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How to Put Your Stuff Together and Get a Job as a Product Designer: Part 1

This is the first article in a three-part series offering tips on how to get a job as a product or UX designer. Part 2 advises on your portfolio website. Part 3 covers the interviewing process.

Part 1: Your Resume & LinkedIn Profile

(With apologies to Maxine Paetro, whose seminal 1979 book  How to Put Your Book Together and Get a Job in Advertising was highly influential in my early job search process in the mid-1990s.)

I graduated from design school in the spring of 1995. Yahoo! was incorporated just a couple of months before. AOL was still the dominant way everyone connected to the Internet. Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web was still a baby, with just a tiny fraction of websites available. In other words, my design education was about graphic design—layout, typography, logos, print. Neither digital design nor UX design was taught or barely practiced yet. (The closest thing would be human-computer interaction, more computer science than design.)

The San Francisco graphic design scene back in the early- to mid-1990s was pretty close-knit. Most of the established practitioners in The City taught at the California College of Arts & Crafts (CCAC, but now shortened to California College of the Arts (CCA)), fertile ground for finding interns and junior designers. Regardless, all of us graduating seniors needed to have portfolios. Physical portfolios. Some books—another name for portfolio—were basic: a leather folio with plastic slip pages filled with mocked-up posters, booklets, or photos of projects. Or some designers would custom bind books with special hardware and print their work on fine paper, spending hundreds of dollars. But you had one book. So when applying for jobs, you had to leave your book with the design studio for a few days to a week! Which meant that job hunting was very slow going.

If the creative director at the design studio liked your portfolio—which was very likely passed around the whole studio for the grubby hands of other designers to peruse—you’d go back in for an interview. In the interview, you’d walk through your work and get drilled on the choices you made. Back in my day, that’s how you could land a design job.

Fast-forward to today, and I’m on the hiring side of the table. Of course, I’ve hired designers and built teams before in other positions, but with my near-constant focus on recruiting at the moment—as Convex is scaling—I decided to put down some thoughts about what I think prospective designers should do when applying for jobs.

The basic building blocks are obvious. You will need:

  • A resume
  • A LinkedIn profile
  • A portfolio website

In Part 1 of this three-part series, I’ll cover some foundational ideas, including the resume and LinkedIn profile. In Part 2, I’ll discuss the portfolio website. Finally, in Part 3, I will talk about the interview.

Your User

The mistake most people commit is foundational—they write and design their resume, LinkedIn, and portfolio for themselves. In other words, they’re not approaching these as designers because they’ve forgotten their primary user—the hiring manager.

First of all, design hiring managers are designers. We started as designers and have chosen the path of becoming creative directors, design managers, etc. But we are designers at our core. Which means we’ll look at everything you do through that lens. Do an applicant’s materials solve the core user need? Do those materials look good?

Hiring managers are busy people. As a design leader, I’m balancing brand and marketing projects, working on new product features, participating in 25 meetings per week, managing the people on my team, and looking for new designers to join our endeavor. So my time is valuable to me.

When there’s a job opening, I will need to sift through hundreds of resumes and portfolios. I will glance at a resume or LinkedIn profile for about 5 seconds and check out a portfolio for about 10 seconds before moving on. Unless something catches my attention.

As a hiring manager, I’m looking for a few key things first:

  • Where have they worked before?
  • How many years of experience do they have?
  • Do they do good work?

If the answers to those questions match the specific role I have open, I’ll spend more time with the candidate’s resume, profile, and portfolio.

Your Resume

If you’re on the job hunt, you’ll need a resume. Applications will ask you to upload them. Your resume is often a hiring manager’s first impression of your design work. Remember your user: they’re busy and need to sort through dozens, if not hundreds, of resumes. Hiring managers need to be able to scan the information quickly. Your resume is a chance to demonstrate your skills in layout, typography, and, most of all, restraint. Do not fall into the trap of designing a crazy, branded, “memorable” resume. It will have the opposite effect.

Peter Markatos, former Global Design Director at Uber and now Chief Design Officer at Quoori, says, “I think resumes for design jobs are critical. I’ve hired a lot of folks and I’ve NEVER seen a well-designed resume lead to a poor folio. I always see the opposite however. There’s nowhere to hide in a resume. Ground zero for design fluency.”

There are plenty of great resources out there on how to write your resume, so I won’t attempt to sum them up here. But for a design job, this is what matters.

Relevant Sections

  • Statement: One to three sentences about you and the position you’re looking for
  • Experience: List your current and past positions and use bullets to describe your duties and impact in those roles
  • Education: List where you went to school and the degree or certification. List any boot camps or intensives that are relevant.
  • Certifications: If you have industry certifications, list them
  • Technical Skills: List the skills and applications that you’re proficient in

Freelancing

Nearly all designers have freelanced at some point or another. There are two ways to show this on your resume. If you worked as a contractor at a company or studio, list that as a position in your Experience section, but indicate you were a contractor. Put freelance projects as bullets under a general freelance role in the Experience section.

Other Tips

Joe Stitzlein, who built design teams at Google and Nike and now is ECD at Stitzlein Studio, says, “No one wants your personal photo on a resume. No logos or monograms on a resume. Beautiful typesetting is a must. No typos. Keep it to one page.”

So here are some other quick tips:

  • Include your online portfolio link!
  • Your years of experience are equal to the number of years you’ve been out of school. If you worked part-time as a designer while going to school full-time, I’m sorry, but you can’t count that towards years of professional experience.
  • While writing about your accomplishments, put your best foot forward, but do not exaggerate. A website design alone will not account for a massive jump in revenue for the client. Hiring managers will be able to smell bullshit.
  • Keep your resume to one page, especially if you’re earlier in your career.
  • Avoid putting your photo on your resume. To me, it’s cheesy. Your experience and work should define you, not an artsy portrait.
  • No need to design a monogram or logo for yourself. Again, it’s a bit cheesy. Set your name in a nice font and be done with it.
  • Don’t use too much color on your resume. It can get in the way of scannability.
  • Don’t use sliders to indicate skill level. They take up unnecessary space and don’t provide useful information.
  • Check for typos! Have someone else proofread all the text in your resume.

Your LinkedIn Profile

Make sure your LinkedIn profile is up to date and matches your resume. When I’m reviewing applications, I skip the resume and go straight to the candidate’s LinkedIn profile about half the time. I find it more up-to-date, easier to scan, and just has richer information about the applicant.

Recommendations

Personally, I find recommendations to be powerful. Always be getting recommendations from your teachers, colleagues, and current and former bosses. This is the additional color hiring managers can get from reviewing your LinkedIn profile as opposed to your resume.

Other Essentials

  • Make sure you use a good photo of yourself. This is also a signal for how much you care, as a designer, about the details. You don’t need to hire a photographer, but get someone to shoot you with your iPhone. Make sure the lighting is good, and it’s nice and sharp. Don’t use a Memoji or South Park character.
  • Pick a nice background image for the header section. Don’t put type in it. Again, over-branding yourself will have the opposite effect on design hiring managers.
  • Add your portfolio link to the Contact section.
  • Write a good two- to three-sentence bio in the About section.
  • Fill out your skills, and your network will endorse you.
  • Check for typos! Have someone else proofread all the text in your profile.

To borrow a culinary term, your resume and LinkedIn profile are the appetizers for the main course—the work. Your work experience, education, and list of skills is a brief introduction to who you are and the type of work you might do. These appetizers should lead into and set up the entree: your portfolio. We will tackle that in Part 2: Your Portfolio.

© 1995–2022 Roger Wong. All rights reserved.