Nailing That Next Big Interview
by Christopher Gee
Graphic designers are paid to help organizations to improve their image and communication. Companies would not be able to sell themselves, their products or their services to the public or to their own employees without the tireless efforts of graphic designers. So it might seem odd that many graphic designers, particularly during interviews, do a poor job of communicating and selling themselves and their own services.
This is partly due to the fact that graphic designers, unlike most professionals, are largely judged based on the work in their portfolios. Many designers erroneously think that simply having a great portfolio speaks for itself and therefore often neglect basic interviewing rules and techniques. It's important to remember that people do not hire portfolios. If they did, graphic designers would need only to drop-off their portfolios and wait for the job offers to roll-in. People hire people, and even though it's a cliché, you never do get a second chance to make a first impression. So get it right the first time. I will go over some tips tailored specifically to graphic designers that can help hem land that big job offer or new client contract.
Do your homework
I have seen designers in interviews that had no clue as to what the company they were seeking employment with does or who their clients were. With the resources that are available to us using today's Internet technology, there is simply no excuse for this. In most cases it is possible to learn more about a company by going to their company website or searching the web for press releases/news articles. Finding out as much as you can about a company before your interview can help you to tailor the topics you discuss in the interview to things that may be of interest to the company as well as saving you and your interviewer from wasting time should you learn of things about the company that cause you to no longer be interested in the position. It helps to bring notes, perhaps on a legal pad, to refresh your memory as to pertinent facts about the company as well as any questions you might have.
Dress to impress
Over the past five years or so, even the most conservative firms have moved to casual work environments. Of course, this relates to their full-time staff that has already been hired. Even though workplace rules on attire have been relaxed, you still need to sell yourself to your prospective employer or client.
Years ago, most people understood that they need to have at least one "interview suit". Today it may not be necessary to wear a suit to your interview but it could be extremely helpful. If possible, ask whether there is a dress code and whether most people wear suits in the office. If asking beforehand is not an option, make sure you wear a suit or at least a professional-looking outfit. A pair of khakis and an Oxford shirt has become the casual "suit" in today's relaxed workplace and is not a bad choice. It may seem obvious but it's probably not wise to wear jeans and a T-shirt to your interview. Wear a pair of dress shoes instead of flip flops or sneakers and have them shined beforehand.
Check your portfolio before your interview
Since graphic designers drop-off their portfolios a lot, it is a good idea to check it before you take it on an important interview. I remember years ago during a job search, I needed to pickup my portfolio from a headhunter's office and then drop it off at the offices of a client of a competing headhunter nearby. Fortunately I glanced inside my portfolio and noticed that the recruiter who had my portfolio placed numerous tags with the name of the recruiting firm in several places in my portfolio. If I hadn't checked first, I would probably have gotten a phone call from an angry recruiter and possibly damaged the relationship.
Also, it's a sad reality that not everyone treats your portfolio in the same pristine manner we would hope for. I have seen art directors look at and handle portfolios while eating their lunch at their desk!
Get there early
Showing up late to an interview is no way to make a first impression. If you can't manage to show up to an important interview on time, why should a prospective employer/client expect that you will do anything else on time either? Give yourself plenty of time to get to your interview so that you arrive earlier than you are expected. Of course, this doesn't mean you should show up an hour or two in advance and camp out in the reception area, however it is a good idea to plan to get there early in order to allow for traffic, getting lost and any other unforeseen mishaps. If you are very early, this extra time can also be used to decompress from your commute, calm yourself down and go over any notes you may have.
Talk about your successes
This is where many designers get into trouble. We expect that our portfolio will do all of the talking for us. We think that if we show piece after brilliant piece, employers will be salivating and chomping at the bit to outbid any other possible suitors for our services. However, portfolios are supposed to be impressive, they represent a designer's best work. Your portfolio does not say anything about your work habits, how well you work with others, your ability to meet deadlines or how wide your range of skills are. These are all things you need to communicate in your interview.
So be prepared to talk about your successes. Give background information about the pieces in your portfolio. Tell interesting but pertinent stories. Were there any results that you can share relating to the success of a piece? Did leads increase by 30% after the redesign? Did a certain piece have an unusually short deadline that you had to overcome? Did you provide certain skills beyond design for the piece? Did you manage other, non-design, professionals in the completion of the piece?
If it helps, write-out beforehand any such information in bullet-point fashion and have them handy in your notes.
Don't shoot yourself in the foot
We have all heard that "honesty is the best policy" and for the most part it is true. You gain nothing by misrepresenting yourself or your skills during an interview because chances are you will be exposed later. However a job interview is not group therapy. This is not the time for you to talk about your flaws or showcase your keen knack for self-deprecating humor. Everyone has flaws, use this opportunity to talk about the things you do well.
Also, this is not the forum for you to talk about your needs. For instance, your interviewer does not need to know that you need to leave every day by 5:30 in order to pick up your kids from the babysitter or that you have vacation plans to Australia and cannot possibly start before the 15th of the following month. These details can be shared once you have received an offer. For the moment, you are trying to learn about their needs, not inform them of yours.
Ask questions and LISTEN
It is important not only to ask your interviewer questions but also to listen to their answers. A completely obvious question to ask might be "What kind of skills are you looking for in a candidate?" If you listen well enough in an interview, you will learn exactly what you need to know about the position, what your prospective employer/client expects of you and what you can expect from your prospective employer/client.
If they reply "We're looking for someone who is talented, energetic and a self-starter", later in the interview when they ask "why do you think you would make a good candidate?" Your reply should be "because I'm a talented designer, I'm very energetic and also a self-starter!" Only if this is true, of course.
On the other hand, you can learn things that may influence whether or not the position is really for you by asking questions. For instance, "Why did the previous person leave?" or "Why did the relationship with your previous consultant go south?" If the client replies "They just didn't want to work through weekends" or "They didn't find the work challenging enough", this might raise red flags that you shouldn't ignore.
Either way, take notes. If you are interviewing with a number of companies, over time it may be difficult to remember details from your interviews. This can be especially helpful if you need to go on second interviews with people other than your initial interviewer.
Express your interest
I can't tell you how many times I have interviewed designers who appeared completely disinterested in the position only to have them later call and hound me for the job! Due to nervousness or an overactive poker face, you might not convey during the course of the interview that you are interested in the position/contract. Make it obvious. At the end of the interview, tell the interviewer that you are very interested and think that you are the right person for the job.
Even before the Internet revolution, sending follow-up letters was a lost art. The fact that so few people do it can work to your advantage. If you are interviewed early in the process it sometimes can be easy for interviewers to forget how impressed they were with the first few candidates they met. It's up to you to remind them.
Write them a note or at least a brief email reiterating that you are the right person for the job and why. If you listened well during your interview and perhaps took good notes, you might be able to use details provided in the interview very effectively. Perhaps there was something they mentioned during the interview that you now have more information about? Now is your chance to share it. However, it is important not to oversell. Your follow-up should basically just remind your interviewer how much they liked you and that you are still interested.
Finally, practice makes perfect
As with everything, some people are naturally better at interviewing than others. We all know people who feel very comfortable meeting new people and speaking on any number of topics. Most people are not born with good interviewing skills but that does not mean that those skills cannot be developed over time. I recommend role-playing with a friend, spouse or family member. Let them pretend to be the interviewer, toss questions to you and give you feedback as to how you answered them. At the very least, you can see if your answers sound as good aloud as they do in your head.
It may also be helpful to try to go on interviews with companies even when you are not unhappy with your current position. There is nothing to lose from getting practice and even if your "practice" interviews result in a job offer you are not interested in, you'd be surprised what a confidence booster it is to turn down a job! Besides, maybe they will, in the words of Vito Corleone in The Godfather, "Make you an offer you can't refuse!"
Follow these tips and you will have employers beating a path to your door and need an armored truck to cart all of your riches! Well, that may be overstating a bit. You will, however, steadily improve your interviewing skills and give yourself one more weapon, in addition to your killer portfolio, with which to nail that big interview.