David Airey is an independent graphic designer working with companies of all sizes since 2005.

What employers look for #1

Finding your ideal job in the design profession isn’t easy, so to help, I asked a number of design employers to give advice to job applicants. The first in the series is kindly contributed by Eric Karjaluoto, partner and creative director at Vancouver-based smashLAB.

smashLAB agency
Inside smashLAB

Oodles… That’s the best term I can use to describe the number of aspiring designers out there. We haven’t seen less than a hundred applicants for any designer position posted at smashLAB. (Ever.) From a strict supply-and-demand standpoint, this allows employers like me to take my pick of the bunch. Here’s what I look for:

The book: Although it’s rarely a physical book any longer, the first thing I look for in a designer is a visual sensibility. While I’d like to tell you that I pour a cup of tea and gingerly peruse someone’s design samples, the opposite is the case. Typically, it takes me less than 15 seconds to determine whether a portfolio warrants further inspection. While I don’t have a bias to any particular style of work, I do look for a certain amount of professionalism and depth.

smashLAB agency
Inside smashLAB

Editing: I lied about my first point. The very first thing I look at is the resume. What may be different from what you’d expect, though, is that I consider it from a design standpoint. Yes, the credentials and work experience are important, but I’m more interested in what a designer has chosen to say about him/herself, and how appropriately they can craft this (deceptively complex) marketing tool.

Big picture and close-ups: Good designers tend to be able to step back from a situation and consider the bigger problem before getting carried away with execution. As a result, they are able to articulate their thinking behind a project in a coherent fashion; meanwhile, they know when to finesse details, run spell-checks, and sweat all the other (seemingly) small stuff. Both are equally important points to pay attention to, and it’s awfully easy to spot which designers are attuned to them and which are not.

smashLAB agency
Inside smashLAB

The person: I need to be able to work efficiently with the people I hire. While we needn’t be the best of friends, it does mean we have to be able to maintain an open and healthy dialogue. The designers who are most apt to communicate/interact in such a way tend to be thoughtful, considerate, and not overly wrapped up in ego. They are largely interested in learning and honing their craft. When we started smashLAB, I struggled with this point, sometimes hiring the wrong people, and we suffered for it. Now, I more quickly flush-out applicants who seem to be a poor fit. Doing so has resulted in an exemplary team at smashLAB, which I’m very proud to work with.

smashLAB agency
Inside smashLAB

Commitment: Design isn’t like other jobs. In order to be any good at it, you really have to put in your time. For experienced designers, the result of doing so is typically reflected in their portfolios. Young designers, however, generally haven’t had sufficient time to cultivate a solid body of work; therefore, they tend to be a bit of a gamble and are hired on a bit of a hunch. Once in the door, the real interview begins. Now, they need to prove to me that they’re worth the investment I’m making in them (many of my colleagues note feeling the same way). If you’re a new designer in your first professional role, I encourage you to be the first one in, the last to leave, and while you’re there, work your ass off. If you aren’t absolutely committed to your career, I’ll come to the conclusion that I shouldn’t be either.

Eric Karjaluoto works at smashLAB, blogs at ideasonideas, tweets @karj, and imparts more wisdom in his book, Speak Human: Outmarket the Big Guys by Getting Personal.

Other parts in the series:

What employers look for #2, by Jim Walls of 160over90
What employers look for #3, by Rochelle Fainstein of Sterling Brands
What employers look for #4, by Simon Manchipp of SomeOne
What employers look for #5, by Blair Thomson of Believe in

My second book on Amazon

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13 appreciated comments about “What employers look for #1”

  1. I definitely agree with these points from Eric. I’m still in my third year of studying design and managed to snatch up a position at coordinate.com.au because they saw my passion for design and probably had that ‘hunch’ too.

  2. David…. I was just wondering…..

    How many designers work at places like Smash Lab and how many freelance or just get together with some friends to take on design jobs together?

    I think we can agree that artists each have “a style” of their own and most of those I know seem reluctant to give up that style for a steady paycheck. While there is a great deal of left brain engineering process involved in design work, I think many designers struggle with their right brain desire to “do their own thing,” and the wish to paint the world as they “see” it.

    Do you have any idea as to what percentage of your readers are hoping to work independently, and how many see a large (or small) agency as the dream job?

    Realistically, we all have an employer….the client. (That is the toughest boss I have ever had to deal with!) When you double that by having an art director “client” AND an end product client I would think it would make it really difficult to fine tune ones individual creative flow. Does one give up a huge percentage of inner creativity when working for an agency…? Do agencies begin to produce “clone artists”? (How many of the best of the best are chosen not for themselves but for their ability to conform to trends in design?) Look at trends of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, etc…. why is it that we look back on so much of that work as “dated”?

    Sorry I digress…lol lol lol But so much design work seems to be dictated …rather than inspired. Does this ring true for anyone else? Or am I out in left field? alone….without a mitt…. :P

  3. Eric, thank you for taking the time to offer your insights. All points sound reasonable except for the part about consideration of the person. (I might also take issue with other employers’ bias towards or against certain design styles.)

    I think if we were to be really honest, most of us would agree that hiring processes pretty much boil down to getting a pool of (at minimum hopefully) competent individuals and then finding various methods for thinning the herd. What criteria do you use to assess an individual’s character or personality? How accurate would that unit of measurement or perception of personality/character be after only a single or a few interviews? How do you know you’re not interviewing a sociopath that’s adept at presenting themselves as other people would like to see them? How do you guard against possibly favoring someone simply because they fit your mold versus disregarding someone that doesn’t fit the mold but they’d do a better job? This isn’t really aimed directly at you but just hiring processes in general as many methods seem to be glorified rationalizations of guessing or just hiring more of the same.

    I think I’m with Meredith on this one. If a candidate would have to jump through questionable hoops to get someone at a company to like them and their work for a shot at doing the same for the clients, why not just cut out the middle man?

    Great concept David, I think these posts will generate a lot of interesting discussions. I look forward to the upcoming related posts.

  4. @meredith: Artists may have a “style,” but designers shouldn’t. (More on this topic: http://www.ideasonideas.com/2011/04/put-down-your-crayons.) Any smart agency director isn’t looking for people to emulate their style; rather, they will seek out those who can bring new perspectives to the agency and deepen it’s collective expertise. As for work being dated, that’s simply inevitable; all work, regardless of medium is a reflection of the time it was created in. A few outlying examples may prove more timeless than others, but these are generally rare exceptions (and difficult to identify except for in hindsight).

    @Natasha: Everyone makes decisions based on personality, and I argue that we’re better at this than we think. We choose our friends, our spouses, and (sometimes) our colleagues based on how they represent themselves, and how we feel about them. Is this biased? Undoubtedly. That being said, if a potential candidate seems arrogant, disinterested, or leaves me feeling uneasy, I’ll be quick to take a pass. With time, I’ve learned to not underestimate my first impressions; they are often quite telling.

  5. Eric. I am sorry maybe I should have just kept my mouth (fingers) shut. I guess agency work is the tops for graphic designers….

    But just to clarify….my statement about “dated ” work, was not about the passing of time…..its was about the tendencies toward identifiable trends in graphic design. Those trends are driven by many different forces, some social, some economic, some business, some art director and agency competion driven, and some consumer demand, but it is interesting how graphic design can be filed according to those trends… those trends are reflected in subject matter, color, STYLE, and design and much more…but nevertheless there is a tendency for work to “look” alike.

    Someone is following in those design trends and someone is leading…I wonder who is doing what. Agencies, freelancers or both.

  6. I don’t really feel that agency work is necessarily better than freelance. Both come with advantages and disadvantages; the matter then becomes one of designers determining the kind of environment they like, and the kind of work they prefer doing. Freelance generally affords greater freedom, whereas, agencies often have access to larger projects/campaigns (which can also be compelling).

    As for trends, I believe they’re often more indicative of collective behaviour than that of any “leader.” The reason that so much of it seems to look alike relates to how many inputs we share. With so many of us feeding off the same kind of stimuli/media, it’s understandable that many creative solutions feel repetitive. It is also compounded by groups who want a recognizable house style, in order to attract certain kinds of work, or court a sort of fame or level of recognition amongst their peers.

    Things can, however, be done to combat this. At smashLAB, we’ve always stressed a “no house style” approach, and pushed to explore new territory on every project. Additionally, we work to have the client, brief, and functional requirements inform our direction, instead of any personal agenda. Everyone relies on a crutch or two, but trying to identify and rid oneself of them can make a big difference.

  7. Great to see some familiar locals on here.

  8. I wish a lot of job applicants had read this. Too many think that they are owed a job and don’t believe that they have to try.

    Trust me – they do!

  9. Any resume that isn’t 98% focused on typography goes directly in the “round file”. That tells me automatically if the applicant is truly educated (either self taught or schooled) in graphic design. I’ve seen some that are nice, but nearly impossible to read, way over done, totally self-absorbed and completely ignores what a resume is – an informational document on your experience.

    Please elaborate on exactly what you look for with resumes – what passes and what doesn’t. Thanks!

  10. I look at a resume like any other designed piece. I ask:

    - Is the information clear and well organized?
    - Does it feel appropriate, or gimmicky?
    - Does the designer accurately convey their personal sensibilities through it?
    - More specifically, do I get a feel for who this person is?
    - Does the cover letter show an awareness of the role offered?
    - Is the letter something that adds to the resume, or does it simply restate it?
    - Is the application being carbon-copied to dozens of groups, or tailored for the position?
    - How does it read? Is this from a good verbal/written communicator?
    - Are there spelling mistakes?
    - Have they addressed it to the right company? (Seriously.)
    - Has attention been paid to balance and typography?
    - Is the file size ridiculously large?
    - Do the URLs in the PDF actually function?

    Those, and many other questions, run through my mind in the first 30 seconds of looking at a resume. And it’s surprising how much that two-page document tells me about the designer behind it.

  11. Thanks again for your time here, Eric, and much thanks to the commentators, too.

    Meredith, this point from Eric rings true for me when it comes to weighing self-employment against employment:

    “I don’t really feel that agency work is necessarily better than freelance. Both come with advantages and disadvantages; the matter then becomes one of designers determining the kind of environment they like, and the kind of work they prefer doing. Freelance generally affords greater freedom, whereas, agencies often have access to larger projects/campaigns (which can also be compelling).”

    Although I will say that even when working alone, there’s definitely the opportunity to work on large projects. It’s just that in an agency or studio these opportunities will be more frequent.

    I’m not sure how many readers generally prefer one over the other. An idea for a reader poll, perhaps.

  12. Hi David,

    Great site, great work. I’m thinking about opening a small studio here in Miami with two other designers that I’ve worked with. Can you please take a look at my website and tell me what you think? This is my site for seeking employment, I’m still working on a business site.

    Thanks, and great stuff.

  13. Hi David,

    I love all of your work. I’m a 16 year old graphic designer from Australia and you are my inspiration. Thanks for all the tips, they really help me out, and I can’t wait to be in the industry.

Anything to add?

Comments may be edited or deleted if I don't like the cut of your jib, but that's quite unlikely.