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.
Before diving into portfolio case studies it’s important to step back and think about the type of design prowess that you bring.
Uncover Your Superpowers
Product designer is a generic title. In companies like Facebook, regardless of seniority, everyone is a product designer and so it’s hard to understand who is senior, which level they’re at, or even what their strengths and weaknesses are. That’s why it’s important to define the type of product designer you are—one way to do so is by highlighting your own superpowers.
When we typically think of superpowers, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the mastery of a specific skill. Obviously this superpower should be highlighted, but don’t worry if you’re not there yet or if you can’t point to one skill that’s excellent.
What skills do you have that are above average? What work using those skills are you proud of? It could be something as simple as rough illustrations and storytelling. What missing skills or perspectives can you bring to a team? What’s your unique point of view? What unique experience do you have based on your previous roles?
Transferable Skills as Superpowers
Another way to get at your superpower is to look at transferable skills that you’ve employed at other jobs. Think about the past experiences you’ve had and how they’ve equipped you to understand the customer better, to collaborate, or to be meticulous in one’s craft. For example, if you’re coming to design from a different field, let’s say education, then you know how to run experiments, engage a tough audience, get everyone to participate, and manage group performance over time. If you have a degree in psychology, you understand why people do things the way they do, the complexity of human interaction, and why people, as Daniel Ariely calls it, are “predictably irrational.”
Unique Experiences as Superpowers
Your unique experiences can also be your superpower. No one has the same experience of the world as you do. Given your background, your environment, your circumstances, and your unique upbringing, there’s something different that you bring to the table. If you can’t think of a superpower—ask a friend or a colleague. The external perspective is helpful, as we sometimes don’t give ourselves enough credit. Also take a look at Heather Phillips’s article on how to find your design superpower.
Beyond Skills—Show Personality
You are more than a collection of skills. When you start interviewing with employers, they also want to see who you are as a person—after all, they’ll be with you and you’ll be with them for eight-plus hours each workday. Now this might seem a bit like you’re revealing too much, or maybe you’d rather be a chameleon and blend in with the environment to fit in. Don’t.
In addition to your skills, you’re hired for your opinion—your views and your unique perspective that you’ve been honing all your life. Of course, there’s a subtle art to showing your personality strategically, as you don’t want to go overboard by revealing everything all at once. Focus on things that are unique, relevant, and that people can relate to.
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As part of my portfolio I would sometimes include photos of dishes I made in the past to tell a more compelling story of cooking and design:
Figure: Food as Portfolio Work
In the past I’ve seen designers show hobbies, such as:
Cooking, which is a nice metaphor for design—you can be making something based on a recipe or you can create something new based on the underlying science and principles.
Visiting museums and new exhibits.
Sketchnoting at events and conferences.
Drawing and illustration.
Here’s an example.
I love exploring real and imaginary spaces like food, alternate reality experiences, cycling, movies, and TV. In early 2013, I successfully raised Kickstarter funds for a book about ice cream around the world. The book was released January 2016. I traveled to 7 countries and interviewed over 60 ice cream shops. My favorite ice cream flavor is goat cheese ice cream with roasted cherries.Jennifer Ng
Now that’s dedication!
The point is not to start going to museums, eating ice cream, and sketchnoting tomorrow. Highlight a hobby that you’re already passionate about, one that will resonate with others and help them connect to you on a human level.
Write Your Pitch
Great! Now you have your superpowers and you have highlights of your personality. Next, put it together in an easy-to-consume narrative. If a stranger met you today, how would you introduce yourself? What impression do you want to leave behind?
By drafting a couple of versions of your statement, you’ll get a better sense of the narrative you want to convey and will have a response at the ready when you’re responding to emails or hitting up networking events.
As with uncovering your superpowers—don’t be afraid to step away and ask for help. If you were to ask a friend or a co-worker, how would they describe you or pitch you? What would they say? Try this exercise with others or a group of friends—you might discover new qualities or some that you’ve taken for granted that others find valuable in you.
Get specific. When you’re thinking of aspects of your personality to highlight, be sure to avoid coming across as generic. Many new designers, in their statement about themselves, say that they’re empathetic, customer focused, and like to drink coffee. That’s not much of a differentiator. Of course as a designer you will be focused on the first two, and many people drink coffee. But not many collect coffee art or make interesting visualizations out of it.
Try it out. To start, list all of your hobbies, passions, and things you like to do. Don’t limit yourself just yet and feel free to write out as many as possible. Once you have the list, think of which aspect of personality you want to emphasize—is it something creative, fun, social, or design related, or a combination of multiple things?
Sometimes writing a pitch can be daunting. Here I’ll share a couple of examples from two respected design leaders in the industry that can help you refine yours. Now you may not be a design leader or have yet had the opportunity to impact many people with your design. That’s OK. As these pitches demonstrate, it’s not just about the content but also presentation. At senior levels of design, clear, concise communication is paramount and you can also take away great lessons in communication style.
Marissa Louie is a director of UX design at Expedia and also the founder of Animoodles. Here’s how she describes herself on LinkedIn:
Design leader with a strong product and business background. Experienced in building and coaching design teams, and leading the design of delightful products used by over 1 billion people. As a people manager, I enjoy helping grow extraordinary leaders.
I started tinkering with code as a kid, and fell in love with web design while taking my first computer science course at UC Berkeley. Since then, I’ve enjoyed tackling really hard problems with some top notch people.
In my free time, I can be found exploring visual storytelling through photography, videography, and animation, and learning about a wide range of subjects including design, business, leadership, and management. I am intensely curious, and in a state of constant growth.
As you may notice, the first paragraph is straight to the point and uses an inverted pyramid writing method (where you give away the punch line in the first sentence and first paragraph) in which you’ll learn all the information that you need to know about Marissa. The statistic “over 1 billion people” substantiates the impact. Even though the third paragraph is about hobbies, these too inevitably intertwine with design and reinforce her current role as a founder and director.
Alissa Briggs is a design director at Autodesk, formerly head of design at PlanGrid where she managed a substantial team growing the organization. Here’s her about statement from her website:
I’m a strategic and energetic leader, speaker, and coach with a successful track record of scaling top-notch design, research, and writing teams. Get in touch to discuss how I can elevate your team through workshops, talks, and coaching.
At the top of her site she has an even shorter description leading with the headline “Elevate your design team,” an eyebrow, “Design leader, speaker, and coach,” and tying everything off with a call to action below. The pitch also links to Alissa’s page showing all the different speeches and coaching she’s done over the years.
Prototype Your Pitch
Take a moment now to draft up a version of yourself (about half a page) based on the raw ingredients of skills, superpowers, your experiences, and your personality. How does it look? Feel free to do a few more iterations. Next, see if you can get it down to a 30-second pitch that you can give to someone you meet.
Finally, see if you can compress this pitch to a one- to three-sentence summary. You’ll use this line in your portfolio, online presence, social accounts, and so on. Think of it as a hook to get people interested in learning more about you.
Your pitch will change over time as you get feedback. There’s no perfect pitch out there, and making changes is part of the process. Make sure that as you do make adjustments your brand proposition stays clear. Better to turn some people away than deliver a pitch that blends in so much that it becomes unmemorable.
Update Your Resumé
Before diving into the portfolio, start with your resume or LinkedIn. When someone will be looking over your profile, they’ll want to understand your story and have the right context when looking through your work. A lot of these initial impressions are based on quick scans of your profile.
Where are you coming from?
What have you done in the past?
What impact were you able to deliver?
This is why it’s important to get the right version of your story out there. The combination of your work history and portfolio gives the recruiter and hiring manager confidence that you’ll be able to do the work and that you’re a reliable hire.
Generally, a recruiter or a hiring manager will skim through your profile to learn more about:
You. Who are you, how do you see yourself, what is your unique angle, and what strengths do you bring to the table? While they won’t necessarily get all the information here (as usually this comes from your portfolio and subsequent interviews), this is where your pitch comes in to set the right expectations and help the viewer connect the dots between what you say you do and what you’ve done in the past, as well as the work that you’re interested in doing in the future.
Work experience. How long have you been in this industry and what is your career and background like? If you’ve worked with recognizable tech companies (Uber, Apple, Airbnb), it’s usually a plus since they have rigorous standards and are well known. But if you haven’t worked at a well-known company, that’s not a minus either because, in the end, it’s more about what you’ve done rather than where you’ve done it.
Your title. Titles are pretty inflated, so a hiring manager might skip over that, but it should give them a rough benchmark of where you are in your career.
Your responsibilities. You might have worked at Apple, but what did you actually do there? What teams did you work on? The focus is on the work that was done and the complexity that you’ve encountered.
Your impact. What outcomes were you able to achieve?
important You might not have worked for the big tech companies. You might not have that magical five-plus years of experience. That’s all fine. What you can do is show how you were able to achieve the five years of experience in two years at a small company with outsize impact. Outcomes are key. What metric were you able to move? What value were you able to bring to the team? Emphasize a few key outcomes that truly moved the needle.
If you don’t have concrete numbers, how else can you provide evidence of the impact you made? Perhaps there’s a strong qualitative signal you got from user research that showed your work made improvements compared to the past experience. If you don’t have that, ask your customers for a testimonial or a quote. You can even supplement that with an audio recording (with their permission) in your portfolio to make the story come to life.
Portfolios are a prerequisite for a design role these days. Just like with design exercises, sometimes industry experts also bemoan this point—what if the designer is too busy to make one? What if the portfolio is out of date? It’s rare to get an interview without a portfolio, and even if you might get to a phone screen, you’ll still be expected to present your work during the final interview. But building a portfolio needn’t be a painful process.
You want to build two portfolios:
Your online portfolio. This may be private; you’ll share it as part of your application. Your number one goal with this portfolio is to land the phone screen. It should pique your viewer’s interest without revealing too much info (you’ll talk about that during your on-site).
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