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I recently had the honor of being a reviewer at the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University’s Design Program portfolio review. This event was held on campus for a few hours one evening in February and I was in awe of the skill and curiosity of the students—from sophomores to grad students—who I had the opportunity to interact with. Most students showed their UX portfolios, while some ventured into video, animation, and even product design. The one constant as the conversations went on, though, was the questions I received around what to expect during the course of job interviews.

Organizations have various hiring requirements, so there are a thousand different ways to look at the process. Every hiring manager approaches things with their own techniques and nuances. For instance, in my most recent position, first I worked with HR partners to indicate what skills I was looking for and they would send me a list of potential candidates. I then reviewed resumés and portfolios to narrow the list down to call for phone interviews. Once the phone interviews were complete, I narrowed the list further to bring candidates in for face-to-face conversations with myself and a small group of partners. Once the face-to-face interviews were complete, with the help of my partners, I made a determination on who to extend an offer to. There are times when no one candidate met our needs or some other wrench got thrown in, but this is how it typically happened.

Portfolio and Resumé
Your portfolio and resumé should be top notch. And, PLEASE have an online portfolio. Most of the hiring I have done is for digital positions, but it is so easy to get work online nowadays, there is no excuse not to be able to send someone a link. It does not matter to me if you use a free service (Behance, Cargo, etc.)* or have a fully developed personal domain, as long as your work is online and it’s easy to view.

Note: If you are applying for a front-end development or a web design position, it does matter. You should have your own site so you understand what is involved with all things web.

Every creative person has different skills and at various levels. Show your best work in your portfolio. The creative field is very subjective, so don’t get discouraged if someone doesn’t like some of your work. If you think it’s strong, then be confident when you submit it or speak about it. Not everything will resonate. Even the best candidates I’ve met have had work where I simply wasn’t into it. I don’t dwell on those pieces because I know I have neither the goals of the project nor the outcomes (performance data, revenue generated, grade received, etc.). If your work requires explanation, then please set your portfolio up to include those explanations. In the UX field, for instance, the process is arguably the most important part, so take the time to walk through that in your portfolio. I am also looking at your portfolio through the lens of the organization. I want to make sure you have the skills or the styles necessary to meet the organization’s needs. If you have only one style, then it should absolutely match that of the organization or the fit won’t be right.

Your resumé should speak to the roles you’ve had and your responsibilities. The roles and responsibilities should be focused on the type of work you WANT to be doing. For example, if you are applying for a UX position but only have web design experience, craft the responsibilities for the previous roles in a way that show me you have been doing research to understand your audience, or that you worked with analysts to get metrics to help make your designs better. If you don’t have that information, take the time to make that a part of your role. If you are a student, then use your resumé to showcase the skills you learned in university and how you used them in internships or freelance projects.

Phone Interviews
During phone interviews, I tend to ask questions about your experience and your portfolio. This is the time for me to understand your thought process and to see if you have the skills and knowledge that goes with your creative area of expertise. This conversation also allows me to start gauging your fit on the team. Do you have the ability to geek out on creative topics? Do you seem like someone who could join the team and have an immediate impact? If we’re hiring, it is to fill a gap. Can you take on the work we’re looking to get done or will you need days/weeks/months to be trained? These are not questions that get asked outright, so approach this first interaction as a way to come off as a strong creative thinker and doer.

Face-to-Face Interviews
Once a candidate makes it to face-to-face interviews, he/she meets with a small group of teammates. Depending on the role, this group usually consists of the hiring manager, that manager’s boss, and a couple other creative teammates. Each person usually gets to have a 30-minute conversation with you to ask questions, which then help them provide recommendations for the hiring decision. The way I approach this step is to simply just have a conversation. Some managers spend the time to go over portfolios, so be prepared to speak about your work again. I tend to focus more on what your goals are. One of my top priorities as a manager is career development. I take this time to learn more about you, where you see yourself growing, what challenges you’ve experienced, and how you handle situations. I do not ask the typical “what is your greatest weakness” type questions, but I do try to understand how you handle feedback or use data.

With the 30 minutes I have, I do my best to save the last 5 to 10 minutes for you to ask me anything. This time allows me to gauge how prepared you are and for you to see if this position is the right fit for you. It always surprises me when candidates don’t have any questions. You should be confident when you leave the interview knowing:

  • What this role will require of you;
  • How the team is structured;
  • What common challenges we work through as a team and how we approach them;
  • What you can expect out of the hiring manager and what the manager expects out of you;
  • That this is a role you’d be comfortable with;
  • There are opportunities to do great and/or exciting work;
  • You have a chance to make a positive impact on the team.

The most important thing is to be personable. It’s okay to be nervous. You want this job. But, know that as the hiring manager, I want the best fit. I have a need just like you, so approach the conversation as a way to get to know me and the organization.

Final Thoughts
My advice to anyone going into an interview is the following:

  • Be honest, but explain if necessary. For example, if you don’t know what you want in your career, say so. But also speak to what you’ll do to better understand what you want. How will this role help you on your journey? Be prepared to answer.
  • Be confident, not cocky. The difference between the two can be a fine line. I am looking for someone who is confident in his/her skills and work, but who can also speak to partners who may or may not have the same expertise. Confidence goes a long way. Cockiness is off-putting.
  • Be inquisitive, but not scripted. During the course of the conversation, ask questions. Don’t just wait until the last 5 to 10 minutes because sometimes the 30 minutes fly by without having that option. If you have questions that you have written down, though, ask them. My only caution here is to be cognizant of which questions you are asking and of whom. I once had a candidate who was very professional and a seemingly good interviewee, but when my partners and I gathered after all the interviews were complete to discuss each candidate, we found out that this particular candidate asked the same question of each interviewer. That came across as a bit too scripted and didn’t show the foresight to prepare or the ability to think critically.
  • Be humble, and learn. I very much believe that anything and everything can be improved. Looking at your work and understanding how it could be better is something instilled in the creative mind from the beginning, from teachers to art directors. However, the work you produce isn’t the only thing that can be looked at like this. For example, after every meeting I attend, I try to ask myself, “what could I have done differently in that meeting that would have made the interaction even slightly better?” Sometimes the answer is obvious, sometimes it’s not. Always look to improve.
  • Be yourself, and have fun. Admittedly, I am an introvert. But, I love meeting new people in these 1-on-1 situations. We’ve been brought together under the guise of a job, but in all honesty, I am just trying to help you become the best version of yourself. And that’s whether you get the job or not.

If you are currently searching for a job or will be in the future, best of luck to you! And please let me know if I can help you in any way.

If you are a hiring manager, what tips do you have for creative folks looking? Or, what did I miss or get wrong, in your opinion?

If you know someone who needs insight into what hiring managers look for, please tag them in the comments or send them this article. I’d love to virtually meet new people and help out anyone who wants it.

(Now, how could this article have been better?…)

*This article was originally written for and posted on LinkedIn. Please feel free to add to the conversation there.

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