a designer, we often work more closely with project and account managers than we do with other designers. They are part of every workday and every project. And so it benefits us to work well with them for two reasons: 1. Because it will make our day-to-day more pleasant, and theirs 2. Because it will make our work better.

And here I will state a truth you might not want to hear: working better with account and project managers doesn’t only require better collaboration skills. It requires being better at project management yourself. Here’s how to do both.

1. Anticipate your project manager’s questions

You know your project manager is going to have questions for you, probably from the moment you walk in the door in the morning. It’s their job. Make it your job to anticipate what those questions may be, and answer them before your project manager has a chance to ask you.

This simple effort immediately makes you better at your own work. You start thinking ahead and noticing little details you might have overlooked before. You become a better communicator because you’re proactively reaching out instead of dodging messages and emails. You assure your team you are thinking of the full picture, so they trust you more. This, in turn, helps you sell your work internally and allow the PM/AM to become your greatest advocate to your client.

2. Communicate your progress daily, or more

Your project manager shouldn’t wonder where you are on a task at any given moment. If you’re plugging way on it and making good time, leaving them out of the loop creates unnecessary panic. If you’re behind, you can circumvent the panic by proactively communicating.

Better communication requires sending one only message at the end of each day. My team calls it the Daily Status Update, and we preach it often. Simply send an email listing what you got done (with links to WIPs, if you have them), what you plan to do tomorrow and what you’re stuck on. That’s it. (Unless you're on a tight timeline, in which case midday check-ins are always helpful.)

Your Daily Status Update should take five minutes at the end of each day and will save you countless hours of standup meetings, damage control meetings, emails and Slack messages. Daily communication lets your project manager know you’re aware of the deadline and doing your best to meet it. It allows them to give the client a heads up and spare their anxiety too (which is what usually causes PM anxiety – it’s a chain that leads back to you.) It also allows your PM to reroute you before you get started for the day, if needed, rather than interrupting your focus halfway through.

You might already get a task list each morning from your project coordinator. It doesn’t matter. Send your update anyway. It will keep you accountable and the effects will trickle down all the way to the client and back to you.

3. Overcome your aversion to “being managed”

Most designers hate the idea of being managed, especially if you’re coming from an independent position. But that’s just our egos talking. The best of the best artists, CEOs, founders, entertainers and more have managers. Why? Because it allows them to focus on what they do best.

Your project manager is by no means your assistant, but they will make your life easier if you let them. Rather than putting them on the opposing side in your head, consider them your ally. Visit their desk now and then to catch up, especially if you’re sitting on opposite sides of the office. Strive to learn how they work and think so you can find the best way to “customize” your working relationship. Find a system together that works well for both of you, even if that’s not how you do it with other project managers.

The ultimate goal is to feel like you and your project manager are a dynamic duo. You can read each other’s minds and anticipate each other’s needs. You’ve hacked the system to make both of your jobs easier and more enjoyable. You are mutually using each other to your own advantage.

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The best account/project management relationships I've had were in very small, 4-5 person studios. Why? Because everyone was wholeheartedly on the same team. They didn’t consider the other department, “other.” They weren’t sitting in different parts of the office, they were cramped in one room basically sitting in each other’s laps. They chose each other and knew they needed each other.

The best project managers I know also have something in common with the best designers I know: they are diligent and proactive. To work better with a project manager, seek to be a better project manager yourself. It will make you a better designer too.

December 6, 2019No Comments

How to stay motivated when you’re spread thin

With this series, I am attempting to answer questions from readers asking for design advice. I can’t promise I know the right answer, but I’ll always do my best to be honest and share the most practical information I know.

This question interestingly relates to the first one. It seems as designers, we are prone to losing motivation for a number of reasons. I know I can relate:

 

Hi Tobias,

UI & UX designer here. I have been a by-standing reader for a year now. Finally, I got the courage to write about "a problem" that has been bugging me.

The problem I am facing is how to spread my excitement and hype between multiple projects at the same time.

Once I start reading a specification, or meet a client and start to put the first lines of design on screen, I always feel this excitement and ideas / visions of what the project could become. I'm hyped to work on the project. Before finishing this project, I meet the next client. I start to lay down the first designs for the new project while still working on the first one, and my excitement kind of shifts and my mind is overwhelmed with the new project. It's like I almost don't want to work on first project anymore.

It's a cycle where the more projects I work on at the same time, the less projects I care about in the long run. Only the most recent one excites me. It always leaves me with this empty feeling inside that I could have done something better.

Have a nice weekend,
T

 

I am always working on at least 3-4 projects at the same time. Right now, among other projects, I am running Semplice and building an entirely new product at the same time. I’ll admit, the new product has consumed me at times. Ideally, I would be able to devote equal time to both projects and teams consistently. Ideally, I would be equally excited about both projects at all times. But the ideal scenario is rarely the reality.

I saw a comic somewhere depicting the typical agency project with a graph that measures excitement level. At the beginning of the project, excitement is off the charts. In the next phase, it drops a little. It spikes here and there, then plunges abysmally low before launch and spikes again right after. This is typical enough that someone decided it was worth making a comic about. It happens enough that people see this comic, laugh and share it. We’re not the only people who feel like this.

"Don’t feel guilty about the ebbs and flows. Take advantage of them."

My excitement level or interest in a project fluctuates depending on my day and my mood. If I can afford to, I follow that excitement. If I’m in a good flow with a particular project and I’m feeling inspired, I don’t question it. I run with it and don’t stop until I have to. I create my best work in this state of mind and I imagine most others do too. I might still break to answer a few emails or put in an hour or two of necessary work if I need to. I might even bounce back and forth between the two projects from hour to hour if that’s what I’m drawn to do. My point is: Don’t feel guilty about the ebbs and flows. Take advantage of them.

In fact, this is one of my best strategies to stay productive. I choose to work on many projects at the same time, adding a bit of pressure and allowing me to “procrastinate” by jumping between equally important work. If I’m feeling stuck or just unmotivated about one project, I will move on to the next one. Instead of procrastinating by checking emails or watching TV, I procrastinate by working toward other project deadlines. The constant shift in focus keeps things fresh for me, helping me avoid that burnout feeling on one particular project. And it only works if you have lots of projects to do at the same time.

If that strategy doesn’t work for you, perhaps you need to be more strategic about the projects you work on and when. Of course, we have to consider the bills and we can’t always control the timing of new projects, but with experience and some long-term planning, you can eventually make it work better for you. If you can afford it, start by seeking one larger project that will cover what two or three projects would normally make you. See if you can arrange projects and schedules so that you have a full two or three weeks to focus on a singular project, or maybe even a month. I realize we can’t always afford to be selective, but by setting expectations with our clients from the beginning, we can gain a little more control over our project schedules and arrange them in a way that makes sense for our workflow.

"Naturally, deadlines don’t change with our moods. There are times we just need to buck up and do the work. And often, once we begin, we find energy and momentum."

If you’re struggling with a particular project consistently, you may just need to get a fresh perspective. Do research and find inspiration related to the project. Schedule lunch with the client so you can hear how much they care about this project and their goals. Tell a friend what originally excited you about the project. Start at a different point than you normally would and work backward – ignore the assumption that you need to work linearly and start anywhere. It might just jumpstart your brain and get you back into the rhythm again.

Naturally, deadlines don’t change with our moods. We can’t always silo our work or we’d fall behind all the time. We can’t wait for inspiration or we may never begin. We can’t always plan our projects perfectly. There are times we just need to buck up and do the work. And often, once we begin, we find energy and momentum.

A psychologist doesn’t only take the cases that excite them – the people with multiple personalities or type of trauma that inspires medical papers – but they help their patients to the best of their ability anyway, every day. Accept that you won’t feel inspired about your work every day. Do it anyway. Do your best anyway. Sometimes we just need to get to work, and excitement will follow.

November 22, 2019No Comments

A dangerous approach to problem solving

The most interesting people are the ones who don’t avoid reality. The people who are honest both with themselves and with others. Who not only recognize their flaws or fears or mistakes, but openly admit them – even laugh about them.

These people have mastered something many of us have yet to learn: They have accepted their reality and then embraced it. They lean in.

An estimated 75% of people fear public speaking. Yet many do it anyway. There’s something about marching up onto that stage, greeting an audience and choosing to plunge headlong into a fear deeply embedded within us. It can feel glorious. The pushing through and coming out the other side. Instead of running from our fear, we move straight toward it.

Print ads don’t get as much attention as they used to, but now and then a few float to the top that delight readers the way advertising did in its golden days. This KFC ad by Mother is one them. KFC, in an embarrassing misstep, ran out of chicken at many of its locations. It should have been a PR nightmare, but this ad turned it around.

They not only admitted their mistake – they leaned into it. They drew attention to a negative moment many might have otherwise never known about. Now all anyone remembers is this clever, disarming ad. (See also: Volkswagen’s famous “Lemon” ads and Avis’ “we’re number 2” ad.)

South Dakota was recently in the news for its new campaign to solve a meth epidemic in the state. The tagline: “Meth. We’re on it.” Many mocked the campaign, deeming it tone-deaf. Others wondered if it was an insane oversight. Officials behind the tagline said they simply wanted to be provocative and call attention to the issue. Would we have seen this campaign otherwise? Probably not. Would those of us who don’t live there know South Dakota struggles with methamphetamine addiction? Not necessarily. Leaning into the problem, however controversial the results may be, seems to be working.  

Product companies can lean in, too. We could openly acknowledge a feeling or experience people typically have when using our product, and encourage them or motivate them in our UX copy. Instead of diminishing our shortcomings, we could say exactly what our product does well and what it doesn’t. How refreshing would that be, compared to the “all-in-one,” overpromised offerings we often see today? 

We can lean into our personal flaws or shortcomings. We can lean into areas where we feel inadequate or uncertain. We can lean into our fears, the work ones and the life ones. It’s not about accepting reality. It’s about pushing straight into it. It may not be the safe approach, but when was safe ever interesting? 

November 14, 2019No Comments

The beauty of bartering

A plane ticket to Miami with a free place to stay, a train ticket to London, ten days accommodation in New York, a sustainable clutch made from recycled leather, beautiful bracelets with rare gemstones and beads. This year, I have (re)discovered the art of bartering.

Bartering or Barter Work is trading goods or services for other goods or services, without exchanging money. The barter system has been around since the old days, when people in small villages would exchange agricultural goods or services with their neighbors so they all could provide for their simple livelihood.

First, I know that being in the position to barter could be seen as a privilege since it doesn’t pay the rent, and I understand that you should focus on making a living first. But I'd like to argue that bartering could bring many possibilities to your doorstep and enrich your life with wonderful experiences, even when you are low on cash funds. You just have to be thoughtful about how you do it. These are the rules and the philosophy I abide by when designing for trade.

"Nothing is free, and especially not your time and skills. So make sure that whatever you trade is valuable to you and also valuable to your client."

Always exchange equal value

An important one: You should never exchange your services for things like prestige or exposure. This should never be part of any contract with a client. Nothing is free, and especially not your time and skills. So make sure that whatever you trade is valuable to you and also valuable to your client. Both parties need to get something from the exchange and "pay" for it in some way or form. It is often best to calculate your hours in real cash value, so you have a ballpark figure in mind and clear terms for your trade.

Trading for invaluable experiences

Sometimes the value cannot be measured – for example, when you exchange your services for an experience or a place to stay in another country. I’ve done trades where I didn’t count the hours because I knew the experience would enrich my life in ways that don't have a cash value. This was the case when I traded my design work for free stays in New York and Miami. I likely couldn't have taken these trips this quickly as it’s so expensive to stay there, but thanks to bartering projects I was able to enjoy both cities to the fullest and at a low cost.

Trading for cost reduction

One bartering opportunity is entrepreneurs or small companies that have no big cash flow yet, but make beautiful products or offer services that you find interesting. These start-ups or small businesses are always looking to reduce costs and for them, it's much cheaper to trade one of their already-made products than to pay for your services in full.

This shouldn’t mean that your part of the deal is cheaper or less professional, so make sure the products are of good quality and/or that the person is experienced in the services they provide. Even though no money is involved, bartering should be seen as a professional business relationship and exchange.

"Not all things worth counting are countable."

Trade only with those you trust

There should always be a level of trust between the two parties when doing work for trade. I have personally only done trades with family or friends. If you want to trade with another business, I would approach it as any other project. Consider setting up a little contract so both parties are one hundred percent clear on the trade, the deadlines and the deliverables.

Be aware of The Taxman

Another reason to keep bartering between friends and family is the tax implications. I’ve done some research and it seems that both in The Netherlands (I live in Amsterdam) and in the United States, bartering goods and services is seen as taxable income.

When you trade between people close to you, however, the rules become a bit blurred. Say your friend in Miami has a problem with her website and you fix the issue. Because she is so happy, she invites you to come to Miami and offers to pay for your plane ticket. The plane ticket can be seen as a gift from her to you, which means no tax has to be paid. But if you trade with a company that offers to make you a promotional video in exchange for a website design, the costs become higher and the taxman more interested.

So keep the bartering to a few fun projects, and only do it when you are happy with the trade and know you are getting some valuable experiences from it. And don’t let your barter projects eat away your time for paid jobs. I don’t know your landlord, but I’m guessing he wouldn't be too happy with a sustainable clutch made from recycled leather. Get your rent money first!

November 5, 2019No Comments

The art of doing

I’ve written about this so many times. Directly and indirectly, inspired not only by my own thoughts, dreams or concerns, but often those around me. A conversation with a friend that keeps repeating itself, in circles, again and again.

Why is it so hard to do the things we want to do?

Do we not want it enough?

Are we afraid of what happens if we fail?

Are we afraid of what happens if we succeed?

We can come up with myriad reasons, some valid and others perhaps not so much. Some say the start is the most crucial part of every project. Most fail before they even begin. The rest fail at the last 10% (but that’s a different story for another time).

Below are some tips and tricks I find helpful when working on my own projects, or starting up a new one.

The name is temporary

If you can’t find a name for your project, don’t worry. A name is temporary and can be changed any time. This is even more true in the early days of your project. While a good name can make a huge difference later on (those who work in branding know this), it doesn’t really matter in the beginning.

Move quick. Pick a “working title” as they do with movies. Don’t get held up because you can’t find the perfect name. Chances are you won’t find it for a while and you will just stumble upon it while working on something else.

"What problem are you trying to solve, and how can you solve it in the hackiest, most minimalistic way possible?"

You don't always need the .com

Don’t postpone your projects because you couldn’t find your perfect domain name or social media username. Focus on what’s important; you can always take care of the domain later. My own company, Semplice, started out as semplicelabs.com and only years later were we able to get the semplice.com domain. If you have a name you like, use .io or .co domains or whatever else is available and works for you in the meantime.

Don't overthink the technicalities

If you have an idea for an app, your first prototype might not need to be a fully-fledged app. Perhaps it can start out as an email list or a spreadsheet. What problem are you trying to solve, and how can you solve it in the hackiest, most minimalistic way possible?

Don't let overthinking or perfectionism kill your project before you even begin. If your idea is to create an e-commerce platform, don’t yet worry about logistics or hiring an engineering team to build out your online shop. Take the core of your idea and simply start an Instagram account or a YouTube channel.  Build an audience, test the idea, see if people like it and only then move forward. If you find you have high demand and no platform to support it, that’s a good problem and where you want to be.

"All you want in the beginning is to see some momentum."

Build light and validate fast — "The minimum love-able product"

What’s the minimum you can do to make people understand and love the idea of your project? Create a landing page, curate a small Instagram account and run a few very specific ads to drive some traffic to your product. Watch the numbers and go from there. All you want in the beginning is to see some momentum. This is not only good for your product, but also your mind. You need it to stay motivated and keep moving forward yourself.

Keep it stupid

I've been preaching this message for a long time now. “Keeping it stupid” means you’re not over-complicating your idea and finding an excuse to procrastinate. Your idea and execution should be so simple that others might think it’s stupid. That’s when you hit the sweet spot of just enough challenge to move forward, but not too much to get stuck.

Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” It's a good way to keep your idea simple, for yourself and those around you, and actually launch it.

September 12, 2019No Comments

The makings of a great designer

I’ve talked to dozens of companies about what they look for in a designer. While we have seen trends in their answers, many of them also conflict with each other. I agree with some and disagree with others. So now, I’d like to share what I personally consider when hiring a designer for my team.

I’ve probably covered this to some extent in my other articles, like this one describing junior vs. senior designers. Or this one, where I ponder the designer hiring gap. But here it is in one place, both the reasonable expectations (at least, what I consider reasonable) and the potentially unreasonable ones (I have unrealistically high standards, even for myself). This is the designer I always search for and the designer I strive to be.

Natural talent over hard skills

Of course, I expect my designers to know the basic principles of design and be comfortable using the standard tools of our trade. But I don’t care whether you’re university taught or self-taught, or whether you've mastered the latest design technology. Rather, I look for natural talent and the potential to grow. 

I have hired interns who had little more experience than a three-month boot camp course. I've hired seasoned designers who were not so great at interactive design, but who learned and grew in that area after joining our team. It depends on the position or project I'm hiring for but when reviewing your portfolio, I'm likely not looking at your list of hard skills. I'm looking at how I see you in the next few months or years. When I'm hiring a designer, I'm investing in that designer. Rather than perfection, I'd rather see potential. 

The ability to fill in the gaps 

A good designer is one who can work with as little information and guidance as possible.

This is a big one for me. Many designers can do exactly what they’re told. Few can work from just one or two sentence-direction.  It's not so much about having experience or being able to "read my mind." It's more about having the confidence and drive to just begin without needing step-by-step instructions. Call it confidence, call it drive. Whatever it is, I don't want to start delegating a design task and think, “Nah, it will take less time to just do it myself than to explain it.” I want to know my designer can run with it. 

Good taste

Another obvious one, but not always easy to find. There are plenty of designers out there who can map a user flow or build a landing page, but not all of them have an instinct for good design. This is a quality you can hone as you read, travel, observe other designers, watch films, experience fashion, go to museums (more on this in a moment).

Some people naturally have good taste. Others acquire good taste over many years of sharpening their senses. You may think taste is subjective, and it certainly is in some cases. But we also know there's a universal understanding of good taste. It's hard to pinpoint but we know when it's present, and we feel it when it's absent.

Curiosity about the world beyond design

Maybe this is true for every industry, but it seems that designers tend to stay within their safe little design bubble. They may be well-read on the latest design news, but they’re not curious about the world outside it. Curiosity makes us better designers. When we soak in more of the world around us, we are more inspired and informed to create. I want a designer who has hobbies, who reads books, who asks unexpected questions. They’re the designers who create amazing work. 

Proactivity and a sense of responsibility

I don’t want to chase my designers down to get their tasks done. I don’t want to tell them what to do next. I don’t want to remind them to answer that email or design for that edge case. I want a designer who’s always thinking one step ahead, who cares about the work and wants to ship the damn thing, not sit on it. 

Consistency

We all have our good and bad days. We all do work we know could be better. That’s fine. I don’t want a designer who’s always perfect. I just want a designer who shows up.

I’d venture to say consistent dedication counts more than output, at least to a certain extent. We can improve the output with good feedback and mentorship. It’s much more difficult to work with a designer who’s unpredictable, who might be “into it” one day and apathetic the next. 

Honestly, I’ve seen this quality most often in extremely junior designers (think interns) and extremely senior ones. As a junior designer, you are eager to impress and haven’t been jaded by your career yet. At this point, you’re just grateful to have a job, so you do your best to keep it. And as a senior designer, you’re consistent because you’re just good at what you do. You’ve been in it long enough to know an apathetic attitude will get you nowhere. Everyone else in between is more likely to be disillusioned, cocky and inconsistent. 

Thoroughness and attention to detail

I want a designer who doesn’t leave loose ends. Few things bother me more than seeing a design without a necessary active state, or only one of many required use cases. I dislike seeing typos, even in mockups. I don’t appreciate when files are exported and organized incorrectly and thus impossible for anyone else to find and use. I look for designers who are good at the details. 

A sense of humor

Last but certainly not least, I look for designers who don’t take their work or themselves too seriously. The difference between a successful project and an unsuccessful one, or a thriving business and a failed one, or simply a good and bad day, are often the people you work with. I want to work with designers who are ready to laugh or crack a joke. I don’t expect you to be a standup comedian. I just want to work with people who have fun with their work and their life.

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Again, I realize what I'm describing here is the ideal on their best day. I am not this designer every day and I don't expect my team to be flawless either. It's a journey that continues as long as we continue working. The making of a great designer lasts the lifetime of their career, and the best designers know they can always be better.

September 2, 2019No Comments

When your target audience is yourself

It's easier to build something for your target audience if you're in it.

The idea here is simple. Scratch your own itch. Building something you want to use yourself is easier than building something you can’t relate to. If you have a personal interest in the result, if you plan to be the biggest fan of what you're creating, that investment will inform a product you couldn't build otherwise.

You don’t need research to know where the hole in the market is, what the challenge is or what the audience wants. You don't have to find the market. You create it.

Research is still helpful to reveal blind spots and biases, but that’s beside the point. No matter how much research you do, the product you build for someone else will not be the same as the one you build for yourself. 

Everyone has an idea for an app these days. Everyone fancies themselves an undiscovered genius. Building a great product requires more than the idea – it requires strategy, luck, timing, talent, connections, money.

But if you want to create something that solves your own problem, something you plan to love and use yourself, you already have a head start. 

August 26, 2019No Comments

The dilemma for small product teams

As a small team working on a product, you face an eternal conflict: When do you focus on adding features, which adds value to your product, and when do you focus on fixing bugs?

Every week a small team pivots to fix bugs and clean up the product, you are not working on new features that improve your current offering, making your existing users happy and bringing new ones. But wait on those bugs too long and you’re sacrificing the integrity of the product. Any perceived value is lost when someone clicks a button and gets an error. Large product teams can afford to do it all. They can simultaneously bug fix and build new features to keep their product moving forward. For a small product team, it’s a balancing act.

In New York, the impending shutdown of the L train was dreaded city-wide. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy flooded the Canarsie Tunnel, causing severe damage to the train system. When it was announced the L train would be shut down for 15 months to make serious repairs, the entire city went into panic mode. The L line connects Brooklyn to Manhattan. Thousands of people ride it every day to commute to work and back. Shutting down the L and re-routing these people would not only be inconvenient and expensive, but it would also disrupt the entire flow of the city. 

Talk to anyone in New York and they could tell how you how the imminent #lpocolypse would affect their life negatively. Yet these repairs were necessary to keep the L train running into the foreseeable future, and to keep people safe. Keep it going as-is and the public is at risk, and the issues eventually become irreparable. Fixing the “bugs” was unavoidable, despite bringing the entire city to a literal halt. 

Then, this year, the local government found a solution that eliminated the need for a complete shutdown. New tech became available that will allow the train to keep running, for the most part, while the city fixes it. Some night and weekend closures will still be necessary but compared to the alternative, nobody could complain. The collective relief throughout the city was palpable. 

On hopefully rare occasions, a shutdown is necessary for your product. If you can’t significantly improve it while keeping your existing product alive, you have no choice but to pause and rebuild, accepting the consequences in the meantime. But more often, you can find a middle ground. Your existing users, after all, are the ones who will use and support anything new you create.

Smart product teams see two or three years down the line and plan smart, strategic sprints that strike a balance. Smart product teams strive for the solution that keeps their audience moving forward in the tunnel. 

August 11, 2019No Comments

How to fire a client

Over the years, I’ve learned ways to spot a bad client from a distance. Most of it comes down to trusting my gut and recognizing red flags, so I can avoid taking on that client from the beginning.

Even if I am working with a difficult client, I will try to see that project through, do my very best and make a note to not work with them again in the future.

But no matter your intuition or experience, there will inevitably be times when you misjudge, or the client relationship goes sour for one reason or another, and it becomes more productive to end the relationship than continue. Thankfully, that has happened only once or twice over the course of my career. Those one or two times I had to make the tough decision to cut ties with the client. And it’s not easy.

Here’s what I’ve learned to do in those moments, when the healthiest solution is to end a client relationship. Naturally, every situation is unique and this might not fully apply to yours, but it’s helpful to keep in mind.

 

Have an honest conversation first

Give your client a chance to make things right, if it’s possible. Perhaps they weren’t aware of the problems or they didn’t understand how much it affects you. Give them the benefit of the doubt and be transparent about the situation as early as you can.

This doesn’t have to be a pointing-fingers, emotional confrontation. Simply be honest, respectful and most importantly: offer solutions. If after your conversation things don’t change, you are more validated in your decision and they shouldn’t be surprised about it.

 

See them through to a reasonable hand-off point

Leaving a client high and dry in the middle of a project makes you as bad as they presumably are. They will be left with loose ends, many of which they don’t even know about. And they’ll bring those loose ends to another designer who will then struggle even more than you did, and that’s just bad karma. 

Providing the situation isn't extreme, do your best to leave them in a good place before bailing on them. Unless, of course, the client has refused to pay you according to the terms you agreed on, in which case you are fully entitled to halt all work.

 

Try to find the client a new designer 

Connecting a client to a new designer and briefing that designer is your parting gift to your client and yourself. It will remove a lot of panic from the situation for them and likely make the breakup go a bit more smoothly.

But be careful about this. You don’t want to curse someone else with a bad client. If you are going to pass off a client to someone else, be completely honest with them first about your struggles. If that person knows what they’re getting into, it’s fine. They may have the right skills, experience or perspective to bring the project to the finish line. Every project is about personal relationships and it's absolutely OK if we're not all fully compatible.

 

Get everything in writing

Even if the relationship is ending on a positive note, you need to watch your back. I can promise you will hear from the client months from now about something you did or didn’t do, some file they are missing or some contract clause you missed. Or they will just have endless questions for you about meetings long past which you may not remember and won’t want to deal with. 

Draw up a friendly termination agreement that outlines what you did and did not deliver from the scope of work, what the agreed final payment is, that you are not responsible for their project or files after hand-off, and the like. If the relationship is ending on a bad note, you must consider running this contract by a lawyer. Bitter clients can come back to bite you. 

On that note, be thoughtful about what you say to your client in writing – at any point in the project. Stick to your scope and don’t over-promise at any point in the project, because you can be sure an angry client will be digging up old emails to prove their point.

Be kind and patient 

No matter how heated the client may become, stay patient and level-headed. Speak in a calm voice on the phone and show respect in emails. Like any break-up, your client may feel abandoned and hurt, and reflecting their tone won’t help anything. If the conversation gets heated, do your best to bring it back to a reasonable place. Be professional and your client will be more likely to do the same.

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Again, this advice is only for the extreme, and hopefully rare, situations. For the most part, I’ve had the pleasure of working with smart, friendly clients. And even with the trickier ones, I remember I’ve signed a contract and I promised this client my very best. It’s only when the client or the project won’t allow you to give your best, when the relationship becomes toxic and unproductive, that this should even be considered. Here’s hoping these tips help if it does.

August 1, 2019No Comments

The look of an unprofessional designer

When was the last time you saw someone using a Hotmail or Yahoo address? For me, it was yesterday. And the day before that.

The following may seem like common sense, but it doesn’t appear that way based on the dozens of portfolios I see every day. For some reason, many designers still operate in the past when it comes to their online presence.

As a designer, presentation is everything. We are expected to have good taste and a certain level of awareness – and that’s reflected most in the small things. Aside from solving problems, an employer or client hires us to make them look better and more professional. So shouldn't we lead by example? If you’re seeking a job or looking to establish yourself as a designer, these small details can make or break you. 

A non-existent or outdated portfolio

I get it. Everyone is on Instagram, and it's easier to just upload your work there or some other gallery-based social platform. But having your own website is a matter of pride. It shows you care about what you create beyond just slapping it onto your social networks. As a client and an employer, I hire those who put in that extra effort.

Think of yourself like any other business. Would you trust another business if they didn't have a website? Probably not.

Of course, I still recommend adding your work to Instagram and any other design-related communities to increase your exposure. But it's your website that makes the real difference. Your portfolio is your home base, where you can present your work in the best possible light.

If you do have a portfolio but it hasn't been updated in months or even years, it's almost as bad as not having one at all. Based on a recent (informal) poll we did, it seems that 80% of people completely neglect their portfolio unless they are actively seeking a job. Whether or not you are looking for a job, your portfolio should include your latest work and show you have a pulse on contemporary design. We feel suspicious if our local dentist or insurance company has an outdated website. Imagine how much worse it is when trying to find a designer – someone who typically builds those websites.

It might not feel like a priority to update your site when you already have a full-time job. But those who do are the ones that get ahead, who have opportunities land in their lap without even looking for them.

To get a beautiful, personalized portfolio up quickly, I recommend using Carbon. If you're a bit further along in your career and want to build something slightly more advanced, try out Semplice.

An old-school email address

Unless you’re known for your artistic irony, using a Hotmail or Yahoo address (or let’s be honest, even an iCloud address) makes you seem out of the loop. It may be unfair, but it’s true. Plenty of other modern platforms exist and they’re all free. Create an email address there. Preferably something straightforward, like your name. 

Even better, get a top-level domain (see below) and use it to create your own name@yourname.com email address. An email address on your own domain is the easiest way to position yourself as a serious, established designer.

Using a free website domain

Free domain names that come with your platform or host (something like cynthia.randomcompanyname) come across as cheap and sketchy. Plus, they are more difficult for your potential employer or client to remember. Most top-level domains are typically around $4 - $10 a year. It’s worth spending a few bucks each year to own a personalized domain. 

Buy your own URL and keep it clean and simple. It's the best investment you can make when it comes to your brand as a designer.

A poor quality profile picture

Again, with exception to intentional style choices, your profile picture should not look like it was taken on an old Nokia phone. If you don’t have a professional-looking photo of you, ask a creative friend to take one. You don’t have to pay for headshots, but you should have a polished picture that represents you well online.

That goes for your portfolio, your socials, your LinkedIn. Because as much as we’d like to think some of that should be personal, potential clients or employers will find it. And given how easy it is to take high-quality photos with just a smartphone these days, there’s no excuse to have a low-quality one.

Empty social networks

Aside from adding a good profile photo there, consider the content you have on your social channels. If you are linking to these sites from your portfolio, they should be regularly and thoughtfully updated.

Don’t link to a Twitter page that includes two tweets, both of which are complaints to United Airlines. Don’t link to your Instagram if it’s not representing you and your taste the way you want to be represented. Don’t hook up your Dribbble account if all your posts there are outdated, or promote your LinkedIn if the only job you've listed there is designing your college newspaper.

We all have great intentions of polishing up our social platforms but until we do, we shouldn’t be promoting them professionally. In fact, if you aren't actively using your socials in a way that represents you well, consider making them private. As I mentioned, potential clients or employers will find them whether we link to them or not. Often, your portfolio and your social networks are your first impression, whether you're aware of it or not. Google yourself and see what comes up. Are you proud of the results?

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Read on for more career advice and portfolio tips. Or check out these Carbonmade portfolio examples and the handpicked Semplice Showcase for portfolio inspiration.

July 28, 2019No Comments

Where design school got it wrong

I notoriously did not go to university. So when designers ask if I think self-taught or school is better, I can’t give a fair answer.

Of course, design school can be extremely valuable. It’s here you learn the principles and build the foundation. You have all the resources you need and experts dedicated to helping you grow. And if nothing else, you have the luxury to experiment and learn within the most ideal circumstances.

However, those circumstances don’t always reflect the real world. You learn the best-case scenario in school, often without realistic boundaries. You are taught following a specific, curated program of philosophies and guidelines. So when you do enter life outside university, you can’t expect everything to be precisely how your professor said it would be.

So I asked several designers, most of whom graduated from design school within the last five years or so, what most surprised them about entering the workforce after their studies. In what ways, if any, did design school fail to prepare them for the "real world?" What were the expectations vs. reality?

While these are personal experiences and naturally don’t apply to everyone, they highlight misconceptions I’ve heard from many other designers as well.

"Outside of school, time is truly money, and there isn't much to spare."

Misconception 1: Time

“The idea of time – time to explore and time to experiment,” says Cori Corinne, an independent, multidisciplinary designer and 2015 graduate. “In school, you can really dive into a project conceptually and bring forth a deep narrative with every piece of design. Outside of school, time is truly money, and there isn't much to spare.”

As a self-taught designer, this is a lesson I had to learn early on. When you’re getting paid hourly, your time suddenly becomes a lot more meaningful. You can’t always afford to explore every angle, look under every rock and perfectly polish the story behind your concept. You’d never meet deadlines or make money that way. So you learn to use your time wisely, become more efficient and be smart with the time you do have.

A piece from Cori Corinne's "Mental Divide" exhibit.

“Clients are detached from the creative process so the time put into the narrative isn't as important,” Cori says. “So as a designer, you do learn how to work quickly, but you become accustomed to quick tricks. I think as I grow in my creative process I'm working to always challenge myself to not fall into what's easy, but it's hard when you feel tight on time.”  

Quick trick to beat time as a designer: clone yourself. (A shot from Cori's portfolio homepage.)

Misconception 2: You should pursue excellence in one skill

"The push to specialize,” says Aaron Covrett, a freelance 3D artist who graduated in 2019. “For years, I was told that dedication and commitment to a single path equal success. Fortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.”

I couldn’t agree with this more. The ideal designer today has diverse skills, whether those secondary skills are 3D design, coding, videography, illustration, writing, the list goes on. And that’s what many companies seek in a designer. In most interviews I did with companies in our How to Get a Job at X series, creative directors or recruiters said they want the “hybrid” designer, the designer that can help see a project through from beginning to end. That doesn’t mean we need to be excellent at everything.

“Don’t get me wrong; distributing tasks and playing to strengths is vital,” Aaron explains. “But if you’re curious about something on the fringe, get your hands dirty. Being multifaceted offers a new and challenging perspective, and more importantly, keeps things fresh."

I call it being a jack of all trades, master of some. It’s useful to have a couple strong skills, especially when you’re just starting out. But continually building on that knowledge and learning new skills can only make you better.

For not specializing, Aaron Covrett is pretty incredible at 3D art and design.


Misconception 3: There’s a “right” way to design

“One thing that was stressed at school was following specific rules in order to create ‘beautiful work,’” says Matt Vlach, an interdisciplinary graphic designer and recent graduate. “While guidelines and rules are in place based on a long history before me, I've found that the most important part of a project is the experimentation of form through research-driven play.”

If we all stuck to the rules and guidelines we learned at the beginning, nothing new or inspiring or innovative would exist. But by laying the guidelines first, we can more effectively experiment and stray from them.

This image from Matt Vlach's "Geisel Display" typeface project reads, "You might defend the notion that truth is concrete."

In a conversation I had with Malika Favre, an artist for the New Yorker and many other publications, she voiced a similar sentiment. Put simply: Learn to follow the rules well so you can break them later. If you look at Picasso’s work, noses where ears should be and vice versa, you might not know he was a master of the human form. Long before he created his famous cubist works, he learned how to draw the human figure precisely. From there, he created works that are so distinctly unique, so far from the rules, anyone today will recognize “a Picasso.”

“Long story short,” says Matt, “the most important part of designing in the industry versus school is that being yourself in your work – solving problems for clients the way you would – makes you an individual that people will seek out, because only you are you.”

"Probably one of my biggest misconceptions was to think that being a freelance designer meant doing design from 9–5."

Part of Georg Schober's branding work for NEJIRU agency

Misconception 4: It’s all about design

“I was really surprised by how much time I would spend in meetings or on the phone doing project management,” says Georg Schober, a graphic designer and art director who graduated in from university last year. “Probably one of my biggest misconceptions was to think that being a freelance designer meant doing design from 9–5.”

Most designers, whether they work in a standard agency setting or as a freelancer, probably spend at least 50% of their time on everything but design. Meetings, calls, answering emails, chasing clients for invoices, timesheets, checking in with your team. All of it is a necessary and regular part of a designer’s job. It may seem exhausting some days, but it’s reality. No designers I know, no matter how successful they are,  have the luxury of simply creating all day long. The better you get at project management, time management and communication, the better off you will be.

Anthony Morell's "Music is Minimalist" book

Misconception 5: There is one path to success

“The design industry doesn’t care about degrees,” says Anthony Morell. “I didn’t finish school, my portfolio is my degree. So I wasn’t aware of the scope of the design industry. Advertising agency, freelance, small studio, digital agency, corporate agency without creative life, but a big salary… it’s all very scary! So I had to figure out exactly the job I really wanted.” 

I can attest to the fact that your work speaks more than a degree, both as a designer and an employer. You may have also seen news announcing Google, Apple and other huge corporations are no longer requiring degrees for their employees. 

And as Anthony suggests above, there are plenty more paths beyond just university vs. self-taught. You can work on a team, you can work independently, you can do both at the same time. You can set out to make a “name” for yourself or you can work quietly, just as successfully, without anyone knowing your name.

When you first enter the design industry, you may observe other designers and assume their path is the only right way to do it. You will eventually learn, as you find your own way, that it’s not.

July 22, 2019No Comments

Why you should keep your portfolio updated – especially if you have a job

I recently ran a poll on Twitter asking what people did with their portfolio once they got a job. The results were both surprising and not surprising.

The question: “After you finish your portfolio, do you keep it updated even though you have a fulltime job? Or do you forget about it, and only update when job searching again?”

The results: Of the 1,026 people who responded, 68% of people said they keep their portfolio online while they have a job, but don’t update it. Of the remaining 32%, 11% said they take their portfolio offline completely and only 21% said they actively keep it updated.

Meaning, 80% of people completely neglect their portfolio when they have a full-time job.

Based on my own experience as a designer over the last decade or so, it seems obvious why it’s important to keep your portfolio updated. But at the same time, I know how easy it is to put off when you have the security and comfort of a full-time job. Here is why it’s worth spending the time to keep your portfolio fresh, even if you don’t plan on job hunting anytime soon.

1. It shows you care about your work 

Letting your portfolio fall by the wayside is the equivalent of dressing up for your interview and wearing sweatpants once you’ve secured the job. It says you don’t care much about your work beyond the paycheck. Keeping your portfolio updated, on the other hand, shows that you consider yourself a designer, not just someone with a design job.

And people will notice: your employer, potential clients, recruiters, fellow employees, other designers. A portfolio gives you an identity outside of your team at work. It says that you care enough to refine your skills, think about what you create and share it proudly with others.

2. You don’t know what opportunities you might be missing

You may be perfectly satisfied with your position right now, but you don’t know what you might be missing by failing to update your portfolio. It may be a side project that fuels you at your current job, a collaboration with another creative, a freelance gig that teaches you a new skill or a new job entirely. 

If you’ve forgotten about your portfolio, on the other hand, a recruiter or a client may land on your page, see it’s outdated and move on. Or you may not have that one recent project online that demonstrates exactly the skills and style your dream company was looking for. All without you ever knowing you were on their radar. 

They say what you don’t know can’t hurt you, but you also don't know how it could have helped you. Keeping your portfolio current with your latest work and skills is an easy (an even rather passive) way to keep your options and opportunities open.

3. Reviewing and reflecting on your work motivates you to get better

We always say you should put your best work in your portfolio, the work that makes you most proud. Curating your portfolio this way requires you to reflect on it.

When you continually do this at your current job, you are forced to step back now and then and consider the work you’ve done and are doing. Does it make you proud? Are you happy with the direction you’re heading in your creative career? 

If you are pleased with the work you’ve been doing, it motivates to keep at it and outdo yourself. If you realize a lot of your work doesn’t make you proud, you can reset and refocus on the work you want to be doing.

4. A little thing called SEO

If you keep your portfolio online and continue to update it, it’s more likely Google will crawl and index it. Nobody fully understands the mysteries of Google’s algorithm, but search any term and you will see Google gives you the most current yet established results it can find. 

Your ranking will impact if and how you show up when clients or magazines look for local designers. So if they search “animator in New York” or “3D designer in Amsterdam,” your updated portfolio will be more likely to show up than your coworker Ralph’s, who hasn’t updated his site since 2009. 

5. An outdated portfolio (or lack of a portfolio) just looks bad

Put simply: Having an old, outdated portfolio is in poor taste. Either you have some clunky website online that doesn’t accurately reflect the modern design you do, or you hide it because you know it’s outdated, and then it looks like you don’t have a portfolio at all. Considering how easy it is to have a website these days, and the importance of the web itself in our industry, both of these options don’t reflect well on you.

Don’t assume just because you have a job nobody is searching for your portfolio. It’s likely a potential client will search the creative team before deciding to work with your studio (believe me, they do). If you’re not concerned about how your old portfolio makes you come across, consider how it affects your team. 

6. You can’t predict the future

You may be happy at your job right now, but circumstances can change fast. An agency loses a client and employees abruptly get laid off. Your partner gets a great job offer and you need to move to a different city and find a new job for yourself – in a month. You see your dream job posted online and decide to apply.

Keeping your portfolio updated is a gift to your future self. No matter whether the circumstances are positive or negative, within your control or not, you will be thankful your website is already fresh and ready to go when you need it. The alternative is scrambling to get something online as fast as you can, which is not only stressful but rarely gives you great results.

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I know I have a personal interest in this narrative, given I work on a portfolio-building tool. But whether you use my product or not, I urge you to make your portfolio a priority. It may sound cheesy, but investing in your site is investing in your success as a designer. In an increasingly online world where you might never even meet your employer or client face-to-face, your portfolio is the first impression you give to others. A portfolio with old projects and a dated design is not a great first impression. 

For those just getting started in their career who want something simple and easy for their online portfolio, I highly recommend Carbonmade, which just re-launched with the new Carbonmade 4. You can update your portfolio in less than an hour with Carbonmade, and it's incredibly easy to use. If you're a bit further along in your career and want something more advanced, try Semplice. Semplice offers a lot more power and flexibility to create a custom portfolio in a simple and beautiful way.

Whatever you decide to use for your site, just do it! Update your portfolio anytime you launch a new project. Make your site something that evolves with you in your career, and I promise you'll be better off for it.

June 28, 2019No Comments

The writer’s secret for designers

For writers, first drafts are celebrated. In theory, they present opportunity and promise with none of the pressure. They say a wastepaper basket is a writer’s best friend.

Writers are encouraged to bang out the first draft, throw it away and make the next one better. It’s part of the process. A place where judgment is reserved, where even constructive criticism is not welcome, where the fragile first steps of an idea are respected.

Design, like any other creative practice, also starts with a first draft. But it is not held in such a reverent light. Design as a profession is increasingly a non-isolated activity. A first draft is often confined by a wireframe. It involves creative directors standing over shoulders. It’s made with business goals in mind. For product designers, design decisions are based on data analytics or user research. There are best practices and trends and design patterns and systems to consider. Technical restrictions apply. Generally speaking, the first draft is defined in some way for a designer from the beginning.

The writer’s approach would benefit designers, especially young designers. Early in their career, a designer will frantically create their first draft and turn it in immediately. The goal in their eyes is completion, following the rules they learned in school, checking the item off their to-do list. Instead of exploring and trying as many drafts and angles as possible without the fear of being wrong, they do what they believe is expected of them.

When a young designer shares their first draft, senior designers are tempted to turn it into a teaching moment: This isn’t working because X. Try something more along this angle. A writer rarely receives feedback this early. It would kill their creative process.

Of course, writers have restrictions too, depending on the type of work they do. And the solitary nature of writing is inherently different than the more collaborative nature of today’s design. But to writers as a whole (at least to my understanding), first drafts are considered a sacred space. A writer may explore dozens of different approaches, adding something here, cutting something there, restructuring and researching until the semblance of a story appears. Then it grows, potentially becoming something else entirely from draft to draft.

Instead of approaching your first draft with outside forces, deadlines and fear in mind, make a safe space for it. Tell yourself this is only the start. That it’s OK if it’s imperfect, even flat out bad. Protect your first draft and keep it for yourself. Let your idea stand on its wobbly legs and watch where it leads you – before anyone else takes the leash and points it in another direction.

And instead of giving immediate direction to a young designer, or to any designer, give them this space to explore their first draft. Instead of pointing out what they did wrong or where they should go, our first response should be, “Thank you. Keep exploring. I can’t wait to see more.”

June 27, 2019No Comments

The skills companies want in a designer today

Through our How to Get a Job at X series, we’ve talked to 20+ companies about what they look for in a designer (and more interviews are coming). Now, comparing answers between each interview, we are beginning to see trends.

Of course, it all depends on the company, the person we’re talking to and the position they’re filling. The insights here certainly don't apply to every company, and no magic formula exists for getting a design job. But since we continue to receive some of the same answers, a clearer picture of "today's ideal designer" is coming into view. 

I’ve written about what companies never want to see in your portfolio. Now we’re looking at it from the other side. At first glance, these skills may seem expected for any position. But the companies we've interviewed here helpfully describe how they translate to a designer. I find their feedback fascinating and valuable, especially if you’re looking to work at any of these companies.

 

A hard skill beyond just design 

“We expect everyone to have a second secret ‘superpower,’ so to speak. Hybrids. We love to hire great people who are also remarkable at something else—it could be coding or writing, but it could just as easily be cooking, science fiction, scuba diving, biking, singing, painting, Taekwondo...anything. I believe those collisions expand us.” - Brian Collins from COLLINS

“We have designers with great editorial skills, others that are great at motion graphics and 3D. I would love to find a designer who is great at coding as much as a designer who is great with music. I think creativity comes from mixing skills.” - Maitê Albuquerque from Mother

“I love working with people who have hybrid talents. I would say everyone in our team now is doing multiple types of work: code, design, UX, 3D, editing, creative tech.” - Simon Mogren from BBDO

 

Customer service experience

“The design department at MailChimp has a variety of designers, including web and mobile product designers, brand designers and product marketing designers. If I had to pick a single thread between them all, customer and brand experience is huge.

Doesn’t matter what type of design you’re responsible for, your contribution is part of a singular experience from the perspective of our more than 15 million users. Designers have to understand how their work contributes to that experience and collaborate with other designers to ensure their designs are consistent and on-brand.” - Todd Dominey from Mailchimp

 

Curiosity

“The main thing is... that you are curious about many different things, and that you are willing and able to keep growing and experimenting. It’s up to you to choose in what order you want to keep adding those skills.” - Haraldur Thorleifsson from Ueno

"People who think about the design beyond just the design team."

Strategic thinking

“I can’t overstate the importance of strategic thinking. We could see the most beautiful portfolio of design work, but if we connect with the person and they aren’t able to articulate the purpose behind their design decisions, it’s not going to be a fit for the type of work we’re doing. Likewise, we seek strategists who are passionate about and fluent in design, and client directors who understand how design and strategy come together to drive success for our clients.” - Maureen Edmonds from Red Antler

“Designers who are considerate of all of the aspects of an experience, including the writing, the illustrations and animations are also really great.” - Audrey Liu from Lyft

“People who think about the design beyond just the design team — how it can tie in with business goals, how to design in a way that can scale.” - Luisa Mancera from InVision

 

Commitment

“As a hiring manager, I personally look for an ability to stick with a design project through multiple iterations, not get stuck or frustrated, and come out on the other side with a design that has evolved into something new and wonderful.” - Steven Boone from Disney

 

Most importantly: Strong communication & writing skills

“Most designers on my team eventually manage their own projects and may serve as the main point of contact with clients and other collaborators. So I look for people who can talk about their work, who can listen when other people are talking, and who like to take as much responsibility as possible.” - Michael Bierut from Pentagram

“While it might be considered a common skill, designers who can explain the decisions behind their work — written and verbally — and take egoless feedback is a big plus for us.” - Jared Granger from InVision

If we had to pick one secondary skill for designers it would be writing. Knowing how to code is a close second, but a designer who can write? Ooh wee. In design, the message comes first... A great designer should be strong with many forms of communication because in the end, design is communication, whether it’s visual, written, or spoken.” - Stephanie Liverani, Luke Chesser and Mikael Cho from Unsplash

"Good writing can save bad design but not the other way around. You can make your designs sing if you know how to write well." - Unsplash

“Designers must communicate well. We work on a lot of projects and are very hands-on in the design process. We want to have a dialogue about the work along the way; we want our designers to want to engage about the work.” - Helen Rice and Josh Nissenboim from Fuzzco

“It’s important that all designers can communicate their ideas and rationale, collaborate with others, and navigate ambiguity proactively.” - Katie Dill, previously at Airbnb

"We really value designers who can synthesize their thought process via writing since it’s so core to our culture of collaboration." - Laura Cetina at Microsoft

“...storytelling can take you anywhere – designers who have a viewpoint, present their thoughts clearly, creatively and concisely stand out at Disney.” - Steven Boone from Disney

“One of the specific skills I look for are writing skills. It helps ensure that your thinking is clear.” - Stanley Wood from Spotify

“Communication skills are very important: how you communicate in your team and with your partners, and how you communicate your ideas. The concept of storytelling runs through everything.” - Shine Thomas from Nike

 

Passion for your work

“It might sound silly, but you can really tell who sees this as more than just a paycheck. Those who go the extra mile in their applications really stand out. There hasn’t been a formula developed for a perfect hire. We just look for genuinely nice, passionate and talented people.” - Ryan LeRoux and Oliver Brooks from MetaLab

For more tips on getting jobs at companies like Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Pentagram and more, catch up on our How to Get a Job at X series. And if you want to see a specific company in the series, tag me (@vanschneider) and the company on Twitter. We'll do our best to make it happen.

Cover image features the Lyft design team, from our interview with Lyft.

June 17, 2019No Comments

How to get a job at Bobbi Brown

Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, as you might guess, creates beauty products for women. The company was founded almost 30 years ago and remains a popular, respected cosmetics brand today.

The Bobbi Brown design team operates here in New York as a part of Estée Lauder Companies. And as we learned in this interview with Tom, design director at Bobbi Brown, designing for a beauty brand can be quite different than other design work. Details like skin tone become more important. Photography skills come into play. As with any industry, the focus and the canvas changes.

So we asked Tom what it takes to get a job on his team, designing for the modern, polished brand that is Bobbi Brown.

Hey Tom, let’s get right to it. First, can you please tell us a little about yourself and what you do at Bobbi Brown?

Hi, Tobias! I’m a creative, originally from Belgium. I oversee a small team at Bobbi Brown that puts their focus on the digital output for the brand. This includes global and regional online campaigns and everything e-commerce related.

Tom, and sticky notes

Looking at your current design team, how many of them came through internal referrals or headhunting, and how many came through the traditional application process?

I came onboard through a referral and I’d say the majority of our creative team did as well.

Say we decide to reach out with a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us?

Send it early in the morning! I come into work and the first thing I do is catch up on emails.

Keep it short and straightforward. We get tons of emails every day, so another one on top shouldn’t be too long. Introduce yourself in a couple of lines (in case you got my email address from someone and I don’t know you), state your intent and include a link to your work or a PDF.  A resume is nice to have as well so we know who you are without Googling you right away.

If we like what we see, we will probably reach out directly to you, or have HR reach out to set up an interview. If we don’t like what we see we try to get back to you as well, but unfortunately we can’t get back to everyone.

How important is a complete portfolio? Can I get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at Bobbi Brown?

I think some kind of online presence is a huge plus, especially if you want a job with a focus on digital.

However, I do understand that keeping a portfolio current can be very time consuming – time that a lot of us don’t have. So  I don’t mind if people send an email, or walk into an interview with a PDF that shows four or five good projects.

Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?

I wish I saw credits! Very few projects are completed by just one person, and I notice a lot of people don’t give credit in their portfolio. This makes it harder to understand what exactly your role was for each project. Giving credit to the team you have worked with on each project you decide to show helps us understand who reported into you, who you reported to and how big the team was.

I don’t think I have ever seen something that I never want to see again in a portfolio.

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?

As long as it doesn’t interfere with the job, sure. If you work for a company you indirectly become an ambassador or spokesperson for it. Whatever you say or do will reflect on your employer, so think about what you say and do in public, and what you might want to keep private.

Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?

I don’t like giving design exercises. I do try to have you meet with as many people as possible so you get a good feel for the people who work here, and I can get feedback from these people to see if you’d be a good cultural add.

Timeframes can be from a week to a couple months, depending on your situation. For example: Do you need to give notice to your employer? That adds some time to the process/timeline. Do you need a visa? If so, the company would ideally work with attorneys to get that sorted, but that takes time as well. Do you need to relocate? Do you need to interview with people who were not available during your first interview?

So I guess it varies from one candidate to another and what their situation is.

"As long as you are willing to learn, I don’t mind what your background is. We are all learning new things every day and no one has the right answer all the time."

What are the secondary skills you look for in a designer, besides common soft skills? For example: Do you prefer writing ability over coding skills? Photography skills over coding?

Photography skills can come in handy – especially the technical side of it, how to set up light and such.

Knowing photographers and their styles is a nice plus as well so you can pull swipe quicker and easier during the concepting phase of a project. We shoot a lot and having a good basic knowledge of photographers, set designers, stylists, etc. is always good.

Coding/programming, not as much. Estée Lauder has a centralized dev / production team that handles that side of the business, but if you happen to know your way around certain programming languages it won’t hurt either as you’ll be able to prototype or figure out stuff quicker with developers.

Writing skills can always come in handy, especially for concepting and formulating your ideas in decks that will be presented to creative, marketing teams and senior leadership.

You had experience designing for fashion before joining Bobbi Brown. Is design experience in fashion/beauty or retail required for the job, or are you open to designers from any background?

For me personally, the switch from fashion to beauty was and still is quite hard. The focus shifts completely, the gradation in skin tones and shades of products become very important.

“Beauty” is defined differently from fashion. Your canvas becomes smaller as you need to close in on the face all the time. With fashion, you are pulled out more and literally have more space to work with.

But, as long as you are willing to learn, I don’t really mind what your background is. In the end, we are all learning new things every day and no one has the right answer all the time. Everyone on the creative team has a listening ear, is open for ideas, suggestions and collaboration.

Would you hire someone who is a cultural add over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?

No.

"I think, as someone just coming out of school, go after a job you’ll enjoy doing and work your way up."

What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at Bobbi Brown? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us! (:

Not specifically to Bobbi Brown, but kids these days ask Silicon Valley salaries straight out of school, with zero work experience.

I have a hard time understanding it. I partially blame the schools who tell the kids it's OK to ask for it, and the companies in Silicon Valley that do actually pay those salaries. Maybe my mindset is biased because I came to New York on a mid five-figure salary. I don’t know.

When I came to New York I thought I was a good designer already, but I was wrong in so many ways. Not only did I not have any idea how a company works, but I didn’t have any idea how to work with other people and express my ideas and opinions to them.

I think, as someone just coming out of school, go after a job you’ll enjoy doing and work your way up. Don’t turn down jobs because they don’t pay enough right away. Work hard and you’ll get there.

Behind the scenes of a Bobbi Brown shoot

Do we need to live in New York to apply for a job, or do you hire remote employees as well?

We are fortunate enough to be able to relocate people. We are part of Estée Lauder Companies so depending on your level and location, Estée Lauder Companies & Bobbi Brown will try to get the right candidate to join.

How do you think Bobbi Brown is different when hiring new talent compared to other companies?

When I interviewed, I had six different conversations in one day with people from the creative, operations and online teams. I had never done six interviews in a day before. Everything was very casual and because the people were so open, I was able to get a good feel right away on how the dynamic between teams are.

It is then up to you to decide if you want to join that dynamic, to mold your position / role and push with everyone in the right direction.

Thanks so much, Tom! Any parting advice for us – something we forgot to ask that a potential candidate should know?

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this! Some last advice from me is to be confident and ask questions during interviews. Try to walk out of the interview with all the info you need to make up your mind. Have a nice overview of benefits, vacation days, whether remote work available? What is the pet policy in the office?

Thank you, Tom! Your tips here are valuable not only for those applying to Bobbi Brown, but for anyone (especially young designers) looking for a design job.

Readers, if you are interested in working on the Bobbi Brown design team, keep this advice in mind:

1. Try to make an inside connection

Most of Bobbi Brown's design hires came from a referral. Try to make a connection with someone online or find a friend of a friend to make an introduction for you. It will count for a lot.

2. Show a willingness to learn

In your portfolio and in your interviews. You don't need a specific design background to work at Bobbi Brown, but they want to see an eagerness to learn – without an ego.

3. Be prepared for several interviews

The interview process can last anywhere from a week to a couple months, and you will meet several people on the team during that process. If you have another job or are traveling from outside the city, it's something to keep in mind.

 

For more interviews with companies like Spotify, Pentagram, Airbnb, Microsoft and more, catch up on our How to Get a Job at X series right here. And if you want to see a specific company in the series, tag me and the company on Twitter to let us know (:

June 6, 2019No Comments

When people rip you off

Recently, my team stumbled upon a paid theme that quite blatantly stole the Semplice.com homepage design. It’s not the first time I've seen a website or page design that looked eerily similar to something we've designed in the past. We were a bit puzzled by it and sent a friendly note to find out why, but we ultimately laughed about it in Slack and moved on.

A week later, we shared a new page featuring our favorite type foundries and typefaces. While the response was overwhelmingly positive, I did see a comment that made me think. “This is like a blogger posting about hidden gems,” it said with a sad face emoji. The implication: By sharing the resources we use for our work, we were making them accessible to others who might follow suit. We were making it easier for people to rip us off.

It’s a natural tendency for humans to protect what they find precious. I suppose it stems from survival instinct. We lean into this instinct with Semplice as we’ve found that people share it with their closest friends like a secret family recipe, something they don’t want too many others to know about. Semplice is “designers’ best kept secret.”

With travel blogging specifically, this makes more sense. In the article, “Loved to Death: How Instagram Is Destroying Our Natural Wonders,” The Ringer describes how our obsession with geotagging has led to overrun parks, endangered wildlife and people falling off cliffs in an effort to capture the perfect selfie. Thus, protecting “hidden gems” can legitimately benefit nature and protect humans and animals.

"If we are confident in our work, we are generous with our resources."

Hoarding our knowledge or resources as designers does no such thing. We may feel like we own an Illustrator trick, a specific typeface or even a certain style. We do everything we can to keep it to ourselves, thinking this gives us an advantage or makes us original. We believe copycats cheapen our work and hurt our business. When someone rips us off, we feel threatened.

As much as I understand and relate to this mindset, I believe it is detrimental to our community, to ourselves and the evolution of design itself. Open source software exists to propel innovation. Why doesn’t design work the same way?

I am not condoning plagiarism. Finding inspiration in someone’s work is one thing – stealing it is wrong. And a company stealing an individual artist’s work and reselling it is even worse. But the resources, tricks or knowledge we use to make our work? Give it away. Tell everyone you know.

Our advantage lies in our unique perspective and identity. If we are confident in our work, we are generous with our resources. We don’t fear someone ripping us off. We see that as a challenge to do something different. An opportunity to do the next thing worth copying.

May 29, 2019No Comments

Overdeliver

With every project I do, I aim to overdeliver. I built my career on this attitude. I try to take every step of the project, down to the smallest details, above and beyond what’s expected. In an industry defined by billable hours and budgets, some might say it's a dangerous approach. For me, it’s the only way to work.

No matter the size of the project or the open-mindedness of the client, it’s possible to exceed expectations. The question is: How do you take a project as far as it can go while still protecting yourself? How do you go above and beyond with limited budget? How do you overdeliver on a tight timeline?

By creating smart estimates.

The client needs to understand what goes into your work to understand what’s going above and beyond. This does not mean you should "underpromise and overdeliver." Just be straightforward and honest with your client from the start. Detail your process in your estimate. Be realistic about the time you need when scoping hours. Include time for explorations. Make it crystal clear how many reviews and revisions are built into each phase.

By setting clear expectations for yourself and your client, it’s easier to exceed them.

By learning to be efficient.

If you use your time wisely, overdelivering does not need to translate to over budget. Learn to prioritize. Know when to take a break. It may be easier to do an excellent job after you step away and come back with fresh eyes. It might be better to spend those three hours building that feature rather than organizing assets from your client. Learn to be efficient with the time you have so you can spend it well.

By not over-committing.

Many of us can’t afford to turn down work. But we can still be wise about our time and our mental energy. Can you schedule a project differently so it starts after this one wraps up? Can you sit that meeting out or move it to a different day? Can you aim to score one big project that takes the place of two? Can you delegate that part of the project to someone else? Protect your time and your energy. Give yourself the space and the clarity to give the project your best.

By weighing the risk vs. reward.

What could you do if you had an hour more on this part of the project? Would you try out another idea you’ve had on your mind? Would you perfect the one you already created? If that hour would make a significant difference on the project, use the damn hour. Depending on your situation, you can even ask the client to pay for it. Whether you do or not, tell them you spent it.

When I can afford it, I put in that extra hour or two because I know that time will take this project from good to brilliant. Brilliant projects bring more brilliant projects, and that extra hour pays for itself a hundred times over. Consider those extra couple hours, if you’re in a position to take them, as an investment.

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Of course, exceptions exist. Overdelivery within a negative client relationship often brings negative returns. The client who:

doesn't recognize boundaries...

doesn't respect you and your work...

fails to appreciate overdelivery and always demands more...

... is a waste of your time. Save your time and effort for the clients who give you room for it. Then go above and beyond.

May 23, 2019No Comments

Drip project management

If you need something from someone, don’t ask for it all at once. This only overwhelms a person. They will mark your message “unread” and let it sink into the abyss of their inbox until you follow up. Again.

When you need something from someone, first prioritize your list.

What do you need immediately? What can wait until later?

Ask for your immediate needs first. Keep it short and simple. Ask one question rather than three. Either lead with your question or end with it, bolded. The goal: Make it as easy as possible for someone to help you.

It’s a fine balance between not annoying someone by sending piecemeal requests, but not overwhelming them with long lists. It's a drip, not a gush.

The smarter we are about asking questions and sending requests, the less time we spend chasing down answers.

May 9, 2019No Comments

A new designer’s observation of agency life

I am fairly new at design. After several years working in customer service and other various industries, I decided to pursue a new career. That began with an internship at House of van Schneider, much of which I documented here on the blog. And I haven’t stopped since.

The last week of my internship, I accepted a contracted position as a junior designer at a unique and forward-thinking design agency here in Austin. Now, six months later, I am officially an associate product designer. I have experienced a lot of firsts over the last year and working at a design agency was a big one. I haven’t stopped learning since my internship and I certainly don’t expect to. In that spirit, here are a few insights from my first six months into agency life.

Understanding lingo and asking questions

I have found that one of the more difficult aspects of starting a job in a new industry is getting accustomed to industry-specific lingo. There are many ways to say the same thing when it comes to product design. For example, some people might call the little window that pops up when you click a link a “modal” while others might call it a “pop-over” or a “pop-up.” Now let’s look at the software we use to create designs: What one software calls a symbol, another calls a component. An “artboard” in one software is called a  “document,” “page,” or “frame” in other software. And we haven’t even gotten to the general industry terminology yet. Words such as “ship,” “backlog,” “kanban,” and “standup” are thrown around on a daily basis. For someone who doesn’t come from a design background, all of this can be very overwhelming.

I wish I was given a little handbook on my first day defining all the industry jargon, but of course nobody is. I was thrown into a sea of unfamiliar words and processes. In these situations, I believe in the importance of asking questions and that it is always better to be open, honest, curious, and communicative.

My first day at work, I asked my design director and the CEO what a “standup” was. It’s been six months since that first day and it sounds like such a silly question to me now, but I’m glad I got clarification on day one so I wasn’t left wondering and hoping the definition I had created from context clues was correct.

"I soon realized that formal presentations aren’t the only times I’m actually presenting my work."

Your design is only as good as your presentation

Tobias once told me that your presentation of a design is half the battle. When I first heard that, it was difficult for me to apply that to my work; I didn’t give many formal presentations during bootcamp or my internship. So I just kept that tip neatly stored away in the back of my mind. I soon realized that formal presentations aren’t the only times I’m actually presenting my work.

Often, I am presenting on a much more casual basis to my peers, my design lead, and to designers, engineers and project managers on the client’s side. Presentations aren’t limited to long slide decks; they include times when I’m sharing a small design update with my team during an internal 15-minute standup, or when I’m showing the work I did over the past week in response to a project manager’s request.

Any time I’m sharing my work with someone, I’m giving a presentation. At these times, it’s important to go into the meeting with intention. If I’m presenting work to a client with the intention of shipping my design, I need to be able to defend my design decisions no matter how big or small they are. Explaining why I made my decisions is crucial to building trust and a healthy relationship with the client. Although we work as a team with developers, project managers, etc. to create a product, they look to me as an expert in the field of design.

When presenting a design internally, I need to be clear on my position on the design and where I’m looking for feedback. This approach gives me practice presenting (in a casual, less-judgmental setting), helps me develop a rapport with my teammates and teaches me how to take constructive feedback.

"I’m never going to have everything laid out nicely and neatly for me exactly as I’d like."

Learning on the fly and adapting

The digital design industry, or more broadly the tech industry, is relatively new and is evolving rapidly. With all the new design software, news, trends, gossip, etc. that circulate the design community every day, it’s just impossible for anyone – no matter how experienced – to be on top of everything design. I worked very hard to change careers this past year and one attribute I can credit my relative “success” to is the ability and willingness to learn things on the fly.

When joining a new project, there will always be something new to learn and adjust to. Some of these variables may include how the design and development teams work together, what the client’s preferred method of communication is, internal and external management styles, and relationships working with different teammates. The list goes on, but the point is that I’m never going to have everything laid out nicely and neatly for me exactly as I’d like. Having the expectation that I need to “understand everything” before I start working can be seriously detrimental to the project health and my own growth as a designer.

Learning on the fly is a normal (and for me, very fun) part of the process! I’m of the mindset that the best way to grow is to dive straight into the work, make mistakes and learn. People I work with will respect me as long as they see the effort I put into my work, but if I let my fear dictate my approach to work, I rob myself of that opportunity.

Pushing back and problem-solving

I love being a designer, two reasons being that my job lends me more creative freedom than many others and, at its core, design is about problem-solving. At my previous non-design jobs, the work dynamic was as follows: boss or client tells me to do something and I do it. There usually wasn’t room for discussion, questioning or pushback. Luckily, I’ve found that this largely isn’t the case in design.

The majority of my tasks or requests come from a PM, and I have to remind myself that a PM is not a designer. People speak in ideas, so if a PM tells me I need to add some helper text on the screen, that might be his way of expressing that this design needs to be more clear or intuitive. As a designer, my job is to uncover the deeper problem underlying this ask. My job isn’t just to take the request as a prescriptive task, but rather to find the best solution to the problem behind the request.

By not assuming constraints and seeking to problem-solve, I am pushing the project design forward and advocating for the product and its users. I have learned that, in many cases, product “requirements” are in fact flexible and subject to change – as long as you make a good case for your design and know how to present it.

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I hope some of these learnings can help some new designers out there, or even serve as a nice reminder for the seasoned designers reading this. I feel so lucky that I can share my experience here and am looking forward to what all I’ll learn over the next few months as an official associate product designer!

 

March 21, 2019No Comments

The day you became a better designer

This blog rarely addresses subjects such as "How to solve UX problem XYZ" or "How to set up a perfect grid" for a reason. While these are valid topics and plenty of other platforms publish articles about them, they have no place here.

Ask any designer you admire for advice and they won't tell you to follow design blogs or read design magazines. They won't tell you to read a book about design process either. They won't point you to the latest trends in web design or a list of keyboard shortcuts.

Great designers know that nobody has it all figured out. They know tools and techniques matter, but they don’t make us better designers.

Becoming a better designer means becoming a more informed human. Every designer, from advertising designers to product designers, deals with a different set of problems. Regardless of the problems they are trying to solve, every designer caters to humans.

The day we become better designers is the day we start looking outside the design industry for inspiration. It's the day we start reading books about philosophy, psychology, art or science. It's when we stop hanging out with only designers and start making more friends in other industries. When we start a new design job and ask to sit next to someone from a different department.

"All this creative potential and we've only created a bubble."

Humans have a tendency called confirmation bias. We interpret the world in a way that validates our existing beliefs. This means we tend to agree with people who agree with us. We hang out with people who see the world similarly and make us feel comfortable. Designers are especially prone to confirmation bias. We are proud to hold strong opinions and therefore strive for internal consistency by seeking confirmation from our peers.

The result is an insular community existing in perfect isolation. We visit conferences attended and lead by only designers. We read magazines and books from and for designers. We hang out with other designers. All this creative potential and we've only created a bubble.

Our view narrows as we limit our field. By restricting our friend circle to others who think just like us, we fail to challenge ideas or beliefs contradictory to our own. While it makes us feel comfortable and protected, it can also be an inspirational trap.

As creative people, shouldn't we be the ones most curious and open about the world? Shouldn’t we be the ones connecting the dots that others might not be able to connect? How can we do so without experiencing and understanding the world beyond our industry? By immersing ourselves in different perspectives, we draw a much richer and more balanced picture. We can collect the dots and connect them. This enhances our work.

"Talent is developed in solitude, character in the rush of the world." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Consider the artists and designers who create covers for publications like The New Yorker or Bloomberg Business Review. They are great not because of their craft, but because they immerse themselves in current events and culture. They are informed in fields outside their expertise. Design as a craft just provides them with the tools and framework to make sense of that information. The poignancy of those covers is not a result of simple research before each project. It's part of who these designers are. They are as much communicators as they are designers.

As Walt Whitman said, "Be curious, not judgmental." Endless curiosity is one of the most important traits of a great designer.  Spending time with non-designers allows you to avoid meaningless feedback loops, group-think and monocultures. Surrounding yourself with people who challenge your beliefs, who disagree with you and offer new perspectives, helps you grow. Becoming a more well-rounded person makes you a more effective designer.

Of course, spend time with designers too. Read the design magazines and books if you are so inclined. Tutorials and other design resources can be useful to the task at hand. But don't stop there. Look beyond the design community, the top trends, the tips and tricks, the tools and process. All the design blog posts in the world won't make you a better designer, despite what the headline may promise. Experiencing the world itself will.

February 18, 2019No Comments

The key to successful remote working

No big secret here: It’s communication. But despite how simple the answer may be, it’s not easy for everyone to do well.

Assuming you’re already skilled in your line of work, it’s the only other thing you need to do well. Time management is important, sure. But even those who are excellent at managing their time will fail if they are not good communicators. Here are a few communication methods I've picked up over the years that help me and my remote team do our work better.

State your assumptions

If you’re unsure, state what you think you’re supposed to do. If you’re pretty certain, state what you plan to do. If you’re positive you understood, state what you are going to do.

The point here is, don't leave anything up to chance. Your assumption may be totally wrong and when you're working alone, it's easy to follow an assumption too far before someone stops you. Assess the situation and state your next steps. If you’re wrong, you will be set straight. If you’re right, you will assure the client or your boss that you’re all over it.

Asking questions like, "What are the requirements? What do I need to do?” are only meant to buy time and put the responsibility back on the other person. Stating your assumptions keeps the project moving forward.  You are making sure everyone is on the same page and giving the other person something to REACT to, rather than asking them to do something for you.

With this approach, you will spend less time chasing people down, dealing with miscommunication and redoing work. Just put it all on the table.

Cut out the big talk

The beauty of remote working: You save so much time when you’re always not sitting in conference rooms listening to people bullshit and throw buzzwords around. Embrace this gift and keep it out of your online conversations too. It takes a long time to type “360-degree holistic storytelling-based approach” on Slack. So don’t. Your work and team will be better for it.

Be awkwardly honest

When you’re working remotely you don’t have the luxury of reading body language, hearing tone or seeing expressions. That leaves a lot to your imagination, and sometimes your mind can get carried away. You might inject some deep meaning into a Slack message that was meant to be a joke. Or you might misread an email and assume it’s a harsh reprimand when it’s really a friendly reminder.

Rather than over-analyzing things and spiraling, talk it out. You don’t need to get whiny or beg for validation, but you might say, “Hey, we haven’t checked in lately and I’m feeling disconnected. Are you feeling positive about this project? Anything we should discuss?” or “I’ve been spinning my wheels on this all day and rather than drive myself crazy, I thought I’d ask your opinion.”

It may feel a little awkward at first, but you'll soon establish an expectation of honesty between you and your coworkers. And you will feel a lot better when you’re not distracted wondering what everyone is thinking 10,000 miles away.

Share your WIPs

Without a creative director or teammate walking behind your computer or stopping by your desk to check in, you can easily get sucked into a project without sharing your progress. You may end up slaving away on something that wouldn’t have worked from the start, or getting stuck on a roadblock someone could have easily cleared up for you. Meanwhile, your team or client is growing anxious wondering what you’re up to.

Share your works in progress. Important: Your goal is not necessarily to get feedback yet. It’s simply to state here’s where I am, here’s what I’m doing, here’s where it’s going. It’s as simple as sharing a screenshot or dropping a link in a Slack message. This removes anxiety for your team. They don’t need to micromanage you, they learn to trust that you are working even when you’re not “active” or talking, and they know the status of a project at a glance.

Most creative directors or managers know what to expect from a WIP – they’re not going to jump in and say “Why is the kerning not fixed here?” or “Why are you putting that box there?” It’s in progress, it’s not time for that yet. They will likely glance your WIP, nod and get back to whatever they were doing before. Or they may give you a tip and point you in a different direction if it’s necessary. Or they may not look at all. The point is staying connected and providing peace of mind.

Know when a phone call vs. email is needed

You may disagree with me here as I’m not a social person and could easily do away with phone calls altogether, but I’d say 99% of the time, any issue or conversation can be resolved via email. In fact, I think email is often the best place to resolve a problem because there’s no beating around the bush, awkward pauses or multiple voices talking over each other. You have time to craft your message and leave no room for question. Here are the rare times I believe a phone call is necessary:

1. When you or someone else is upset - This is NOT the time for an email, because anything you write in anger will be immortalized in writing. And past the glorious 3-second window Gmail’s “Undo” button provides, there’s no taking an email back. It can be saved or even forwarded to someone else. And I don’t know about you, but I often regret the things I write in anger – and very often, they come back to bite me. On top of that, it’s easy to let tension and resentment build via written communication. Getting on the phone and hearing the other person’s voice, with no email to hide behind, reminds you to be polite and respectful. It also reminds you we’re all people trying our best.

 

2. At the beginning of a relationship - Obviously, a personal connection can be made via phone that’s very different than email.

 

3. To keep social people sane - If your teammate is someone who needs social interaction and validation, a simple phone call can work wonders for their productivity and mental state. As I mentioned, I am not this person. However, I make an effort to have phone calls with the people on my team who are. It also makes a remote job feel more real/tangible when you occasionally hear a person’s voice who is invested in your work.

 

4. On a highly collaborative project - If you find you are saying the same thing to different people or passing messages along a chain of people all the time, you’ll likely save a lot of time and annoyance by setting up a quick phone call. Make it short and have a structure in place for this call. This doesn’t even have to be a recurring call, which can become routine and end up wasting time. Set up status calls only as you need them. Then instead of sending the same Slack message to different people all day, you can actually get to work.

 

Over-communicate

Almost no one, especially clients, will be annoyed with over-communication. Especially if you’re not asking anything of them. When in doubt, send a one-sentence email update. It shouldn’t take time out of your day or feel like a hassle. Over-communicating should be naturally integrated into your workflow.

I preach the daily check-in email every chance I get. Each day, my team sends me an email with three bulleted lists: What I Did Today, What I’m Doing Tomorrow and What I’m Stuck On. This keeps me informed as their manager and helps them stay on task and accountable each day. It takes them less than 5 minutes. It makes a world of difference.

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For more tips on remote working, read How to Manage Your Time as a Remote Worker. Or this article about How to Not Suck at Remote Working. Hope it helps!

February 12, 2019No Comments

You only have to start

Many designers, both early and far into their career, do daily challenges. Most notably the “poster a day” projects and “daily UX challenge.” These exercises have become so popular that some, naturally, have begun to criticize it for a number of stupid reasons.

I see many benefits in daily challenges, some of which are establishing routine, refining skills, learning to produce faster and more efficiently and of course, providing a creative outlet. But the one downside is the pressure of committing to finish something daily. If you miss one day, you feel like a failure, and the fear of failing discourages many of us from starting in the first place. That’s why I suggest taking a slightly different approach.

Instead of committing to finish something every day, commit to starting it.

Knowing you don’t have to finish anything removes the pressure and allows you to create freely. You only have to begin. That could mean you brainstorm themes or gather inspiration. It could mean you set up the structure or sketch a first draft. It could mean 5 minutes of work or 40 minutes. You still have to commit to something every day, but you are only committing to put pencil to paper and make some sort of start. That’s it.

The beauty of this approach is that once you begin, you likely won’t stop at just a few paint strokes or pixels. Once you get past the hurdle of beginning and into create mode, you will almost always go a little further. You might even finish, but you don’t have to. And ideas come easier because they don't have to be award-winning or life-changing. If they're not, you will always have a fresh start tomorrow. So go ahead and waste your ideas. You don’t have to know where this will go or if it will work. That’s for another day. 

On that future day, you will already have a base to work from. It’s much easier to create once you have a starting point. But even if you do finish a project you started before, you will still begin a new one. Every day. Just a beginning.

I recently read an article in which the author describes how she achieved a goal of doing 1,000 push-ups a day. She had a similar approach which she called her “minimum commitment.” She knew she wanted to work out every day, but she was also aware life gets in the way. So she told herself that, at a minimum, she needed to do one push-up a day.

"I started by reframing my minimum commitment as something that could give me a consistent sense of competence," she writes. "All I had to do every day was one push-up, one bodyweight squat, and one crunch in 30 seconds. (This almost always led to doing more.)"

By changing the way she thought about her exercise routine, she set a goal she could actually achieve. And that led to her eventually completing her goal of 1,000 push-ups.

I don’t even recommend setting a minimum time or progress to your daily challenge. If you have some integrity about your work, your conscience won’t let you just drop a line on a page and call that “starting.” Setting a minimum can create the same anxiety as committing to finish. You only have to start.

With side projects especially, you don’t even have to know where to start. You can begin anywhere. But this can apply to work projects as well. We often put off ideas or tasks on our to-do list because we feel we “don’t know where to begin.” The truth is that there is always a step you can take, no matter how clueless you may feel. Once you start, even by doing something as simple as research, the block is lifted and you can more easily move forward. We all know those tasks we procrastinated on for days, only to finally begin and realize it was much easier than we imagined. Just take the first step and see what happens. It’s better than doing nothing at all.

At the end of this experiment, you may have dozens of starts filed away. This is a goldmine of potential that can fuel your creative work. Maybe you’ll actually finish those beginnings. Or maybe you won’t. In any case, you’ll start something new tomorrow.

February 7, 2019No Comments

What makes a good client

We’ve all worked with bad clients. Hopefully, we’ve all also worked with good ones. The difference is drastic.

The most important factor in a healthy work environment is your relationships, both with your team and with your clients. But what may seem like a great client relationship at the rosy beginning of a project can quickly and easily turn into a bad one. So it’s important to know how to spot a truly good client (or perhaps I should say "ideal client," as even good clients aren't perfect). And how, as a client, to recognize a good designer. Relationships go two ways and both the client and designer are responsible for a positive one. Here’s what I’ve found to be the key factors on both sides.

 

Trust & respect

First and foremost, a client should trust the designer. If that’s not the case, the relationship will crumble no matter what other positive factors are in place. I’m not saying a client should blindly follow without the designer earning that trust. If the designer hasn’t earned it (through their reputation, their work and their communication you’ve seen so far) and that trust doesn’t exist, the client should find another designer and save everyone time and heartache.

Respect goes hand in hand with trust. When a client trusts and respects their team, everything else falls naturally into place. Communication is smooth and straightforward. Timelines are manageable. Payments are made on time. Feedback is sent on time. Anxiety levels are low.

Respect and trust are different than simply that thinking you, as a designer, are cool. If a client’s hiring you just because they want to be pals, be wary. The fascination on their end will fade. Trust and respect should still be there when it does.

Designers: If you can afford it, choose clients that believe in you and seem to respect the work you do. Then fulfill those expectations.

 

Taste

Designers, you can’t expect all your clients meet your taste standards. They haven’t been educated in design. That’s why they hired you. But occasionally, you will have a client who just gets it. Who may not be able to create their vision themselves, but has the instinct. Find those clients and hold them tight.

In every other case in between, it is up to you to educate your client and elevate their taste. Share your knowledge freely and with passion. Explain the decisions you made and why you made them. Share inspiration often. You hear this all the time because it makes a difference. Educated clients are good clients. When those clients have good taste, even better.

"I have learned that you can't have good advertising without a good client, that you can't keep a good client without good advertising, and no client will ever buy better advertising than he understands or has an appetite for." Leo Burnett

 

A sense of humor

A designer or client that takes things too seriously is a drag on every project. You know, that frenzied person running around like the building’s on fire, storming out of meetings in a huff, emailing the whole team every 10 minutes with the president cc’d, starting every email with “per our conversation,” overcomplicating even the smallest things.

A good client cracks jokes in their emails. They have grace for mistakes. They remember a website launch is not the same thing as a heart transplant.

The same goes for the designer. Be the fun one the clients miss in meetings when you’re not there. Be the one that lightens the mood on radio-silent conference calls. Don’t be annoying, just evoke positivity and chill. Your client picks up on your vibe when you enter the meeting room. Set a good one.

 

Integrity & transparency

A good client/designer relationship is built on transparency. It may be a buzzword agencies list in their core values, but when actually followed through on both sides, the whole game changes. Budgets aren’t overblown because the client is straight up with you from the beginning, and you’re honest with them about how you’re pacing. Nobody’s surprised because expectations are clearly set the whole way. Nobody’s pointing fingers because there is room for mistakes and everyone is on the same team. When something goes wrong and that moment of panic arises, instant relief follows because you remember the answer is as simple as being honest. It’s freeing.

Tell-tale signs your client, or potential client, isn’t an honest one: They withhold information and release it when the timing’s convenient. They refuse to share their budget and demand to see your proposal first. They inflate the urgency and set unrealistic timelines. If I sense a client is going to be shady, I won’t work with them. (Which may be a luxury in some cases, I realize.)

Signs your designer or agency is dishonest: They write crazy-long emails to explain why they missed a deadline. They seem to know the answer to every question you ask (no one knows everything, no matter how skilled or experienced they are – at least not before consulting another team member). They promise in their proposal that they can accomplish every goal you set in the timeframe you set (any designer who is honest with you and themselves doesn’t overpromise).

When the designer/client relationship is straightforward and honest on both sides, trust and respect follow. And with those qualities in a relationship, even disaster projects are pleasant.

 

Organized & streamlined

A good client is responsive.

They designate one main point of contact for their designer and allow that person to run the relationship from start to finish.

They write one email with condensed follow-up, rather than looping in every other member of their team and assuming their designer will field feedback.

A good client sends organized folders of assets and doesn’t expect to you spend their budget hunting down photos.

They know when an email will do rather than a meeting.

They send coherent feedback rather than expecting their designer to ask clarifying follow-up questions.

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Of course, even the best clients or designers have bad days. But if a client or designer fails on more than one of these standards consistently, I’d start looking for a new one.

February 4, 2019No Comments

The downsides of freelancing

You can find plenty of positive things online about being your own boss, and we all know someone who says going freelance was the best decision they've ever made. With this article, we want to give you a more realistic view of this often glorified way of living.

Most of us know freelancing comes with the obvious not-so-fun stuff like an unstable income, invoice hunting and finding clients. Here we'll get into the challenges that may be less obvious, but are still important to keep in mind when deciding to work for yourself.

 

Waiting and patience

When you decide to venture out on your own, you are probably super excited to start working. You set up your website, you have your pitch deck ready, you've been emailing potential clients, maybe you already sent out some proposals. You are all set and ready to go. But freelancing involves a lot of waiting around. Waiting for emails, waiting for feedback, waiting for a green light on a project, waiting for the copy or images to be collected, waiting for that invoice to be paid.

Setting up and running your own practice takes a lot of patience.

When I first moved to Amsterdam, I gave myself a 3-month "trial period" to figure out if I could find work and if I wanted to stay. This sounded then like a good amount of time, but it goes by much quicker than you think. I only started to contact people when I arrived and looking back now, I probably should’ve started much earlier. Building a network is a slow process, so you have to start before you quit your job.

When you want to start working for yourself, it’s important to be proactive from the beginning. It will take some time before you can pick the fruits of your efforts. You will need to have patience and give yourself some time (6 months to a year) to get your business fully up and running.

 

Personal Growth

Working for yourself involves a steep learning curve in the beginning. You are going for it alone and you need to manage a lot yourself. You might need to do your own photography, your own website, your own presentations. You will need to learn new software and skill sets. While it might be frustrating, you will make big steps forward at the beginning. The most important thing is that you continue improving yourself and working on your skills. Because after a few years, you might start to get comfortable with the way you do things, and this can be very damaging to your business.

I once worked with a designer at an agency who had been freelancing for over 10 years which, at that point, made him more senior than me. But because of the way he worked with the different Adobe programs, he wasn’t asked to come back the next week. The way he worked was just not up to date or to the standards of that agency and the industry.

So even though you are working for yourself most of the time, make sure you keep interacting with other creatives, sharing your different ways of working and keeping that learning curve going upwards.

 

Lack of mentorship

Having a mentor can be hugely beneficial for your career, no matter what stage you are in. A mentor can give you advice, guidance or can help you push your skill set to that next level. When I started working full-time in an advertising agency in London, I experienced how amazing it is to have highly talented people as your senior. I learned so much from them in a short amount of time, just by observing how they approach creative briefs or find design solutions by asking the right questions.

Now as a freelancer, it can be a bit trickier to find a good mentor. You usually work alone or you are hired for only a short amount of time at a company. You might find it awkward to ask another professional for help or advice. Or if you are a bit stubborn, you might think you don’t need other people's guidance and that you can figure it all out yourself. And I’m sure you can, but I would still recommend finding a mentor if you can. You don’t even have to limit yourself to one person or someone within your own industry or country. I’ve been lucky enough to do freelance projects with people who are more senior than me and from different disciplines and backgrounds, from whom I’ve learned a great deal. When you come across such people, don’t be scared to ask them to mentor you.  Most people will feel flattered and will be happy to share their knowledge with you.

"Being a freelancer can give people the idea that you are 'free' most of the time or that you are 'not really' working all day."

The illusion of 24/7 availability

One of the downsides of today’s instant messaging culture is that your clients now also have access to you 24/7. It sometimes seems that people think you sit at home waiting for them to give you work. So there will be a lot of "quick jobs" that needed to be done yesterday. In the past when clients texted or Whatsapped me, I would feel pressure to reply to them straight away or work on their request that very minute, even if it was a weekend or I had a night off. This is obviously not a healthy way of working and can be disruptive to your personal time or worse, get in the way of other clients' work. So a while ago I set some boundaries with my clients and asked people to email me (or switch to Slack) for any work-related questions, just to keep a distance between work and personal communications.

Besides your clients, your family and friends can also (unintentionally) demand 24/7 access. Being a freelancer can give people the idea that you are "free" most of the time or that you are "not really" working all day. This means that you get asked more often to help with a move, family obligations or other things that people with a full-time job can’t easily do. This is usually not a problem because one of the main reasons people to go freelance is to live a more flexible life. But even with your family and friends, you may have to set some boundaries.

 

Living contract to contract

Depending on the kind of work you do, most freelancers don’t own their work after handing it over to the client. Most freelancers provide a service and it is difficult to build up long-term value from your work. Yes, you do gain knowledge, maybe you get some repeated jobs from your client, and over time you will hopefully be able to charge more money. But in the end you are still working contract to contract, job after job.

There are ways of changing this around by being more entrepreneurial. I haven’t look into this myself yet, but I know some designers work for start-ups and get paid in shares or equity. You can also license your work or sell the rights for only a short amount of time. Some designers make products or prints that they can sell on platforms like Society6 or Threadless. In this way, you can create a (small) passive income and keep ownership of your work as well.

"I always recommend doing projects on the side to keep your portfolio up-to-date with new, modern work."

Non-disclosure agreements

When you work most of the time as a contractor for other agencies, you will probably have to sign a lot of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). This basically means that you have no ownership of your work and are not allowed to share any visuals, knowledge or information about the projects you work on. This usually happens when you work for big global brands through international advertising agencies. Sometimes they allow you to put the work you did in your portfolio when a project is live, but more often than not this won't happen, or you are not there when the project is finalized.

This makes it difficult to have a fresh portfolio and if you are not careful, your portfolio will be quickly outdated. For example, one of the latest projects in my portfolio is a campaign for Dr. Martens I worked on in 2016! Obviously, I’ve worked with other clients and companies after that, but most things didn’t make it into my portfolio, didn’t get signed off or never went live. So if you are a contractor, I always recommend doing projects on the side to keep your portfolio up-to-date with new, modern work.

 

Protecting Yourself

One of the things most creative freelancers are pretty bad at is protecting themselves with contracts. Some may think it is not necessary to write up such a contract as we trust our clients, or we think we might scare them off when presenting them with one. Most of us probably think it is a lot of work to set up as well. I must admit that I’ve also never worked with a contract and that I don’t have any other form of terms and conditions for clients to sign. And just like any other freelancer, I have walked into projects that were badly managed, where I put way too much work in, and I’ve had clients that just didn’t want to pay after completion.

 

The Upsides of Freelancing

If we haven’t scared you off with the downsides of freelancing, then you might be ready to make the jump. We have plenty more to share about the benefits of freelancing and how to do it right, from finding clients, managing your finances and working with a recruiting agency. It's all here in our Freelance Life series.

January 18, 2019No Comments

The designer & company disconnect

Most companies I talk to are desperately looking to hire good designers. Most designers I talk to are desperately looking for work. Somewhere, there’s a breakdown happening.

Recently, I read that 82% of executives of Fortune 500 companies believe they don't recruit highly talented people. At the same time, 73% of workers are disengaged and thinking of getting another job.

I have a few theories about why this is happening, at least as it relates to the creative industry.

 

Too-high expectations from companies

These days, companies want the “unicorn designer” with design skills, coding skills, video skills, photography skills, etc. The reality is that many designers are highly skilled in one area and proficient in the rest. That doesn’t mean they can’t do it all. It’s becoming easier and more natural to grow these secondary skills. But it's likely they don't do everything as well as their main skill.

In the end, while they try to acquire new skills and fill every role as an all-star designer, they have fewer opportunities to shine in what they do best.

 

"Great talent is scarce"

I may be guilty of having unrealistic expectations myself. Or maybe these expectations are fair, but as a McKinsey&Company study suggests, we're at a shortage of highly talented people.

When hiring a designer, I look for a balance of hard skills + taste + strategic thinking. Most designers check one or two requirements but lack the third. The designer may have the hard skills to take a project from start to finish, but lack strategic and holistic thinking — meaning they’re only good at what they do when they’re told exactly what to do. Other designers may be able to think strategically but aren’t able to execute on it, making them worthless for a company that needs a hands-on team.

Perhaps we are indeed holding designers to an unrealistic standard, asking one person to fulfill many requirements. Or maybe those designers exist, there just aren't many of them out there. And the ones that do exist are part of the 27% who are happily employed.

 

“Do what you love” mentality

These days, we are led to believe the perfect job exists. You know, the one where we love our work so much we “don’t work a day in our life.” The one that makes us spring out of bed each morning, throw open the windows and sing like a character in a musical.

I’m all for doing work that I enjoy, but I think we as employees have the wrong understanding of what this means. I also see companies making promises to fulfill these expectations when they're trying to recruit a designer. So when it turns out that the job we dreamed about doesn't constantly excite us at every turn, we lose motivation and feel disengaged.

I love my job and there are some days I feel ecstatic about it, but those days are few and far between. Other days, I’m just doing the work. And yes, it feels like work. Work that fulfills me, but work nonetheless.

If the “do what you love” doctrine is taken to an extreme, we’re all losing. We may start to dread our perfectly fine job and believe the grass is always greener on the other side. It’s a matter of expectations, once again.

 

Too much process, too little bravery

Some companies are so bogged down with process, the room for creativity is slim. Thus, designers don’t have the opportunity to flex their creative strength and companies don’t see the best possible work. The result is disappointed companies and stifled, bitter employees.

Process used to be a tool we used to get better at creative work. To make the work we’re meant to do more efficient. Process is a means to an end. But at some point, process became something companies not only treated as a religion, but also an asset they could sell to clients. When process is the end-goal itself, it unsurprisingly leads to frustration.

 

Companies don’t know what they need or want

Example: Most companies now think they need a UX designer but some barely understand what a UX designer does. Meanwhile, most designers are calling themselves UX designers now because it’s what gets them the job. So a company hires what seems right, the designer applies for what seems right and both are clueless about what is actually needed. 

In some cases, a  recruiter may be copy & pasting job descriptions without understanding what they are asking for or how that position fits into their company.  All scenarios result in unhappy companies and unhappy designers.

 

Designers have skills but lack professional capabilities

In our How to Get a Job at X series, the most-wanted secondary skill (skill besides design) BY FAR is communication. It's possible designers are talented, they’re just not communicating their designs and themselves well. A designer could do the best work but if they aren’t able to present it well or sell it to stakeholders (the team, clients, etc.), their work becomes useless. 

This means a company may hire an outstanding designer purely judging from their portfolio, only to discover that nothing gets done.

As I mentioned, these are all just theories. The problem may be deeper or more complex than this, or a combination of these issues. In any case, I still see these problems to be true within our industry. Fixing them requires better education on every side, a leveling of our expectations and a simple effort to do better.

January 9, 2019No Comments

Junior designers vs. senior designers

The difference between a designer early in their career and a more experienced designer are easy to spot. Here we outline the key differences.*

*It should be noted that some young designers have been known to exhibit behaviors of senior designers. And on rare occasions, you may see a senior designer in the wild behaving like a young designer. Scientists cannot confirm why this phenomenon exists.

 

One asks when the deadline is.

The other knows the answer is "ASAP,” so instead they propose their own timeline.

Of course, every project is different. But those with experience know that most often the deadline "was yesterday." The designer has the power and ideally knowledge to propose a realistic deadline based on the briefing, and an informed discussion can be taken from there.

 

One designs exactly what they’re told.

The other knows what they’re told is just one idea, and explores beyond it.

If you're working with a mentor, creative director or even just the client, feedback should always be taken as general direction unless noted otherwise. After all, you're the professional being paid to understand this project. You are likely the one who has the knowledge to find the perfect solution to the problem.

In some cases, it makes sense to do exactly what you've been told. But in many other cases, the person who gives you feedback is only thinking out loud and wants to encourage you to keep thinking about the problem. When in doubt, do what you've been told and propose your own (hopefully better) solution as an option.

 

One turns in their first or second draft.

The other does as many drafts and explorations as possible within the time allotted, then shares their favorite options.

The biggest difference you notice between junior and senior designers is that junior designers usually come back with something to show way too fast. If you're not yet experienced, whatever you do fast is most likely not that good. So in order to do something good, you need to spend a decent amount of time on it.

For some senior designers, their experience allows them to design both fast and well. My advice to junior designers is usually to clarify when something has to be finished and then take time to do many different drafts, form your own opinion and present the best. Don't do one draft at a time and bother your mentor every 30 minutes for feedback. Find the balance.

 

One uses Lorem Ipsum.

The other writes their own copy to the best of their knowledge and ability.

Lorem Ipsum (or any form of placeholder copy) is for lazy designers. In most cases, especially UX design, the copy you write is as much part of the design as anything else. In some cases, the copy IS the design.

It's OK if you're not a perfect copywriter. Just write the copy to the best of your ability before handing it off. Even if that's not part of your official job description. Even if you already have a professional copywriter on the project. This will help you think through your design beyond the concept and see how it actually works in execution. It helps you better sell your work. It helps the copywriter because you've hopefully allotted proper space and structure for the message. It improves the quality of your project all the way around.

 

One sends their design saying “let me know what you think.”

The other explains what we’re looking at and why they made the decisions they did.

This is a simple one. When it comes to sending work to a client, they need to see your rationale or they may jump to unproductive conclusions. And if you want feedback from a mentor or manager, you need to be specific about it. Every mentor is different, but chances are your boss is busy. If you want great feedback, you need to explain yourself, present your work and mention specific things you want to improve. Avoid sending a design without commentary and leaving everything up for chance.

 

One asks for help.

The other asks for help by proposing a solution.

If you approach your mentor, don't just state the problem. Share your thoughts on the situation and offer a potential solution. Sometimes it's OK to be completely stuck and ask for help, but it's likely you have a solution in mind that you're just unsure about. Even if it's wrong, your idea gives them something to respond to. And if it's right, you've shown initiative and saved time for everyone.

 

One completes a task and moves on to the next one.

The other completes a task and sees it through to execution.

Perhaps this is less about being junior or senior and more about being a good or great designer. Don't just focus on the individual tasks at hand, but try to see one step ahead. Are there any states you need to design? Edge cases you can be proactive about? Can you already contact the developer and see if they need help? The best designers are often not only those who just design but those who also help produce and communicate.

 

One waits for directions.

The other chooses a direction based on the information they’ve already been given.

Being self-sufficient and self-motivated is one of the important traits of a great senior designer. Even if direction is lacking, they're not just sitting around. They take initiative and do the work based on their best guess. Never just wait around for decisions to be made. Use what you have and do the best work based on that. A start is better than nothing at all.

 

One blames their manager, mentor or client for their struggles.

The other keeps working.

I've already shared my thoughts about this one in detail. I get many emails weekly from junior designers or designers new to the industry. One of their main complaints is that they're not learning enough at their current company or they're doing boring work. It always surprises me to hear these things from someone who just started out.

Of course, a good mentor or manager can make a difference, but they are not responsible for your success. A good manager or mentor is a luxury some may have, but others don't. Those who are great at what they do take their destiny into their own hands and make the best out of every situation.

January 4, 2019No Comments

What leading companies never want to see In your portfolio

Through our How to Get a Job at X series, we've talked with creative directors and recruiters from companies like Nike, Spotify, Pentagram, Disney, Shopify and BBDO. These people see dozens of design portfolios a day and might make their decision about a candidate within seconds of landing on their page. So we asked them for the secret to a successful portfolio – one that gets us a job at their company.

Given my work with Semplice, I have my own opinions about online portfolios. I know what makes me want to keep browsing and what makes me exit immediately. And while many companies echoed my opinions, others felt differently.

In more than 20 interviews, we asked each person these two questions: After seeing countless design portfolios in their career, what do they never want to see on a portfolio again? What do they want to see more?

Consider this your portfolio’s new year resolutions.

 

Less of This

Process Diagrams

“I have seen way too many design process diagrams. They’re all the same. I want to understand your process, so I can be sure you’re thinking about users and giving yourself room to develop creative ideas. But four bubbles, a few arrows and a bunch of words is just fluff.” - Katie Dill, previously at Airbnb

“Dull representations of process are challenging for me. Usually this is pages of descriptive text accompanied by flow charts. This could be the most fascinating work, but I don’t have the time to get into it.” - Mel Cheng from KISKA

"Swiss design templates. It’s crazy how people are copying what is meant just to inspire."

 

Trendy and Generic Designs

“We don’t want work that simply copies everything else. Our clients come to us to help them meaningfully resonate and differentiate. That means that we need to be on the bleeding edge of what is relevant, inspiring and thought-provoking.” - Karin Soukup from COLLINS

“Here a list of design cliches that turn me off right away:

  • Clean, fashion-y websites
  • Hipster logos with crossed arrows
  • Swiss design templates. It’s crazy how people are copying what is meant just to inspire.
  • Anything in Millennium Pink! Please, there are an infinite amount of other possible colors!”

- Maitê Albuquerque from Mother

“Generic writing and visuals. C’mon, this is your portfolio, the most important thing in your arsenal as a designer. If a portfolio looks and feels just like every other one, it’s hard for me to think that you’ll create a great product no matter how much you say you ‘handcraft websites.’” - Stephanie Liverani, Mikael Cho and Luke Chesser from Unsplash

 

Unsolicited Redesigns

“While this type of exercise certainly has its value, it’s not something I would encourage designers to put in their portfolio. Unsolicited redesigns lack real-world constraints, which doesn't allow us to assess your product design skills.” - Elyse Viotto and Kevin Clark from Shopify

 

"Edgy" or Complicated Design

“Don’t make me think. Convoluted portfolio designs that try to be edgy by challenging the way you interact and navigate with them can be a fun design exercise – but when your users are people who want to find out as much about your skills in as little time as possible, it misses the mark. Clear and readable wins the day.” - Erik Ortman from Electronic Arts

“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.” - James Cabrera, Refinery29

“Things that make it hard to see your work, like: “Website coming soon,” passwords for everything, really old content, links you cannot open.” - Shine Thomas from Nike

“I have an aversion to designers doing their own logo for their portfolios. Better to spend your time focusing on showing your work, not how you can combine the letters of your name in a monogram. I find it distracting.” - Simon Endres from Red Antler

"Pick your favorite pieces. It doesn’t need to be for the most famous or biggest clients as long as you are proud of it."

 

Outdated & non-curated portfolios

“I don’t want to see every piece of work that you have ever done. Pick your favorite pieces. It doesn’t need to be for the most famous or biggest clients as long as you are proud of it and want to talk about it.” - Simon Mogren and Bart Mol from BBDO

“Magazine cover designs. I see this often with emerging creatives, as it was likely one of the pieces they worked on for a design course. They don’t really relate to the needs most companies are trying to fulfill, and often the designs look cluttered and poorly laid out.” - Andrea Trew from Flywheel

 

More of this

Good Writing

“We wish we would see more designers who write. Writing is great because it helps people understand your thinking. And your thinking is what ultimately shapes your work.” - Stephanie Liverani, Mikael Cho and Luke Chesser from Unsplash

"Our job will always change, so we need to know that you have the capacity to adapt."

 

Personal Projects

“If you’re just starting out as a designer, a good alternative to unsolicited redesigns are personal projects. These self-initiated projects are a great way to build up your design and product skills, while also putting something out into the world for people to use.” - Elyse Viotto and Kevin Clark from Shopify

“I would like to see more personal projects in portfolios. The work that you did in the best of conditions and with full artistic freedom.” - Simon Mogren and Bart Mol from BBDO

“I want to see more personal projects, some experiments you did in design. People need to show more about how they think and see the world. Our job will always change, so we need to know that you have the capacity to adapt and find elegant solutions to the most diverse problems.” - Maitê Albuquerque from Mother

 

Intrigue

“I like to see people who present their work with care and intelligence. The best portfolios are ones that are comprehensive enough that you get a sense what’s going on, but sufficiently open-ended so you are intrigued by what you see.” - Michael Bierut from Pentagram

 

Thoughtful Case Studies

“I’d prefer to see the process through the work. Show me how you’ve gone from insight, to concept, to solution, to impact with a real project example.” - Katie Dill, previously at Airbnb

"I always enjoy seeing a bit of storytelling in a presentation. It’s such an important skill for designers and is a tool for sharing work broadly across teams and functions. Telling the story of your work — how it all relates, why it’s important — matters." - Audrey Liu from Lyft

“Seeing more work presented in case study format would be so helpful. Major bonus points for an animated prototype/flow. There are more than enough tools out there to add motion to your work (Principle, Framer, Flinto, etc.)”- Ryan Le Roux and Oliver Brooks from MetaLab

"Trying to come off incredibly senior when you’re actually quite junior could end up hurting you."

 

Honesty

“Positioning yourself properly in terms of skill and experience. Trying to come off incredibly senior when you’re actually quite junior could end up hurting you. Be honest about the work you’ve done, what you’ve learned, and the things you’re interested in learning more about.” - Ryan Le Roux and Oliver Brooks from MetaLab

“They should briefly describe the work and the particular role they played. We get a little nervous when someone’s portfolio includes a lot of team projects. We want to clearly understand someone’s strengths and weaknesses before we hire them.” - Helen Rice and Josh Nissenboim from Fuzzco

“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.” - James Cabrera from Refinery29

 

Consistency

“We want to see work that is consistently good. The best portfolios take a well-rounded and curated approach to showing work.” - Helen Rice and Josh Nissenboim from Fuzzco

"I think it’s perfectly OK to start with a joke, or something that tells me that this person has a unique perspective."

 

Personality & Humor

“I’d love people to share more of themselves: What made an impression on you recently? What objects do you own that you love or hate? What are you reading?” - Stanley Wood from Spotify

“I wish more portfolios had personality. I think it’s perfectly OK to start with a joke, or something that tells me that this person has a unique perspective. On a good/bad day I look at maybe 20-30 portfolios. Most of the time for maybe five seconds before I decide if it’s worth exploring further. So my first recommendation would be to make sure you grab the audience straight away. Show me something great and/or unexpected. Ideally both.” - Haraldur Thorleifsson from Ueno

 

Real-world applications

“From a product design perspective, I also prefer seeing work that is technically feasible, as it demonstrates awareness and respect for the engineering side of the equation.” - Todd Dominey from Mailchimp

"A portfolio isn’t just a documentation of all the work you’ve produced to date; it should be adapted with time."

 

Current design & curated projects

“I wish all applicants would update their portfolios at least once a year. Nothing stands still in our industry, so if you are looking for a new position you must be able to demonstrate that you are current in your design thinking and skills.” - Steven Boone from Disney

“Simple, curated books with one or two of your greatest projects are the best. If you are posting your work, it should be at a quality level you are proud of.” - Shine Thomas from Nike

“A portfolio isn’t just a documentation of all the work you’ve produced to date; it should be adapted with time. It needs curating bespoke to the prospective client to ensure relevancy both in terms of content and aesthetic, to demonstrate your understanding of the business.” - Michael Stephens from Virgin Atlantic

 

Breadth of skill

“I cannot reiterate this enough — I like seeing variety. Seeing your personal projects, work in progress or experiments demonstrates to me that you’re willing to explore new territory beyond making a polished case study. I love seeing your process, sketches and writing/notes that show me how you go about making the work.” - Simon Endres and Maureen Edmonds from Red Antler

"There is definite value in a portfolio that’s diverse and showcases a wider range of design thinking and skill. Showing your ability to think outside a given set of lines and emerge with something new and innovative helps further set you apart. Show your most creative stuff (the projects where you had more freedom to have fun with it) and your most challenging stuff, (the projects with the most restrictive guidelines). Both have a story to tell." - Daniel Myer from BMW

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For tips on writing case studies, building a portfolio as a young designer, creating UX portfolios and more, check out our other portfolio articles. And be sure to read the full interviews in our How to Get a Job at X series for inside advice from some of my favorite companies.

December 14, 2018No Comments

The struggle for simplicity

In all the work I do, I strive for the most simple solution. I mean, the name of my business literally translates to “simple.” But simplicity is ironically one of the most difficult things to do well. Usually, the more effortless something appears, the more effort it took.

Throughout my relatively short career, I’ve found these ingredients to be key for simplicity. Some of them more difficult to attain than others.

A deep understanding of the subject

We naturally overcomplicate things we don’t understand. Usually, if I can’t explain the problem easily to someone, I’m not going to find an easy solution. So first, I do my research and try to become an expert on the subject.

I learn the ins and outs of the business or challenge, ask every question I can think of (even the ones that may seem dumb) and try to wrap my mind around it. Sometimes this means I have to read additional books on a topic, watch a documentary or go to some industry-specific events.

Once I know I can verbally explain it to someone else in a simple way, I’m ready to find a simple solution.

Confidence

This is less about an attitude and more about trusting your gut. We often land on a simple idea somewhere along the way but we don’t trust it. We think surely, it can’t be this easy. Sometimes, it is.

Boundaries

A maxim you’ve already heard, but worth repeating: creativity needs constraints. A brief that says “do whatever you want” is a curse. Most of our brains need to work within some kind of lines or we spiral out of control. Setting boundaries also forces you to keep things simple. It strips out the unnecessary and focuses your mind on only the essentials.

Boundaries can be based on time, a set of features or even financials. The best projects are often those that happened through limited financial resources and a very limited amount of time.

Skill

It's easy to observe the finished product and overlook the skill it took to make it happen.

How many times have you seen a piece of work and thought, “I could have done that.Sometimes, that’s true – the difference is that you could have done it, but the other person actually did it. In other cases, the most seemingly simple work is made by people who have practiced for years at their profession.

Perspective

We all know that person who breezes by the conference room, looks at our mad scribbles on the wall and says “but why don’t you just do this?” They have distance from the subject, an aerial perspective which lets them spot that one flower in a field of weeds.

If you find something becoming too complicated, step away from it for a while. When we’re too deep in it or too close to a project, we lose that perspective.

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Naturally, most of these things go hand in hand with experience. The more you work, the more skilled you become. The more skilled you are, the more you can trust your instincts. You learn to set boundaries for yourself and can more easily sense when you need to step away or find perspective. But no matter how long you've been working, simple is usually preceded by chaos. It takes a conscious effort to stay simple. The result is always worth it.

Article image from Dieter Rams' "Less But Better"

December 10, 2018No Comments

How to write a cold email

When reaching out to a company, whether you’re seeking a job, introducing your product or pursuing some other opportunity, a personal connection is always best. If you can get introduced by a friend of a friend, you will be 100x more likely to receive a response (a stat I made up, but I promise it's true).

Even if you don’t have a friend on the inside, you can make one by interacting with them in a personal way on other platforms. Follow and engage with their work. Have a casual conversation on Twitter. The internet makes almost anyone accessible to you.

But there are times when you just don’t have that inside connection and a cold email is your best option. It will take more work, but sending that email can still pay off.

In almost 20 interviews (and counting) with top companies and studios in our How to Get a Job at X interview series, we ask this question: “Say we decide to reach out directly and send a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us?”

And we got a lot of useful advice. Their suggestions speak to contacting a company while job hunting, but can apply to anyone trying to network via email. Here are the highlights.

Be personal, not formal

“I love when people share their personal stories,” says Maitê Albuquerque, creative director at Mother LA. “To be honest, hyper-professional emails get lost in the sea of other emails and portfolios we receive.”

I couldn’t agree with this more. Any email that seems copy/pasted or filled with buzzwords automatically goes in my “no” pile. I may still respond, but you probably won’t get the response you were hoping for.

The team at Unsplash agrees.

“We can’t speak for all companies, but emails that make us feel something are ones that sound like they were written to a friend,” says Unsplash. “Words that sound like they were written by a human, not a machine. Everyone making anything today is in the business of creating a connection. An impersonal subject line or words like ‘Dear Hiring Manager’ signal not only laziness but a lack of understanding for what connects.”

Have a point of view

“The [emails] that really stick out are the ones from folks that have put a little effort into it and show a POV,” says Katie Dill, previously director of experience design at Airbnb. “For example, I am always impressed by those who took it upon themselves to redesign an aspect of Airbnb to show us their skills, ideas and interests. We’ve seen a lot of great work this way and we’re always happy to talk to someone with that kind of passion and hustle.”

Or as Elyse Viotto and Kevin Clark, design leads at Shopify, put it:

“Do you want any job or do you want a job at Shopify? I know you’re probably applying to many companies, but can you tell us why you’d like to work here?" Elyse and Kevin say in our Shopify interview. "Do you have your own online store? Do you use our product? Did you take a stab at building a theme with Slate? What is your opinion on Polaris or the latest articles our UX team published?”

Show you have a point of view by expressing your curiosity and motivation. Share why you want to work with or for not just any company, but THAT company.

“Some things are better to save for an interview rather than putting your whole life story in the introduction email.”

Let your work speak for itself

“Let your work do the talking,” says Erik Ortman, lead UI/UX designer at Electronic Arts. “It is at the end of the day an extremely competitive marketplace for designers wanting to work in games, and there is really nothing that can beat high-quality work. If you can manage to convey a true passion for design and games through both your work and your words, that is the secret sauce.”

Simon Mogren, head of design at BBDO, echoed this advice.

“Some things are better to save for an interview rather than putting your whole life story in the introduction email. Let your work speak for itself so you can speak about yourself in person.”

Of course, you will want to share what makes you (or your product) the right choice. My advice: Do so in the least sales-y way possible, and follow the other tips here by keeping it short and personal. If your readers even sniff a sales pitch, they will run.

Be concise but sincere

Getting to the point quickly is the most important and consistent advice we’ve received in these interviews. Be clear about what you want, right from the start.

“I’ve seen many people, especially juniors, approach me in elaborate ways, from personalized goodie bags to hand-drawn record sleeves,” says Bart Mol, VP creative director at BBDO. “To me, this is the equivalent to a well-practiced pick-up line: meaningless the moment you look one step further. Just show me the real person I should hire as concisely and convincingly as possible, no bells needed.”  

James Cabrera, senior product designer at Refinery29, agrees.

“Keep it short and sincere,” says James. “We like to find people who are truly passionate about our mission, already know a lot of the little details about our brand, have a genuine curiosity for our business and are always full of positive energy. Keep it conversational, yet pointed.”

Dan Sormaz from Spotify sums it up nicely:

"It’s really about showing why you’re the best person for a specific role in the quickest possible way.”

Keep emailing until you get a response

“I am always open to people staying engaged with me, but there are a lot of emails and people to respond to all the time,” says Shine Thomas in our interview with Nike. “Sometimes, it’s hard to respond to everyone at the speed you desire… but keep emailing until you get a response.”

I understand we don’t want to be annoying, but as someone who receives a lot of cold emails, I know this approach can pay off. Instead of sending a passive “Hi, did you get my last email?” message, just copy and paste the same message you sent before with an optimized intro or subject line. Read more tips for emailing busy people and getting a reply right here.

Be humble and have a sense of humor

There’s a difference between sharing your accomplishments in an effort to make an impression, and just sounding like an asshole. You need to sell yourself (or your product, etc.), but you can do so in a humble way. Carefully phrase your wording to show your passion and appreciation without flat-out bragging. 

“The best cold job emails convey that the person is smart and humble, that they have a sense of humor, excitement about Fuzzco and an understanding that we work hard,” says Helen and Josh in our interview with Fuzzco. “They should talk about something interesting the person is doing that helps us get to know them and shows they are passionate, curious people.”

Just send it

You may be surprised by how many people, especially in the design industry, want to help you out if they have the time. Take Michael Bierut, partner at Pentagram. If there’s anyone in the design industry who receives too many emails and has zero time to respond to them, I would imagine it’s him. But his answer surprised us.

“I reply to every message I get,” says Michael. “Even the ones with misspellings.”

Andrea Trew, art director at Flywheel, also makes it a point to respond to cold emails from creatives.

“As a rule of thumb, I love to help other creatives to achieve their goals, even if it means just setting aside some time to chat and give them pointers on their portfolio,” says Andrea in our interview. “Asking for advice and an opportunity to meet in person (even just 30 minutes for coffee!) is always welcome.”

As does Luisa Mancera, brand designer at Invision.

“A few friends of friends have reached out to me who are curious about what it’s like to work remotely. I’ll usually talk with them,” says Luisa. “I’ve also had a few people looking for career advice and I’ll try and talk with them as well. If people reach out with specific questions I’m generally happy to answer — I usually give them my phone number and ask them to give me a call.”

Michael Stevens, head of creative and design at Virgin Atlantic, sums it up nicely:

“My advice? Go on, be brave and just do it."

There's a lot more career advice where this came from. Catch up How to Get a Job at X series to read the full interviews with Pentagram, BBDO, Flywheel, Nike and lots more.

November 29, 2018No Comments

Dreams vs. goals

The end of the year is quickly approaching and with it, New Year's Resolutions. Studies say only 8% of people achieve their resolutions, mostly because we set unrealistic or unspecific goals. I believe part of that could be solved by recognizing the difference between a dream and a goal.

Practical goals are concrete, with tangible steps on a timeline. Dreams are aspirational. With a dream there is likely no timeline – we may not pursue a dream at all. But dreams give us hope. They are the futures we fantasize about. The issue is when we mix the two up.

We look at our desires differently depending on whether we see them as a goal or a dream. If we consider our desire a goal, we make a plan to achieve it. We have our checklist and our timeline. We see an end in sight.

If we consider it a dream, we believe it’s more far-fetched or possibly even out of reach. We think about it often, but we may be less likely to actually do something about it. We tell ourselves it’s just a crazy idea, something we’d do years from now, maybe not even possible. We build this narrative around a thing and soon we believe it. It’s a dream, and sometimes dreams don’t come true.

Perhaps if we defined goals vs. dreams from the start, we would be more likely to accomplish our goals — and even turn our dreams into tangible results.

About eight years ago I moved from Austria to New York. It started as a seemingly far-fetched dream. I mean, the visa process alone was so daunting, it felt safer to think about it that way. But the more I dreamed about it, I realized this could be a realistic goal I could actually achieve.

It started with just a little research. The research turned into some emails. The emails eventually lead to a job, which got me a visa sponsorship. From there, I had a whole new list of goals to work toward. Each brought me one step closer what I originally thought was a dream. (Of course, it was much more complicated than that. I wrote a lot more about it in my book, Let’s Go to NYC.)

For others, moving to New York is still a dream. Uncertain and with no immediate timeline, just floating hazily in the back of their mind. My Big List, which guides my decisions for my personal life and career, has many such dreams. When reviewing this list, I ask myself: Are these dreams really just dreams? Or should they be goals? If yes, how can I accomplish these goals? How can I break them down into smaller, achievable steps that take me one step closer to what I want to do?

In most cases, our “unrealistic goals” aren’t necessarily unrealistic. They are just goals disguised as dreams.

For more of my personal thoughts on New Year’s resolutions, read about my anti-resolutions.

November 8, 2018No Comments

What I’ve Learned Three Months Into My Design Internship

This is a three-month series chronicling my internship with House of van Schneider. If you haven't already, catch up and read about my first and second months.

I’m done with my design internship! It’s been a busy three months working with Tobias and the Semplice team, but I sure had a lot of fun. Reflecting on my time, I’m quite impressed with what I have accomplished and how much ground I was able to cover in three months.

My overall design skills (layout, typography, color theory, etc.) have improved, I’m comfortable using a variety of design software and I have real-world experience working on a super cool product. I know I have a lot more to learn, but this internship taught me invaluable lessons for the design career ahead of me. Here are just a few.

Get to know your team.

We all know the importance of designers and developers working well together. But it’s also valuable for designers to develop a healthy working relationship with people outside of their immediate circle — like marketing managers, copywriters and sales associates.

Working with a fully remote team spread across several time zones meant it took extra effort to create and grow my work relationships. I only really needed to communicate with 1-2 other team members on a daily basis, but I’m glad I spent the time and effort getting to know everyone and their different roles. By doing this I was able to integrate with the team faster and become a more well-rounded designer. But most importantly, it made me more cognizant of the role my work plays in the overall operation of things.

For example, I worked closely with Lizzy (the editor of this blog) who writes the majority of the copy on the Semplice website. She recently told me how much she appreciates that I write my own copy when designing pages, instead of using Lorem Ipsum or placeholder copy. Writing my own copy helps to sort out the story of the page. It shows how everything should be lining up visually and makes it easier to know how much room to allocate for final copy. If I use Lorem Ipsum, I may be limiting the potential of the final product or worse, have to redesign it later.

Being aware of my role as a designer within a company is crucial. It helps eliminate unnecessary back and forth and increases productivity. Plus it’s just a considerate, thoughtful approach to have as an employee and peer.

"I can’t count the number of times I asked silly little questions like 'Why did you choose that color?' or 'How did you create that shadow?'"

It’s all about the process – at least for now.

To me, what makes someone a good designer isn’t how much formal training they have, what big-name clients they’ve worked with or how much money they make. A good designer is someone who has a solid design process that enables them to produce creative solutions to problems.

I’ve had the opportunity to interact with senior designers and developers during my internship, and one key thing I always try to do is understand the process behind their work by asking lots of “why” and “how” questions. There’s really no better way to get insight (and inspiration!) than by asking successful professionals in the industry. If I’m not proactively trying to pick their brains, I’m not making the most of my time.

One of many graphics I created for Semplice.com during my internship. Artwork by Pawel Nolbert.

Don’t shy away from the small questions either. I can’t count the number of times I asked silly little questions like “Why did you choose that color?” or “How did you create that shadow?” It only takes a few seconds or minutes out of their day to answer my question, but their answers might propel me forward a big step.

I’m just beginning my career and paying my dues to make sure I have a solid foundation to build on for the years to come. But once I become a more mature designer and have my own process down, I'll be able to break the rules and trust my intuition more. And while the process is important, I try not to obsess over it. Design is flexible. It’s not made up of only hard and fast rules. I don’t want all the tools and processes to become a distraction from actually doing the work.

Progress is progress.

As designers (or really, whatever your profession may be) we’re often our own harshest critic. This can be a great source of motivation, but when things go awry, it’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of insecurity. There are many times I feel as though I won’t ever reach the level of the designers I look up to, but when I take a step back (or when I’m forced to), I can see that my skills really have grown.

I recently took a look at some work I created a few months back and compared it to my more recent work. There was only a difference of a few months, but I still noticed little improvements and that’s reason enough for celebration. Even though I’m still new to this whole thing, I’ve found it essential to take that step back from my daily hustle and celebrate the progress I’ve made. Progress is progress no matter how little or big, and I deserve to be proud of myself.

One of a series of posters I've created over the past few months – a fun creative exercise to balance my everyday work.

Have fun!

Every day, I try to be a better designer than I was the day before. I do my best to stay motivated and inspired. I ask questions, I work extra hours if needed and I always put my best foot forward. But I try not to take myself or my work too seriously 100% of the time, or it can become overwhelming.

I decided to pursue a career in design because I thought I’d be good at it, it seemed interesting and it looked like fun. I try not to forget that when I get stressed out over my work. Having a positive attitude and taking time to work on personal projects helps me keep my excitement level up and also acts as a little recharge for my creativity.

I’m sad that the end of my internship is here, but I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned and the fantastic team I got to work alongside. I really hope that some of the lessons I’ve learned working here will be encouraging to other new designers out there. Keep at it, work hard and do what you can to stay inspired. I know I’ll be taking all these lessons along with me to my next position, wherever that may be. I just hope the next crew I work with is half as great as the team here. Work doesn’t really seem like work when you have good company.

November 5, 2018No Comments

The best work I’ve ever done

What's your favorite project you’ve worked on? What’s the best work you’ve ever done?

I am often asked some form of this question in interviews, and I always struggle with it. I can never think of an answer I won’t cringe about later. Not only do I feel awkward and self-indulgent answering questions like this, but I am also rarely satisfied with my own work.

I’ve worked on plenty of enjoyable projects and I’m proud of the work I do overall. I share a range of my projects and speak positively about them in my portfolio. But narrowing my career down to one “best” or “favorite” project implies that I’m totally happy with it, and I never am. It feels like I’m saying this is the most I am capable of doing. That I’ve already done the best I can do.

It seems many creatives feel dissatisfied with their own work. An overly critical eye and imposter syndrome tend to be part of the job description. But why are we most critical with ourselves?

Early on in our career, it’s the difference between our talent and our taste. Like someone who has a beautiful image in their head and can only draw a stick figure, it can be crushing to see the gap between our ideas or taste and our actual talent.

As Ira Glass puts it, “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.”

As a young designer, you know what good design is, but you can’t seem to create designs that live up to that standard. As you keep working hard and growing in your career, you close that “gap” and your taste and talents start to align.

Yet now that I’m more seasoned in my career, this self-critical nature still comes down to the difference between my vision and the execution. Perhaps it is perfectionism at play, a weird form of pride in itself. I can see everything I intended to do versus what I actually did. I see the things missing that I meant to include. I notice all the parts where the image in my head doesn’t match the final result.

While the viewer may notice these shortcomings, it’s more likely they don’t. After all, they don’t know exactly what I intended to do. They only see the final result. Or maybe they do notice and that’s fine too. That either helps me improve or, at this point in my career, I choose to trust my taste and talent.

Still, I don’t think I will ever be 100% satisfied with my work. To me, that means I’m being complacent. That I’m not challenging myself enough. Despite our world's obsession with it, I’m not striving for the very best. I’m only striving for better.

Instead of letting the self-doubt stifle me, I let dissatisfaction drive me to keep creating. I compete with myself to do better than the last time. I like to think my best project is my next project. This way I am motivated to see what’s ahead, rather than looking behind.

October 23, 2018No Comments

Buy your time

I remember many times in my life when I felt certain it was time to make a change. As soon as the realization hit me, there was this sense of urgency to make it happen right away. I felt that if I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, I should get out quickly.

I’ve heard from many friends and readers who have been at a turning point like this as well. They dislike their job or they’re ready to make a full career change. Or they might have some plan to build something or start a business of their own. Or they have no idea what they want and they’re feeling directionless. Whatever the case, I encourage them to question that sense of urgency.

I took a lot of risks when I was younger, many of which seem foolish in retrospect. I dropped out of school and turned down the few jobs I was offered so I could pursue work I wasn’t qualified to do. Thankfully, these risks worked out. Now, while I still enjoy taking risks and think they’re important for growth, I’ll often have a backup plan in mind. But on top of that, I always try to buy myself time.

Say you have a full-time job as a designer, but you want to go freelance. With the current popularity of freelancing, it almost feels like you have to quit your job now or you’ll miss your window. My advice: Stay, at least for a little while.

Define a specific deadline and work hard until then. Learn as much as you can about design while you’re getting paid to do so. Observe your co-workers to learn how they close a sale or interact with clients. Take on side projects (if you can do so and still be a good employee) while you have the safety net of your current job, and slowly build your client base. Most importantly, save as much as you can.

How much money do you need to live? What’s the minimum amount you’d need to scrape by for say, six months? How about for a year? Calculate that, and be honest with yourself, then figure out how long it would take to make that money at your full-time job. That length of time is your deadline. It’s the hope that will get you through the next few months or years of work you may not want to be doing.

During that time, you might be working nights and weekends. You will probably live a different lifestyle while you save your six-month cushion. It may sound unpleasant, but your deadline will carry you through. It will motivate you to work even harder because you know it’s only temporary. You have your finish line in mind, and that little secret will drive you forward.

This is what I did when planning my move from Austria to New York. I even made a spreadsheet and compared cost of living between the two cities (which I share in detail in my Let’s Go to NYC book). Then I continued working, taking on design jobs with my current studio, until I had the cushion I needed. Cesar Kuriyama did this before creating the 1 Second Everyday app, which now has millions of downloads. (You can hear more about Cesar’s story here.) Illustrator Malika Favre, whose work you’ve probably seen in The New Yorker and elsewhere, uses this strategy every time she makes a big life or career transition. You can listen to our NTMY conversation about it here.

The concept seems obvious, and it is. A lot of people more strategic and serious than me would call it a given. Of course you’d calculate and save before taking a risk, right? That’s not always the case for people who feel desperate or fed up with their current situation. It’s easy to rush into something or let anxiety control your next move. Then you potentially find yourself in a more desperate situation than before, struggling to make your dream work.

The beautiful thing about this approach is that it removes that urgency and panic. You’ve bought yourself time. You have the security of what you’ve learned, a client base you can build on and savings you can live on while you’re getting your new plan off the ground. Now you don’t have to compromise or take on projects you don’t want to do. You can only focus on what you do want.

Put simply, it’s about being strategic and patient. You’re just working toward your goal within the safety of your current situation. But if you think of it as buying your time, it changes everything. You’re in control, you’ve removed the feeling of crisis and you’re making it happen for yourself. You can breathe a little easier because you’ve extended your window.

Buy yourself time and you’re technically paying for peace of mind. That’s worth a lot.

October 8, 2018No Comments

When you dreamed about doing what you’re doing now

Something I’ve noticed while talking to design students is a romanticizing of the industry. When first learning design, there’s this notion that when we become designers we’ll do only beautiful, world-changing work. Then, we enter the industry and learn things aren’t exactly as we expected.

It’s understandable that young designers think this way. In school, almost everything is theoretical. We are given carefully selected assignments. We are shown the best of the best work. We learn the ideal processes and tools and scenarios. Everything exists within our university bubble, showing us the way things should or could be for a designer. We have no context aside from the small window that’s been opened for us. Plus, it’s natural to romanticize any industry before we experience it for ourselves. It’s what motivates us to pursue it in the first place.

When visiting design classes and asking what students want to do with their design career, I hear a lot of the same sentiments:

“I don’t want to do boring work that doesn’t excite me.”

“I only want to do X kind of work.”

When I talk with these designers in their first or second job, they already seem disenchanted and discouraged: The work is boring. They’re not being taught or challenged enough. The projects or clients don’t align with their passions. The culture doesn’t excite them. One year in and they’ve realized their dream job isn’t all it was cracked up to be. They’re working on some social ad for a no-name client with a small budget and zero assets and searching for a new job in a separate browser window.

Idealism can be beneficial. It can make us more ambitious and confident, convinced opportunity lies around the corner. But it can also be crushing when we realize not everything is as romantic as we imagined it to be. When I first pursued design as a career, I was ready to take on the world and do big, exciting projects for clients I believe in. I soon discovered that half of the time or more, I would not be doing this kind of work. In between all those award-winning, history-making campaigns we celebrate and read about in our textbooks is the work that pays the bills. The less sexy, maybe less award-worthy but nevertheless important work.

When we were young, we were taught the world was fair. As it turns out, it’s anything but. The truth is that it’s not our company’s job to give us non-boring work. It’s our job to make the work not boring.

It’s not just our company’s job to teach or lead us. It’s our job to ask questions and find answers.

It’s not our boss’s job to challenge us. It’s our job to seek challenging work that helps us grow, whether that’s at our day job or with a side gig.

After working for more than a decade as a designer, I can promise you this: There may never be a point when you’re consistently doing only creatively fulfilling, exciting work that perfectly aligns with your passions and values. For every one perfect project, there are 10 projects you’re doing just keep the lights on. Not only is that work a reality you will learn to accept, but it’s an opportunity. Any project, no matter how small, can change your life. It’s better to realize this early and take advantage of it.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Thomas Edison

I talked to designer Brian Collins about this in an NTMY podcast episode awhile ago. He spoke of a small, seemingly boring project he was assigned as a young designer that he turned into a career-changing opportunity.

“You’re given these assignments that on the face of them look like hell, [but] you can turn them into something incredible,” he said. “I believe in almost every assignment, there’s something in it… you can make it bigger, make it more interesting, more connected and turn it into something that can be certainly more fun to work on, and in some cases, profound.”

Even then, you may still get work that’s exactly what it seems on its face: Get-the job-done, do-what-you’re-asked, no-room-for-personal-creativity kind of projects. That’s fine. That’s having a job. Even those projects are helping you grow, whether you’re learning how to be faster and more efficient, or you’re making someone else’ job easier, or you’re getting a campaign out the door.

In everything, I strive to be useful. This attitude turns sludge work into an act of service. It helps me look for the positives instead of the negatives. It makes me a better teammate. It helps me offer solutions rather than placing blame. It keeps me moving forward. It’s up to us to make our job what we want it to be. It’s also up to us to be realistic, and remember work is work. Unless you’re working for yourself, it’s very unlikely you will always do exactly what you want to be doing. Actually, you probably won’t even if you are working for yourself.

Changing these unrealistic expectations is also up to those who came before you. Senior designers and publications do young designers a disservice by only sharing the success stories and the finished products. Perhaps, if we shared more of the ups and downs and the hard work behind the scenes, we’d paint a more realistic picture of a design career to young designers.

Brian Collins agrees.

“We work really hard and all we see are these huge success stories about [how] somebody opened their design firm and now they work all over the world, and now they did these projects and they have these incredible deals with brands around the world,” says Collins. “This desire to make it look seamless is, I think, bloodless. First, it doesn’t speak to how hard those people actually worked. And two, it doesn’t account for luck. Right place at the right time.”

It seems in the design industry, especially given our social-influencer, Instagram-famous world, we can easily be distracted in our career. We seek fame vs. mastery. We mix up our priorities and get the wrong idea about what it means to have a fulfilling, successful career. Like many professions, being a designer requires hard work, talent and timing. Yet unlike some professions, we are privileged to do the kind of work we do as designers. The most unpleasant projects still ultimately amount to us sitting in a comfortable chair in front of a computer screen using our minds to create an image.

There are moments when being a designer does feel as romantic as I imagined it would be. I wouldn’t still be doing it if I didn’t love it, if there weren’t nights I stayed up designing just because I wanted to. If it wasn’t a rush to solve a problem with the perfect visual. Our job can indeed be a dream job, whether we’re working in an agency, as a freelancer, on a product or for a company. Our dream job is also a job, like any other.

October 8, 2018No Comments

What I’ve Learned Two Months Into My Design Internship

This is a three-month series chronicling my internship with House of van Schneider. You can read about my first month here.

These past two months have allowed me to flex my creative muscles, especially when it comes to visual design. The bulk of my work still consists of creating graphics and designing pages for Semplice, but I’ve also been exploring some more personal projects and playing with new software (hi, Figma!).

Now that I’m fully acclimated to working with the team and have a strong grasp on the different brand styles I work with, I’ve been refining my work process. That includes learning to think critically and have a smart approach to design.

Consistency is key

In my last blog post, I wrote about how design is all about communicating a message, and how keeping that message in the forefront of my mind helps me design better. The thing is, sometimes that message can have many layers. The difficult part is prioritizing what (and how) I want to communicate.

When I first started designing web pages, I thought as long as I checked off all the items on my list (nice layout, beautiful images, consistent typography and UI elements), the page was good to go. Sometimes I’d even finish a design, look at it and think, "Well, it’s not great, but it’s good enough and I don’t know how to make it better – I’m tapped out!" Luckily, my team is great at seeing where my weaknesses lie and always comes in clutch with just the right advice.

I’ve learned that I need to start thinking about my designs from a larger perspective. It’s important that each individual element (typography, graphics, images) looks beautiful, but it’s also important that these elements work well together – that they all live in the same world. There needs to be some type of consistency between elements in a design for everything to make sense on a micro and macro level. That means if I’m going to use sophisticated, elegant images in one part of my design, I can’t be using colorful, playful images in another part. All the images need to have a cohesive tone and feel for the overall design to work. Put simply, I learned about art direction and its role in design of all forms.

Nobody’s asking you to reinvent the wheel

When I’m told to “be creative,” and “try something new,” my mind tends to translate that to “DESIGN SOMETHING CRAZY WE’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE!” As you can imagine, the designs I churn out from that mentality usually aren’t great. I’m still learning and training myself on how to be more creative, and most of the time the process doesn’t include reinventing the wheel. It just means experimenting a bit more and getting inspired by other designs. Since I’ve been doing a lot of work for Semplice, that might mean taking a look at some other pages on the site and grabbing ideas from there to use in my designs.

This also applies to the UX and UI work I do. Take a look at the money management apps on your phone – don’t they all look kind of similar? Now take a look at your photo editing apps. These too look similar to one another. That’s because all these apps all utilize design patterns. After all, design patterns exist because they work. It’s okay to recycle ideas and re-use elements when designing. Often, creativity just means finding a different (sometimes new) interpretation of something else.

"Sometimes I’ll spend two hours working on a graphic and all I can come up with is something that looks like it could have been made in Microsoft Paint."

Don’t be ashamed of your work

This is for all the newbies and aspiring designers out there like me. Don’t be ashamed of your work. It’s OK (and even good) to fail because that means there’s room for improvement. Sometimes I’ll spend two hours working on a graphic and all I can come up with is something that looks like it could have been made in Microsoft Paint. So what do I do when I have to submit my graphic knowing I’m going to have to rework it? I’m honest about the thought process behind my design. I explain what I was trying to achieve, why I included what I did, what I think can be improved, and ask for feedback.

I’m lucky to work with the best team who recognizes my effort and always provides great feedback to help me and my designs become better. If it’s technical skills I need help with, they’ll give me tips or a little tutorial on how to do something in Illustrator or Photoshop. Other times they’ll give me some more creative direction if I’m lacking in that aspect. The point is, the more honest and communicative I am with my team, the more they can help me, and the better the end product turns out. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.

I’ve been working on some fun projects that I can’t wait to debut in a few weeks on my portfolio. Speaking of, my portfolio’s going to get a nice new look soon too. For the last few weeks of my internship, my focuses will be maximizing the time I have with my team and continuing to get inspired so I can implement new ideas into my designs.

September 25, 2018No Comments

How to Get a Design Job at Red Antler

Red Antler is a branding studio based in New York that works exclusively with startups. They've helped launch and grow brands like Casper, Birchbox, Brandless and more.

I find Red Antler's type of work especially exciting, as they get to be there at the beginning with these nascent businesses, almost like a founding partner, and help introduce them to the world. We talked with Simon and Maureen about what they look for in a designer and how we might land a job working on the Red Antler design team.


Hey Simon and Maureen, let’s get right to it! First, can you please tell us a little about yourself and what you do at  Red Antler?

Simon: I’m one of the co-founders and CCO of Red Antler. I’ve been part of the creative industry for 28 years, first as a visual artist and then as a designer and design leader. I moved to New York City from New Zealand in 1999 to work on the design team at an agency, then started my own design shop called ProAm. About a decade later, I joined forces with my two co-founders, Emily Heyward and JB Osborne, to create and grow Red Antler. We’re focused on working with startups and their founders to build their businesses using strategy and design. Red Antler started with three people on a couch. Now we have a multidisciplinary team, 100-strong, in Brooklyn.

As CCO I work with our client partners to create, guide and provoke brand worlds that bring the founders’ vision to life, and then push it one step further. I lead design teams across disciplines (digital, industrial, product etc.) to make meaningful brands that people fall in love with. I also, of course, spend a great deal of my time meeting and interviewing potential candidates for design positions at Red Antler.

Maureen: And I’m Red Antler’s head of talent. I’m responsible for helping to grow and develop our incredibly talented team. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between people and work, especially in creative environments. I’ve spent most of my career working in talent development within global agency networks prior to Red Antler, and I’ve found it tremendously rewarding to be part of this team, helping foster a culture that encourages personal and professional growth while providing the opportunity to create really amazing work.

Looking at your current design team, how many of them came through internal referrals or headhunting, and how many came through the traditional application process?

Maureen: We’re always on the lookout for interesting people and do quite a bit of proactive sourcing to find them – this accounts for about  ⅓ of our current team. The other ⅔ is a mix of those who applied directly through our job postings and referrals, both from our team and our broader network in the design industry.

Say we decide to reach out with a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us?

Simon: I prefer emails or messages that are concise and professional, not overly familiar or overconfident (we’ve never met!). It’s great to hear if you’re excited about Red Antler and more importantly why you’re excited, and why you might be well suited for a role. Ultimately, it comes down to your background, if we think your work is good and if you can positively impact our culture. An amazing email isn’t going to get you the job, but it is one data point for us that shows how well and appropriately you communicate.

Maureen: I agree. Introductory messages don’t need to be overly formal or paragraphs long. You can give us a good sense of who you are, what you’re interested in and why – using your own voice within a few lines.

"Red Antler is like a 6th founder to us." - Philip Krim, co-founder and CEO of Casper

How important is a complete portfolio? Can I get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at Red Antler?

Simon: It’s important that we see a breadth of work. We’re always looking for variety in a portfolio – how can you stretch from project to project? We’re looking for people who can bring ideas to life using the most relevant visual vocabulary.

Not having a portfolio is not an option. If you can’t back up your email intro or the conversation we have in an interview with compelling work, then we have no way to make an informed decision. I always start the interview by asking the candidate what they are most passionate about, where they want to head in their career, what are their strengths and where they want to challenge themselves. I ask what their thoughts are about branding, and how that factors in. Then we look at the work together. In an interview, I’m not looking to go through a ton of work, but instead I’ll drill into specific projects to hear about the thinking behind them and what you specifically contributed to the project.

"I cannot reiterate this enough — I like seeing variety."

Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?

Simon: I have an aversion to designers doing their own logo for their portfolios. Better to spend your time focusing on showing your work, not how you can combine the letters of your name in a monogram. I find it distracting.

The other thing I’m wary of is people showing work that was obviously created by a large team without the appropriate credit given to the rest of the group. People passing work off as their own is counterproductive. I often see the same images from a project in multiple candidate portfolios. Better to pull out the work you actually affected and make clear what your role was.

Also — and I cannot reiterate this enough — I like seeing variety. Seeing your personal projects, work in progress or experiments demonstrates to me that you’re willing to explore new territory beyond making a polished case study. I love seeing your process, sketches and writing/notes that show me how you go about making the work.

Simon at work

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?

Maureen: It’s definitely something we look for. To me, one of the most special things about Red Antler is that we have so many different backgrounds and interests across our team. It really informs our work.

Simon: We really encourage all of our team to get involved in things that they’re passionate about outside of work. A design practice is a demanding pursuit, both physically and intellectually, so it’s important that people are getting refueled and refreshed, inspired by things outside of the studio. There’s currently too much of a reliance on looking at other designer’s work. That’s when things start looking the same. What about art, music, neuroscience, architecture, politics, urban design, literature, mythology? If we don’t innovate and push culture forward, we’re dead in the water. Ultimately these interests will influence our work and culture in a positive way.

"Branding the Non-Brand" - Some of Red Antler's work for Brandless

Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?

Maureen: We start off with a phone interview with a member of my team where we get to know your story, how you got to where you are now and what you’re excited about. We share a bit more about our team, how we work and the particular role. It helps us start to get a sense of how you think and articulate your ideas. If we think there’s alignment, we’ll arrange to have you visit our studio in Dumbo to meet with Simon and/or a few members of our design team.

Simon: If the design leaders are collectively excited about the candidate, we’ll bring them back in to meet with more of the team. If we’re looking to bring you on full time, we’ll have you come back for another conversation. I’ll show you the work we’re doing and talk about how you’d fit into the team. This is less about the work and more about making sure we have a good rapport and seeing if the conversation flows.

Maureen: Throughout these conversations, we’re digging deeper into your work and approach, and ensuring that there’s a strong fit with our values and how we work.

I saw most of your open design positions require experience with branding or at least drawing and typography. Would you hire a skilled designer who has no previous experience in brand design? For example, say I work at a big tech company for a couple years, then decide to apply at Red Antler. Would you still consider me for the position?

Simon: I’m very focused on building a diverse team with talent that introduces new skills (both hard and soft) and interests to the team. We do look for people with solid typographic skills, though. It’s certainly a skill that can be taught, but we’d much rather spend that time addressing more complex challenges like bringing a strategy to life or doing next level execution across all of the touchpoints we’re responsible for. More important than having experience in branding is being a strategic critical thinker that can also execute creative ideas in a systematic way.

This is an appropriate pose that demonstrates strategic critical thinking.

Given the work you do, we assume you want a designer who can think strategically and critically in addition to having strong design skills. What are the other secondary skills you look for in a designer, besides common soft skills?

Maureen: I can’t overstate the importance of strategic thinking. We could see the most beautiful portfolio of design work, but if we connect with the person and they aren’t able to articulate the purpose behind their design decisions, it’s not going to be a fit for the type of work we’re doing. Likewise, we seek strategists who are passionate about and fluent in design, and client directors who understand how design and strategy come together to drive success for our clients.

Simon: Maureen’s right – a strategic approach is essential for what we do. There are no hard and fast preferences beyond the usual skill requirements. It’s all about the holistic team. Usually, we’re trying to add a skill that might amplify the work with the existing team so, it’s all contextual.

I love it when someone is curious about learning how to code, just to get their head around it. I’ve also seen great success with people who jot things down just to unpack what’s in their head and communicate with others about abstract ideas.

Would you hire someone who is a cultural fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?

Simon: In looking at our team now and who we’ve had in the past, I can categorically say that cultural fit is huge. No matter how skilled you are, if you can’t be a good human being and studio citizen, then it’s not going to work out. Our process is built around teams supporting each other and collaborating across every part of the company. No one person has more value than another. We’ve had a no asshole policy since we started 11 years ago and that’s not going to change.

What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at Red Antler? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us! (:

Maureen: Not asking us any questions is a huge red flag. Curiosity is critical to our process and is something we look for in candidates for every single role at Red Antler. The interview process is about you getting to know us just as much as us getting to know you.

Simon: Being passive or uninformed isn’t a good look. We’re not like other companies in the way we operate. We work with many new businesses and directly with their founders who have a specific expectation about money and time. They’re all gunning for launch on a limited budget. We’ve built our whole offering around this dynamic. We want designers who like that we work with startups, and who like building things from scratch. Things move quickly with purpose around here – it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Maureen: And if I could add one more: It’s super basic, but you’d be surprised how often it’s happened. When job seekers are reaching out to multiple studios, it’s easy to cut and paste an email message. I don’t recommend this approach, but if you do this, quadruple check to make sure you’re addressing the correct person or company!

Red Antler's work for Otherland, a candle company

Do you ever hire remote designers, or do we need to be located in New York to get a job at Red Antler?

Maureen: We often engage with candidates outside of New York, in fact, we have designers from all over the world, but you need to be willing to move to New York to work side by side with us.

Simon: There’s nothing like having people in the same space — being able to look at stuff together, sketch, critique, cut up and edit on the fly, pull in other skills — it’s a very organic and somewhat messy process. We’re constantly fine-tuning and evolving. Often we’re building something that hasn’t existed before which is really exciting but also really hard.

How do you think Red Antler is different when hiring new talent compared to other companies?

Maureen: What makes Red Antler special for me is that we have so many different types of thinkers under one roof. Throughout the course of a project, we may have a brand design team, an industrial designer, a digital product designer, a strategist and a writer all bringing their unique perspectives and skills to the table to help crack a particular client’s challenge or opportunity. Challenging each other and building off of one another’s work – that’s where the magic happens. We’re not just assessing the depth of your skillset and culture fit, but also whether or not you’re wired to collaborate with strategists and designers across multiple disciplines.

Maureen with the team

Simon: The designers here get to work on such meaningful projects. These are brands that are changing conversations around sustainability, fashion, farming, politics, self-care, personal finance. Not only do you get to have a hand in building that brand, but you then get to see it out in the world, challenging the status quo and resonating with so many people.

Thanks for your honest and practical advice, Simon and Maureen! For those looking to do brand design work with Red Antler, here are a few important takeaways:

1. Show your ability to think strategically 

This is a must for a design job at Red Antler. In your portfolio and in your interview, show why your work helps accomplish the client's goals. Share why you made the design decisions you did, and the impact those decisions had on the project. Demonstrate your ability to think ahead, and understand all aspects of a project and how they connect. Show that you're capable of creating more than a beautiful design, but one that has meaning and fulfills a purpose.

2. Ask questions

This should be a given for any interview, but it's easy to forget when you're nervous and focused on having all the right answers. Research Red Antler before you meet with them. Prepare a few questions beforehand, but don't be afraid of having a real, unrehearsed conversation. The more genuine curiosity you show, the better.

3. Display variety in your portfolio

Red Antler wants to see that you have a range of skills and experience. Show a breadth of work in your portfolio, including projects that relate to the specific position you want at Red Antler.

To learn how to get a job at companies like Airbnb, Electronic Arts, Fuzzco and Pentagram, catch up on our How to Get a Job at X series right here. Almost all companies are selected based on reader requests. If you want to see a specific company in the series, send me a Tweet about it.

September 22, 2018No Comments

10 tips that make designers and developers excel as a team

It takes both the creative and technical part to successfully build and ship digital projects like websites or apps.

Having worked on the design and development side in the past years, I’d like to share a few simple principles that will hopefully make you more productive as a team and prevent failure and frustration.

1. Define a common goal

At the very beginning identify, phrase and agree on a tangible goal. This can be something like "we need to sell more products" or "users need to be able to easily find information about a certain thing." When in doubt or discussion at any moment further on, ask yourself as a team "does this action bring us further toward the goal that we defined and agreed upon at the beginning?"

2. Be as soon as possible, as specific as possible

This means: Placeholder content like the infamous Lorem Ipsum is forbidden. Use real content instead of dummy or placeholder content at every stage of your project. If no copy is available, come up with a best guess. Entering real content at the very last minute can cause situations like "Oh, actually there’s not enough space for that text" or "This page looks pretty lame with real content."

“By adding Lorem Ipsum to the design you are essentially dressing your king before you know his size.”

3. Talk early, regularly and about all the details

Discuss designs and features early-on in terms of feasibility so that everyone knows what is going to be built. This way, you avoid estimations and misunderstandings that can cost you and your team valuable time. Of course, be open to changes throughout the project as you might iterate and refine, but always keep your end goal in mind.

4. Sit next to each other

Don’t let unanswered questions trick you into making assumptions. By sitting next to each other you make communication a lot easier and can make decisions on the spot. If this is not an option, make sure you check in at least once a day for a few minutes to talk about your progress via Slack. Sitting next to each other may also increase the risk of learning from each other. Which brings me to my next point.

5. Learn from each other

Try to put yourself in the situation of your counterpart to understand what challenges they are facing. As a developer, try to "see" things more like a designer to get type sizes, spacings and layouts right. Pro tip: Hand-off tools like Zeplin make it easy for developers to scan exact measurements from designs.

On the other hand, as a designer try to have at least some sort of system behind the essential elements of your designs like type sizes, paddings and spacings, so that developers can leverage these rules in their code.

6. Give dead-honest feedback

The sooner the better. Being critical and calling out things that are not ideal is not always comfortable but may help you avoid frustration afterward. In every discussion, opinions are equally valuable. Be respectful and don’t dictate, because you need both strengths to reach your goal. Also, never take work-related critique personally. See it as a way to advance in your profession.

7. Get out of your comfort zone

Try to avoid the early use of phrases like "Nah, we can’t do this because it won't work." When in doubt, find an example where that one specific feature you wanted works in reality, and investigate until you find out how it was done. Don’t be afraid to ask for outside help. Nobody is perfect. Every one of us learns something new every day.

8. Find out what workflow works for you

This might sound obvious, but it’s important that you as a team find out how you work together in the best and most efficient way. Clarify how you hand-off designs, how you annotate functionality, what time(s) during the day you regularly check-in, etc. Keep in mind that working together for the first time might come with some overhead as you still have to get to know each other‘s way of working. However, your following projects together will be way faster since you already know how you play as a team.

9. Recap and celebrate

At the end of a project or big milestone, take some time as a team to recap everything from start to end and with all honesty. For example, have a nice team lunch or dinner out and cheers over some good drinks. If things went well, awesome! If something sucked, well even better, so you can improve next time.

10. Always make time for some fun

I really mean this one. Have a good time and enjoy what you do. At the end of the day, we all spend a fair amount of our day at work, so why not make it a good time? Leave some time for fun activities like a hard-fought duel at Mario Kart 64, a game of ping pong or spamming your teammates with funny GIFs.

I hope you can use these tips to save yourself some time and improve your workflow and team spirit. Personally, these tips help me a lot to stay focused and ahead of things during critical phases of projects. I’d be glad to receive your feedback by shooting me a tweet at @skaltenegger.

Have a productive day!

September 11, 2018No Comments

What I’ve Learned One Month Into My Design Internship

In late July, I accepted an offer for a three-month interactive design internship with House of van Schneider. Tobias was one of the first designers I started following on social media when I decided to pursue design as a career. I loved how personable he comes across on Twitter and ate up all the knowledge and resources in this blog when I was starting out.

It’s weird to go from following your role model on social media one day to working with them the next, but I’m super grateful for this opportunity and couldn’t be enjoying my time more.

As of last week, I’m nearly one-third of the way done with my internship! I’m fortunate to have a patient team guiding me through it, who seem to be available on Slack 24/7. Since I am still quite fresh in the field of design, this first month has allowed me to learn a lot of basic hard skills and soft skills.

Photoshop isn’t just for photo editing

I know, some (or most) of y’all are in disbelief that I didn’t know this before but hey, I’m new. Since I picked up graphic design mainly through watching YouTube videos and asking designer friends to show me the ropes, I had worked primarily with Illustrator and had limited knowledge of other software. Photoshop had a pretty steep learning curve for me, but it’s proven to be great for creating quick mockups and manipulating graphics. Also, a personal win is that I finally understand how to use masks in Photoshop!

Since so many tools are available to designers now and it can get quite confusing, I’m still getting familiar with programs like Sketch or Adobe XD at this point. But the beauty of Photoshop is that it's incredibly versatile without any barriers to creativity. Even if the workflow isn't always ideal for digital design, it's a good tool to let your ideas run wild.

Contrast, hierarchy, and negative space can make or break a design

One of the hardest things I’m trying to overcome is filling up space with elements because I don’t know what else to do. I've learned that every design element should have a purpose, and yes, that includes the negative space. I’m learning that adding elements to a design with no purpose in mind usually means I’m not thinking about the visual hierarchy of elements in that graphic. A lack of visual hierarchy can make a design feel crowded, chaotic and confusing for the user.

As a designer, it’s my job to guide the user and help them easily understand the main message I want to communicate. Visual hierarchy, contrast and negative space help do this, but it’s deceptively difficult. I’ve had to hammer these principles into my head every day because it’s much harder to execute than it is to simply understand the principle.

"I’ve come to realize that I was limiting my creative potential with constraints I had unknowingly given myself."

Use feedback as momentum

It’s not easy to hear that my design missed the mark or that I need to give something a second try. Sometimes it’s also hard to not take feedback personally, especially if I spent hours working on a graphic only to have to redo it. But honest feedback (from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about) is one of the best ways to quickly learn how to get better at designing.

It’s been important to remind myself that sometimes my designs are going to be shitty, but that’s OK. I’m doing this internship so I can learn and become a better designer. I’d much rather receive honest and constructive feedback than hear I got it spot on with my first try. I’m here to grow, so instead of feeling stuck or defeated when I’m told to redo a task, I do my best to take the feedback and use it as momentum to make my next iteration better.

Working within constraints is a skill – just be sure you’re not making those constraints up.

I’ve been creating a lot of graphics for Semplice which has not only been fun, but practical as it’s teaching me how to work within the brand style. For example, even if I design a visually stunning and creative graphic, I may be told to rework it if it doesn’t fit in with the rest of Semplice’s graphics. The more I work with the team, the more I understand the Semplice style and how to deliver to that style rather than my own.

However, I’ve also come to realize that I was limiting my creative potential with constraints I had unknowingly given myself. Nobody told me I couldn’t manipulate that graphic or shorten that copy. I had just assumed I wasn’t allowed to. So to foster creativity and exploration, maybe the best approach is to create first and apologize later.

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With the first month of my internship under my belt, I’m looking forward to getting faster and more efficient with my workflow, continuing to push my creative boundaries, and becoming more involved in the overall design process from conception to delivery.

August 24, 2018No Comments

How to Land a Design Job at BMW

BMW needs no introduction. The company is known and respected the world over, a brand synonymous with luxury and pride.

Working on any aspect of BMW's design is a dream job, so of course we had to invite the company to this series. Daniel Myer kindly gave us all the inside advice about how to land a coveted spot on BMW's visual design team. 

Hey, Daniel! First, can you tell us a little about yourself and what you do at BMW?

I'm one of the senior UI and visual designers here at BMW. I’m part of the core U.S. design team located in Chicago. Together with our colleagues in Munich, Germany, we design the Connected Drive app for BMW and MINI.

It’s important for us to maintain the overall BMW brand language (as implemented within the vehicles “ID” onboard display), but within a unique mobile design experience. Our team is also tasked with developing, maintaining and implementing the style guide for both apps as well as giving art direction to other key markets.

I’m involved in strategy, art direction, brand and motion design. Primarily I focus my efforts on two key areas: the first is “LBS” (Location Based Services), which is anything to do with trip management or vehicle mapping. The second is vision casting concepts, and explorations around future design states of the app and experience.

Would you say the majority of designers you hire have been pre-selected and headhunted by your team, or do you get a lot of cold applications as well?

Headhunting is the most common onramp to employment here at BMW. The company is proactive in the pursuit of talented and articulate designers. Almost every designer starts as a contractor. It’s quite a long tenure before being offered an internal role. I’d encourage a designer to be patient, keep improving their craft and update their portfolio often, as well as business network sites like LinkedIn.

Say we decide to send a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply, any secrets for us? Or should we just fill out the job form?

Someone being bold, putting themselves forward and expressing an interest to work with our team is a good thing. Being proactive in general goes a long way here. Additionally, you could reach out with a message over LinkedIn. Be clear about what you want and what you are good at.

"It helps to show work that relates to BMW or another luxury vehicle brand, even if it’s purely conceptual. It will get passed around quite a bit and discussed."

How important is a complete portfolio? Can we get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at BMW?

BMW is a global leader in the area of design. We have some amazing designers who are passionate about engineering great experiences. We tirelessly re-work every detail of the design to improve it. As part of our process, we are involved in weekly review meetings where we need to present the designs for review and overall buy-in. Thus, a designer wanting a place here needs to have strong design chops and be able to articulate the ideas behind the design clearly.

We care very much about design, the process of design and how it will work. A big part of what we do is service-design oriented. Therefore, the projects in your portfolio or book should be compelling and strategic. This is a great place to communicate how you’ve used a specific design approach to solve a problem, and make the product or service more usable and engaging.

I used previous apps and working prototypes when presenting my portfolio in an interview with BMW. It helps to show work that relates to BMW or another luxury vehicle brand, even if it’s purely conceptual. It will get passed around quite a bit and discussed. It can set you apart and help position you for an initial meeting.

Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. 

For me, I’d say a lack of creative range. Yes, it’s useful to have a well-honed skill that is laser focused in a particular area. However, it can be rather tedious to see all the same things.

Anything you wish you saw more?

There is definite value in a portfolio that’s diverse and showcases a wider range of design thinking and skill. Showing your ability to think outside a given set of lines and emerge with something new and innovative helps further set you apart. Show your most creative stuff (the projects where you had more freedom to have fun with it) and your most challenging stuff, (the projects with the most restrictive guidelines). Both have a story to tell.

Besides having a portfolio, do you like the idea of designers being invested in other interests, for example blogging or being otherwise active in their community? How much do you value side hustles?

Being on the team is about design. However, being part of the team is about culture and comradery. BMW has a very diverse U.S. team and everyone feels welcome here. There are lots of sports and activities that further drive the team culture. It’s about designing well together as a really cool team.

Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?

The process can vary based on the role. For me, I was contacted by a recruiting agency that worked directly with BMW to source senior creatives. That’s where most of the conversations happened initially between me and BMW.

The recruiter set up the interview. It took about a week. I went in and met the three design leads and several product owners as well as various development team leads. I presented my portfolio to each group. All total, the interview process lasted about 4-5 hours. I was given an offer the following week. 

What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at BMW? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? 

I’ve not seen this very often here with my BMW colleagues. They’re an especially top-notch design group. However, in other settings I’ve observed designers be too tense or nervous, and it drowns out their personality and creativity. You’ve made it this far, so you’ve done a whole lot of things right! Breathe, smile and share your previous design work with confidence. The key elements at this point are the creative conversation, as well as presenting yourself and why you would bring value to the company. We want a chance to get to know you. It’s important to get a sense of how you would fit with the rest of the team and what value you will contribute to the design effort.

Do you remember a specific application or interview that impressed you?

Not recently. However, I do recall a few of the most memorable designers I’ve worked with. One was Jon. Although he didn’t take himself too seriously, he did take his design craft seriously. He could create great visual designs and communicate the idea behind them quite well. His easy going, ebullient approach was refreshing and made buy-in easy for him. He was such a joy to work with. Although he is no longer with BMW, I think about him and his ability to bring people together often.

Another designer who left a real mark was Nicole. She was a truly gifted UX designer. Her ability to clearly communicate design ideas with a relaxed ease was also a real inspiration. In both cases, their clear and light-hearted, personable approach made it  easy to communicate and share ideas. They helped elevate the team around them in so many ways.

I couldn’t agree more. Being an enjoyable person who people like to work with can be just as important as your skill.

Do you expect candidates to be big BMW fans as well? Say you found the perfect candidate skill-wise, but they don't express a huge passion for BMW cars. Is that a problem?

No, I don’t think it’s any sort of prerequisite to working here. One of my favorite cars besides BMW is a Volvo. As employees we do get to drive the fleet of amazing BMW “test” cars (the new 8 series being my favorite) so that we may better understand the vehicle and the thinking behind the CID “central information display” design. It doesn’t take long to become a fan. Come on, it’s BMW!

Would BMW hire someone who is a culture fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?

BMW Group has five core valuesResponsibility, Appreciation, Transparency, Trust and Openness. BMW from the top down is focused on an individual being a cultural fit and a team player. Obviously, you need to have a certain level of design skill and understanding.

That aside, there are many opportunities that encourage growth in your skill level. We have workshops and demos which are really fun and bring people together. Additionally, the luxury and quality of the brand, the collaborative nature and the engaging attitude of the team around you foster motivation and help elevate a designer’s skill level.

Do you take design interns? If yes, how do I get in and where do I apply?

Yes! BMW does hire design interns and usually has a lot of them on the team. UX designers, UI designers, researchers...they’re always really, really cool. I’ve enjoyed sharing with them and I’ve learned a lot from them. You can find intern postings and apply right here.

How do you think BMW is different when hiring new talent compared to other companies?

I would say it can take quite a bit longer than normal to get an internal role you want, since most everyone starts out in a contract role. It takes a lot of mental toughness to keep producing your best work at a high level while being patient in the process. Don’t misunderstand, it’s a great company to work for. I feel excited to get to do what I do.

____

Thank you, Dan! It's not often we get such honest, practical advice – especially from a large company like BMW. It's much appreciated and we learned a lot. Readers, if you want to apply for a design job at BMW, here are your main takeaways:

1. Be patient and willing to do your time.

Many designers start out as contractors with BMW. If you're willing to start there to get your foot in the door and prove your value, it could lead to a full-time job later.

2. Knowing how to present yourself and your work is key.

Daniel says a big part of the job is presenting work internally to get buy-in. BMW will expect you to present your work and yourself confidently. The designers who were most successful at BMW knew how to make that seem effortless.

3. If you don't have related work to show in your portfolio, conceptual work could help.

Obviously it's ideal to show work that relates to the job you want. But if you don't have experience working on apps or for a luxury car brand, that doesn't rule you out. BMW could still see your skills through conceptual work.

For more inside advice on getting jobs at places like Nike, BBDO, Electronic Arts, Shopify and more, catch up on our other How to Get a Job at X interviews right here. Almost all companies were specifically requested by readers. If you're looking for a design job at a company not featured here yet, let me know on Twitter.

August 7, 2018No Comments

How to apply for a design internship

I recently decided to take on a design intern at my company (not the first time, but we don't do it that often). We received hundreds of applications and reviewed every one of them before making a decision. When we announced the position was filled, a few people asked for feedback, wondering what they could have done differently.

Of course, we simply received an overwhelming amount of interest and could sadly only choose one person. It was a tough decision, but ultimately we selected the candidate who best fulfilled the requirements of the role. However, we did see some trends and missed opportunities that may be helpful to anyone applying for a design internship.

1. Having an online portfolio immediately increases your chances

While we stated on the job description that having an online portfolio was a must (we work on a portfolio builder, after all), we still received several Dropbox links and PDFs. We reviewed them anyway because ultimately, it’s about your skills and your potential. But sharing your work this way doesn’t do you any favors, especially if we have many portfolios to review. Downloading 100MB+ PDF files and scrolling through them without any real navigation (plus the laggy Adobe Reader) isn't fun. If I have too many portfolios to review, I usually dismiss PDF portfolios entirely.

Presentation is the essence of design. You’re not expected to have a full book of work at this point, but it’s still important to present the work you do have in a polished, modern way. 

 

2. If you don’t have experience, experiment

When you’re still young in your career, it’s understandable you won’t have many projects to share yet. In the meantime, do some experiments and personal projects of your own. Until you have the experience and the work to show, help us see your potential.

We were surprised to see most designers don’t do this. I’m not suggesting you do some intensive unsolicited redesign for a company on your own time. Just design one screen for a hypothetical app. Create a logo for yourself. Make a fake landing page. These things take just a few hours and tell us everything about your potential when you don’t have much experience in the field. Put your best experiment or two in your portfolio and the rest on your Dribbble page, so we can find more if we want it. This is not only valuable for potential employers but should be a fun and helpful exercise for you too.  

 

3. Update all your design and social accounts

You can assume that anyone considering you for a job has visited every external link on your site. We did, at least. Not to find incriminating evidence, but to get a better grasp on who you are, how you interact with the design community and how you would add to our team. If you’re not active on Twitter, don’t link to it on your site. If your Dribbble page is horribly out of date, update it before you submit your application. Show us a consistent picture of who you are, or even give us a little more in your public social pages. No, your political leanings or meme choices shouldn’t influence anyone’s decision about hiring you. But culture is important to a company and we want to understand how you will add to it. Show us. 

 

4. Have a memorable About page. Show personality.

This is the first place we went when reviewing your portfolio, before even looking at your projects. Your About page gives us context and sets the tone for your whole site. It’s important to not only give us a brief overview of your experience and interests, but to show some personality too. Remember companies are looking through hundreds of applications and portfolios. Do something that stands out. If you're new to the industry, your work may not stand out yet, but your personality might. We shared some advice for creating a great About page right here.

 

5. Curate your projects  

We say it all the time. So does almost every company we’ve interviewed in our How to Get a Job at X series. Your portfolio should only feature your best work. If it’s only 3-4 projects, that’s fine. We’d rather see just a few great projects than a lot of decent ones. One underwhelming project can drag the rest of your work down and make a potential employer question your taste. 

 

6. Keep your case studies concise

Case studies are incredibly important, and we were happy to see most submitted portfolios included thorough case studies that explained the project challenges, process and outcome. However, most of them were very, very long.

Your case studies serve two purposes: To show us how you work and also how you communicate. If your case studies are long and dry, it makes us wonder if your communication style is too. And in our company at least, which is completely remote, excellent communication means everything.

Keep your case studies brief. Make them scannable. Make them beautiful. Remember your readers and think about how much attention you can personally give to even the most compelling articles you read online. If you’re struggling to edit yourself or write powerful case studies, there’s no shame in asking a friend to help you. These writing tips for designers will also be useful.

 

7. Enthusiasm counts for a lot

In our application, we left a space for you to share your experience and tell us what you want to learn from this internship. For many applications, it was this small note that caught our interest and set someone apart. We (and we imagine most companies) want to work with people who are passionate about what they do but also humble and eager to learn. Show us you want to work with us as much as we want to work with you. It will go a long way.

For more design internship advice, check out this article. Our How to Get a Job at X series will also give you valuable insights into what companies want in a designer and what you can expect during the interview process. We hope it helps!

 

// Header image George Mayerle’s Eye Test Chart (ca. 1907), via US National Library of Medicine

July 26, 2018No Comments

Full time vs. freelance vs. on your own

I've recently looked back at my (still fairly short) career, trying to find a pattern in my decision-making and understand exactly what makes me happy.

As I thought about it, I noticed there are generally three categories of active jobs we can have. Luckily, I've had the opportunity to experience all three. All of them have their own benefits and challenges. All of them have taught me a lot about myself, how I prefer to work and what I want for my career.

1. Full-time

The first category is classic full-time employment. I've only worked a few years in my life as a full-time employee, but I know it's the standard for a reason.

Depending on my role as a full-time employee, I enjoy a certain amount of security. Full-time means I have a boss, or multiple people within my company to lead me. I trade my 40 hours+ a week for a monthly salary and a range of benefits.  Especially in larger companies, I may even get away with not giving 100%. Often 70% is enough to not get fired, and sometimes even 50% or less. I could get away with calling a few meetings a month and still look like an overachiever, even though I haven't contributed much.

I'm of course not saying everyone does that, but it's certainly a possibility as the structure and politics of a large organization cloud productivity. I know that I'm personally a horrible full-time employee who suffers from the Ringelmann Effect.

Generally, I've found working full-time the "easiest" when it comes to sustaining my own livelihood. I can get away with doing the bare minimum.  If I feel a bit lazy one day, I could just follow my manager's orders and that would still make me a good employee. Self-initiative may be rewarded, but it isn't necessary for survival.

I categorize full-time as a low risk, low reward kind of setup. This makes it the most popular choice, and I mean this in the most positive way.

2. Freelance, consultant or service business owner

The second category is everyone who sells chunks of their time by providing a service to clients (B2B). Meaning you may own a company with employees, or you're a solo business owner. But what defines the second category is that instead of answering to a manager or boss, you answer to your client. When you work, you bill by the hour or day. If you want to make more money, you simply bill more hours until you have none left.

I experienced this set-up when I had my own design studio. It's slightly different to working full-time. You certainly have more responsibilities, since you're overseeing the business end of things and also producing the output. Doing work results in getting paid. There's no monthly paycheck so unless you deliver, you simply won't get paid.

In this role, I'm less likely to become lazy and I can't hide in meetings. However, I may be still able to survive by doing the bare minimum. Working for clients, I usually work for a brief. If I'm extremely motivated I may try to challenge the brief and go the extra mile, but I don't have to. I may just answer the brief, do whatever was "good enough" and hopefully get paid. If I'm out of ideas, I can always do whatever the client asks me to do. Of course the work may be not that good, it may not win awards or make me proud, but it may be enough to pay the bills.

I categorize working for clients as a medium risk, medium reward kind of set-up. The more I excel at my work, the more I get out of it. However, I may get away with mediocre work.

“While you are alone you are entirely your own master.” - Leonardo da Vinci

3. Your own business & product

What defines the third category is that you own your own business and work on your own product that you sell directly to customers. Most bootstrapped or self-financed businesses fall under this category. Even funded businesses to some extent, although you could argue there may be less skin in the game.

I personally found this path to be the most difficult so far. I have no boss or manager to guide me. I have no client with a briefing or a particular problem to solve. I'm completely on my own. No one is telling me what to do, which is a beautiful and liberating thing but also scary and lonely at times.

I wake up in the morning and have to plan my own agenda for the day. I need to find my own problems to solve, and then solve them. And if I'm lucky (or good at what I do) I may be rewarded by customers purchasing my product. If I fail, most likely no one tells me what went wrong and for sure no one will tell me how to fix it.

Working on your own product I'd categorize as high risk, high reward. The more risks I take, the higher the reward may be. I have no security nets, but also no one blocking me from receiving the highest reward if I do well.

Weighing the Pros & Cons

The grass is always greener on the other side, but all of these options have their trade-offs. Here is my personal summary:

Full-time

PROs:

  1. Financial stability (at least, in theory)
  2. Benefits (healthcare, paid vacation, etc.)
  3. Stable work hours (at least in theory)
  4. Stable social circle (same people you work with every day)
  5. I can give 70% and still be fine
  6. Clear leadership, I get told what to do (in theory)
  7. Mentorship

CONs:

  1. Fear of not being in control (can get fired for little reason)
  2. Less creative freedom, always have to answer to boss
  3. Need to be social to some degree to fit into office culture
  4. Most likely bound to certain work hours and location

Freelance, consultant, studio owner

PROs:

  1. Freedom to work with whomever I want (in theory)
  2. Work from anywhere I want
  3. Work anytime I want (may depend on clients)

CONs:

  1. I get paid by the hour, and I only have 24 hours in a day.
  2. Unpredictable income. One month nothing, another month a lot.
  3. Responsible for my own benefits
  4. Lots of trial and error finding the right clients

Owning a product business (with customers)

PROs:

  1. Absolute creative freedom
  2. Work from anywhere, whenever I want
  3. More control overall

CONs:

  1. No regular salary (unless I've figured out a recurring revenue model)
  2. Responsible for my own benefits
  3. Very lonely, unless you hire some friends (co-workers)
  4. High risk, high reward (both a pro and a con)

I've learned that all three models may be the best for me depending on my phase in life. Of course it also depends on personality and skills. I know people who thrive by working in a specific role full-time or in the service business. I also know some who thrive only if they're completely on their own.

For the most part, I fall between #2 and #3. I love working for clients because I love to serve. I thrive by simply providing value to someone, even at the expense of my own creative expression.

June 12, 2018No Comments

How to Get a Job at KISKA

KISKA is a design studio quite unlike any company we’ve featured in this series so far. Working across the physical and digital space, the studio designs everything from motorcycles to sporting goods to prosthetics.

As you can imagine, they need all kinds of designers with diverse skills on their team.  I'm thankful Mel and George, two of the talented people on that team, answered all my questions about how we might get a job working with them at KISKA.

First, tell us a little about yourselves and what you do at KISKA.

MEL: As connected products and services manager, I bridge the digital and physical worlds. I help clients understand and build a strategic, connected future for their products and brands. I also coordinate the digital and design teams.

When I’m not at KISKA, you’ll find me outside. Salzburg has an epic sports scene. I’m snowboarding in winter, mountain biking and hiking in spring and summer.

GEORGE: I bring interactive concepts and products to life as a creative technologist. It’s a challenging blend of product design, electronics, cloud-based services and infrastructure that I try to prototype at all levels. Sometimes quick cardboard mock-ups. Other times, prototypes that are indistinguishable from the real thing. I also work with Mel to champion digital internally at KISKA. Right now, I’m running some Arduino tinkering workshops. I spend any spare time climbing and hiking the mountains surrounding KISKA.

Looking at your current design team, how many of them came through internal referrals or headhunting, and how many came through the traditional application process?

MEL: We’re lucky because of our network and KISKA’s renown drive applications. Talented people apply to KISKA because they know who we are, and our team reflects that. Having said that, we definitely value internal referrals and headhunt for select positions.

Say we decide to send a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply, any secrets for us? Or should we just fill out the job form?

MEL: Personally, I love to receive an email that surprises or delights with something new, innovative or memorable. Something that I can’t help but reply to. I think anyone who is actively recruiting at KISKA appreciates an email that is targeted. Take the time to communicate that you know what KISKA wants. And make sure we know what you want.

GEORGE: You can do that through email or an application on the website. There is a Quick Apply function where you can submit your CV, portfolio and a short message to KISKA. I used it when I applied to KISKA. There was no open position, but the 100 words I wrote demonstrated everything Mel mentioned.

MEL: Get in touch and be yourself – by website or email. We value directness and individuality.

How important is a complete portfolio? Can we get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at KISKA?

GEORGE: The best way to show us what you can do is by showing what you’ve done.

MEL: So, yes you need a showcase of your work. Whether it is a “traditional” portfolio, a website, showreel or client list. Whatever it is, we want to see a diversity of work across products and services. We want to see your creative thinking and how you’ve applied what you know to achieve innovative results that make an impact.

Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?

MEL: Dull representations of process are challenging for me. Usually this is pages of descriptive text accompanied by flow charts. This could be the most fascinating work, but I don’t have the time to get into it. If you’re going to show me process, be brief and then we can talk about it in the interview. A four-page portfolio with a relevant overview is MUCH better than a 20-page portfolio filled with images of post-its and process diagrams.

GEORGE: It is frustrating when I see a group project that doesn’t indicate an individual’s contribution. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t do the most exciting part. Use your slice of the project as a jumping off point to share what you learned – and how you made a difference to the final product.

Looking at your current job postings I see openings for UI and digital design positions, which seem a little more accessible than the Motorcycle Design job, for example. How much product design experience do we need to work at KISKA and how far can natural design talent and on-the-job training take us?

MEL: You’d think that UI and digital design positions would be more accessible than a motorcycle design job, but that’s not the case. KISKA works where barriers between products and services are breaking down – and reconnecting in new ways. We get loads of applicants who have a portfolio full of beautiful apps and cool web-based services, but our work is physically anchored. It’s a different approach to design, an embedded system with physical touch-points other than a keyboard and mouse.

Designers who understand this space are challenging to recruit. They are hybrids, often product or transportation designers who see the creative opportunities in either interaction or service design. In fact, most of our current team comes from some sort of physical design background.

GEORGE: You never see a UI portfolio that includes icons designed for a 10-pixel high screen that refreshes every half a second. We work with tight technical constraints: reduced color palettes, low pixel counts and refresh rates. It isn’t glamorous, but it’s our reality. If you are up to the challenge and nail it, you’ll make more of an impact than you would finessing transitions for an iPhone app.

Besides having a portfolio, do you like the idea of designers being invested in other interests, for example blogging or being otherwise active in their community? I did notice you have a lot of athletes and active people on your team.

MEL: Yes, but we’re hiring you to be on our team. Not for your pro boarding skills.

It’s true that there are a lot of athletes and outdoor enthusiasts at KISKA, but we have a lot of passions. In the end, we really just like cool people who are interesting to work and hang out with.

Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?

GEORGE: In my case, it took me eight weeks to be hired by KISKA, but it can take up to 12. That’s everything from application to contract negotiation. Pretty impressive considering how personalized the process is. HR took care of everything.

MEL: If we like what we see, HR gets in touch for a first interview. You’ll speak with a team lead like me, or a senior like George. I like to start with a relaxed conversation and flow from there.

The second interview is at KISKA. You’ll spend up to half a day here touring the studio, meeting the team, and maybe meeting with the partners. If there is a task, it is set after the first or second interview. It depends on the position, the number of applicants and how you’ve demonstrated your skills and experience during interviews.

What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at KISKA? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us!

GEORGE: Lack of attention to detail, like when your cover letter is copy and pasted, addressing another studio. Once, we got a CV with no name and incorrect contact details. We loved the portfolio, but couldn’t reach the applicant!

MEL: For Skype interviews, time zone confusion can happen. Better be safe than sorry. Double check yours before making a final appointment!

Do you remember a specific application that impressed you? Something crazy?

GEORGE: Not off the top of my head, but there’s no question that knowing your audience impresses. Target your message and material to us. It’s quite easy to find Mel or I on LinkedIn and learn more about us. What we’ve done, what we’re into and what we do at KISKA. Take advantage of social media.

Would KISKA hire someone who is a culture fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?

MEL: Not exclusively. Cultural fit is essential, but of course it’s balanced with skill and experience. On the other hand, an open mind and interest in pushing boundaries are just as valuable as hard skills. These can always be driven to new and cool places while you’re working. There’s always room for growth.

GEORGE: I think a KISKA culture fit is anyone who is adaptable with a good attitude.

You specifically mention visa expertise on your Careers page, which is awesome. Do you often make international hires? What kind of positions do you hire remotely, if any?

GEORGE: Mel and I are British. Our direct teammates are from India, Portugal, Iceland, Netherlands, Italy, Czech Republic and Germany. So yes, we hire internationally at KISKA.

How do you think KISKA is different when hiring new talent compared to other companies?

GEORGE: It can be very easy! I sent my portfolio through the website. I did a Skype interview. KISKA arranged the flight for the studio interview and tour. Then I got hired.

If you’ve got the skill and you fit in with the culture, the team will champion you. They won’t put you off by following a rigid process.

MEL: I think there is a human touch to recruitment at KISKA, which isn’t typical at other studios. After the online submission, everything is personalized. We put a lot of effort into recruiting, so we’re mindful of the effort you’ve put in. This isn’t an automated experience.

In fact, I always give feedback to someone who is not hired if they ask for it. It’s important to us that people develop and learn. Life at KISKA is always about pushing forward. So, why not transform every moment into a valuable experience?

__

George and Mel, thank you so much for doing this interview with us. It's fascinating to learn about the work you do, and your creative team seems truly unique.

Readers, if you admire KISKA's work and team as much as I do, you will be happy to hear they're hiring for some design positions at the moment. Check them out right here. And if you do apply for a job at KISKA, remember these key takeaways:

1. KISKA is looking for hybrid, adaptable designers.

The work at KISKA is highly technical, and most people who work on the design team have diverse skills as well as some kind of product / physical design experience. If that describes you, make it apparent on your portfolio and in the conversations you have with their team. Show your versatility and demonstrate your experience with curated, relevant portfolio projects.

2. The details matter.

Considering the kind of work KISKA does, it makes sense they're expecting strong attention to detail. Pay attention to the small stuff – you don't want to miss your shot because of some trivial mistake, like confusing time zones or copy and pasting irrelevant details in your application.

3. Research and target your message.

Taking time to research and make a personal, direct connection counts for a lot with the KIKSA team. Craft your message — whether that's via email or social media correspondence, your application or your portfolio — and make it clear you understand who they are and what they do. As we've learned in our other interviews, it's not necessarily about pitching yourself, but more about being thoughtful and genuine in your approach.

If you haven't already, make sure to browse KISKA's recent projects to see all the cool work they're doing. And if you're looking for a design job right now, check out our other interviews in the How to Get a Job at X series as well. More are coming soon!

June 7, 2018No Comments

How to Land Your Dream Design Job

For our How to Get a Job at X interview series, we asked directors, recruiters and designers from some of the top companies in the world how we can land a job on their design team. Almost 20 interviews in and counting, we’ve learned a lot.

We asked about the hiring process. We asked what they want to see in a designer. We asked how many interviews we can expect, what they hate to see in a portfolio or application, what they wish they saw more. We asked every little question we’ve always wondered about getting a job at companies like Spotify, Nike, Airbnb, Electronic Arts, Pentagram, Refinery29 and more. And they answered honestly. Now we’re sharing some of the most common, helpful advice we’ve received so far.

1. You must have a portfolio.

There is no way around it. To get a design job today, you need an online portfolio – unless, I suppose, your work is already very well known or you’re just plain lucky. Nearly every single company in the series so far confirmed your portfolio is the first place they look and a make or break part of their hiring process.

Build a portfolio, make it good and keep it up to date. (Semplice can help with that.) And most importantly, curate your projects. Quality over quantity couldn’t be more true for your portfolio. We’ve shared portfolio tips and inspiration right here on the blog to help you start your portfolio or improve it.

"Your portfolio is your voice when you’re not around to explain your projects." - Shopify

2. Get engaged in the community

As our Nike and Electronic Arts interviews made clear, being visible online (which includes curating a strong portfolio) can get you noticed by a company before you even know they’re looking. Be present on platforms like Dribbble and Instagram (if you find the time). Engage with other designers on Twitter. Use LinkedIn to your advantage. Get your work out there and get noticed.

3. No bullshit

Recruiters and creative directors have to weed through dozens if not hundreds of portfolios when searching for a new hire. As Erik Ortman from Electronic Arts advises, don’t make them think when viewing your portfolio. They will not have patience for long-winded introductions, cutesy diagrams or crazy and confusing animations. Show your personality but don’t waste their time.

The incredible Unsplash office in Montreal, Canada

4. Writing & communication is key

Almost every company in this series (especially Pentagram) say they want designers who know how to write well — in their emails, on their portfolios, in their work. This is important, since one poorly written email could end your job search before it even begins. Nobody’s expecting you to write the next great American novel, but they do expect you to communicate clearly and effectively. If you don’t feel confident about your communication skills, these writing tips for designers might help you out.

"I’ve reviewed quite a few portfolios in my time, and the ones that stand out show a start-to-finish process behind their projects." - Andrea from Flywheel

5. Don't pitch or try too hard to impress

As Mailchimp and Mother note, companies don’t want you to pitch them like they're a client. They simply want to understand who you are, how you think and how you’ll fit in with their team. This makes your portfolio even more important. Create great case studies that share how you approached your project, your process along the way and how you felt about the result. Rather than trying to sell yourself or your work, tell a story.

This also takes a little pressure off your interview. If you focus on showing who you are rather than trying to be the person they want you to be, the conversation will flow naturally.

The Mother team at work in their LA space

6. Broaden your skill set

I know there are all kinds of opinions about this, one of them being “jack of all trades, master of none,” but many companies in this series made it clear they are looking for multi-talented designers. Places like Metalab say they want you to be able to see a project through every phase, from start to finish. Refinery29 say they prefer designers who can also code, because the more you can do, the more you can collaborate with different teams.

That said, people still need to understand where your main skills lie and why you’re the best person for a specific role. Be careful to not water down your portfolio just to appear skilled in many areas. Instead, make it a point to explore and grow every chance you get.

“You can be versatile while maintaining a clear identity; it’s what makes you stand out.” - BBDO

7. Find the inside connection

As you might guess, referrals are a big source of hires for some companies, especially the smaller ones. If a common connection can recommend you, it counts for a lot. So use your network and try to find that friend of a friend who can make the introduction. This is why networking events, as much as I personally hate them, can be really helpful. Like Dan explains in our interview with Spotify:

“A conversation might start with an informal 'hello' from us at an event. At that point, it might not make sense to move forward into a formal interview process. A few years later, situations change, roles become available, and that person could end up applying through our Jobs page.”

However, don’t be discouraged from applying for a job just because you don’t have an inside connection. Katie Dill from Airbnb says, “Referrals are useful, but we try not to rely on this because it’s a sure way of only getting more of the same type/backgrounds. Instead, the majority of our people come from those that reached out directly or we proactively sourced.”

If you don’t know the right person, send the cold email. This guide to emailing busy people and getting a reply will help. Or try networking on Twitter. A quick conversation can turn into the right connection later.

The Pentagram office in NYC

8. No ego

If a potential employer or client senses you have a big ego or you may be difficult to work with, it’s a major turn-off. In fact, your personality often matters more than your skill. Robert and Sebastian from Edenspiekermann say, “If we have to decide between two candidates, one who’s more skilled and another who’s a better cultural fit, we’ll always lean toward cultural fit. Skills can be learned, but attitude can’t.”

You may be an incredible designer but if nobody enjoys working with you, you’re not going to get very far. 

“Kindness is so important. Working with people who have bad attitudes, big egos or are just generally condescending is the worst. Those qualities are not welcome no matter how talented someone is.” - Fuzzco

9. Research and curate for the position

As Shopify points out, you should show you’ve researched a role before you apply for it. It’s easy to get in the job-hunting mode and just send out a template email and portfolio to every company on your list. That will hurt you more than help you. Dan from Spotify echoed this as well.

“My biggest piece of advice is to make sure that you craft your application for the role you’re applying for,” Dan says. “While it’s easier to just attach a standard resume or portfolio, it’s important to really study the position you’re trying to get. How would you add value to the role? How do you uniquely meet the requirements? What’s the tone the company uses? All of this will help make your application more relevant to the person reading it.”

The Mailchimp team in their Atlanta office

10. Have patience

Especially for bigger companies like Nike, the hiring process can take a while. Interviews can be fairly involved and they will put a lot of effort into getting to know you well.  And as I’ve experienced myself, the right opportunity might not present itself right away. Sometimes you’ll have several conversations before the right job opens up for you. Have patience and be persistent.

___

I hope these insights help you out, whether you’re applying for a design job at one of these places or elsewhere. If you're behind on the series or want to find a specific company, catch up right here. Many of these companies were specifically requested from readers and more are coming, so send me a tweet @vanschneider if you would like to see a specific company on the list!

Stay awesome & keep creating,
Tobias

April 16, 2018No Comments

How to Get a Job at Virgin Atlantic

I've been a big fan of Virgin Atlantic for a long time now.  If you've ever flown with Virgin, I'm sure you understand why.

Virgin Atlantic creates an experience for their passengers, from their excellent customer service to the mood lighting on their flights. The Virgin brand just feels cool, and I know a lot of loyal Virgin fliers agree. So naturally, I wanted to know what it's like working on the awesome Virgin brand as a designer — and how we might get a design job on his team. I reached out to Michael Stephens, the head of creative & brand at Virgin Atlantic, and he was kind enough to answer all my questions.

First, please tell us a little about yourself and what you do at Virgin Atlantic.

I joined Virgin Atlantic in January 2018 to head up the talented internal creative and design team, which sits within the wider marketing function. As a brand guardian I’ll work alongside our numerous creative agencies to develop and future proof the brand’s visual identity and tone of voice across multiple channels. I collaborate with all areas of the business on both external and internal comms, ensuring that whatever we do it feels Virgin.

Looking at your current design team, how many of them came through internal referrals or headhunting, and how many came through the traditional application process?

I’d say it’s a mix really. We’re always keen as a business to retain talent and promote within where possible but we also understand that in order to acquire new multidisciplinary skills and develop the department’s capabilities, we might need to look externally.

Say we decide to reach out with a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us?

We’re always on the lookout for new blood. We welcome applications from talented people who are passionate about what they do and massively encourage proactive behavior. My advice? Go on, be brave and just do it.

How important is a complete portfolio? Can we get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at Virgin?

A well structured and thought-out portfolio is hugely important. It’s the first thing I look at! We’re a company that cares a lot about design and aesthetics, so fundamentally the work has to speak for itself.

"A portfolio isn’t just a documentation of all the work you’ve produced to date; it should be adapted with time."

Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?

A portfolio isn’t just a documentation of all the work you’ve produced to date; it should be adapted with time. It needs curating bespoke to the prospective client to ensure relevancy both in terms of content and aesthetic, to demonstrate your understanding of the business. It should be annotated to provide clarity where necessary but not take hours to read through — keep it visual, please.

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?

Totally! I want my team to have a personal opinion as well as to feel connected to and influenced by what’s going on around them in the world. Virgin has a global reputation for being a rule breaker and a rebel. As creatives I think we all need to channel a bit of that in our lives.

 

Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?

We’ll normally first invite you to our head office for an informal chat. It’s a chance for you to talk through your portfolio in person, see our work environment and get a feel for whether or not we are the right cultural fit. Depending on the level of seniority we may then do behavioral assessments, design tasks or ask you to meet other team members. As a member of the creative team you’ll engage with stakeholders of all levels across the entire business. At Virgin we like to keep interviews casual though, so don’t wear a tie!

"A good portfolio should merely support a great designer in an interview. We like to engage so please don’t look and talk into your iPad."

What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at Virgin? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us!

Don’t rely on me to do the work; you should be in control. A good portfolio should merely support a great designer in an interview. We like to engage so please don’t look and talk into your iPad.

Do you remember a specific application that impressed you?

It’s a cliché but sometimes when I set a design task it’s not just about giving me what I want, but perhaps what I don’t want. At Virgin we like to push the boundaries so be creative — surprise and delight! Whether that’s going the extra mile with your design task and producing something physical / digital or it’s doing some more in-depth research and demonstrating in the interview your understanding of the business / industry.

Does that mean we should do something crazy to get your attention? Prototype our own Virgin app or uniform design, maybe?

I’m not sure crazy is quite what we’re looking for, but certainly outside of the ordinary and full of personality. We are essentially an internal creative agency so pitching to stakeholders is often part of the process. It’s sometimes worth showing work on a gradient of safe to radical. That way you can put the client at ease initially and then hopefully sell in your more progressive ideas.

We imagine as a designer at Virgin, you’re working on everything from marketing and digital design to the physical customer experience. What are the secondary skills Virgin looks for in a designer, besides common soft skills? What range of skills do you want to see?

You need to understand our point of difference. What makes us unique and amazing as a business? Spotting those opportunities to stand out and make us famous is a skill we can never have enough of. The creatives in my team all need to do three key things: 1. Have great ideas. 2. Produce beautiful work and 3. Tell a coherent brand story.

Would Virgin hire someone who is a cultural fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?

A cultural fit is a must, and your skills certainly need to fully equip you for the job at hand. Experience however is something that could set you apart as we really like having teams from different industry backgrounds, whether it’s a magazine, a website, a store, a fashion label or an airline. I personally came from a fashion background having never worked in aviation previously. Before, I worked at i-D, Vice, Liberty and Ted Baker. There were clear brand personality links to Virgin — all the brands were British, bold, colorful, glam, eccentric, rebellious and a little bit cheeky.

One of your new job postings is design manager. Is an internship a good way to get our foot in the door with Virgin? How often do internships turn into full-time jobs?

This is the first time we’ve introduced an internship opportunity within the creative team and it’s really exciting. I know how hard it was to get that first job after university (countless applications and interviews) so I was keen to create a role that specifically targeted recent graduates. It’s only a 12 month contract but this gives the designer a great foundation to understand the business, make connections and present themselves as potentially the perfect candidate should a permanent role become available.

Virgin is headquartered in the UK and all current creative job postings are located there. Do you ever hire remote designers for your team? What about international hires?

Although we do have other offices internationally, the creative team is currently based in the UK. We do however work with several freelance artists and photographers on a global scale.

How do you think Virgin is different when hiring new talent compared to other airlines?

We’re not looking for ordinary – after all, we’re no ordinary airline.

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Thanks so much, Michael! We appreciate you taking the time and giving us these insights. Here are a few key takeaways:

Nr. 1 - Be bold and make an impression.

Virgin is all about creating a culture and experience. That goes for the design team too. Don't be afraid to show your personality – in fact, make it a point to do so. Whether you're trying to make a connection via email or you've scored an-person interview, be confident and show you understand the Virgin brand. Your personality might be the most important factor in getting the job.

Nr. 2 - Curate and update your portfolio.

Not only does Virgin want to see a portfolio of your work, but they expect it to be curated for their aesthetic and the position. Michael came from a fashion background so you don't necessarily need airline brand experience, but showing experience with a relevant brand or style makes a difference.

Nr. 3 - Virgin is hiring for their creative design team!

Check out these open positions Michael shared with us, including a brand new internship role:

Creative Design Manager

Senior Digital Designer

Design Intern

Content Producer

If do get a job on the Virgin design team, please let me know. I would be very happy for you and jealous of you (:

That's all for now! If you're looking for a design job, be sure to read our other How to Get a Job at X interviews with admirable companies like Nike, Spotify, Pentagram and lots more. And tweet me at @vanschneider if you have a dream design job and want to see a specific company in the series!

March 30, 2018No Comments

How to build a design portfolio as a student

Building a portfolio as a student or young designer is a catch-22: A portfolio is all about showing your design experience, but to have experience you first need a job.

Most design students take a class focused on building their portfolio before they graduate, but often this is more of an exercise you're just racing through to get credit. Then before you know it, you're out there in the "real world" and quickly realizing how crucial a strong portfolio is for getting hired.

Here’s how to build a design portfolio that gets you the job you want, whether you're a student or young designer just getting started in your career.

1. Share only your best class projects

It may be tempting to put every class assignment you've ever done in your portfolio just to fill it, but that will only make you seem green. It's better to share only one or two of your favorite class pieces, even if that makes your portfolio feel a little empty. And instead of saying “this was a class project” in your case study, treat it like a side project. Say what inspired you, share what the goal was or tell us what approach you took. If your work is good enough, it can stand on its own beyond the context of your class.

An awesome class project featured in Lucas Berghoef's portfolio.

 2. State what you want to do

Early on in your design career, your portfolio might be scattered as you gain experience, meaning it’s more difficult for your reader to understand your skills and interests. In the meantime, state your interests clearly in your introduction and About page. Your portfolio should of course be curated as much as possible around the work you want to do, but it can only help to say it too.

As a student, you're naturally a jack of all trades because your studies taught you a little bit of everything. There's of course nothing wrong with this, but a wide skillset might benefit you more later on in your career. In the meantime, recruiters are looking to fill specific roles that require specific skills. Even if you enjoy working in many different fields, try to focus on one or two in your portfolio so you're not confusing anybody. Then, as you grow as a designer, you'll either zero in on your core skills or  enjoy the freedom of keeping it broad.

3. Take on as many side projects as you can afford

When I was first starting out in design, I accepted pretty much any job that came my way. I also worked a lot on the side, doing little projects for myself or small paid gigs for someone else. Again, what sucks as a young designer (or anyone early in their career) is that it’s hard to get work without showing experience, but you can’t get experience until someone gives you work. Until they do, take matters into your own hands. One side project can change your life, so do your best even with the small things. That’s what brings the big stuff your way.

Graphic design student Jason Yuan features several personal projects in his portfolio, like this custom-designed book.

4. Be strategic with your layout

If you don’t have a lot of experience yet, you need to be even more thoughtful about how you guide your visitors through your work. Don’t use some template meant to showcase a huge grid of projects or you’ll only call attention to what’s missing. Customize your portfolio with immersive case studies that help us dive into the work you do have. Don’t fluff anything up, just think about the work you have to share and decide what layout would showcase it best.

This is literally one of the reasons I created Semplice, my WordPress-based portfolio system for designers. Every designer is different and you should be able to build a portfolio with 30 projects, or with just three. A good designer can create a compelling portfolio with just a few projects, so long as they're intentional with their design.

5. Show who you are and how you think

Before you have the experience and seasoned skills to show, companies are taking a risk hiring you. They hire you based on your potential and hope it pays off as they help you grow. So help them understand your potential and envision you on their team; show them who you are and how your brain works. You can do this with your case studies and your About page.

Write case studies for your projects that explain why you approached the work you did, what your process was and how it all turned out. Don't be afraid to share your personality here and on your About page as well — being a nice person who people enjoy working with is just as important (if not more important) than your actual skill. 

6. Embrace internships

You may feel you left your internship days behind you when you got your degree, but an internship can be the perfect way to get your foot in the door and good names on your resume. It’s also a great way to build your portfolio with work you might not otherwise get to do as an entry-level employee.

As an intern, it’s your company’s job to teach you. They might bring you into a project or meeting way above your experience level, just for the sake of exposure — and you get to put that in portfolio as a team project later. Read more about the right way to do a design internship here.

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Follow these tips and you'll soon have a solid design portfolio that boosts your career. Keep reading for more portfolio tips and career advice, and be sure to tweet me @vanschneider if you have your own tips to share.

Featured article image from Jason Yuan's portfolio. Class project image from Lucas Berghoef's portfolio. Both built with pride using Semplice.

March 20, 2018No Comments

The NYC Apartment Hunting Cheat Sheet

This is adapted from my book, Let’s Go to NYC, a comprehensive guide for those planning a move to NYC from outside the States.

Whether you’re moving from a different country or not, the apartment hunting process in NYC feels like a test on your patience and/or sanity. Thankfully, we created this handy cheat sheet to help you through it. Just remember these tips and you’ll be one step closer to finding your dream home in New York City.

Lesson 1 - Moving at the right time

True or false: Winter is the best time to move to NYC.

Answer: True. But when it comes to moving to New York, there is a time frame called the “Golden Period.” That time frame is usually November to January. While it might be one of the most exhausting times to move, winter is the best time to relocate to New York from a financial and logistical perspective.

This is true for several reasons. First, most people are not willing to move in or out during the winter. While this means fewer apartments will be on the market, it also means fewer people are looking for one, giving you less competition. And if there is one thing you can prepare yourself for in New York, it’s competition — on every level.

"Anytime someone asks you to wire money in advance or pay in cash, run fast."

Lesson 2 -  Searching for apartments online

Which of these apartment listings is a scam?

  1. $1,000 / month newly renovated loft in SoHo
  2. Park Slope apartment for rent: Cash only deposit
  3. Cheap Brooklyn apartment fully furnished with washer / dryer provided, free cleaning service
  4. Beautiful Manhattan apartment: Wire application fee NOW to secure it

Answer: Trick question. These are all most likely scams. No apartment in SoHo is going for $1,000 / month, I can promise you (my book includes illustrated maps of NYC featuring average rent costs for each neighborhood), and it’s unlikely any affordable apartment will provide a washer / dryer, much less a cleaning service. Anytime someone asks you to wire money in advance or pay in cash, run fast.

Especially when searching somewhere like Craigslist, you should be wary of scams and ALWAYS make sure you visit the apartment in person before signing the lease. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Lesson 3 - Preparing for your landlord appointment

Which items should you bring with you to your landlord appointment? Circle all that apply.

a. Tax returns from at least the last one or two years

b. Pay stubs from at least the last 2-3 months

c. Letter from your employer stating your annual income

d. A copy of your enrollment letter and course schedule (if you’re a student)

e. A detailed list of every person who has ever harmed you and how you plan to kill them

Answer: All except e. apply.

When searching for an apartment in NYC, preparation is key. When you show up to an appointment, you’re usually not the only one there. Lots of people will be viewing that same apartment and decisions are often made within minutes. Landlords in New York have high expectations, especially from people they don’t know. Be prepared and be ready to act fast.

Bonus points - Meeting your landlord & inspecting the apartment

Repeat this phrase three times:

“No landlord, I cannot meet you at dusk in an alley to discuss the lease.”

Handwrite this phrase in the lines provided:

“What happens if I flush the toilet more than 2 times a day?”

Memorize this phrase:

“Where is that smell coming from?”

These are just a few conversations you might find yourself having while meeting a landlord and inspecting and NYC apartment. The Let’s Go to NYC ebook includes a full checklist for inspecting your apartment, as well as landlord requirements, advice on avoiding scams and of course tips on where and how to find your dream apartment.

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Nice work! You just completed your first course in New York apartment hunting. Pick up the Let’s Go to NYC ebook to learn lots more. And be sure to catch up on our article series about moving to New York right here.

February 20, 2018No Comments

How to Network on Twitter

This article is an excerpt from Let’s Go to NYC, my ebook for those interested in moving to New York City from outside the States.

As you might already know, I love Twitter. Sure, it can be a scary and depressing place at times. But I’ve made some great friends on Twitter and still find it a productive place to learn, share my thoughts and make connections. It's also one of the best tools to network and get to know people who may be able to help you land your dream job or project.

This particular article is about networking with the aim of moving to New York, but some of these lessons can apply to anyone.

The easiest way to network is of course through friends of friends, but for those moving to NYC from another country (or anyone networking from afar) that’s not always possible. If you’re in NYC on your tourist visa checking out the city, tweet at some people and ask if they have time for a few questions. But before you do that, here are some handy guidelines.

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DO send a short tweet to the people you’d like to meet. Keep it simple and casual.

DON’T say things like, “Can I pick your brain?” Nobody likes that and chances are low that someone replies with excitement. People in New York tend to be busy, and asking someone if you can pick their brain sounds like extra work.

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DO try to meet for coffee or lunch. Lunch is the best option because it’s a limited amount of time, and everyone has to eat anyway. You will have a better chance meeting someone for lunch at their company than trying to schedule a couple beers or dinner. Beers and dinner have no designated time limit — 30 minutes is too short, 1 hour might seem rushed, 2+ hours is too long. Save that for your second date. 

DON’T be complicated with the specifics. If someone agrees to meet, propose three example dates for lunch and offer to come to their office. And don't end your note with the famous, "What do you think?" No one likes to think, they like solutions. Remember this isn't about them, it's about you.

DO make it as easy as possible for the person you’d like to meet. They’re doing you a favor, after all. Put yourself in the shoes of someone you are contacting. Think of how you’d like to be approached by a stranger. 

DON’T be afraid to follow up. You might not get a response the first time, so give it a few days and send it again. But don't be discouraged if they say no or you don't hear back at all. I personally get a lot of messages from people who visit New York and want to meet. I decline most of them because if I said yes to everyone, I would have a full-time job meeting up with people. It’s not that I don’t like to meet people, but I simply can’t afford it all the time. 

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DO have a goal in mind when you meet or approach a person. Just "meeting up to chat" is not bad at all, but chances are high a busy person isn't in the mood for that. Small talk might ease the tension at first but if you want something, make it clear as soon as possible.

DON’T talk around the subject for too long. Don't let the other person play a guessing game and more importantly, don't waste their time. Once you've lost the attention or respect it will be hard to gain again.

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If you want more advice about living in and working in New York, check out Let’s Go To NYC. It’s the full guide to finding a job in the city, getting your visa, finding your first apartment and more.

P.S. You might also be interested in this article about emailing a busy person. If Twitter is "first base" in your networking relationship, email is second. And there's a right and wrong way to network there too. I hope these tips will help in either case 🙂 

February 9, 2018No Comments

Ask for what you want

Often I'll hear from people, especially on Twitter, who try to pitch me on their product in a roundabout way – asking questions and making small talk before finally revealing they just want to sell me something.

First they ask what product I'm using for X, and I do my best to answer because I think they're asking for advice. Then, after more questions and back and forth, they'll say, "Hey, well maybe you should try X from this company I started, it's pretty awesome."

There are few things that upset me, but this kind of conversation does. It wastes my time and I can guarantee I won’t be looking at whatever product they're talking about, especially not after a cheesy sales technique like this. Very likely I would have checked out the product if they would have pitched it immediately, being transparent upfront, but not after wasting my time and misleading me by trying to establish a fake dialogue.

I understand why they do it. It’s a classic sales technique, although an outdated one that doesn’t work very well over Twitter. It’s unfortunate, because all the effort and usually good intentions are wasted, and the sales pitch is often forgotten in the following disappointment and anger.

If someone believes they have a tool that would make my life better, I would much rather have a real, straightforward conversation with them about it. I always appreciate the hustle of people who work on their own products or are proud of what they do and want to share it with the world, as long as they don’t spam.

It's quite simple, but a lesson I’ve only learned slowly myself over the years: Ask for what you want. Don’t waste someone's time with small talk — be straightforward and just ask for it. Will this guarantee you will get what you want? Absolutely not, but it keeps life simple and you would be surprised how often it works.

"Of course I’m not saying you should be an asshole running around demanding everything be given to you."

When I started out as a designer I always struggled with salary negotiations or asking for a promotion. I never asked the question directly, I always talked around it cryptically or didn't ask at all, hoping my hard work or skill would speak for itself. Then I would be disappointed or frustrated when nothing happened, despite the fact that I did nothing to make it happen myself. But at some point I learned to just straight out asked for what I wanted, and I can tell you it always worked. It either worked because I got the raise, or because I got a clear NO with points on I would have to improve first.

Of course I’m not saying you should be an asshole running around demanding everything be given to you. I simply mean we should state our clear intentions. Put all our cards on the table. Don’t let others speculate. That goes for making sales pitches on Twitter, sending emails, asking for raises and whatever else we're hoping to get out of the world. It almost never hurts to just ask for it.

Malika Favre, a friend of mine and super talented artist and illustrator, shared in an NTMY interview with me how this worked out for her.

“The first thing that came out of my mouth was, ‘Can I have your job?'”

At the beginning of her career, Malika had an internship at a studio. They didn’t have a full-time job for her then, so she ended up getting one somewhere else. But she still had that studio on her mind. A year later, she bumped into someone she previously worked with there during her internship, and he said he was leaving his job at the studio to go freelance.

“The first thing that came out of my mouth was, ‘Can I have your job?’” Malika says. “It just came out. And he looked at me and said, ‘Maybe?’ And the next day I had a call from the boss.”

Of course this was also a matter of being in the right place at the right time. But because Malika had already proven herself and felt confident she was qualified for the job, she skipped the polite small talk and simply asked for what she wanted. It paid off.

Don’t assume or speculate. Don’t let other people guess. And more importantly, don’t dance around the thing you actually want to talk about. Always ask for what you want, and it will make the world so much easier for you and those around you.

January 29, 2018No Comments

4 tips to improve your design portfolio

This article was originally posted as a guest article by Tobias van Schneider on CreativeBloq.

If you’re creating a design portfolio, it’s safe to assume you know at least the foundational rules of good design. Yet when we work in isolation on our own portfolio, it’s easy to forget the common rules we would apply to any other client project. Sometimes we’re just too close to our own work, which almost blinds us.

As a designer, a portfolio is essential to your success. But at the end of the day it’s not about the portfolio – it’s about you and your work. Instead of focusing on building the perfect portfolio, focus on finding the perfect way to share the work you’ve already created. Everything else will fall into place from there.

As co-founder of Semplice, I see plenty of portfolios every day. In this article, I'll share what I've learned through my day job, and offer you my top tips for ensuring you don’t get in your own way, and instead create a portfolio that sets you up for success.

01. Make first introductions count

A simple, straightforward intro on Violeta Noy’s portfolio

A simple, straightforward intro on Violeta Noy’s portfolio

DO: Introduce yourself immediately with a quick paragraph that says who you are, where you’re located (if that matters to your work) and what kind of work you like to do. Show your personality but be straightforward, so the first glimpse at your website gives your viewer the context they need.

DON’T: Write some generic rubbish intro that says you 'craft meaningful experiences' or 'push pixels'. Aside from being overused, phrases like this don’t mean anything to anyone and won’t help your potential employer or client understand what you do.

02. Choose the right work to include

Only show the kind of work you want to be known for, like Sidney Lim

DO: Curate your portfolio to show only your best work. More importantly, pick the kind of work you want to do in the future.

DON’T: Fill your portfolio only with spec work or unsolicited designs. Of course the occasional unsolicited design can help show your skill when you don’t have the client work to prove it yet. But too many only shows that you’re good at working in isolation without any restraints, which is almost never the case on a paid project.

If you do choose to do some unsolicited work (if you’re a young designer trying to start fresh in a new field, for example) don’t do the typical Fortune 500 redesign for a company like Nike or Apple. These companies already have fantastic assets, so it’s not showing much skill to design for those brands. Choose a smaller company that you admire instead. Show what you can do when you’re working with nothing, and that will impress.

03. Make it easy and enjoyable to look through

Pawel Nolbert's portfolio site doesn’t get in the way of his vibrant work

DO: Think of your portfolio as the space in a museum. Make it clean, easy to navigate and fully focused on the work itself. Design for the end user who might be viewing hundreds of portfolios a day. Make it easy for them to learn who you are and what you can do.

DON’T: Design your portfolio like a work of art in itself. When we think of our portfolio like a personal project or creative outlet, we can overcomplicate or make it too playful – to the point where it becomes unusable for the person who has to view it.

For example, a fancy horizontal scrolling feature might seem unique and interesting to you as the designer, but no-one clicks blindly on next/prev arrows without knowing where they lead. We tend to browse portfolios in a visual way, by clicking on what interests us. Don’t make the user work to view your portfolio.

04. Create a standout About page

An informative and beautiful About page by Meryl Vedros

DO: Spend time making the perfect About page. Your About page is the most important page on your portfolio. I’ve reviewed hundreds of portfolios and always navigate here first to get context before I browse. The numbers on my own website confirm it too: The About page gets more hits than any other page on my site. Do something different and memorable here that offers a real glimpse into who you are.

DON’T: Get too cutesy and leave out the important information we need to know. Don’t forget your name (yes, I’ve seen portfolios where I couldn’t find any first or last name anywhere), a picture of you (a nice personal touch that makes a difference) and your main skills. And please, don’t forget to list your email address.

All the portfolios you see on this page were built with Semplice

January 24, 2018No Comments

How to Get a Job at Flywheel

Flywheel is a WordPress hosting and development platform built to help creatives do their best work.

I proudly host this blog on Flywheel and would recommend it to anyone. Not only is Flywheel fully focused on WordPress websites (which means they're good at it), but they're also the friendliest and most personal company in the business. I talked with Andrea, Flywheel's art director, about how we might land a dream job working on her design team.

First, please tell us a little about yourself and what you do at Flywheel.

Hey, hi, hello! I’m Andrea Trew, the art director at Flywheel. My responsibilities include overseeing all aspects of our in-house design efforts, from the tiniest piece of swag to the most complex creative campaigns. Over the past two years I’ve had the privilege of elevating the Flywheel brand through the creation of a cohesive brand and style guide — influencing everything our company does internally and externally facing. Outside the office, you can typically find me trolling vintage shops, making questionable puns or snuggling with my pug, Leela.

Looking at your current design team, how many of them came through internal referrals or headhunting, and how many came through the traditional application process?

Entering our fifth year as a company, Flywheel has a dedicated design presence within our marketing and product departments. Aside from me, we recently added an additional graphic designer to the marketing team – Bryan North, who was hired internally from our support department. As we’ve grown and continue to scale, we make deliberate efforts to nurture internal referrals, as well as maintaining a presence at career fairs and conferences. Many of our job openings can be found here.

Say we decide to reach out with a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us?

As a rule of thumb, I love to help other creatives to achieve their goals, even if it means just setting aside some time to chat and give them pointers on their portfolio. Asking for advice and an opportunity to meet in person (even just 30 minutes for coffee!) is always welcome.

Flywheel HQ in Omaha, Nebraska

How important is a complete portfolio? Can I get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at Flywheel? And is it enough to show graphic design skills, or do you want to see that I’ve worked on technology and software before?

It’s VERY important to have a complete portfolio. To give some insight, I recently had an interview with a potential design hire who came to our meeting without a portfolio in hand. Because the key focus of being a designer is visual problem-solving, it’s necessary to bring those visuals to the interview. This lack of design representation really impacted my thoughts about using them as a design resource someday.

It’s a good idea to have designs in your portfolio that reflect the type of work the company needs. Think about their industry. Think about their target demographic. Think about what work they would have you do. If you’re applying at a tech company and don’t have examples of work in that industry, then include designs that reflect high-level critical thinking, to bridging the gap between your previous work and the work you could do for that company in the future.

Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?

Magazine cover designs. I see this often with emerging creatives, as it was likely one of the pieces they worked on for a design course. They don’t really relate to the needs most companies are trying to fulfill, and often the designs look cluttered and poorly laid out. More than anything, it’s great to see design work that takes place outside of university/college walls, such as freelance or internship work. Even conceptual work that never saw the light of day has its allure even if it’s simply the result of creative play. This shows that the potential hire can think for themselves and already has experience with creating real world work.

The Flywheel support team at work

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?

Absolutely! Having other interests allows for a mental break here and there, and prevents creative blocks. As much as I love designing for Flywheel, I couldn’t possibly do my best work if that’s all I did for 24 hours a day. In my free time, I get some mental rejuvenation by restoring vintage trinkets and creating brass jewelry. Both still fall under some form of creativity, but allows for a shift in the way my mind thinks about the process.

Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?

There is usually a short initial phone interview, a secondary cultural interview (usually a 30-minute lunch) and a final interview with 2-3 internal stakeholders (with a design interview, it would be with myself, our head of marketing and our CEO). The last interview would be about two hours or so. We wouldn’t necessarily ask someone to do any kind of design exercise or test; we should be able to see those examples from your portfolio.

Black Flyday

What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at Flywheel? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us!

Egos. It doesn't matter if you're a greenhorn college grad or a creative director with decades of experience, it's incredibly important to be open to advice and suggestions on your work.  

"I’ve reviewed quite a few portfolios in my time, and the ones that stand out show a start-to-finish process behind their projects."

Do you remember a specific application that impressed you?

I’ve reviewed quite a few portfolios in my time, and the ones that stand out show a start-to-finish process behind their projects. One designer  I recently reviewed had a complete brand guide and explained the thought process behind it all with the forethought, craft and accuracy that I would love to have in a potential design hire at Flywheel.

Would Flywheel hire someone who is a cultural fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?

Across the board, one of the driving forces behind the success of Flywheel is our relentless dedication to preserving our company culture and hiring talented, passionate people that share our values. It’s incredibly important for us to establish and hold tightly to the top traits we look for in a new member of the Flywheel family. We look for curiosity, empathy, optimism, passion and impressiveness. We would absolutely hire a slightly less experienced individual with those five traits over a more experienced one who seemed negative, indifferent and apathetic.

What are the secondary skills Flywheel looks for in a designer, besides common soft skills? Should we know how to code as well as design, for example?

Being a designer for a tech company doesn’t always mean you need to know how to code. Although, understanding the capabilities of code and its constraints has its benefits. Having a solid knowledge base that applies to other parts of the creative process that don’t involve design (like code, copywriting, photography, etc.) allows a designer to better serve their team and create designs that complement needs of their coworkers.

How is Flywheel different than other tech companies when hiring new talent?

We keep our hiring process as open-ended as possible, and want individuals to be able to freely write about their qualifications and feel heard throughout the entire experience. We don’t use a standard application form, we don’t ask people to re-submit all the information that’s on their resume, and we often don’t even have education requirements. We truly seek to find the best talent from whatever background they might come from.

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Andrea, thanks for giving us an inside look into the hiring process at Flywheel! And thanks to Kimberly Bailey for the gorgeous photos of the Flywheel space and team. Let's have a look at the key takeaways from Andrea about getting a job at Flywheel.

Nr. 1 - Your portfolio can make or break you.

Not only does Flywheel want to see a complete portfolio with work that relates to the job, they want you to explain the process behind every project. Many companies in the series have said this: Don't just share pretty pictures of your finished work. Create case studies to show how you approached the project from beginning to end. Read this article for more portfolio tips.

Nr. 2 - No ego.

Another piece of advice we've heard from many companies. Nobody wants to work with someone who has a bad attitude or isn't receptive to feedback and growth. This one's not too hard; just be a nice person (and be useful) and people will want to hire you 🙂

Nr. 3 - Ask to chat or get coffee.

Andrea is willing to go out of her way to talk with you, hear what you're looking for and give advice. Don't waste her time (get some tips for your email here) but if you're serious about getting a job at Flywheel, reach out and make the connection.

And that's a wrap! Send me and the Flywheel team a tweet if you enjoyed the interview, and find more advice here for getting a design job at top companies like Pentagram, Shopify, Spotify and more.

January 17, 2018No Comments

The Introvert’s Guide to Networking in NYC

I can’t tell you how much I hate networking. Few things are more uncomfortable than walking around a big room shaking hands with strangers in suits. As soon as the first person asks, “So, what do you do?” I want to run straight out of the room. And don’t even ask me for a business card. I can guarantee I’ve forgotten it at home, and can’t you just find me on Twitter later? I mean, who actually USES business cards still?

As an introvert, networking is my worst nightmare – especially in New York where the invitations and events seem endless and overwhelming. I know, I’m being dramatic. Networking, of course, is just creating relationships and connections with other people. I network every day just by keeping up with my friends in person and online. Networking doesn’t have to mean attending some big event or sending a cold email, but when I first moved to NYC that was the easiest way to enter the design community and meet people. Since then, I’ve found a few ways to survive networking in NYC or anywhere. Here’s hoping these tricks help you too, fellow introverts.

Use Twitter to Your Advantage

I’m a huge fan of Twitter for making initial contact. If you move to New York and plan to work in the creative industry, Twitter is one of your most useful tools. Warming up before networking events or following up after is important, and Twitter makes it easy. Twitter is also less creepy or annoying than email, especially if you didn’t exchange contact information at the event.

In most cases, you can check the event website or Facebook page prior to the event to see who’s attending. Find the three most interesting people (most interesting to you, that is) on that page and send them a quick Tweet, saying: “Hey, I saw you’re going to XYZ event next week. I’m coming too. Looking forward to meeting you.”

After the event, go through the list of attendees and send those you met a quick tweet like: “Hey Susan, great meeting you at XYZ event the other day” or “Hey Rob, I saw you at XYZ event. Sad we didn’t get a chance to talk, but hopefully next time.”

Twitter with its limited characters feels just way more casual and easy than sending an email or connecting via LinkedIn. I've met hundreds of people via Twitter and I'd say the majority of job opportunities came through those connections, far more than I ever got from networks such as Dribbble or LinkedIn. Twitter is a powerhouse for networking, if used correctly.

What to Do During Cocktail Hour

Call it what you what: meet and greet, cocktail hour, mingling. Those minutes before or after the scheduled activities might the worst part of the event, no matter how many cocktails are involved. You’re just standing in some corner, shifting from one foot to another, hoping someone approaches you before you have to approach them. If you’re brave, you might walk up to some circle of people and nod along like you’re part of the conversation while you cry inside.

My advice: Find that other person in the room who looks as uncomfortable and awkward as you feel. They’re pretty easy to spot: Hovering by the snack table, staring at their phone like it’s showing them the most important thing in the world, glancing nervously at the door like they might bolt at any minute. That person is your friend. Go introduce yourself. Spare yourselves both the misery of formality and just crack a joke about how terrible these things are. Hey look, you’re talking to someone. You’re networking!

How to Make a Swift Exit

I can’t tell you how many networking events I’ve slipped out of in an effort to avoid a panic attack.

Of course, the easiest way to sneak out of an event unnoticed is to wait for a scheduled break when everyone’s up out of their seats, then walk out of the room and never come back. Do not run screaming or you’ll give yourself away.

My point is: It is absolutely okay to leave a networking event. I've left many, even those where I got a personal invite from the organizer. If you feel just way too uncomfortable, or if you feel like the vibe just isn't yours, don't force yourself to stay.

How to Network Over Email

Email is a little harder than Twitter because it’s more personal and can come off as annoying. However, email is still one of the most effective tools for networking and finding a job. I've collected couple tips to help you write emails to busy people and get the response you want. Trust me, I've tested all of them and they work. A well written email can mean the difference.

How to Use LinkedIn

Despite its reputation in the creative industry, LinkedIn can be quite useful for networking and especially for getting new clients and keep relationships active with older clients. Check out this article we wrote about using LinkedIn, specifically as a designer or developer.

Get More from the Let’s Go To NYC Guide

I share a lot more about making a career and life in NYC (and provide a list of the best networking events for creatives in the city) in my ebook, Let’s Go to NYC . Get the book to learn how to find an internship or job in New York, how to get a US visa (if moving from outside the States) finding your apartment and lots more.

PS: Please only get the ebook if you're seriously interested in moving to NYC, the ebook is very practical with a step by step approach.

January 3, 2018No Comments

The Only Way to Do Internships

Internships. The most undervalued opportunity to not only get a job, but also grow and learn massively (for free) in a short amount of time. An internship can change the course of your career, but only if you know how to do it right.

Most of us have a wrong understanding of what internships are. They’re not here to serve you, but they exist for you to soak up as much as you can, to prove yourself and gain entry to an exclusive playground of mentorship and opportunities. Whatever your age, it’s never too late for an internship. Here’s how to get the most out of them.

1. Treat it like a real job.

This is a given, but you should assume your internship will lead to a permanent job. Show the effort and dedication of a new full-time employee, not someone who’s just trying to check a box or fulfill a class credit. Make yourself indispensable so the end of your internship feels like a tangible loss to your team. Make them want to keep you.

2. Find your own work to do.

You don’t want to be that annoying intern always saying, “Hey guys, I’m bored. Anything you want me to do?” That person is a burden rather than a help, because everyone feels like it’s more work to explain or delegate a task than just do it themselves.

Observe keenly and listen for every opportunity to take on more work — especially the tasks nobody else wants to do. Be useful. Go out of your way to do even the lowest tasks on the totem pole humbly and with joy, whether it’s emptying the office dishwasher, organizing files on the server or brewing the first pot of coffee every morning. Those tasks seem small and menial, but people will appreciate your attitude and effort – I promise.

Once you’ve proven yourself with the small tasks, ask for work you could put into your portfolio. Volunteer to help on the big projects even in small ways. You can share those projects in your portfolio as long as you explain your role and provide proper credit to the full team.

"You’re trying to prove yourself and you have all the resources, tools and people you need within reach. Take everything you can."

3. Go above and beyond.

When someone gives you a specific task or project, don’t just put in the minimal amount of work to get the job done. If someone asks you to give 100%, give 150%. You’re trying to prove yourself and you have all the resources, tools and people you need within reach. Take everything you can.

If you’re designing spec work, present it like your employer is your client. Explain your thought process and why you made the decisions you did. If you have time, explore an idea as far as you can take it; try new angles or even share a few options.

This is your time to try everything and risk failure. Don’t be afraid to step out and accept a task you’re not quite sure how to do. Figure it out as you go and ask questions along the way (you're basically getting free education here, or maybe you're even getting PAID, just to learn). As an intern you have more freedom to explore what you enjoy, collaborate across teams and touch high-level work you might not even be qualified to do. An internship is your playground, so have fun with it.

4. Remember you are not the expert.

You are here to learn – that’s the point. So swallow your pride and open yourself to soaking in as much as you can, whether or not you think you know already. Accept feedback or advice gracefully and apply it as best as you can.

5. Don’t make the same mistakes twice, or make someone teach you something twice.

On that note, read #6.

6. Take notes religiously.

This is helpful for many reasons:

  • You’re often learning and moving fast as an intern; you may think you’ll remember later but you might not, and you don’t ever want to ask the same questions twice.
  • Most people absorb information better when they take notes, especially if you have to process them for the team to read later.
  • Your notes could serve as a helpful guide to other interns in the future, which will leaving a lasting impression of you at your workplace.

7. Show your appreciation and ask for a recommendation BEFORE you leave.

Thank every person who helped you along the way and be sure to trade contact information so you can stay connected.

And request a letter of recommendation at least a week before your internship ends. It’s much easier to get what you need while you can remind your boss in person, rather than sending polite / desperate email reminders later.

8. If you can afford it, do a free internship.

I know this is not common advice and no one should ask you to work for free, but staying open to unpaid or low paid internships can lead to more possibilities than you might experience otherwise. And this piece of advice is more for those who are switching careers rather than students. Of course it doesn’t hurt to ask for a paid internship and you don’t want anyone to take advantage of you, but if you really like a specific studio’s work or admire a specific person in the industry and want to get your foot in the door, do whatever it takes and then prove you’re worth paying full-time.

But once again, before you read this the wrong way: NO ONE should ask you or expect you to work for free. I personally did many free or low paid internships simply because I reached out to a mentor who wouldn't accept internships in general, so I offered to show up for free part time and soak up everything I could. If someone would ask you to work for free in the first place, that's a red flag. It always depends on the scenario, but I wanted to include this advice here, even if some might misinterpret it.

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Of course, some internships are more valuable than others, but I believe we miss out when we think of internships as settling or fulfilling some obligation. Through an internship, we’re getting a shortcut to a company’s resources, wisdom and clients. If we look at it that way, internships seem almost too good to be true.

November 23, 2017No Comments

The Slow Decay of a Designer

Over the last couple weeks I’ve been heads down on a lot of work. Existing projects and new ones (Semplice being one of them). In general, I’ve never shied away from work that wasn’t part of my core skillset. I like working on a range of disciplines and I rarely complain when I have to do tasks “outside of my job description.” Of course, there are some tasks I enjoy more than others.

But recently, I’ve thought a lot about regaining my focus. Looking back at the last couple years and re-evaluating where I am, where I came from and where I’d like to go in the future. It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day work, even if you work for yourself, and lose sight of your goals.

There is a strange but natural progression most designers or developers experience, or anyone in the creative industry for that matter. It all starts with us becoming a designer because we love to design. We love the craft of designing, the colors, typography, layouts and even moreso the problem solving aspects of it. We fall in love with design because we simply love the act of creating something out of nothing. We stay up late moving things around for hours, sometimes even days, just to find this magical moment where everything “feels right.” On one hand we know very much what we’re doing, but sometimes we don’t. And it’s this rush of anxiety, this little gap between failure and success, that pushes us forward. It’s why we keep throwing ourselves into projects we are absolutely not prepared for.

"As we climb the corporate ladder, we find ourselves designing a little less every day."

As designers or developers we spend all this time becoming better at our craft. We spend years designing, experimenting and solving new problems. We not only get better, but we also get faster and more efficient. We start to have a more intimate relationship with our tools and typefaces, with colors and our ability to come up with unique ideas. All of our time is spent on becoming better at what we do as a creative person.

But then, everything changes. A few years later (sometimes less than 10 years) our path takes a sharp turn, even well before we reach our full potential. As we climb the corporate ladder, we find ourselves designing a little less every day. We start doing less of the things that originally made us fall in love with design and we start managing more. Some choose this path, but for many it’s the only available way to advance in our careers, make more money or be taken seriously. In most cases, there is simply no other way to level up without putting down the tools we love so much and taking on a management role.

It happens at big companies, but it also happens to those who open their own studios. The more successful you are with your own studio, the more likely you will be designing less and managing more. In the end, everyone loses. You lose because you’re not doing what got you into design in the first place. Everyone else loses because every designer who has the potential of reaching greatness is slowly vanishing.

"The question is: What are you sacrificing, and are you OK with it?"

And please don’t get me wrong — some designers want to be managers and lead a team. Managing people, inspiring other designers and helping them be their best is certainly a challenging and rewarding job. The question is: What are you sacrificing, and are you OK with it? Because ultimately, the longer it takes for you to realize that you're not a designer anymore, and the more time you spend "managing" rather than designing, the harder it will be to go back to being a designer again. You will, no matter what, lose your muscle memory and you certainly won't be on top of your profession anymore.

After thinking about this more, I started researching other industries to see how they do it. Is the natural progression of a musician at the height of their career to become a manager or producer? Do chefs hone their craft only to manage their crew?

The more I read into it, the more I became obsessed with the story of a chef. A chef spends years, maybe even decades, perfecting his or her craft. If you love the idea of becoming a chef, you most likely love food and coming up with new recipes or ways to challenge your taste buds. You take joy from being in the kitchen, working with your knives and working hard. There are no shortcuts. You eventually become so good that you’ll have your own staff or maybe your own restaurant. Yet, a chef (at least those I know), even at the height of their career, are still actively cooking in the kitchen. Experimenting with ingredients, chopping vegetables and being where the work happens.

"Today it’s just one more meeting you accept, one more task you delegate. Then one year later you find yourself in a completely different role."

It feels quite opposite to the modern designer’s experience, who at the middle of her career is lured into becoming a manager and rarely designs herself anymore. These things either happen more forcefully in a corporate environment, or they happen naturally due to the fact that you end up running your own studio and don’t find the time to design anymore. This shift happens slowly and creeps in over the years. No one asks you to stop being an individual contributor and start becoming a manager immediately. Today it’s just one more meeting you accept, one more task you delegate. Then one year later you find yourself in a completely different role. I know this not only from my own experience, but from many others who realize when it’s too late.

For me, the story of the chef is what inspires me. It helps me stay focused on what got me into design in the first place and keep doing what I enjoy doing most, which is designing and creating. Even if that means accepting pay cuts, scaling slower or taking a step back. I want to be like the chef with his own restaurant who still leaves a mess in the kitchen.

And with this, I wish you a wonderful week.

Stay awesome,
Tobias

 

November 8, 2017No Comments

How to not suck at remote working

I’ve been trying to work remotely (from home, in my case) since the moment I had my first job. I’m not sure why exactly, but I just wasn’t made for the 9 to 5 office life.

I dislike everything about working in an office. The daily commute, the empty conversations, the distractions and of course the meetings. But on top of it, my productivity never peaked when working in an office environment. I only showed up to clock my eight hours, then went home to do my “real” creative work. Often I didn’t even do anything at the office, just pretended to be busy before I could finally call it a day at 5 p.m. That was about 14 years ago and things have changed quite a bit since then.

Today, remote working seems to be more popular than ever. According to a recent survey from Gallup, 43% of employed Americans have worked remotely in some form over the past year. Other reports state that by 2020, 50% of the American workforce will be working remotely. Some because they want to, some because they have to.

And it makes sense. Working remotely, if done right, is a win/win situation for everyone involved. According to this study, given the choice of a 10% raise or the option to work remotely, 53% of all participants chose to work remotely instead of getting the 10% raise. Dropping the commute is by far one of the biggest factors of increased happiness for those who made the jump. Even if your commute is only 30 minutes it makes a huge difference; the influence it has on your overall mood and happiness is enormous. There are few things people hate more than their commute.

Other benefits of working remotely are a more flexible working schedule, and typically a lower cost for the company that employs you (they don’t need to provide office space, etc.). The positives are fairly clear for both parties, at least on the surface.

Yet, I’ve learned that while working remotely is appealing to many people, very few are good at it. Most people I’ve worked with remotely are distracted, unproductive and certainly not performing the way they should or even want to. The remote life is not easy and you have to learn how to do it right.

These are the rules to live by if you want to be a successful remote worker, at least from my perspective.

#1. Know who you are

Although some might say “remote working is the future,” I don’t believe this is a general truth. It simply doesn’t work for everyone.

For one, working remotely can be pretty lonely. Some need the daily watercooler conversations and a tangible feeling of belonging. This may exist to some extent within a remote team, but it’s inherently different. For example, your Slack chat may help replace the daily watercooler conversations, but it’s not the same as sitting down and sharing lunch with your coworkers.

Some people, given the chance to work from home, would not accomplish anything because they’re easily distracted or simply need the fixed schedule and structure of office life.

Ask yourself:

  • How much do I value social interaction throughout the day?
  • In what specific ways could I create a healthy social balance as a remote worker? Would that be enough?
  • How much do I value and depend on the structure of an office environment?

I’ve worked with people who were two completely different personalities when working remotely compared to working in an office on location. Be honest with yourself about who you are and what you need before jumping into remote work.

"There is nothing more toxic to a remote working environment than people who make assumptions."

# 2. Over-communicate

This is by far the most important practice of a successful remote worker. You have to over-communicate, almost to an extent where it feels like you’re talking to yourself out loud.

The challenge with working remotely is that you don’t really know what other people on your team are doing. You can’t just walk over and check in with them at their desk or exchange a few words over lunch. To sync up remotely means you have to schedule a call or bother them via chat, and you can’t just have meetings all day to make sure you’re caught up with everyone.

My biggest frustration when working with people remotely is when those people do not communicate — folks who don’t ask any questions, who don’t tell share they’re doing or what they have accomplished. It’s easy to fly under the radar and disappear when working offsite; you have to actively fight against it.

The most damaging are those who make assumptions — assuming that someone will do something about X or will get in touch about Y. There is nothing more toxic to a remote working environment than people who make assumptions:

“Oh, I didn’t reply to that email because I assumed you would do it.”

“I assumed you would get in touch with me if you needed something.”

“I thought you already did that.”

“I thought this wasn’t as important, so I didn’t do it.”

Remove assumptions. Over-communicate and be proactive about it. Reach out immediately and try to inform people about what you’re doing as often and as efficiently as possible. That doesn’t mean you need to schedule dozens of meetings, but a simple message in your group chat such as, “Hey team, today I’m going to work on X. Just FYI,” puts everyone on the same page and gives people the opportunity to jump in if needed.

Over-communicate everything: What you are working on, when you think it will be done, if you’re running behind and how much you’re running behind. Even if people don’t respond to your updates, you need to be consistent about it. Just because someone didn’t acknowledge your update doesn’t mean it’s worthless — quite the opposite. It means they feel informed and satisfied about your current status.

I love working with people who speak their mind as openly as possible, people who proactively reach out about everything and don’t shy away from bothering someone if they think it’s important. The worst thing that can happen when working remotely is that you work on something for an entire week, only to find out that everything you did wasn’t at all what your team was expecting you to do. Over-communication helps set expectations. And as a bonus, it helps you manage your time better, since keeping your team informed requires you to stay on top of your to-do list.

# 3. Use The Daily Status Update

Yes, the third rule also relates to communication. It’s that important.

I try to have relatively few meetings when working remotely. I don’t like calls and I think they’re time wasters for the most part. I do schedule calls with my team every other week because they boost morale, and a little bit of chatting certainly helps you build relationships with your team (some people need this more than others, and I’ll admit I’m low maintenance when it comes to social interaction). But most days, I like to be efficient and productive. After all, that’s the reason I decided to work remotely.

But there is one practice that has been incredibly effective for me: The Daily Status Update. It’s a simple email sent at whatever time you end your day. This status update follows a few rules which are as follows:

You’re not allowed to spend more than five minutes writing this update. It should be efficient, and spending more than five minutes writing a status update would defeat the purpose. By imposing this time limit, you will focus on the most important details and your status update won’t be a nightmare for others to read.

My remote team uses a set format and template for this status update, which looks like this:

What I’ve worked on today

  • Something I did
  • Something else I did
  • Another thing I did

What I will work on tomorrow

  • Something I want to do tomorrow
  • Another thing I want to do

Where I’m stuck

  • Need help with XYZ

Every day you take this template, add your bullet points and send it to your team. Since you’ll only be spending five minutes max, it’s an easy addition to your daily routine.

These three headlines work wonders for you and your team’s productivity without having any meetings whatsoever, especially when working across time zones.

By sharing what you worked on today I know what you’ve accomplished without having to ask. Seeing your “tomorrow” list lets me know that you have enough on your plate to be busy tomorrow, plus I can plan my own work around your tasks. Worst case, I can jump in and say, “Hey, I saw you want to work on this tomorrow, but can you work on this other thing instead?”

The third list in your Daily Status Update email is the most important: The list of what you’re stuck on or where you need help. If I, as your manager or colleague, see the same task under “What I will work on tomorrow” and “Where I’m stuck,” I know to jump in and help you with whatever you need so you’re not roadblocked for tomorrow. This is one reason why your status update needs to be sent every single day. If I continue to see a team member putting the same task under “Where I’m Stuck,” I know something is wrong.

P.S. I always encourage people to link their status updates to the work they’re referencing. Dropbox links, images, to-dos in Basecamp — link to it so I can easily get more context if I need it. This will save time for both of us.
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Knowing who you are, over-communicating and having a structure for how you communicate are in my experience the three main ways to become a successful remote worker. If you do these things right, everything else will follow.

Do you have your own routines or tips for remote working? Send me a tweet @vanschneider and let me know what they are. And if you’re interested in more freelance and remote working advice, check out this series.

May 13, 2017No Comments

How to Land a Design Job at Fuzzco

I originally met Helen and Josh three years ago somewhere deep in America. If I remember correctly, we were at a conference in Omaha, Nebraska. Helen and I got invited to give a talk there, so we hung out and talked a bit about our work.

I wasn’t too familiar with Fuzzco before I met Helen and Josh but I had certainly seen some of their work, and you might have too. Within the last couple years I’ve fallen in love with everything Fuzzco does. All of their work is beautiful, full of personality and carefully considered.

Fuzzco, based in Charleston and Portland, is easily one of the American design studios I most admire. So naturally, I had to invite them to be part of this interview series.

Helen and Josh, let’s do it!

Looking at your current design team, how many of them came through internal referrals or headhunting, and how many came through the traditional application process?

Right now it’s about 50/50. When we’re looking to fill a role, we start by thinking about folks in our personal network, but finding the right person often comes down to timing and availability. We’ve courted some people for years. Some we’ve hired after just a few interviews.

Say we decide to reach out with a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us?

We don’t reply to most cold job/internship emails just because we get so many. For us to reply the email has to have a combination of two things: an outstanding portfolio and a well-written letter, but it’s really more about the letter. The best cold job emails convey that the person is smart and humble, that they have a sense of humor, excitement about Fuzzco and an understanding that we work hard. They should talk about something interesting the person is doing that helps us get to know them and shows they are passionate, curious people.

How important is a complete portfolio for you? Can we get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at Fuzzco?

A portfolio is critical and step one in the process. We won’t take the candidate seriously without one.

Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?

We don’t like seeing portfolios that are full of ads. We don’t do a lot of ads and getting a portfolio full of them makes it seem like the person doesn’t really know what we do.

We want to see work that is consistently good. The best portfolios take a well-rounded and curated approach to showing work. Ideally, we’d see a handful of solid logos, examples of web design, examples of illustration and some editorial work.

They should briefly describe the work and the particular role they played. We get a little nervous when someone’s portfolio includes a lot of team projects. We want to clearly understand someone’s strengths and weaknesses before we hire them.

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 prefer hiring well-rounded people who bring knowledge and experience from a variety of sources to their work. Community involvement is awesome, as is spearheading dialogues about issues they might be passionate about. We also love the introverted designer who is obsessed with cats. We just want to work with people who are excited about stuff, and motivated to experience and learn new things.

"We also love the introverted designer who is obsessed with cats."

What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at Fuzzco? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us! (:

Haha! The biggest turnoff is when you can tell an application has been sent around to a bunch of places. Maybe they leave some other company’s name at the top or they talk about some project we didn’t do. Or if it’s just really generic. It’s also annoying when people say a bunch of silly stuff and expect us to take them seriously. Finally, so many people promise to make us baked goods if we hire them. Why?? We just want people to be themselves.

Haha, this is the first time I've heard something like this. I have to admit, you both are so nice to talk to, I would also bake you whatever you want. Has anyone's application really stuck out to you in a good way? Any favorite stories to share?

Oh man, we’ve had some good ones! One that stood out was this fellow who put together a video where he had a dance off with sliced bread. IT WAS AMAZING. It was playful, funny, he obviously worked really hard on it and it felt sincere. We didn’t have a role for him at the time but it’s people like that who stick with you.

Baked goods, sliced bread — I think there is a pattern here. Say our muffin-themed application makes the first pass and we get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?

Depending on the person, role and urgency, the interview process can happen quickly or it can take a while. We do most of our interviews via Google Hangout. We show up with a list of questions that we bat around. The interview process is pretty informal. The first one is just to get a feel for someone’s personality. There are a lot of little things we look for: How quickly do they write us back to confirm the interview? Are they good writers? Are they playful and curious? Are they comfortable in their own skin?  Do they seem technically proficient? Are they good communicators? It’s really important that we get a good feeling about these first interactions. They should be punctual, not have trouble getting Google Hangouts set up, they should have questions for us and just be positive, collected and excited about the call.

Then we’ll have a second call or have them chat with other folks on the team to get more perspectives. Sometimes we meet with people in person — the vibe can be night and day from video to real life. In-person meetings really help!

We don’t do any design challenges.

Would you hire someone who is a personality/culture fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?

It really just depends on the person and the role. We have a range of personalities on the team and everyone gets along great despite their different interests and backgrounds. The more diverse our team is, the better everyone seems to get along.

Kindness is so important. Working with people who have bad attitudes, big egos or are just generally condescending is the worst. Those qualities are not welcome at Fuzzco no matter how talented someone is.

Feeling like people have each other's backs on the team is maybe the most important thing. We want to work with people who care about each other, the company and our work as a whole, not just their part in it.

What are the secondary skills you look for in a designer, besides common soft skills? For example, do you prefer business skills over photography skills? Video skills over photography?

Designers must communicate well. We work on a lot of projects and are very hands-on in the design process. We want to have a dialogue about the work along the way; we want our designers to want to engage about the work. Otherwise we like our designers to be comfortable across a variety of areas — web, illustration, identity, animation, editorial. We give our designers a lot of responsibility and opportunities to try new things because we want them to grow and expand their capabilities.

As far as other skill sets, animation is awesome, a significant knowledge of the web is great. Someone can just have great ideas, like ways to bring brands to life via social media, ideas for product offerings or brand interactions, and even how a business might change to become more dynamic. We’re always looking for ways brands can express themselves and it’s often not through traditional formats.

Last question: How do you think Fuzzco is different when hiring new talent compared to other tech companies or design studios?

I don’t know, maybe we tend to hire the weirdos (I mean it in the best way!)? We are definitely drawn to the most talented people in the room, but they are also good people who have good hearts and have our backs.

This is the best closing answer I can imagine. Thank you so much for all these insights, Helen and Josh. There is so much to learn from everything you mentioned. Let’s look at some highlights we should remember when trying to  land a job at Fuzzco (or anywhere, really).

Nr. 1 - Be clear about your skills, especially if you're including team projects in your portfolio.

I fully agree with Fuzzco here. It's difficult to understand what you can do when all your work mentions a team of 10 other people. If you include team projects, make it very clear how you contributed so Fuzzco can understand where you might fit in their team.

Nr. 2 - Prepare your own questions for the interview.

Fuzzco wants to get to know you in the first interview. It's not just about answering their questions, but about you engaging with them. Ask thoughtful questions and make it a personal conversation.

Nr. 3 - You have to be good at communicating.

We’ve heard this in a couple recent interviews from this series. A designer is essentially a communicator. This affects your work and how you work with your team, so Fuzzco will be watching to see how you communicate – from your initial emails to your portfolio to the interview process. Writing well is a crucial part of it. Here is an article we wrote recently that will help you get started. You could also read about why I write and how for me, it isn't so much about writing, but about communicating your own ideas to yourself.

P.S. Don't forget to check out Fuzzco's work. You'll soon be as big of a fan as I am.

Thank you for reading,
Tobias

May 4, 2017No Comments

Designers can write, too

Throughout the “How to Get a Job at X” interview series, we’ve talked to people from companies like Nike, Pentagram and Unsplash, asking how to get a design job where they work. It’s been fascinating to see the similarities and differences in their answers, but one takeaway stands out.

We've heard over and over again: “We want designers who know how to write.”

It makes sense. Designers are communicators, and writing is communication. Typically, though, design and writing are considered separate jobs. It’s much easier to say, “I’m a designer, not a writer” and continue copying + pasting Lorem Ipsum. But Lorem Ipsum does not sell your idea or a client’s product. Placeholder copy does not inspire or create an emotional response. Compelling copywriting along with good design can take your work so much further.

With that thought, here are a few writing fundamentals that may remind you of that English teacher you hated in middle school. You will not be graded on this article.

1. Be concise.

You can almost always find a more simple, clear way to say what you need to say.

2. Write for one person.

Especially when selling a product or idea, we tend to write as if some distant group of suited dudes is reading it skeptically in their boardroom. In an effort to impress, we speak in buzz words and business jargon. That's not the way real people talk. No matter what I’m writing  – an article, an ad, an email – I remind myself to write as if I’m speaking to one person, because I am. You are one person reading this article, not some faceless “consumer."

“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” - Kurt Vonnegut

3. Use proper grammar.

A glaring grammatical error is distracting and can make your client or readers question your legitimacy. Good news is, you can avoid mistakes by simply looking up the rule when you’re not sure, or asking a friend to proof your work. Here are mistakes I see often:

Your vs. You’re: These are not interchangeable words. Think of “you’re” as the words “you” and “are” smashed together (that’s exactly what it is – a contraction) and say it that way when deciding which to use in a sentence. Would it make sense to say “This is you are dog?” No. So your is correct here. It does make sense to say, “You are going to the store,” so you’re could be used in this sentence.

Its vs. It’s: Again, the word "it's" is a contraction of the words “it” and “is.” Only use this word when you would otherwise say "it is." Simple as that.

Too vs. to: The word “too” should be used to mean "more than enough," or in place of the word “also.” I remember this by thinking of that additional letter “o” as more than enough letters, or like this other "o" is also in the word. Get it? Or just find your own trick.

So, if you're telling someone they've poured you more than enough vodka, you'd say, "That's too much vodka." If you are also hungover, you'd say, "I'm hungover too."

4. Avoid passive voice.

This one can be confusing, but it will change your writing for the better if you learn to understand it.

Example of active voice: “She ate the pizza.”
Example of passive voice: “The pizza was eaten by her.”

Do you feel the difference? The second sentence is wordy and falls flat. The first is clear and strong.

Here’s what’s happening: Grammatically, “she” is the subject of the sentence. When the subject is doing an action (eating the pizza) it’s considered active voice. When the action is happening to the subject (eaten by her) it’s passive voice. Always try to make your subject (he, she, I, the girl, the dog, the wind, etc.) do the action, instead of the other way around.

If this is still confusing, read Grammar Girl’s explanation of active vs. passive voice. It may help to read about subjects first.

5. Use exclamation points sparingly.

Exclamation points only soften your message. People use them when they want to come across as friendly or excited, but they only end up sounding a little crazy. Nobody wants to read something that feels aggressively cheerful, or like someone is shouting at them. Be confident in your message and end it with a period.

6. Proofread and edit your writing.

This is a given. First write down everything you have to say without editing, so you can get it all out without getting in your own way. Then go back and read through it. Fix typos. Rework weird sentences. Cut an entire paragraph. You can almost always make your writing better if you step away for a moment then come back and read it again.

I could go on, but I did just say that thing about being concise. With all those rules on our hypothetical chalkboard, I will leave you with this: Don’t get so worried about writing well that you don’t write at all. As Tobias has said, doing it wrong can be better than doing nothing. The more you write, the better you will get at writing. So write, designers, write! And maybe avoid exclamation points.

May 1, 2017No Comments

How to Get a Job at Unsplash

Unsplash started as a stupid little side project. Originally, it was a simple Tumblr blog that shared ten free photographs a day for anyone to download and use however they liked. Soon enough, Unsplash grew so big that it became its own company with a team of 18 people.

Now, millions of photographs are viewed and downloaded on Unsplash every day. I got to hang with most of the Unsplash team in Montreal and I can tell you, they are some of the nicest people I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet.

Three of those nice people are Stephanie, Luke and Mikael. They are so nice, in fact, that they agreed to answer all my questions about getting a job at Unsplash.

Hey friends, let’s start here: Looking at your current design team, how many of them came through internal referrals or headhunting, and how many came through the traditional application process?

Our team is small, 18 people total. We consider our design team as our two designers and three front-end developers who have thoughtful opinions on product and design. Two came through internal referral, two came through our application process and one wrote to us directly.

I've seen many offices, but the Unsplash one is hands down the best.

Say we decide to reach out with a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply? What puts us in the “no” folder immediately?

First, we have to say we’re grateful for anyone who takes the time to write to us about working on Unsplash. By writing to us, it means you’re interested in dedicating time in your life to working with us versus doing a million other things. And that means so much.

Like many people though, we get overwhelmed with email so we’re often forced to process information quickly. Unfortunately, we can’t read and respond to every email we get so the messages that get replies are the ones that make us feel something.

We can’t speak for all companies, but emails that make us feel something are ones that sound like they were written to a friend. Words that sound like they were written by a human, not a machine. Everyone making anything today is in the business of creating connection. An impersonal subject line or words like “Dear Hiring Manager” signal not only laziness but a lack of understanding for what connects.

How you write your email gives us a look into how you think about design. If you’re able to create a connection with an email, we feel confident you understand how to do that no matter the medium.

How you write your email subject line and your email is what gets initial attention. But showing something you made is what moves us from attention to action. Even better if you can show something you made along with an explanation of:

  • What work you specifically did on your projects
  • What did success look like for the project and did you achieve it?
  • How did you approach the problems the project was meant to solve? Why did you choose certain solutions?

If your portfolio shows interesting work and includes thoughtful context around each project, we guarantee you’ll get a response. There’s a lot of noise today in design. Everyone says they're a designer. Before Unsplash, I was CEO/Founder of Crew, a community for designers, so I’ve seen it firsthand, having reviewed thousands of design profiles. Everyone has pretty-looking static design shots. Those don’t cut through. What cuts through is not only the work but the thinking behind the work.

Write like a human. Share your work. Share your thinking behind your work.

“PDF resumes are artifacts from an economic time that aimed to turn people into replaceable cogs in a system.”

You’ve said you don’t want to see resumes. What do you want to see from someone applying for a job at Unsplash? Is it all about the portfolio?

Yeah, we think the traditional attached cover letter/resume with bullet points are an outdated, inhuman form of applying for a job. PDF resumes that we were taught to make in high school are artifacts from an economic time that aimed to turn people into replaceable cogs in a system. They reduce you to comparison. They strip you of your personality and what makes you unique, which is precisely what we are looking for in a hire.

We want to see what you do when you’re not told what to do. Because that's what it's like at Unsplash. This is why we don’t have a hiring form on our Hiring page. Instead, we ask you to just send us an email. We leave it up to you to decide what to put in it.

If you’re applying as a designer, of course a portfolio of work is important. But overall, what we want to see is someone who understands how to connect with us and a body of work that shows you know how to connect with people through design.

Yes, this is an office. But the Unsplash team also turned part of their office into a coffeeshop for makers. (you see it on the left)

Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?

Generic writing and visuals. C’mon, this is your portfolio, the most important thing in your arsenal as a designer. If a portfolio looks and feels just like every other one, it’s hard for me to think that you’ll create a great product no matter how much you say you “handcraft websites.”

You don’t need to blindly follow the portfolio advice from Creative Bloq or Hongkiat or a well-known designer. Show your work and discuss it in a way that you find interesting. Share things outside your design work like your writing or personal projects or photography.

Apart from my Unsplash teammates, some of my favorite portfolios include: Tobias (he didn’t pay me to say this), Jonnie Hallman, Meg Lewis, and Jessica Hische. I know there are many many more great examples out there but these designers came first to mind because they not only have exceptional design work but they also share other parts of themselves.

We wish we would see more designers who write. Writing is great because it helps people understand your thinking. And your thinking is what ultimately shapes your work.

Seeing a portfolio of great work is awesome but understanding the person behind the work is even better.

 

The Unsplash team in action. Writing beautiful code.

Besides having a portfolio, do you like the idea of designers being invested in other interests? For example being active bloggers, photographers or otherwise outspoken in their community?

Hell yes. Having interests outside product design is super important. Other interests like photography, travel, luge racing or whatever help you see different perspectives and create new connections. Creativity comes from what we consume and if we all consume the same shit, our outputs will all the look the same. Creative solutions won’t exist.

By having other interests, you can draw new connections. We practice this ourselves as a company. Apart from building Unsplash, we encourage everyone on our team to take time to observe the world. This is why we don’t track vacation days. In fact, we require a minimum of three weeks vacation. Our bodies were not meant to work hours on end. We’re not machines meant to do one thing only forever. We need new inputs to improve. Otherwise, we stagnate. And if we stagnate, our products and company will too.

What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at Unsplash? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us! (:

A couple things. First, not enough of a focus on measurable product results. So many portfolios come in that focus entirely on visuals and the designer's opinion of UX. That doesn't tell us anything about the actual impact of the work. What were the problems before and how were those affecting the metrics? How did the metrics that matter to the company improve after the changes? And if you don't know those and aren't presenting those, then why are you presenting it as a success?

Second, there’s too much of a focus on presenting a large quantity of projects in a portfolio. I'd rather see one project explained really well than 10 explained quickly. Showing the process of a project that had unexpected learnings and deep thoughts behind it makes me feel confident that you'll be able to bring the same level of thoughtfulness to projects at Unsplash.

A view on the Crew/Unsplash coffeeshop. Photograph by www.dezjeff.com

Do you have a favorite story of an application that really stuck with you?

Our co-founder Luke’s application is one that stands out. We know this is going to embarrass the crap out of him but we have it here (our company was called ‘ooomf’ back then).

The thing we liked most about Luke’s email was that it felt like he was writing like he talked. Even though his email was a bit long by “email optimization standards,” we read it all the way through because we felt he cared. At the time, he didn’t have much experience in product design but he was flat out honest about it. He shared what he did know and that he was willing to do anything, including making coffee runs if needed.

Back then, we were a small team of four founders so we were looking for people who could jump in on a lot of different things. And if they didn’t know something, they'd be open to learning it. We could tell from Luke’s message he was eager to apply what he knew, learn what he didn’t and do anything to help move the company forward. He also went another step further by linking to an awesome introduction page he made just for us.

Luke’s message also sticks with me because it’s lead to one of the greatest relationships of my life. Luke and the two of us (Mikael & Steph) have worked together for five years now, which is practically our whole careers.

The Unsplash team in action

Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?

Our process starts with a meeting or phone interview. That interview is informal. We don’t drill you with questions like, “If you needed to escape from a room and all you had was a stick of gum, a match and a Teletubbie, what would you do?” No. We ask you about you and your work. And we invite you to ask questions about us. Like we were getting to know each other on a first date.

If that first interview vibes well, we invite you to have a chat with each member of our design team. If we feel good after those calls, we make an offer. This whole process typically takes two weeks.

We also don't ask designers to solve our problems in the interviews. Interview questions that ask what you would do differently with our product are bullshit, because if you can come up with ideas that are better than ours on the spot over a phone interview, well then we're clearly not doing our jobs.

Design is all about context and you simply can't get enough context about a product from the outside. You need months and years of working on a product before you can really say you know anything about it with confidence.

We don’t follow the “churn and burn” model at all. We hire people with the intent of working together for the long-term. This is why we focus so much on conversations. You’ve already shown you can do good work. Now, it’s about both of us getting to know each other. To learn more about the work and the environment, so we have a clearer sense that this will be a great fit for everyone long-term.

Would you hire someone who is a cultural fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills? And what does cultural fit mean at Unsplash?

When we think of someone as a good “culture fit’” we think about it more as, “Would this person be able to improve our culture?” Not necessarily someone that will keep it the same way. In fact, we're actively trying to hire people who make us feel a little uncomfortable because they bring a different approach.

To build great things, it’s important to bring new/different viewpoints versus hiring people who all think and act the same. That said, there are some core underlying things we won’t compromise on like:

  • Being human.
  • Having a work environment where it’s not about the number of hours you work but what you do in those hours that counts.
  • We’ll never mail anything in.

So someone who resonates with these values and brings a new, healthy perspective to the team but has less industry experience and hard skills would be hired over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills, but didn’t resonate with those values.

"A designer who can write? Ooh wee."

What are the secondary skills you look for in a designer, besides common soft skills? For example, do you prefer writing skills over coding skills? Photography skills over writing?

If we had to pick one secondary skill for designers it would be writing. Knowing how to code is a close second, but a designer who can write? Ooh wee. In design, the message comes first. Good writing can save bad design but not the other way around. You can make your designs sing if you know how to write well.

A great designer should be strong with many forms of communication because in the end, design is communication, whether it’s visual, written, or spoken.

How do you think Unsplash is different when hiring new talent compared to other tech companies or design studios? Please blow us away! (:

We don’t focus on resumes. We don’t focus on glitzy Dribbble shots. Instead, we focus on understanding you and your work.

This is why every person we hire meets either me or one of my co-founders during the hiring experience. This might sound like an impossible thing to do as Unsplash grows but we don’t dream of hiring thousands of people. We enjoy having relationships with our teammates. We could be bigger but we prefer to keep things small. It’s more human that way.

We also aim to give everyone, from the newest teammate to the CEO, the same level of information needed to make decisions. We believe in giving everyone on our team the power to make the call on their own without much approval. To do that, it requires context. You need to know the history behind why something was done. Why did we design the homepage that way? What were the trade-offs? What were the conversations that lead to the decision? Almost everything we’ve built has a conversation documentation trail. We open this up to everyone on our team. Everyone on our team should have the power to make decisions as if they owned the company. With context, great people create great things.

We don’t focus on spec work. We don’t have project managers. Our whole company is set up to get as much of the stuff that’s not the creative work out of your way, so you can do you what you do best.

Our aim is to create an environment for making great things and feeling fulfilled creatively. Ask anyone who started a company or joined one early on. Most people will say things were the best at the beginning when they were less people. You ship big stuff. You have a strong sense of autonomy, ownership and purpose. These conditions are what leads to great work.

__

Steph, Mikael & Luke, thank you so much for your time. I can easily say this interview is one of my all-time favorites from this whole job series.

And because I think this was all packed with so much wisdom, I want to summarize a few of my favorite takeaways, in case you, the reader, is interested in working with Unsplash:

Nr. 1- A resume is so 1999.

As Unsplash clearly pointed out, they don’t look at your resume the way other companies might do. We’ve heard this in a couple more interviews in the job series so far and I find this one of the most important things to highlight. Focus your attention on your portfolio or other things, but not your resume.

Nr. 2 - Talk about the impact and intentions of your work.

Instead of just showing off your work by sharing some screen designs, animations or prototypes, explain the thinking behind your work. Unsplash wants to hear the WHY and understand how your work made an impact. How did your work change something? How did it measure up to its goals? If it failed, why?

Nr. 3 - Write, even if you are not a writer.

Writing is thinking. I’ve shared my thoughts on that subject here. As a designer you are first and foremost a communicator. While color, shape and typography are essentials in your design toolbox, words are as much part of it. You don’t have to become a professional writer, but Unsplash cares a lot about the impact words have as part of your design solution.

I hope you enjoyed these insights into how Unsplash works and hires. Make sure to check out if they're hiring right here. I have to say, this is one of my personal favorites so far. If you're interested in working with Unsplash make sure to reach out to them with all the new things you've just learned, and if you're interested in reading about other companies in the job series, you can do this right here.

Keep creating,
Tobias

 

April 20, 2017No Comments

How to Get a Job at MailChimp

Everybody uses MailChimp. It’s one of the most trusted email platforms out there, and it’s earned its reputation through excellent design and a thoughtful user experience.

The company culture, as you’ll learn in a moment, is equally purposeful. Todd Dominey has a hand in all of that. As director of design at MailChimp, Todd guides the vision for the product and brand — and would be the guy hiring  you to help make it all happen.

 

 

Hey, Todd. Let’s do this. Looking at your current design team, how many of them came through internal referrals and how many came through the traditional application process?

In the early years, many of MailChimp’s employees were internal referrals. We’re a much bigger company now, and having a diverse team of people with different backgrounds and experiences is super important to us. We hire through a lot of different recruiting, sourcing and networking channels. We also hire people who applied through our website.

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?

Our recruiting team does a bit of both, but because of the high volume of applicants we receive, much of their time is spent filtering people who approach us. Sometimes people are hired for specific job openings, other times we’ve come across people so perfect for MailChimp we’ve created roles for them. The challenge is finding the right people for the company. Did I mention we’re hiring? 🙂

Say I decide to reach out with a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply, any secrets for us? Should I just fill out the job posting form?

We’ve seen people do clever things to get our attention, which is fun. That said, applying through our site’s jobs form really does work. Everyone who applies is considered, and our recruiting team really goes out of their way to make that interaction personal and positive. Most applicants have genuine love and appreciation for MailChimp, and they are more often than not users of the product. Applicants deserve to have a good experience when interacting with us, even if we aren’t able to extend an offer.

How important is a visual and complete portfolio for you? Can I get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at MailChimp?

Every designer who interviews at MailChimp should be prepared to share work. How prepared or polished their presentation is doesn’t really matter — the work itself is enough to land an interview and get a conversation moving. From that point on in the process, the work usually takes a back seat, and more time is spent getting to know the person and whether they’d be a good fit at MailChimp.

I typically look for things like how a designer describes their involvement in a project, the process they went through to arrive at a solution and whether their project was considered a success. Humility, thoughtfulness, empathy and a willingness to share examples of challenges they’ve faced, whether creative or personal, are other factors. Getting a sense of someone’s character and their ability to collaborate with others is super important at MailChimp.

Besides having a portfolio, do you like the idea of designers being very invested in other things? For example being active bloggers, or otherwise outspoken in their community?

You know, it’s funny. Many years ago when I was fresh out of college, I interviewed at a small software company and was turned down for an entry-level job. I asked why, because I was under the impression our interview went well, and the recruiter told me I had too many outside interests. I guess I had rambled on too much about photography, music or whatever in our interview, and apparently that was a big red flag. People like me had a habit of quitting, they said.

Well, good thing I wasn’t hired! MailChimp is the polar opposite. We get excited by people who’ve had a variety of experiences in life, or have quirky hobbies or passions that make them unique. Our culture is rich because of our people. Diversity of background, life experience and opinion helps us build more well-rounded products that hopefully appeal to more types of users. We actually have an informal “Night School” meet-up at MailChimp where employees volunteer to teach others about whatever they’re into, whether that’s improv comedy or learning to roll sushi. It’s all part of what makes the culture of MailChimp unique.

What are the top mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at MailChimp? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us! (:

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a “mistake” per se, but I’ve seen designers pitch portfolio work like they’re trying to land a client or win approval. It’s understandable since that’s what designers are typically accustomed to doing, but neither is necessary in a job interview.

A more effective use of time would be explaining how a project solved a client’s problem, how designs were changed based on client feedback, and anything they wished they could have done but couldn’t, for whatever reason. Those stories are far more useful and interesting than someone trying to sell their talent. From a product design perspective, I also prefer seeing work that is technically feasible, as it demonstrates awareness and respect for the engineering side of the equation.

“I also prefer seeing work that is technically feasible, as it demonstrates awareness and respect for the engineering side of the equation.”

Do you have a favorite story of an application that really stuck with you?

The ones I remember most are the designers who came through the door and talked about something other than aesthetics. Designers who talked about user research, experience maps, and even business or product strategy. This is especially true for product designers who have to juggle so many factors in what they build. I’ve also seen brand and marketing designers spend more time in an interview sharing crazy stuff they made purely for their own enjoyment or to help out a friend. I love that! It shows a true love of craft. Design isn’t merely a job, but something they wake up thinking about. It’s part of their daily life.

Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?

The process usually goes through a few rounds. We start with a phone interview to get the ball rolling. One of our recruiters typically handles that to learn more about the candidate, why they chose MailChimp, etc. If that conversation goes well, and one of our design leaders likes their work, we’ll schedule a face-to-face interview. This part is important -- it gives us a sense of someone’s personality and how well they’d mesh with MailChimp. Once we get past that, we’ll often get together again to discuss the type of role we see for them, what their responsibilities will be and address any questions or requirements they have. If everything seems good by this point, we make an offer. It’s pretty rare we make it all the way to the offer stage without someone accepting.

I know MailChimp is very much about the culture. Would you hire someone who is a cultural fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?

MailChimp has a funny way of attracting misfits, perhaps because that’s how the business was founded. We’re not in Silicon Valley or part of the startup scene, so we’ve always done things our way. We just try to be ourselves and real, which hopefully inspires others who use our product to do the same when marketing their businesses.

When hiring, MailChimp doesn't necessarily focus on people who fit the bill in the traditional sense for a job, but people who will bring a variety of experiences, backgrounds and perspective into the fold. We’d much rather hire people who are humble, independent, empathetic and curious than people who lack those qualities and have a ton of industry experience.

“MailChimp has a funny way of attracting misfits.”

What secondary skills do you look for in a designer, besides common soft skills? For example, do you prefer business skills over coding skills?

The design department at MailChimp has a variety of designers, including web and mobile product designers, brand designers and product marketing designers. If I had to pick a single thread between them all, customer and brand experience is huge. Doesn’t matter what type of design you’re responsible for, your contribution is part of a singular experience from the perspective of our more than 15 million users. Designers have to understand how their work contributes to that experience and collaborate with other designers to ensure their designs are consistent and on-brand.

Do you require designers to have “tech” experience to work at MailChimp, or can they come from any creative background? Would five years of tech experience get me further than five years in the advertising industry?

We have a few designers on the team with little-to-no technical experience. They’re artists, really, who love to make beautiful, original things that enrich our brand and company culture. Some of their work is only seen internally, but the rest has a habit of finding its way into our advertising, product marketing and other places. I’m not sure how many other companies would do the same but for MailChimp, it’s one of the things that makes us stand out.

We're all artists to some degree, I can't agree more with that. Would you hire people from anywhere in the world and help someone get through the visa struggles if it’s worth it, or do you prefer to hire people on location first?

We have people from all over, but most of our applicants come from somewhere within the United States. Being in Atlanta, we tend to attract people from the region, or people who are looking for a different pace of life and more affordable cost of living than a city like San Francisco, New York, etc.

How did you get your job, if we may ask? 😉

Every day I ask myself the same question! I guess I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been committed to design as a profession since graduating from college a little over twenty years ago. I’m old enough to have worked in print before the web became a thing, made the leap to digital in the late ’90s, and kept at it long enough to get here. I’ve been everything from an intern to an individual contributor, a startup founder and now a design director for a respected brand and product used by millions.

Sometimes younger designers ask what it’s like being a designer who “no longer designs.” Meaning, someone who pushes pixels and writes code. For me, I feel I’m still designing, but in a different way. My focus today is on brand experiences, evangelizing quality design and user experiences and figuring out how to optimize our team’s process for creative excellence and operational efficiency.

Sometimes I really miss putting on a pair of headphones and spending hours on end tweaking a layout, but those days are behind me now. I’m here to help others on my team be their very best and use design to keep MailChimp weird, solve user problems and grow the business.

__

Thanks so much for your time and honesty, Todd! Lots of helpful insights here, but these stand out the most:

Nr. 1 - Bring your personal passions to the table. MailChimp encourages you to have hobbies and diverse interests. Show them, don't hide it. Culture is a big part of their company, so your own passions can play a big part in that. Share your side projects and talk about the things you do at night or on the weekends. What other companies may see as a red flag, MailChimp may see as a valueable asset.

Nr. 2 - “Designers who do customer support” This is interesting because I very much care about this as well. I love designers or developers who also do customer support. It brings you closer to the people who actually use your product. Show a passion that you're interested in doing whatever it takes to design a beautiful & useful product. Customer support often gets a bad rap, but only because it's poorly done by most companies. Show that you're interested in doing things that might be not your traditional job titles responsibilities.

Nr. 3 - Don’t pitch your work. Explain it. MailChimp doesn’t want you to treat them like a client you need to win over. They simply want to understand who you are and how you work. Be genuine and focus on having a real conversation about who you are.

That’s all for now! More exciting companies coming to this series soon. You can find more interviews with companies like Spotify, Nike, Edenspiekermann, Airbnb and Electronic Arts on the "How to Get a Job" Series page.

And if you have a request, just shoot me a note on Twitter @vanschneider.

Stay awesome & keep creating,
Tobias

April 17, 2017No Comments

How to Get a Job at Edenspiekermann

Edenspiekermann provides branding, digital products and service experiences for top companies around the country. Think Red Bull, Hello Giggles, Mozilla.

The agency has offices in Amsterdam, Berlin, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Singapore — so chances are, they have a job opening somewhere you’d like to live.

I love the spunky vibe of Edenspiekermann. Browse their site and you’ll get a feel for their attitude and confidence, which I’d imagine makes clients enjoy working with them and designers enjoy working for them. Robert and Sebastian would know better. Robert is a partner at Edenspiekermann and Sebastian is the people & talent director. Both were kind enough to answer my questions about getting a job where they work.

 

Hey Robert and  Sebastian, let’s get right into it. Looking at your current design team, how many of them came through internal referrals and how many came through the traditional application process?

It’s hard to say, as we don’t specifically track this — and one doesn't exclude the other. Sometimes people tell their friends to apply, but we only learn about this referral after the hiring decision has been made. Both have their advantages: referrals are a safer and easier hire, but strangers can bring things to the table that we didn’t even know we were looking for.

Would you say many of your hires are headhunted/pre-selected then, or do you get a lot of cold applications as well?

A lot of the people who apply have been in touch with us before, be it at conferences and meet-ups or through knowing someone who works or worked with us. We sometimes hire former interns after they graduate, too, but cold applications always have the power to surprise.

Say we decide to reach out with a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us? Should we just fill out the job posting form?

Any message gets a reply. But if you send out an impersonal email to a list, don’t expect a 2-pager in response. I of course prefer the job posting form, but that’s just because it means all applications are in one place and I know where to find you across Twitter, LinkedIn, Slack, Email, Facebook, WhatsApp or even phone.

How important is a visual and complete portfolio for you? Do I get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at Edenspiekermann?

A portfolio (or, for developers, a Github repo) is the best way to show what you can do and what you love to do. You can read more about how we hire in this little article, but spoiler alert: we need a portfolio.

Besides having a portfolio, do you like the idea of designers being invested in other things? For example being active bloggers, or otherwise outspoken in their community?

No. We want the boring, quiet, uninspired hermit type of designer, with the most narrow horizons imaginable (or not, as the case may be).

Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio website. Anything you wish you saw more?

We want to see all the things you worked on and are, or were, passionate about — don’t hide anything just because it might seem outdated now. It’s still part of who you are, and we only judge your work in regards to its fit for our current and future projects, we promise.

Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?

We try to keep it short and simple: that means no design exercises. There will be one interview, and it will be with HR and, ideally, two of your peers. Sometimes we might add a developer or account manager, and sometimes we might go for a second interview if the first didn’t answer all of our questions. I wouldn’t exactly call it a process — that sounds very impersonal, and a bit intimidating. It’s more like a conversation. With snacks.

What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at Edenspiekermann? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us! (:

Don’t waste creativity on your resumes; only the HR person reads it, and they just want the cold, hard facts. There are great templates out there to download. Instead, focus the time and energy on your portfolio: tell us what you did on each project and why — and if your portfolio isn’t finished yet, hold out on the application.

Any favorite story of an application that really stuck with you?

The one person who wrote an email to every single person in the company with a ginormous zip file attached. We did not hire them.

Would you hire someone who is a cultural fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?

If we have to decide between two candidates, one who’s more skilled and another who’s a better cultural fit, we’ll always lean toward cultural fit. Skills can be learned, but attitude can’t.

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?

Don’t make me choose! Business skills come in handy because our work doesn’t just touch the surface of our clients’ businesses; it goes deeper into content, meaning, and purpose, and this impacts the core business case. Coding skills always help because our designers and developers work so closely together. And our developers have a thing for design, too

Last question: How do I get your job one day? 😉

You don’t. 😉

__

Thanks so much, Robert and Sebastian! I enjoyed how much of your company’s personality shined through in this interview.

If Edenspiekermann feels like your type of place, take note of this advice from Robert and Sebastian:

Nr. 1  -  Don’t waste your creativity on resumes. Robert and Sebastian even suggested using a template for your resume, since HR are the only ones seeing it. Save the time and effort for your portfolio, which brings me to my next point.

Nr. 2 - Don’t apply without a portfolio. This is true for almost every company we’ve interviewed in this series. You must have a portfolio, and it should make an impression.

If you need some help getting started, read about "The most important page on your portfolio" and some tips on things you should definitely avoid when it comes to your portfolio.

Nr. 3 - Include everything in your portfolio. This is opposite advice from several other interviews in this series, but it’s what Edenspiekermann wants. They want to see it all, from your best projects to the old and outdated ones, to the weird ones. Give them a complete picture of your work and skills.

My tip here would be: Focus on your best work first, but make sure you have an archive of your older work available to show to specifically to Edenspiekermann.

That’s all for now! More exciting companies coming to this series soon. And if you have a request, just shoot me a note on Twitter @vanschneider.

Stay awesome & keep creating,
Tobias

April 6, 2017No Comments

How to Get a Job at Spotify

Spotify! I've been looking forward to this interview and I’m happy to finally share it with you.

As some of you may already know, I worked at Spotify for almost three years. So I couldn’t resist reaching out to my friends and asking  for their wisdom about landing a design job at Spotify.

 

Of course, I’m skipping the intro on purpose because I hope Spotify needs no intro. But one thing I will say is that Spotify’s design team sits in Stockholm, New York, San Francisco and London. So if you’re looking for a design or development job, you’re most likely moving or living in one of those cities.

Hey Dan and Stanley, let’s get right to it. Looking at your current design team, how many of them came through internal referrals and how many came through the traditional application process?

Dan: Referrals helped us a lot in the beginning. As our company grew quickly, we had plenty of new people coming in who wanted to tell us about the great people in their network. Today, we try to find a balance. We want to make sure we’re getting a steady flow of candidates from different backgrounds so we’re trying not to rely on any one source.

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?

Dan: It’s a mix but there’s actually a lot of overlap between the two. For example, a conversation might start with an informal “hello” from us at an event. At that point, it might not make sense to move forward into a formal interview process. A few years later, situations change, roles become available, and that person could end up applying through our Jobs page. It’s rarely ever so simple –– especially when trying to recruit at such a high caliber.

I remember one situation where we were talking with someone and for a number of reasons, they just weren’t the right fit for the role. They wrote back to us later on and said, “Hey, I understand I might not be the right fit but you should really talk to my former manager.” We ended up reaching out to that candidate’s referral, loved them, and now they’re at Spotify.

Thank you for mentioning this Dan. Just a quick example from myself here: My first contact with Spotify was more than a year prior to me actually joining. It was just small conversations until it eventually happened.

But let's say we decide to reach out with a cold message. What kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us? Or should I just fill out the job posting form?

Dan: Filling out a job post should always be the first step. Beyond that, be creative. It’s really about showing why you’re the best person for a specific role in the quickest possible way.

How important is a visual and complete portfolio for you? Can I get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at Spotify?

Stanley: A portfolio is the design equivalent of a switchblade: If applied right, it can open up all kinds of doors. This creates a lot of opportunity for a lot people. As an employer, it helps us quickly understand what a candidate can do and how they think about their work.

For example, yesterday a designer told me they hated how their last project turned out. Hearing why they hated it, and understanding what they’d do differently, was super insightful. And helped progress our conversation beyond the superficial.

Portfolios reveal a lot.

“A portfolio is the design equivalent of a switchblade: If applied right, it can open up all kinds of doors.”

Besides having a portfolio, do you like the idea of designers being invested in other things? For example being active bloggers or otherwise outspoken in their community?

Stanley: With so many people applying for the same job, it can be hard to attract attention with only your portfolio. Demonstrating who you are outside of your day-to-day job is a helpful way for us to get to know you better and for you to stand out. It’s not that we value a cultivated online presence or persona, but we like seeing people who are passionate about the discipline of design and who actively give back or get involved with the larger community.

Another way is writing. For example, when I review a portfolio I always begin with the About section. I want to know how well the designer can communicate their thinking— if it’s clear, simple and succinct.

Dan: It’s a huge advantage that we get to work on something that so many people are already passionate about. Given that, I always appreciate when a candidate has a strong interest in music. Now that doesn’t mean that you have to have be a musician, or even know who the latest hot band is. It’s really about being passionate about the role music plays in people’s lives and being excited about our larger mission to revolutionize the music space.

What are the top mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at Spotify? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us! (:

Stanley: Good to know: Large companies have a recruitment team who filter the candidates the hiring managers review. They do this based on listening to the feedback the managers give them each week in a hiring meeting. Keen not to waste their time, the recruiters preface why they are excited by the candidate we’re about to review.

Things that work for me:

  • Be someone. We review a lot of portfolios, so show us who you really are even if that may not be what you think “most companies” are looking for in a designer. Package your content in a manner that reflects you, and don’t play it safe by sticking to what’s fashionable. We want to hear your point of view; don’t get lost trying to be someone you think you should be. You won’t be happy for long, and the company that hired you will be disappointed when they see you struggling to be who they thought you were. You’re always your best self when you’re busy being you.
  • Say something. Imagine us sitting in our weekly meeting room at 5 p.m., the last meeting before home time. We open up your portfolio and see several screenshots of mobile interfaces under a project name. The work seems relevant but there’s no description of what we’re looking at. We don’t know what you did, what the goal was or how you feel about it. We’re left with questions and move on to the next portfolio. Never forget your user.
  • Don’t say too much. The reverse is equally bad because nobody has time to read and scroll through everything you’ve ever designed. Choose the work that tells your story best—be deliberate about what you share.

“Choose the work that tells your story best—be deliberate about what you share.”

Dan: My biggest piece of advice is to make sure that you craft your application for the role you’re applying for. While it’s easier to just attach a standard resume or portfolio, it’s important to really study the position you’re trying to get. How would you add value to the role? How do you uniquely meet the requirements? What’s the tone the company uses? All of this will help make your application more relevant to the person reading it.

Also, it’s good to know more about where our team is now and where we’re headed. We’ve been growing a lot in the past couple of years and are continuously looking to further establish design and increase its impact in the company. If you know this, you can talk about other fast-growth environments you’ve been in and how you played an instrumental role in establishing and growing design.

Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?


Dan: I wish more portfolios would tell a more complete and honest story about the person they’re representing. I think there’s a natural tendency to edit down a portfolio to the most attractive highlights. This logically makes sense in most contexts but not for an interview. During our interview process, we want to see both successes and failures. I want to see learnings. I want to see growth.

It’s really the failures that have the most interesting takeaways. It’s inevitable that you will have times in your career when things don’t go the way you expected them to, so we want to see how you dealt with them — what did you take away and what did you do to avoid making the same mistakes again in the future?

Similarly, I’m always looking to understand how self-aware a candidate is. In our team, feedback is important. If you’re self-aware and truly honest about your strengths and weaknesses, then I know we’ll have a good relationship because we can have candid conversations about whether things are working or not working.

Stanley: I’d love people to share more of themselves: What made an impression on you recently? What objects do you own that you love or hate? What are you reading? 

Say we make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?

Stanley: It begins with the screening stage, where our recruiters find the most relevant candidates. After that there's a portfolio review, and if that goes well, we'll bring the candidate on-site for an interview. The on-site has three parts:

  1. Meeting product managers, researchers, designers, and so on, to check soft and hard skills, as well as cultural fit.
  1. You collaborate on a design exercise.
  1. Finally, lunch with the team and a tour of the office.

Would you hire someone who is a cultural fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?

Stanley: There is a comment that I love from Brian Collins (from the Collins agency) about looking for a "culture add," not a "culture fit.” We want people who help grow and push the culture forward, not ones that simply fit.

As for industry experience, I think it can be a blessing and a curse, so I try to consider each:

  • if I meet someone who has little experience but loads of talent, then I’m assessing whether they have the grit to pursue it.
  • If I meet someone who has lots of experience, then I’m assessing how adaptable they are — can they adjust to different environments and situations?

“We want people who help grow and push the culture forward, not ones that simply fit.”

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?

Dan: Designers here typically operate within small teams on a day-to-day basis. These teams need to be self-sufficient if they’re going to make an impact and move quickly. I look for skills that would help complement the team they’d be joining. For every Simon, I want to find that Garfunkel.

Stanley: One of the specific skills I look for are writing skills. It helps ensure that your thinking is clear.

Last question: How do I get your jobs one day? 😉

Stanley: You could start by filling out an application at spotify.com/jobs and see where that takes you : )

If that feels too soon, learn how to talk about design and how to give creative direction. Being able to articulate design will help you bridge other functions, while providing creative direction will help you scale your design thinking across a team of designers.

Dan: In addition to the above, I’ll add just keep challenging yourself. The more you can evolve your own thinking and skill-set, the more unique you’ll be. The more unique you are, the more in-demand you’ll be.

___

 

Yo, Dan and Stanley! You are awesome. Beyond helping us get a job at Spotify, this is all great life advice in general. Thanks for the thought, time and effort.

If you want to work with these guys someday, along with many other wonderful people who create a product we all know and love, here are the main takeaways:

Nr. 1 - Confidently be and show who you are. Don’t try to fit a certain mold. Spotify wants to see who you really are and understand your unique point of view. Stand out and be remembered with a portfolio that represents you as a designer — your personality, your successes and your failures.

Nr. 2 - Provide context in your portfolio. Almost everyone in this interview series has expressed this, so you know it’s important. Briefly explain your process, your specific contribution if you worked on a team, the result and your feelings about the result. Don’t write a novel, just make it easy for Spotify to quickly understand what they’re looking at and how you approach your work.

Nr. 3 - Writing well is important. Spotify will be looking to see how you communicate and present yourself. Put thought and care into the words on your portfolio, emails and application.

Again, this is something I’ve heard several times in this interview series. If you’re not a great writer, it’d benefit you as a designer to take a class or practice to get better. Read my thoughts on writing as a designer in this article.

Nr. 4 - Show that you’ve studied and understand the position. Research the position you’re applying for and make your application reflect it. Shape your resume and cover letter to match Spotify’s tone. Share how you meet or can add value to the role. Make it clear that you care and you’ve done your homework.

Nr. 5 - Get involved in the design community. Spotify likes to see that you’re invested in the community, whether you write or contribute to cool projects or just have a passion for music.

I could talk to Dan and Stanley all day but I’ll let you go for now. Check back soon for more interviews in this series — and if you’re just jumping in, catch up on advice from Nike, MetaLab, Pentagram and more here.

Stay awesome & keep creating,
Tobias

 

April 4, 2017No Comments

How to Move to New York: The Guide

The time has finally come. I'm excited to share my first ebook with you.  ?

This book is the first I've ever written and it's meant to answer a question I receive on an almost daily basis: How do you move to New York City?

Let's Go to NYC is a step-by-step guide to help you move to New York from outside the States. It covers everything, from finding a job, calculating the cost of living, getting the right work visa, finding an apartment and planning for all the little details that come up when settling into a new city.

Th ebook isn't so much a city guide nor is it about personal stories, but it's about everything that I wish I would have known when I first came to New York. My goal was to write a book that I would have loved to purchase myself.

To get a quick chapter overview, go to:

→ letsgoto.nyc

For those who don't know about me and my story, here is a little intro:

A bit over six years ago I decided to move to New York City. I was born in Germany but lived in Austria at the time, where I ran my own design studio. Like many who moved to New York before me, I packed my bags without a plan but with big dreams. Fast forward to today and I’m still living and creating in NYC. 

As you can imagine, moving from a small town in Austria to one of the biggest and most expensive cities in the world wasn’t easy. One of many obstacles I had to overcome was the language barrier, because my English wasn’t great. On top of that, the only traditional education I had was high school, and I dropped out at the age of 15. I knew without a degree it would be harder for me to enter a new country known for its demanding immigration procedure.

But I did, and it was worth it. I learned a lot from my move to New York and even more in the years I’ve lived here since. Now I’m sharing everything I know with you, with the hope of making your move as easy and enjoyable as possible (in case you ever dreamed of living here, even if just temporarily).

Most of this information is available in some form on the internet but it’s either scattered, outdated or written in complicated language that is difficult to understand. In this guide I’ve provided all the information you need when planning your move, collected in the simplest form possible. No bullshit, no fluff. 

A few fun facts behind the book

1. It took a year to write it and it ended up being a little more than 150 pages long, but I ultimately managed to cut it down to just 106 pages. I wanted to keep it short and snappy, so it's an easy reference for you.

2. I didn't do all of it myself; I had a wonderful team who helped me. My editor Lizzy who basically saved me from the occasional depression (thank you for that). Then my designer/illustrator Lu who worked with me on the beautiful city illustrations of Manhattan & Brooklyn. And then of course, my lawyer friends who helped me go through the information multiple times to make sure I don't spread any bullshit. It was a big challenge, especially given that U.S. immigration law is changing constantly. So please, always consult a professional, especially when it comes to visas.

3. I designed the ebook myself in InDesign, for those who are wondering. I first started with a pretty fancy layout (I'm a designer after all) but slowly realized I needed to simplify to make it work for ebook reading on a Kindle, for example. The cover is inspired by those classic pink, green or grey legal forms you probably know. As romantic as it might sound, moving to New York will essentially come down to filling out forms, hundreds of them. I've always had a little obsession with forms, so it felt right.

A few words on the price

I thought long about the pricing of the guide, especially considering it took me almost a year to finish and the hard work of a couple more people. I settled on $39 which is a little more than two cocktails in New York ($15 each). This might be expensive for some, but ultimately it will save you hundreds of dollars in the process. Please do NOT purchase the ebook if you are NOT seriously considering moving; it would be a waste of money for you.

Questions?

Check out the FAQ section on the Let's Go To NYC website. And please do forward this page to anyone who you might think is interested in moving to New York. 

In any case, thank you so much again for supporting my writing. All money that will be made on this ebook (well, at least what's left after taxes) will be reinvested in this blog, which I currently keep alive independently.

Stay awesome & keep creating,
Tobias

April 3, 2017No Comments

How to Get a Job at MetaLab

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?

Next up is MetaLab.

MetaLab creates products and interfaces that are attractive, thoughtful and a joy to use. They work with the world's top companies — just look at Slack, Uber, Amazon, TED, Apple, and Google, to name a few.

Oliver and Ryan, creative directors at MetaLab, have grown the design team from two people to 30. They play a big role not only in hiring, but also leading the design team and overall quality of MetaLab’s projects. So it worked out perfectly that both Oliver and Ryan were up for answering my questions about getting a job at MetaLab.

Hey Ryan and Oliver, let’s get right to it. Looking at your current design team, how many of them came through internal referrals and headhunting, and how many came through the traditional application process?

Honestly, it’s a huge mix. We’ve only had a more formal talent team within the last 14 months. Before that, it was a mix of a few people (Oliver, Ryan, Tim, Elexa, Andrew) scouring the internet from time to time. Basically it was whoever had time. Now at the size we’re at, we’re lucky to have Georgia, who heads up the design hunt. She does a bulk of the communication once we identify someone (? Blessed! Additional thanks to Elexa and Erica!). Recruiters sometimes get a bit of a bad rep, but they’re incredibly helpful for a team. The logistics for grooming through new candidates alone is a nightmare.

Candidates who’ve been referred or headhunted tend to make it the furthest in our screening process, but the bulk (90%+) still come to us through the traditional application process via our careers page or a third party site. In terms of searching for people, we find a pretty big chunk of talent via Dribbble. Being such an active design community, it’s a great tool for reaching out.

How important is a visual and complete portfolio for you? Can I get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at MetaLab?

Although “portfolio” can mean different things to different people, it’s super important that we have an easy way to view a collection of your best work. Going the extra mile and making sure it’s easy to consume, well-presented, and filled with helpful context about your projects tells us a lot about your communication skills. Ideally a portfolio should be more than just a collection of pretty thumbnails and mockups — it should speak to your problem solving skills.

For more senior talent (who will be primarily off the tools), a different type of portfolio is OK, but still fundamentally necessary. It’s hard to fully understand and appreciate the scope of one’s accomplishments without anything to help tell your story when you’re not there.

Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?

Seeing more work presented in case study format would be so helpful. Major bonus points for an animated prototype/flow. There are more than enough tools out there to add motion to your work (Principle, Framer, Flinto, etc.). Also, positioning yourself properly in terms of skill and experience. Trying to come off incredibly senior when you’re actually quite junior could end up hurting you. Be honest about the work you’ve done, what you’ve learned, and the things you’re interested in learning more about.

"Seeing more work presented in case study format would be so helpful."

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?

Obviously we love well-rounded people and if you have passions outside of design that’s great. If design is your one true love, that’s OK too! We’re not looking for anything specific — whether in terms of interests or engagement with online communities. What’s most important is that you have a healthy, sustainable approach to your work. It’s important to spend quality time outside of your tools, the office and work projects so that when you need to bring your A-game, you’ve got the energy, focus and creativity to do so. So to answer your question, yes, we do value when someone is invested in other interests or hobbies. It’s pretty cool when they’re able to bring those learnings back to their team and projects.

What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at MetaLab? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us! (:

Presentations! Both in terms of form and content. Our application process involves a test project and it’s surprising how often people deliver it in a format that makes it hard for us to consume (different combinations of folders, documents, and file types). If you’ve taken the time to put together all that work, don’t skimp on the presentation — make it easy for us to look at and understand what you did. In that sense the presentation itself is an additional way for us to assess your communication skills.

And remember: You should be showing and explaining your process and work thoroughly. The exercise isn’t just about the final product, it’s about how you got there. We want to understand how you think, solve problems and how you deliver that information back to an audience.

Do you have a favorite story of an application that really stuck with you?

One of our more memorable hires was for one of our current designers. She was still wrapping up her schooling when we interviewed her and ended up offering her the job. She participated in a lot of company events for months before she was even technically employed. We definitely didn’t expect her to participate, but when she did it was all sorts of awesome.

Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?

The first step after we review your application and portfolio is an introductory call with our people ops team; they’ll want to hear about your background and why you’re interested in MetaLab. Next up is the test project that we’ve mentioned above — you’ll be given one week to complete it. If the test project looks promising you’ll get an opportunity to meet our creative directors for a more in-depth interview. Since we hire remote designers, any of these interviews could be on a video call or in-person, depending on where you’re located. 

Would you hire someone who is a cultural fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?

We’re huge on culture fit (i.e. no ego and you’re not an asshole) but pretty solid design chops are necessary for us to move ahead with a hire. Whether you’re straight out of school or a seasoned designer, you’re bringing something special to the design team. 

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?

Great question. I think at the core, we’re looking for people who are passionate about product design. It might sound silly, but you can really tell who sees this as more than just a paycheck. Those who go the extra mile in their applications really stand out. There hasn’t been a formula developed for a perfect hire. We just look for genuinely nice, passionate and talented people.

How do you think MetaLab is different when hiring new talent compared to other tech companies or design studios?

We look for all our hires to be well-rounded product designers, not specialists. It’s core to our process for designers to be able to participate in projects from concept to completion. We don’t hire designers who just do UX or just do visual design. You should be interested in growing and practicing a broad set of skills.

"We look for all our hires to be well-rounded product designers, not specialists."

And finally, do you hire people from outside the U.S., either on a remote basis or by helping them get a visa? I’m sure many of us are wondering about that.

A third of our design team works remotely outside of Victoria and Vancouver, where our offices are located. We’re also open to helping people make the move to Canada if that’s their preference, once they’ve worked remotely with us for at least six months.

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Ryan and Oliver - thank you! You’ve provided some of the most unique answers in this series, (I’ve found it fascinating to compare these interviews to see how each company is different) and I know they’ll be a helpful to anyone hoping to work on your team at MetaLab. 

If that’s you, dear reader, here are some takeaways to remember:

Nr. 1 - MetaLab hires through Dribbble. 

Unlike many companies featured in this series who have said otherwise, MetaLab notices outstanding work on Dribbble. Put your stuff out there and keep it updated.

Nr. 2 - Animation in your portfolio will get you major bonus points.

“Major bonus points” being Ryan and Oliver’s words exactly. If you want to make an impression, add motion to your portfolio work to explain how and why things work the way they do. Think of motion as a tool to give the viewer context, rather than just adding motion for the sake of adding motion.

Nr. 3 - Polish your presentation.

MetaLab takes note about how you deliver your work. That means the presentation matters as much as the work itself. Spend time refining the presentation and make sure your message comes through.

Nr. 4 - MetaLab hires remote designers.

This may be nice news for you!

Nr. 5 - MetaLab is looking for designers with diverse skillsets — not specialists. 

This is interesting because the sentiment “jack of all trades, master of none” is often thrown around in the design world, as if being good at several things is negative. Not the case at MetaLab. They are looking for product designers with broad skills who can see a project through every phase.

That’s all for now, friends. Stay tuned for more interviews with fantastic companies you might work for someday. 

Keep making & creating,
Tobias

March 28, 2017No Comments

How to get a job at X

Sorry, but this interview is not available anymore.

But that's okay, there are many other interesting interviews with companies who love to share their knowledge and love to hire you.

For example, Nike, Electronic Arts, Refinery29, Airbnb or even Pentagram. And don't forget, there are many more coming within the next couple weeks.

Stay awesome & Happy job hunting,
Tobias

March 16, 2017No Comments

How to get a Design job at Refinery29

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:

  1. Through applications submitted on our careers page
  2. Through personal contact where someone on our team is personally given a resume/portfolio
  3. 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.

Besides a photo studio, R29 also has everything you need to get ready.

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.

Checkout some of the work the R29 creative team works on at http://www.creative.r29.com

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.

R29 even has it's own photo studios

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:

  1. First get screened by someone from our recruiting team by email/phone
  2. Come in for an in-person interview with one of the directors of the team you’re applying for (about 1 hour)
  3. 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)
  4. Come back in for a second interview to meet with a couple members of the team who could potentially be peers (1-2 hours)

The R29 offices feel more like one big living room. You might need to sit on this couch for your interview there.

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 (:

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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,