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.
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.
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.
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