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 (especiallyPentagram) 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,
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the founder of DESK, nice to meet you!