LearnHow to Get the Design Job You've Always Wanted, from a CEO's Point of View


Michael Westafer
writes on March 11, 2013

How I Landed My First Design Job

I graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in the mid-90s and started a slow crawl into my design career. After about six months of applying to a few jobs here and there, I started thinking about my career goals as a designer and realized I needed to move back to my hometown in Tampa. I knew looking for a job in another state would be extremely difficult – especially in the days before Monster, Coroflot, Krop, Dribbble and so on. So I packed my bags and headed south.

When I arrived in Tampa I barely knew anyone. I certainly didn’t understand the local design industry. I didn’t know any big agencies or local design shops. I was in the dark and needed a plan. My only resource was a big yellow book. I opened it up and started calling design shops, starting with A and working my way down the list.

When I finally got someone on the phone, I didn’t ask for a job. I didn’t even ask for an interview. I just wanted information and advice, and I would ask for meetings to see if I could get anyone – anyone – to review my portfolio. I ended up setting 33 meetings and I went to every single one.

I hand-made my cover letters, resumes and portfolio, and I walked in to each meeting without any expectation of a job. I just wanted to talk and ask questions. I gained a lot of information about what was happening in the local industry, I learned who was hiring and I met a lot of people. The same people who would later help me advance my career.

After about 3 months of networking I landed my first job with a local newspaper. Three months after that I received a call from a college friend who had a lead on a job. The next thing I knew I was working for a 50 million dollar agency, making $10,000 dollar more per year and working on some great accounts. Every job I took thereafter was the result of a connection with friends and colleagues.

I tell you this story to make a point: the job you want isn’t posted on the Internet.

I’ve never found a meaningful job from a website, and in fact, not a single one of my current employees applied to a job listing. They all came from a shared connection or chance encounter. Let me give you some stats about where my past and current employees have come from:

  • 62% – Recommendations by employees or my personal network
  • 25% – Job Postings
  • 8% – Unsolicited walk-ins or calls (no job posting)
  • 5% – I researched and found them on the Internet (they didn’t apply for a job)

There has to be a better way to find the design career you’ve always wanted. I’m going to give you some practical tips as to how you can find it from my unique perspective as a hiring CEO, and as someone who has walked in your shoes.

9 Tips to Land a Killer Design Job

1. Meet People – Get out from behind your computer and meet people. Meet my creative director, my art director, my account representative, or my marketing executive. Find out where they hang, network, and volunteer. The quickest way to landing a meeting with me is to get a recommendation from one of them.

2. Don’t Stop Meeting People – I was once invited to an interview after already accepting a pretty good job offer. I didn’t want to go on the interview because I thought it was a waste of time, but my wife insisted. I’m so glad she did. In that meeting I received a better job offer and ended up meeting the people who would one day help me start my own business. So, don’t stop meeting people – no matter how comfy your current position.

3. Set Goals – When I was looking for my first job in Tampa I set a goal to make at least 10 calls per day. Having a goal kept me motivated and ultimately led to my success in finding a job. I suggest that you make a list of the companies you want to meet. Write down the names of the key creative leaders in those companies, and start calling.

4. Be Different – Don’t do what everyone else is doing. If you want to find the quickest way to the front of the line, pick up the phone and call me, stop by my office or even better, send me your portfolio in the mail.

5. Be Excellent – If you are going to be different then make sure you do it with excellence. Remember, you are a designer. I expect to see something that is creative and polished. If you are a new designer, I can easily overlook your lack of real world experience if you deliver a top-notch personal brand image via your cover letter, resume and portfolio. If you can’t design and present your own personal brand, how can I expect you to work on my clients’ brands? Typography matters. Colors matter. Whitespace matters. Grammar matters. I get a lot of resumes and portfolios – I’m looking for a reason to eliminate yours. Don’t give me one.

6. Do Your Research – Before you send anything, learn about the company and tailor your message. What type of projects do they work on? Who are their primary clients? What is important to their firm? If you get an interview, know who you are talking to before you walk through their door.

7. Ask Questions – When you finally get the interview, prepare a list of meaningful questions. Focus on the company work and culture, especially on the first interview. My biggest pet peeve is when a potential hire asks shallow questions about whether they’ll get a Mac or PC, or if they’ll sit in a Herman Miller chair. Questions about salary and benefits are important, but not on the first interview.

8. Be Personable – Your portfolio will get you the interview. Your personality will get you the job. Look me in the eyes. Shake my hand. Speak firmly. Be confident. These are all qualities I look for in a design candidate. I won’t start negotiating until I like you – and in order to like you, we have to talk.

9. Tell Stories – Everybody loves a good story. It helps me learn about your background and your communication style at the same time. I usually ask story-based questions, like “Tell me about your favorite project and why you liked it so much?” or “Tell me about a project that didn’t go so well and what you learned from it?” Think about your stories and practice telling them.

I’ve been hiring design professionals for over a decade. I’ve learned that good ones are hard to come by, and it’s not for a lack of talent. Finding a designer with a creative eye, technical abilities and communication skills is really, really difficult. And when I do find one, I will do everything I can to keep them.

When a designer is recommended to me, or does something out of the ordinary to try and meet me – I take notice. When I eventually meet that person and realize she or he is confident, engaging and easy to talk to – I make an offer.


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