How To Properly Apply for a Design Position

Back in 2004, I wrote an article called “How to Make Friends and Influence Art Directors” that continues to get a surprising amount of traffic. In the course of opening up a new design position at Newsvine/msnbc.com and seeing the applications, however, I feel like I need to update the article for 2010.

We’ve gotten so many poor applications for this position that it really makes me wonder if designers today are aware of how art directors actually hire people.

If you’re a designer and you’ll ever be looking for a new job in your life, you should read this.

First, let’s start with what matters and what doesn’t. There are exactly three things that matter to me when I evaluate you as an applicant:

  • Is the stuff in your portfolio well designed and in keeping with the creative style I’m looking for? Note, “stuff” could be your blog, your personal site, or even fake clients you’ve done fake work for. It does not mean how big your clients are or how many projects you’ve worked on. As far as evaluating your design work itself, all that matters is how your stuff looks and feels.
  • Are you a cool person to work with? This sort of thing can come out in a personal interview but it can also come through blog entries, tweets, or anything else that shows your personality off. It generally does not come from a cover letter though as I know you’re specifically crafting those words with the intent of landing a certain position.
  • Do I know anyone personally or professionally who can vouch for you being a cool person to work with? The answer to this question does not need to be yes, but it of course always helps to know someone who knows someone. This is why.

Everything else? Doesn’t matter.

Résumé? Doesn’t matter. Where you went to school? Doesn’t matter. What societies you are a part of? Doesn’t matter. None of this sort of stuff matters unless and until you make it past the big three tests above… or at least the first two. Does that mean you shouldn’t spend time on your résumé? Of course you should, because if you get past the first stage, someone will probably look at it. Just don’t think it’s going to be your ticket towards getting noticed or getting in the door. I’ve seen résumés of design instructors with 10 years teaching experience and masters degrees in design who have the portfolios of junior high school kids. This is why we pay little attention to résumés.

How should I apply then?

The following, in my mind, is the perfect job application:

Dear ______,

I’m very interested in the ______ position at ______. I’ve used/admired the service for _____ and would love an opportunity to be part of its design team (you can substitute this sentence with anything that makes you sound uncommonly qualified or excited for this position). My stuff can be viewed here:

Blog/Personal Site: http://____
Portfolio with samples: http://____
Twitter account: http://____
Favorite thing I’ve done recently: http://____

I’ve attached my résumé as well if you’re interested in my background or who I’ve worked with. Look forward to hearing from you.

Thanks,

________

That’s it. No long preamble. No links buried in a PDF or Word document. No hoops for the art director or HR person to jump through in order to see your stuff. If you want to add some more flavor towards the end, go ahead, but that’s the general recipe.

Almost none of the applications I have received follow anything close to this form, so I can only assume most people simply don’t know how they are being judged. Other professions are undoubtedly different, but in design, it’s simply a question of how sick your stuff is and how easy you are to work with. Give a hiring manager a good impression immediately on both of those fronts and you’re going to get an interview.

P.S. If you’ve already applied for the position mentioned above and haven’t heard back, it’s likely your style might not fit with what we’re looking for. It doesn’t mean we don’t admire your design skills.

P.P.S. If you haven’t applied for the position above and would like to, please do! We’re looking to hire the right person immediately.

P.P.P.S. On a related subject, besides Authentic Jobs and 37signals, are there any other great places to post design-related job listings these days? If you know of any, please let me know.

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44 Responses:

  1. [...] How To Properly Apply for a Design Position September 2nd, 2010 Mike Davidson tells us how to properly apply for a design position. [...]

  2. Shane says:

    Superb post. I wish that I would have known this about 7 years ago.

  3. Agree completely, Mike. Hiring good designers is very hard, because there are so many that just don’t meet expectations.

    I would also say how one presents themselves as a total brand is really important — everything should have flavor, including the design of their resume, even if the content itself is not overly influential. I personally cannot stand when a designer send me a resume written in a basic Word template. It shows a complete lack of attention to detail.

    As for cover letters, 90% of them feel as though they were written by an SEO spam robot. Again, this is an opportunity to not just say the right things, but let your personality come through.

    Along the same lines, and you mentioned this above, is how they present themselves in social media. Are their blog entries and tweets thoughtful and useful, or are they selfish blathering? It provides real insight into their personality.

    Great post. The industry needs more of this type of thing from those who actually do the hiring, and it’s precisely why I’ve written so much about it on my own site.

    (Also, regarding job sites, we’ve used Comm Arts job site in the past with success. I personally had zero luck with Authentic Jobs.)

  4. Paul says:

    Behance is a great site to post jobs:

    http://www.behance.net/joblist/about

  5. Chris says:

    Is a cover letter necessary? I feel with how social the internet is, that should be your cover letter. I always felt a cover letter is suppose to show the employer my personality which is now all online.

  6. Mike – Krop (http://www.krop.com/) is worth checking out too.

  7. Mike D. says:

    All: Thanks for the tips on the other sites. Will post there as well.

    Chris: Yeah, that’s a good point. It’s not really so much of a cover letter as just an “introductory paragraph or two”. The sample text I wrote in the entry is basically the cover letter.

  8. The only trouble I see with your intro letter is that most job ads request something to the effect of “write to us and say why you’re a good fit.” Two sentences doesn’t do this, especially when one of them says “I’ve admired you…”

    Also, I’ve heard recruiters (client-side and recruitment agencies) say that when writing a cover letter, be sure to address all the points of the job post. If they’re looking for A, B, C, and D, you should address A, B, C, and D. That’s at least an additional sentence, if not an entirely new paragraph.

    And of course there’s the age-old caveat that EVERY principal/hiring director/creative director is looking for something different. People in general, and design pros in specific, are very hard to classify. Therefore take heed whenever using something that resembles a form letter.

  9. [...] How To Properly Apply for a Design Position | Mike Industries [...]

  10. Mike D. says:

    Prescott: I think the whole “tell us why you’re a good fit” thing is even more of a form letter. That’s just not the way art directors hire people. It’s always portfolio first. That said, I’m totally ok with adding all of the things you mention to the *end* of the cover letter/email if you want. None of that hurts. It just hurts if it obscures the links to your actual work. The rule is that the work must be front and center and easy to click through. Anything you want to do after that is fine.

  11. q says:

    excellent post. learned a lot. but what if you’re a recently-laid-off oldster? (seems no one wants to hire someone with more experience than they have…)

  12. Q – If someone is not willing to hire you because you “have more experience”, then that’s one of two things:

    1.) You’re not good enough, and it’s not about experience, it’s about skill.
    2.) The hiring manager is a biased asshole who you don’t want to work for anyway.

    The best managers, like the best sports coaches, will take the best available player. You’re either not the best player, or they’re not a good coach.

  13. q says:

    thanks! well-said

  14. tripdragon says:

    Sooooooo. Cool person is the actual requirement huh? Sheep? Here sheepy sheepy sheep.
    Now I will act like every other normal commentary person. I whole hardily agree with your points above. I don’t want to work with a weird person. Even if they have excellent skills if I can’t have them be just like me forget it.

    Yawn….~~~~ I’ll pass on any normal place then. I want crazy smart even stupid out-there people to work for and with. Those that have the hutzpah to create new and conquer.

  15. Mike D. says:

    tripdragon: Uhhh, I don’t mean “cool” as in “popular with the ladies” or “gets invited to all the parties”. I mean cool as in “we will get along easily and without stress”.

  16. Hey man! Thanks for this article. As a student planning on eventually entering the field of design, this will do wonders more then a formal education. I love how you can get hired based on your personality in todays culture, pretty beast. I wish you luck in your hiring,

    Kyle

  17. henrique says:

    This is excellent.
    Thanks for this.

  18. Thanks for the advice. Really appreciate the cover letter template.
    NoJobMonsterHere.com is another place to check out that’s in beta: http://www.nojobmonsterhere.com

  19. HP says:

    Great advice.

    Quick question though: what about those jobs that require we apply through their HR site? I find that not only do people in HR not “get” creative positions, but only the top selections make it through to the department that’s hiring. How do you get your application through HR and to the creative director?

  20. Alvin Martinez says:

    “Q – If someone is not willing to hire you because you “have more experience”, then that’s one of two things:

    1.) You’re not good enough, and it’s not about experience, it’s about skill.
    2.) The hiring manager is a biased asshole who you don’t want to work for anyway.”

    You forgot 2 more things:

    3.) Even at 40+ years old, you are too old to work for us even though you run rings around the 23-year old designer willing to work for peanuts.

    4.) You have too much experience, hence the risk of getting bored easily and heading off to another gig is to high for us to take a chance on you.

    ……

    Both of these are bogus reasons, in my book.

  21. @Alvin — #3 clearly falls into the “biased asshole” category I stated above. #4 assumes the hiring manager is legally mentally handicapped and should probably get a job as a crash test dummy for golf carts rather than work in this industry.

  22. [...] Mike Davidson: “Résumé? Doesn’t matter. Where you went to school? Doesn’t matter. What societies you are a part of? Doesn’t matter. None of this sort of stuff matters unless and until you make it past the big three tests above… or at least the first two. Does that mean you shouldn’t spend time on your résumé? Of course you should, because if you get past the first stage, someone will probably look at it.” [...]

  23. Armando says:

    @Kevin and Alvin:

    3.) Even at 40+ years old, you are too old to work for us even though you run rings around the 23-year old designer willing to work for peanuts.

    This is particular true in countries like the one I live in (Venezuela).

    Even 30 is getting to be too old.

  24. Charles Law says:

    Nice and simple post. Good recommendations :)

    Krop is a great place to look for a job.
    And the Boxes and Arrows job board.

  25. Kathryn says:

    Best part, ever: “it’s simply a question of how sick your stuff is”

  26. I enjoyed the post, and as an old school design girl I still use http://creativehotlist.com a joblist site from Communication Arts.

  27. [...] Brian Hoff isn’t the typical graphic designer. The website he writes, The Design Cubicle, encourages discussion in the contemporary issues of graphic design (is there a problem with free fonts?) and educates his readers while showing off his portfolio and pointing his readers to off-site simple how-tos (though they tend to be a little wacky, like how to properly apply for a design job). [...]

  28. [...] How To Properly Apply for a Design Position [...]

  29. Sebastian says:

    Ok, how’s this for a question then: I do work for a company, but none of the stuff is “portfolio-ready” work. It is all bits and pieces that have been added on to other’s work and/or overwritten by others so I can’t claim any ownership at all. (For the record, this is more of a development job too)

    So what do I do? I have no real portfolio, but feel pretty qualified for all the jobs I’ve been applying for. Any hints/help?

  30. [...] Davidson has updated a post from 2004 to help you out of work designers get a job. It’s kind of gratifying to see how he hires because, although I’m not looking for a [...]

  31. Jono says:

    No matter what, do not lie on your application or resumè! My company background checks on EVERYTHING – we had to pass on awesome, cool talent b/c someone lied about having a MFA… which would not have been highly impactful anyway. I see lots if folks with zero degree out perform folks with masters, MFAs, and MBAs. Your degree is not worth making up.

  32. Mike D. says:

    Sebastian: That’s a totally different animal if it’s a development position. I can’t speak to how people judge others when design isn’t involved. My advice would be to work up a nice collection of stuff that shows off who you are and maybe quickly mentions stuff you’ve done. Well presented blogs are great for this.

  33. Karl says:

    I wouldn’t hire anyone who used urban terminology such as ‘pretty beast’ incorrectly and out of context (as above).

  34. Michel says:

    http://jobs.smashingmagazine.com/

    – you can post job listings here, too… :)

  35. I love everything about this post. It’s straight-forward and to the point.

    I aspire to be an art director one day and I already know that I would hire someone based on these same guidelines. Are they a cool, fun, and easy person to work with and do they have great work? It’s basic and something that you will simply know when you come across it.

    I feel that a lot of designers get caught up in being too “professional” and end up sucking up to their potential employers instead of saying “Hey, look at me. I’m awesome.” and proving it. If the match isn’t there then move on. Not every director is going to work with every designer. Personalities need to match up for the sake of both parties.

    When applying for positions out of college I went on quite a few interviews. In a sense I felt that I was interviewing the director as well. I didn’t want some random job that would hire me. I wanted to work somewhere that I wanted to work and with someone that I wanted to work with. I feel designers should do the same when searching for a boss. The better relationship you have with your director, the better the work will be for the both of you.

  36. Sylvia says:

    Hi Mike, thanks for the post. I wholeheartedly agree with you. I follow a very similar draft as yours.

    The biggest challenge for me is the subject line of the email. I usually resort to ‘Job Title’ | ‘My Name’. It’s safe and boring.

    As an hiring Art Director, how do you feel about subject lines? Can they be creative or is it annoying? Do you go through all applicants? If you don’t, what drives you to click?

  37. [...] you are a designer that is looking for work now or in the future you need to read this article. It is written by Mike Davidson, the founder and CEO of Newsvine. He had a design position opening [...]

  38. Mike D. says:

    Sylvia: A subject line doesn’t matter all that much to me. You can get creative with it if you want, but if it ends up on the cheesy side, that could work against you. I go through all applicants who provide a single URL to click on. After clicking on that URL, I can usually decide within a few seconds whether or not to continue.

  39. [...] thoughts and shares some really cool found items dealing with everything from design tools, pitching for a job, social media etiquette, or how to just do email better. Many [...]

  40. algro says:

    As a just-graduate: Would you include recommendation letters from internships and graduation-grades to the CV/resume ?

  41. [...] Davidson, Founder, CEO, & designer of Newsvine…. I wrote a full post about it here: http://www.mikeindustries.com/bl…… but in short, I look for three things:Is the stuff in your portfolio well designed and in [...]

  42. Andy says:

    Really awesome post that came at the perfect time for me – thanks Mike. D (Beastie Boy?).

    To contribute:
    I feel like the definition of ‘cool’ in the sense used is:

    Giver more than a taker
    Complimenter more than a complainer
    Calmly self-assured more than overcompensating
    Energetically relaxed more than anxiously cautious
    Responsible more than devious
    Team member more than manipulator
    Optimistic more than pessimistic

    Wow, as I look back over that list I used to be all the things on the right. Through study and discipline I’d say I’m more on the left now.

    Thanks again Mike. Any chance you could tell me if my site http://www.the-and.com passes the few seconds test?

  43. Mike D. says:

    Hi Andy. Sorry about the slow response, but yes! Your portfolio passes the few seconds test. Very easy to move around, and your stuff looks nice. Nice work!

  44. [...] Article: How To Properly Apply for a Design Position [...]

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