It should come as no surprise that the Career Phase is the part of the program that generates by orders of magnitude the greatest volume of questions from our students. Those last couple of weeks (as well as the few that immediately follow graduation) can be a stressful time for the entry-level designer, and we always receive a wide variety of questions covering everything from portfolio prep to company culture fit.
Tim, Haley, thanks so much for joining us! We’ll get into the nitty gritty in just a moment. But right off the bat:
What’s the most important thing a young designer should know when putting together their first portfolio?
Tim Gilligan: It’s important to understand what your value proposition is. What have you done? what are your stories? I’ve seen people come from all different backgrounds, but everyone has a story.
Haley Smith: The big things for me is having a portfolio that’s easy to navigate. I know that sounds strange, but it’s important that your whole portfolio should not try to be too clever. Let your work be clever, let the project be clever, but keep the portfolio itself easy to navigate.
TG: Just be straightforward. Clever gets lost.
How many pieces should it contain?
HS: I think two to three projects is probably plenty. Two more detailed case studies, and the ability to improvise or talk through the third.
TG: The key is to frame up each project as a problem. What were you trying to solve? What was the issue? And moreover, it’s not just about what did your team do? What did YOU do? We is great, but I is as important.
HS: A common problem I see is that no one ends the story. Tell me what happened! What were the results of this whole thing? That’s a skill that no hiring manager will tell you. “I need someone who’s going to make me believe.” But in the end that’s what they want, someone who can not only do the work, but sell it, too. So that skill should be woven into the storytelling of the portfolio piece.
No hiring manager will tell you, “I need someone who’s going to make me believe.” But in the end that’s what they want, someone who can not only do the work, but sell it, too.
Storytelling is an interesting way of putting it. Would you say that’s an important quality for a candidate to have?
TG: Storytelling is so important!
HS: For some roles, it’s really skill-driven. They need someone who can do X,Y and Z or they’re off the table. But even those individuals, when they have a conversation, the hiring manager wants to hear a storytelling element of how they get to the end result. I think that’s because, especially in this industry, there are going to be a lot of people in meetings- stakeholders, team members etc.— who don’t actually understand the full process of the work. So boiling things down to the nuts and bolts about that story helps a lot.
TG: When we look at hard skill, it’s different in Front-End Dev vs. UX. In Front-End, you need to know the tech stack. If you’re working in angular or node, there’s no faking it. But in UX, if you’re using Sketch, Balsamiq, Illustrator, its about telling the story. Knowing how you approach a problem, and being honest about your process is the most important.
Tell us what it’s like to be on the other side of the interview table, talking to a candidate about a potential opportunity.
TG: The most moving portfolio sessions are when people are so excited about the projects they’ve worked on, whether they’re real or something that’s just a proof of concept. I think passion and curiosity are key, and however that manifests, whatever you’re curious about, let us know. Because you never know if climbing glaciers or playing harp is a hook that resonates with the hiring manager. So I think that kind of honesty matters almost above process. What do you care about? That’s super important.
How important is culture fit?
TG: Depends on the company, depends on the client. We like to be consultative, not just the order taker. Most of those clients know sort of what they need at the end of the day. But sometimes introducing someone who throws a wrench in the gears is really exciting, and really drives progress and innovation. And so I think ideally we like to be the conduit to help figure that out.
HS: I do check-ins with talent who already works there, and use that feedback to form this idea of what the culture is, right from the horse’s mouth. And those quality checks are to make sure the talent is comfortable there, to see who’s gelling where, and if they’re working in an environment that’s more independent, or more collaborative.
So then how do you know whether a particular candidate will be a good fit or not?
TG: It comes back to process. We have talent who don’t like going into an office, and that’s what works for them. If they’re someone who likes to have a developer in-person and can have a conversation, or instead if they’re obsessed with newest markup tools so they can build super detailed specs and send it to a developer, whether they’re here or in India. If I know my client is a musician and I have a talent who came from DJing and was a professional musician… It’s about who you are as a person, what drives you. When you can that perfect fit, it’s really magical.
The technology landscape is growing rapidly, and lots we see lots of students attempt to cover a ton of ground in their portfolios, skills-wise. Do you think it’s more important to “go wide” or “go deep”?
HS: You don’t have to be proficient in everything. I like being able to tell which areas you’re 100% comfortable with, and what areas you’ve had some experience in, and last, which areas you aren’t skilled in at all. It’s just as important to know what you can’t do as what you can.
Do you ever get candidates who are dead set at working at a certain company? What can they do to increase their chances of getting an interview, or even an offer?
TG: If you want to work at Google, if you want to work at Ideo, it’s key to know someone who can get you in the door. It takes someone to get a job. You can’t apply off a form and get the job. It’s very rare, one in a million. So ask your friends if they know someone who works there, take that person out to coffee. Work your connections, or even just reach out to someone who works there on LinkedIn.
If you’re curious, if you’re authentic, if you’re honest, that’s what people respond to. And besides, the worst they can say is, “No, I don’t have time.” They’re not going to blacklist you. It cant hurt to ask. We’re in the business of people and users, and everyone’s a user. It’s about being honest and authentic, not pushy, and just saying, “Hey, this is me, I’d love to take you out to coffee, here’s what I’d like to talk about.”
If you’re curious, if you’re authentic, if you’re honest, that’s what people respond to.
HS: I love seeing the LinkedIn connections, and how you can trace it back. I’ve used it multiple times to find clients, to find new connection points. I’d encourage anyone to find someone at the company. Before I was with Aquent, I spoke with two people at the company to find out if it was a place I’d mesh well with, and vice versa.
Ok, last question. What should a hiree do between gigs? Workshops? Freelance? How can they improve marketability?
HS: Being a forever learner, employed or not, is of the utmost importance. Make sure you’re constantly part of a project, whether it’s paid or not. And if you cant find a paid one, there are a lot of pro-bono or non-profits who will gladly give you experience. Whatever it is, just make sure you’re getting out there. Meetups are wonderful, Creative Mornings is wonderful. It’s important to be a part of the community.
Being a forever learner, employed or not, is of the utmost importance. Make sure you’re constantly part of a project.
Forget the nose plug, Haley likes to jump head first into the digital waters. With an interactive sensibility and a varied background in digital strategy and consulting, Haley is inspired by helping talent find their true capabilities in the space. It’s a big ol’ web driven world, and everyone deserves a parter to help navigate. She’s always looking for A+ professionals in … Emerging Media, UX, IA, Usability Research, Tech Architecture & Integration, front end development, mobile and more.