12 Interview Tips for Young Designers

May 15th marked 15 years as a professional-someone-actually-pays-me-to-do-this designer. I still remember the day I walked into my first real design job and sat in my cubicle. But that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t passed that job interview.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been fortunate to go back to my alma mater and meet with the senior design students. Looking through their portfolios and providing feedback is something I really enjoy. At the most recent session, I and a couple of other alumni/experienced designers imparted some interview advice. 

  1. Don’t oversell yourself
    The interviewer already knows you’re just out of school (or just about to graduate). Don’t lie and say you know how to do something you don’t know how to do. It might land you the job, but you’ll eventually be found out. “Fake it ’till you make it,” is bad advice. You will be found out. And it won’t end well for anyone.
  2. No excuses
    When I’m hiring someone it’s for one reason: to make my job easier. The last thing I want is someone who always has an excuse for something not being done, or not being done correctly.
  3. Take any critique you are given
    Feedback is a gift. More likely than not, the person giving you feedback is someone who has more experience than you. Listen to them. They’re trying to help you. They have nothing to gain by giving you bad advice. You don’t necessarily have to implement their suggestions, but at least listen to their reasons.
  4. Help solve their problems
    The only reason you’re being interviewed is that the company/agency/whatever has more work than man/womanpower. They need help solving problems. If you can demonstrate that you can do this, it can only help. Ask what some of their pain points are. And then give good suggestions on how they can address the problem. Don’t wait to be asked, “how would you fix this?” Be proactive.
  5. Ask questions (but understand the company/role)
    Asking questions shows you’re engaged. You’re not there just because you want a design job. Asking the right questions tells the interviewer that you want to work at their company. And it can help demonstrate your problem-solving skills.
  6. Physical vs. digital portfolio?
    This is the age-old question (well, within the past few years). More and more, we’re moving to a digital-only world. If most of your work is print work, then by all means, bring a physical portfolio. Being able to hand someone a perfectly printed piece is great, especially if the beauty of the piece doesn’t appear in photographs. But for interactive designers, showing your work on a screen is important.
  7. Tailor your portfolio for the job
    This might be a tricky one if you’re just out of school. You probably have one or two examples of a wide array of design styles/projects. But, remove the “artsy” design projects if you’re going to a company where everyone dresses nicely. Knowing your audience is wildly important in design. I’ve seen some portfolios that don’t grasp this concept.
  8. Explain your process
    One of the things the interviewer is looking for is how you arrived at the solution you are presenting. Why did you choose that typeface? Were you told to use those colors? What program(s) did you use? You could potentially teach the interviewer something. And we’re all in the process of learning better ways to do our jobs.
  9. Tell a story with your portfolio
    We’re all visual communicators. Tell a story with a beginning middle and end. Your portfolio should have a flow to it. Not only are you showing what you did, but explain why you did it.
  10. Don’t show old work
    The interviewer isn’t interested in seeing bad work. They want to see your best. If you know you can do better, do it.
    Side note, if you’re working on a project that is going to be a big part of your portfolio, make sure not to include anything that might timestamp the design.
    I designed a couple of apparel/souvenir catalogs for the Red Sox (ooohh, a big globally-recognized brand). And on one of them, I put a giant “2006” on the cover. Before I knew it, I had to take that out of my book.
  11. Show YOUR work
    Don’t try to sneak someone else’s work into your portfolio and try to pass it off as your own. You have no idea who is sitting on the other side of the table. If you worked within a team, explain your role in the project.
    I once had someone present work with elements taken from another source, a source I had worked with in the past. When I asked the interviewee where those elements came from, he took credit. He lost the job right then and there.
  12. Have a professionally printed resume as a leave behind
    In this day of online applications and emailing PDFs, having a physical leave behind can be important. The person interviewing you probably has hundreds of resumes clogging up his/her inbox. Handing over a hard copy of your resume can keep your name close at hand on their desk.

You’re not going to be the perfect fit for every job. And that’s okay.

But there are plenty of opportunities out there that align perfectly with your skillset and your personality. These tips will help you land the position you want.

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