It is a good time to be a designer right now. Great designers are in high demand. End users’ tastes are more sophisticated and companies value their product design more than ever.
We’re currently hiring a designer at Stack Exchange. Ever since we put up the job listing, I’ve received countless applications. After combing through all the resumes and cover letters, I thought I’d share some tips with those who are looking for a design job.
My view of an ideal job is that it should be more than just a gig that writes you a pay check. It should be something you’re passionate about, a place where you respect your coworkers and are proud of the projects you’re working on. This way, the job no longer feels like a “job” but a fun hobby that you get well compensated for.
But you know this already.
If you’re an employed designer and are looking for a new full time job, chances are there’s something amiss about your current job: maybe it’s not challenging enough, maybe you’re tired of freelancing and want a more stable set up, maybe your long commute is eating up too much family time, etc. Whatever the reason, I advise you not to apply at just any place that has a job opening, but rather, to find that ONE company you truly want to work for.
Choosing the right company to work for is a personal decision, similar to choosing a mate. Does the company culture mesh well with your personality? Do the products they work on excite you? Once you find that one company you absolutely want to work for, then you need to make sure that your application gets noticed. That company may be getting hundreds of applications from designers equally qualified as you.
I’d like to share some personal experience on my application with Stack Exchange, and how I got the job as its first designer. In 2007 I moved my family from North Carolina to the DC area for my new job with the Federal Communications Commission. FCC was pushing for a more modernized and user-friendly website and web app. I got to work on several interesting high profile government projects that I believed benefitted the general public. It was a comfortable government contract job and I liked my coworkers. The downside of the job was my long commute: 1.5 hour each way by train. As actual work went, there was a lot of maintenance time between each project launch. I felt like I needed more of a challenge creatively and it was time to move on.
Around this time a former coworker and friend from a previous job, Jeff Atwood had recently started his new project, Stack Overflow which eventually led to the Stack Exchange network of Q&A sites. When I decided to leave FCC to find a new adventure, Stack Exchange was my number one choice. I had already worked with Jeff and his developers on smaller freelance projects. I loved how the team worked: they shipped things fast then refined- rinse and repeat. Also, Jeff had a talent to push me to do more than I thought I was capable of.
Stack Exchange in early 2010 was still a tiny bootstrapped start-up with no budget. Career-wise I felt I was in limbo. Then in May, SE Inc announced it raised six million dollars in VC funding and was looking to hire several positions. That same day, I sent Jeff a one-liner email that read:
“Hire me. I’ll bust my ass for you.”
Jeff told me he liked my work, but his business partner and CEO Joel Spolsky had to approve. “Hire my friend please” isn’t how the company recruited. This made me very nervous. I didn’t have any personal interaction with Joel, I only knew of him from his famous blog Joel on Software. I knew he was an extremely smart programmer and business person who had a great experience hiring people. Reading his blog posts on his hiring practices intimidated me even more.
But I believed my skills would be an asset to the company, and culturally we’d be a great fit. I decided to formally apply at Stack Exchange. I had a cover letter and resume ready to email to Joel. Then I asked myself, why would he read my stuff out of all the other applications he was getting? What would make me stand out from the rest of the candidates? How could I get him to know me as a person instead of letters on a PDF? How would he know that I really, really wanted this job and wasn’t just sending my resume to a million different companies?
I decided the best way to convey all this was not to send a resume, but to build a custom webpage. After all, I’m applying for a web design position, what better way to do it than to actually make a web site specifically for the company I wanted to work for?
A few design goals I set for the one-page application site:
The page only took a few hours to design and code. Below is a screenshot of it. (✂ truncated).
It worked. After I emailed the Joel URL to the application page, I was quickly scheduled for a Skype interview with him. That interview with Joel turned out to be a lot less intimidating than I expected! In fact, it was the opposite. He was very friendly and funny. It felt more like a chit-chatting design session than a formal interview. He asked me a lot of great design questions and shared his view on the importance of good UI. My initial impression of Joel only re-enforced my desire to work for the company. I was hired on full time a few days later.
It turned out some other designers had similar success with custom job application sites too. Jason Zimdars created this effective page when applying at 37signals. It led him to some freelance projects with the company, and eventually he was hired.
Designer Alice Lee is a huge fan of Instagram; she created “Dear Instagram” for her application. Even though the site didn’t get her the job she wanted, it got a lot of publicity. She landed an internship at Path because of it.
Do these tailor-made job application pages guarantee you a job? Of course not, you will be judged by your actual portfolio and other skill sets. But you will make a good first impression. A company, especially a small start-up is not this faceless entity. There are real people behind it. These are the people you can affect on an emotional level with your sincerity. In other words, make them feel special.
A generic cover letter that starts with “To Whom It May Concern” does not make anyone feel special.