editione1.0.2Updated February 27, 2023
You’re reading an excerpt of Land Your Dream Design Job, a book by Dan Shilov. Filled with hard-won, personal insights, it is a comprehensive guide to landing a product design role in a startup, agency, or tech company, and covers the entire design interview process from beginning to end, for experienced and aspriring designers. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.
The final interview is a big step in the process. Congrats on making it this far! This is an opportunity for you to arrive with confidence, be prepared for the unexpected, and, finally, leave your interviewers excited to work with you.
new With COVID-19, the traditional on-site or final interview is now conducted remotely. While the format is changed, many of the steps are similar. It’s important to prepare and to test out your remote interviewing setup ahead of time.
So what’s next? By now you should have received an email from the company with an interviewing schedule to help you prepare for the big day. If you haven’t received the schedule, now’s a great time to ask for it. This is a good way to communicate initiative while also properly preparing ahead of time.
|1 hour||Portfolio presentation||Cross-functional team and designers|
|45 minutes||Whiteboard exercise||1–2 designers|
|30 minutes||App critique||1–2 designers|
|30 minutes||Product collaboration||Product manager|
|30 minutes||Design collaboration||Designer|
|30 minutes||Engineering collaboration||Engineering manager or engineer|
|30 minutes||Team fit||Hiring manager|
|30 minutes||Wrap up||Recruiter|
After learning the schedule, now’s the opportunity to learn more about your interviewers—if this company has already invested time in getting to know you, it’s only fair that you should get to know them too. Start with LinkedIn and look at each interviewer’s profile: their experience, common connections, and recent posts. Look for their other online social networks or sites where they were mentioned or shared their work. If you’re applying to a startup or a smaller company, be sure to research the leadership team too.
This info will be useful during the interview itself, as it will help you:
Anticipate types of questions you’ll get asked.
Address potential concerns relevant to portfolio pieces.
Ask specific questions to each person, given their role and experience.
Build rapport with the interviewers based on common organizations or connections.
storyHaving a schedule isn’t a guarantee the interviewer will be there. One time I was researching a product manager who had a fascinating design and search background. I agonized over which questions to ask him, only to learn the day of the interview that all PMs were having a last-minute off-site.
Even though some people may be missing due to last-minute rescheduling, in general preparing and looking folks up ahead of time will make you stand out. To the interviewers, it’s a signal that you’re interested in the job and the team.
This goes for all levels—from new designers to experienced design leaders. If, as a candidate, you don’t have any questions or don’t show curiosity when given the chance to ask questions, it’s a strong red flag you’re unsure. Luckily this isn’t hard to do, nor is it time consuming, as you can get this info in less than half an hour of online searching.
My deliverable at this stage is an on-site packet composed of:
Summary page. This has the name of the company, schedule, street address, and point person for the interview and their phone number, in case I need to call when I arrive or get lost.
Pages for each interviewing event. Covers any interesting facts and questions I want to follow up with for each person.
Extra pages. Just in case, for note-taking during interviews.
This packet makes it easy to keep track of interviews, take notes, and cross reference information all in one place throughout the interview. It’s also helpful as a reference afterward, if you choose to follow up on certain questions when you receive an offer.
For your on-site, it’s important to have the basics covered. That means eating well a few hours before and getting proper rest. Think of this as a test. You have the knowledge and skills, now it’s important to demonstrate your major skills and accomplishments in one go.
If this is a full or a half day of interviews, it will probably be demanding, so be sure to bring your:
laptop (even if you’re presenting on an iPad, have it as a backup) with a charger
notebook, sketching kit (or at the very least pen and paper)
Now you might scoff at some of these. Getting rest? Excitement? Who cares! I’ve been doing design for years. While it’s important to bring your whole self to the interview, it’s also important to show interest—after all, you’ve selected this company to interview with, and if at all goes well, you’ll be working with these folks everyday.
important If you are interviewing in-person it helps to check with your company contact (usually the recruiter or a hiring manager) about dress code. Even if the dress code is informal, it helps to dress a level up to show that you’re serious about the position.
In addition to evaluating you on your skills, your potential future employers will also be looking at you from a behavioral perspective. They want to work with someone who is enthusiastic, easy to get along with—in other words, a good cultural fit.
Culture is a loaded term. That said, it’s in your interest to appear engaged and enthusiastic about the interview. The team is excited to talk with you, and they hope that you’re just as excited about the opportunity.
storyOne time, after a friendly chat with a head of product, I got passed for the role due to my lack of enthusiasm at the interview. I thought the interview went well but was later told that I came off as too professional. I took that lesson in stride and applied it to all of my on-sites since. I knew I mastered it when a founder at another company sympathized at the end of my on-site interview, “I can see how excited you are about design and this opportunity; it must be draining at the end of the day, so please take some time to rest afterward.”
Lastly, if you’re starting to feel stressed out—you’re actually excited. As professor Jamie Jamieson’s research on stress suggests (recounted in Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress), it’s not that high performers don’t feel stress, it’s that they ascribe this stress to be a positive force that helps them reach peak-level performance.
In one study, participants were asked to give a speech. Those who thought of stress as a positive force were rated higher and appeared more confident compared to those who were asked to ignore their stress response. So take that lesson to heart—if you’re starting to feel overly stressed, take a deep breath and reframe your mindset as an exciting and positive force.
When it’s time for the interview, I usually figure out my transportation options so that I can get there at a comfortable time, about 30 minutes before the start. This leaves you a ten-minute buffer in case something goes wrong, ten minutes to sign in, with ten minutes to settle in or get a quick office tour before you start. You definitely want to leave yourself enough buffer so as not to shortchange yourself by being late.
Finally, it helps to have a backup plan in case technology fails—maybe your laptop dies, maybe there’s no internet connection. It’s surprising how often simple things that should work fail during moments that matter. To prepare, aside from having your portfolio downloaded locally to your laptop, have it as a backup on a thumb drive or a private online link that you can access.
Interviews can be grueling, but if you’ve done all this work up-front, you’ll thank yourself later. With prep done, you’ll arrive with confidence, on time, and will have a process in place when facing the unexpected.
As part of your final interview you’ll be asked to present your portfolio. Out of all interviews, this one is priority number one. See this as an opportunity to show the great work that you’ve done, reinforcing the fact that you can do it and more again.
important The in-person portfolio is different from your online portfolio, which the interviewers have already seen. This is an opportunity to feature one to three best projects and go in-depth on how you’ve achieved and exceeded objectives given the constraints.
Here’s how you can create a gripping narrative that gets your interviewers excited to work with you.