From Jim Walls, executive creative director of Philadelphia and Los Angeles-based branding agency 160over90.
Inside 160over90's Philly studio
160over90 has been damn lucky. Steady growth over 10+ years means we've had at least one open design position in Philadelphia at any one time for at least the past five years. Now that we've opened a brand new office in Los Angeles, I've got positions to fill there, too. Now the bad news for aspiring designers: We receive about 100 inquiries a month, double or triple that when we actually remember to post the position on some of the job boards.
I don't say this to brag. Any shop worth its salt is getting those same portfolios. It simply underscores how competitive the industry is. To stand-out, your portfolio needs to be nothing short of stunning. I mean literally stunning, in 15 seconds or less.
To get through all those books, I spend nights and weekends reviewing each and every submission we get. Same goes for my six creative directors. I can't even imagine what someone like Michael Bierut has to deal with. Actually, I bet he doesn't even review portfolios. Each spring, the best designer in the world is probably just spirited away like the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama to apprentice with him. I bet it's pretty cool.
We've tried to make it as easy as possible for a designer to get our attention. We direct inquiries to 160over90.com/jobs. Designers fill-out a simple form with their basic info, and are asked to submit a PDF of their best samples. Why do we ask for a PDF? Speed. All submissions are converted into e-mails housed on a shared account, where we can immediately review work day and night, in the office, at home, or on the road. A PDF can be viewed directly in the body of an e-mail, or opened in Preview with a hit of a space bar. Gone are the days of having to click on a URL for a half-finished Flash portfolio with questionable navigation or needing to search through a resume for a useable link. Well, gone in theory. About a third of our submitters still fail to attach a PDF — despite a notice that "submissions without a portfolio will be discarded before they are opened." Truth is, though, we don't toss them. Most submitters at least still include a link somewhere. It slows things down, and it raises a red flag about a candidate's ability to follow (or ignore) directions. But I promise you we still look at every submission.
Well, almost. Anybody who goes by a single moniker, like "Chaz," or gives themselves a nickname like "The Conceptual Ideator" gets booted almost immediately. We just don't have the patience.
Once we get those out of the way, before we read any resumes or intro letters, we go to the work. What are we looking for?
Do they have a solid understanding of type, color, form, balance? How well do they work with photography or illustration? Grids? Do their layouts communicate immediately? Do they know when to exercise restraint? Does the work accentuate the copy, or work against it? Can they even work with copy? Talking about the basics here. Ninety percent can be eliminated outright based on this criteria almost immediately. That's the 15 seconds mentioned above.
You'll often hear our CDs talk about portfolios being "good, but very samey." If we look at the work and can't differentiate a layout between a car ad and a brochure for a retirement home, it's an indication that the designer is only comfortable working within a particular style. Likewise if a book is mostly letterpress wedding invites or gig posters. The work can be beautiful, but if it's all of a piece, it's concerning.
We like to see work for a wide variety of projects, client types, and industries—in different mediums. Short copy, long copy. Logos. Magazine layouts. Motion graphics. Posters. Digital projects. The more the merrier. Our designers never face the same problem twice. You shouldn't come off as a designer who can solve the same problem 10 different (but mostly samey) ways. I also like to see grand solutions for challenging categories. A beautiful logo for a financial services firm is twice as impressive as a similarly crafted mark for a coffee shop.
3. Conceptual ability
A designer who knows how to develop work around an initial concept and think in terms of broader systems, solutions, and campaigns will go very, very far in life. The one who asks questions before any work is done. The one with insight into the mindset of the target audience. You're the one every creative director in the world is competing for. An agency of 20 of you can topple Governments.
I'm not talking about design flourish disguised as an idea. That's just wallpaper. If you don't know the difference, well, that's another post, and it's also how portfolio schools stay in business.
Portfolios, like fashion, tend to run in seasons. In the late 90s, everyone had at least one condom ad in their book. Ten years later, you couldn't even call yourself a designer if you weren't selling your Wilco posters on your personal site. If you worked for a certain youth-oriented clothing and lifestyle retailer two years ago, it was all about duotone newsprints. First with lots of vector art triangles, then about a year ago those triangles morphed into diamonds.
We hired a designer recently based mostly on the originality of the work. It just didn't look like anything we had seen before. Everything just felt so unique and fresh. Nothing made us say "oh yeah, right, the tea packaging again."
That reminds me of another point: If you're going to include an identity for a cupcake shop in your portfolio, it had better be the ne plus ultra of cupcake shop identities. I've seen so many, I've developed a cynical twitch every time I get close to an actual cupcake. That ain't right.
Inside 160over90's LA studio
What's that one piece you tried to bury in your book about two-thirds of the way through? The postcard for the real estate development? It sucks. Get rid of it. It makes that fantastic pro bono campaign at the opening of your work look like a one-off. Then again, it was probably your co-designer's work anyway. What was her name again? Is she looking for work?
Best. Work. Only. Doesn't matter if it's your only piece that actually got printed. Here's a good way to edit: Consider each piece individually. If you had to get hired based on the quality of that piece alone, could you do it? If the answer is no, drop it and move on.
Also, 15 pieces is enough.
General portfolio tips:
Have a PDF portfolio always at the ready. And remember you're designing for a screen, not a printout. Vertical layouts with 4-point type don't translate well to a 15-inch MacBook format.
Physical books? Endangered species. We maybe get four or five a year, unsolicited. Does it help you stand out? Maybe. But more often than not I'm wondering what the hell to do with the thing once I'm done looking though it. It's gotten to the point that we don't even really look at portfolios in the actual interviews anymore. Everything's digital.
Each week, I get together with the CDs and we review books we've liked together. We have to unanimously decide to bring someone in for interviews. If one of us isn't into the work, they get dinged. I'd guess we call about three percent back of our total submission base.
Next step is a series of phone/Skype interviews, followed by what is typically two days of in-person interviews. This is a slow, inefficient system, but we find it's what yields us the best candidates. What are we looking for at this stage?
- Process — Bar none, this is the most important factor besides the portfolio. How do you approach your work? What kinds of questions do you ask at the beginning phases of a project? Where do you go for inspiration? How do you know when an idea is good? Are you designing from the head or the heart? What are the steps you follow in a print project? How about digital? We're an extremely methodical, process-driven shop. It's not right for everyone, but the right people flourish in this system. I've got a Google doc full of comments about past interviewees. Most common reason for rejection: "Great work. Zero process."
- Communication skills — How well can they present themselves? Is their work (and resume) typo-free? Two designers being equal, I'll always choose the one that understands proper punctuation.
- Personality — How well will they fit in to our culture? What are their interests outside of design? Says a lot.
- Past history — Five different shops in three years of experience is usually a dealbreaker.
Final step? All candidates typically interview with our entire staff of designers and writers in two one-hour sessions, and you'll likely have a meal and drinks with a few of them as well. They'll be spending more time with you than with anyone else, so chemistry is vitally important.
This may all come off as tremendously off-putting to designers who might be considering us, but believe me: This is a two-way interview, and we know top candidates have a wide variety of choices when it comes to where they choose to hang their hats. We're honored and humbled when people take the time to consider us. All except for Chaz.
Other parts in the series:
What employers look for #1, by Eric Karjaluoto of smashLAB
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