The biggest mistakes designers make when applying for a job
Article posted on September 19, 2019
Through our How to Get a Job at X series, we talk to leading companies about how to get a job on their design team. In every interview, we ask them to share their pet peeves – the biggest mistakes they see designers make during the hiring process. And while most of it seems like common sense, we continue hearing about the same simple mistakes.
In looking at the collective responses from companies like BBDO, Nike, Airbnb, Microsoft and Pentagram, we've learned what companies today want in a designer for their team. We’ve learned what they don’t want to see in your portfolio. Now we’re sharing the potentially make-or-break missteps designers make in their interviews and job applications, so you can avoid them during your next job search.
"I will only be more interested in you if you show genuine interest in us."
1. Failing to ask questions
“Not asking us any questions is a huge red flag,” says Maureen Edmonds from Red Antler. "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.”
Everything you read online will suggest preparing questions for your interview. Having a few questions in mind is helpful, so you have something to fall back on. But your practiced questions may feel stiff or forced if the conversation doesn’t naturally lead there, or the other person might answer them before you get a chance to ask.
The better way to ask smart questions is to be mentally present in your conversation with the hiring manager. When your nerves are high and you’re focused on trying to impress, your focus shifts inward. You’re so intent on surviving the conversation, you forget to actually have one. Remembering to listen and mentally process the conversation helps in two ways: It calms your nerves, as you focus on what’s being said rather than what you’re doing wrong, and it helps you ask thoughtful questions. You pick up on details and cues you wouldn't notice when you're too busy practicing your rehearsed lines and questions. Asking related questions within context makes you appear sharp and aware, qualities every company wants in their hire.
But don’t worry too much about asking the wrong questions. Just ask what comes to mind. Companies simply want to know you are curious and care about the position you are interviewing for.
“Ask, ask, ask,” says Simon Mogren from BBDO. “There are really no stupid questions and I will only be more interested in you if you show genuine interest in us.”
2. Lazy mistakes & lack of attention to detail
This is a big one. Many companies pointed out sloppy mistakes that could have been avoided with a little more care or a simple proofread. Some of these little mistakes can be redeemed later. Others ruin your chances before the interview process even begins. Here are the most common ones to watch out for:
Forgetting basic details and requirements
“We often ask our applicants to submit a cover letter, their CV and a link to their portfolio, but the number of people that forget at least one of those items is staggering," says Laura Cetina from Microsoft. "Perhaps a stellar CV and portfolio can make up for a missing cover letter, but the broader point is an important one: by not paying attention to the details, you are not demonstrating real interest in the job.”
I've seen the same issue when hiring for my team. It seems obvious to include your name, your contact information and all the pieces listed in the job posting. But designers often forget – even on their own portfolio.
“Once, we got a CV with no name and incorrect contact details," says George Cave from KISKA. "We loved the portfolio, but couldn’t reach the applicant!”
Copy & paste mistakes
“The biggest turnoff is when you can tell an application has been sent around to a bunch of places," say Helen Rice and Josh Nissenboim from Fuzzco. "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.”
No matter how well-crafted your cover letter or email is, people can tell when it's a template. Take the few extra minutes to personalize your message to the company and position. Insert a few specific details that make it clear this email is directed specifically to them, and I promise you will receive more positive responses.
And if you don't have the time to do that, at least make sure you don't copy and paste the wrong names.
“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," says Maureen from Red Antler. "I don’t recommend this approach, but if you do this, quadruple check to make sure you’re addressing the correct person or company!”
“For Skype interviews, time zone confusion can happen," says Mel Cheng from KISKA. "Better be safe than sorry. Double-check yours before making a final appointment!”
That goes for interviews, too. If you miss an interview or show up late, you won't always get a second chance.
Applying for the wrong position
“Believe it or not, we’ve had a few fashion designers applying for our design positions, simply because it mentions the word ‘retail,'" say Elyse Viotto and Kevin Clark from Shopify. "It’s surprising how little research some people do when applying for jobs these days.”
When we are deep into a job search, sending out multiple emails and application forms a day, it becomes easier to make these mistakes. In an attempt to move fast and cast our net wide, we do ourselves a disservice. Most of these little mistakes can be easily avoided with an extra hour or two of your time.
Take the time to research the company and position you're applying for. Take the time to read through your application and communication. However, don’t let your fear of messing up discourage you from taking the risk and hitting that send button. I may be a little more lax than some of these companies, but I’m willing to overlook a little typo if I see promise in you and your work. Be conscious and thorough, but don’t let perfectionism get in your way. Just do your best, and maybe ask a friend to proofread.
3. Being passive or unprepared
The people who seem unprepared or uninterested in the job are the first to be cut. That’s no surprise. If you don’t care enough about this specific company or position to at least research it beforehand, what can you expect?
“Being passive or uninformed isn’t a good look,” says Simon Endres from Red Antler. “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.”
Ideally, we apply for companies we are highly interested in and familiar with, that align with our values. But we don’t always have that luxury. Sometimes we just have to put out a line and see who bites. However, to the people on the other end, it’s immediately obvious when you don’t know or care much about what they do. If a job posting looks interesting to you but you’re not familiar with the company, or vice versa, it’s always worth doing your research first.
“I sometimes see designers applying for a job at Lyft because they think it’s a cool company (which it is, don’t get me wrong), without really considering the level of drive you need to have to thrive in this team and to tackle the challenges we’re rallying around,” says Audrey Liu from Lyft. “Lyft is a high-growth startup and, as most of us know, that’s no joke. There are tons of ups and downs, so if you aren’t deeply committed to creating huge impact in the world, you simply will not survive.”
"I am reviewing you just as much as your work and design thinking. It’s important to relax and present yourself as genuinely as you can."
4. Stiffening up & failing to show personality
On the other hand, we can be so focused on preparing and showing our interest in the company, we forget the company is interested in who we are too.
“What I see a lot is that nerves or whatever keeps people from showing their real personality,” says Aaron Stump from InVision. “Just be genuine, be yourself. I am reviewing you just as much as your work and design thinking. It’s important to relax and present yourself as genuinely as you can.”
The fact that our personality is under examination can be nerve-wracking. But don’t let that keep you from showing personality at all. As Daniel Myer from BMW suggests, remember you were invited to this interview for a reason. The company sees something in you, so trust that and focus on being yourself.
“I’ve observed designers be too tense or nervous, and it drowns out their personality and creativity,” says Daniel. “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.”
If you’ve done your research and thoughtfully prepared for your interview, rest in the confidence that gives you. You’ve put in the work and that’s the best you can do. Now, focus on being genuine and making a connection with the person you’re talking to. As Brian Collins from COLLINS puts it:
“[Applicants] assume we’re only interested in the work they’ve made or their resume,” says Brian. “That’s part of it, for sure. But we want to know what they’re reading, the ideas they’re excited about.”
"So many people promise to make us baked goods if we hire them. Why??"
5. Trying too hard
Showing personality is good, but as with everything, there’s a fine balance. As designers we feel pressure to be creative and unique when applying for a job. Sometimes that works, but it can be risky. Take it too far and you sacrifice professionalism.
“It’s also annoying when people say a bunch of silly stuff and expect us to take them seriously," say Helen and Josh from Fuzzco. "So many people promise to make us baked goods if we hire them. Why?? We just want people to be themselves.”
Companies don’t need grand gestures or wacky stunts to capture their attention. Unless you’re confident it’s the right move and you can execute it well, don’t go to crazy lengths. The person hiring you wants to know who you are, and that can be accomplished in a sincere email or conversation. Let that remove some of the pressure.
“Talking about how you’re ‘hacking your dreams while dreaming up hacks’ or something similar doesn’t tell me who you are and why you’re the right person for the job,” says Laura from Microsoft. “Keep it simple.”
That goes for your work as well. With all eyes on us, we can become defensive about our work or go overboard trying to sell ourselves. Don't worry about proving anything. Just be honest and confident about what you have to offer.
“I’ve seen many people, especially juniors, selling their work way too hard,” says Maitê Albuquerque from Mother. “Trying to make me see how good the job they did is right. I believe that the work speaks way more than any justification. Let your work talk.”
6. Too much ego
No matter how experienced you are, remember the person interviewing you is an expert in their field and their business. If you're an expert too, it will be obvious without much effort from you. In any case, it’s safer to err on the side of humility.
“Egos,” says Flywheel's Andrew Trew of her pet peeves. “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 would venture to say I see more misplaced ego from young designers than from those who have the chops to back it up. If your work hasn't yet been rejected, if your job hasn't been made redundant, if you haven't been turned down for a job you thought you were perfectly qualified for – all of which comes with experience – it’s easy to think you’re the most gifted, deserving designer you know. And a little bit of that confidence is healthy. But too much and you end up missing out. That goes for your interview, the position you apply for and the salary you expect.
“I think, as someone just coming out of school, go after a job you’ll enjoy doing and work your way up,” says Tom Huveners from Bobbi Brown. “Don’t turn down jobs because they don’t pay enough right away. Work hard and you’ll get there.”
Most of these tips apply to any industry. In any job interview, it’s important to remember the person interviewing you wants you to succeed. They need to fill the position and they reached out to you for a reason. Providing you care enough to put in the work and pay attention to the details, you will do just fine.
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the author of this blog, nice to meet you!