A Note to Junior Designers
In a few weeks, I’m going to open a role for an Associate Product Designer on my team.
I love hiring for junior positions (and I think more companies should have them). I also know that interviewing is hard and scary, especially if you’re interviewing for a job you’ve never had or haven’t been doing for very long.
Putting the materials together for this hire led me to reflect on the stages of your typical design interview, and all the times I’ve gone through these stages myself, with all the various outcomes — the good, the bad, and the so-embarrassing-that-I-still-have-nightmares-about-it.
So before I post the position, I wanted to offer some advice, demystify the process, and provide an overview of what I look for as a hiring manager. Whether you apply for a role on my team or not, I hope you find some useful nuggets here to help you with your job search.
Part 1: The Portfolio Review
Throughout your career, you will get contradictory feedback on your portfolio. That’s just the way it is. Recruiters and hiring managers are looking for different things when they review portfolios. Small teams tend to prioritize generalists or a person whose skill set will counterbalance the strengths of existing team members. Big companies divide up their roles into more composite parts: UI, UX, research, content writing — thereby leading to a deeper evaluation of what you’re best at. Sometimes, your portfolio will be reviewed by a recruiter that doesn’t know anything about design, who will say something like: “I’m really only looking for the final output.” or “Do you do both UX and UI??”
My own portfolio is three years out of date and it brings me no joy to work on it. I’m envious of other designers I’ve worked with who maintain beautiful digital spaces that manage to both capture their aesthetic and make even the worst projects look polished and cohesive (like, I was there my friend — and it definitely did not go down quite that smoothly).
No matter your relationship to writing about your work, just remember that a design portfolio is mostly a signaling tool. I would encourage new designers to think of building your portfolio as an opportunity for reflection, to have fun designing a space of your own without constraints, and as a way to catalog your growth. Don’t overthink it. Don’t go overboard. Don’t stay up until 2 a.m the night before an interview trying to get an animation to work before even practicing talking through your case studies (like I did when I was 22).
In the paraphrased words of Ira Glass, it takes a while for your skills in executing industry-standard designs to catch up with your ability to recognize good design when you see it. Anyone hiring for a junior position worth accepting will know how to look for and tease out your potential.
What am I looking for…?
Concision! If I have to scroll for more than 5 seconds to get to the end of your case study, it’s too long. If you have more than 4 case studies competing for my attention, that’s too many. And in case you need to hear it directly, I will not be reading every word or looking at every project. Show me what to pay attention to with hierarchy and salience.
Mostly, I’m looking for structure and movement. Are you telling a story? Have you developed a framework for talking about your work? Are you thinking like a designer, with empathy and openness, and attention to detail? Can I witness the growth of your project as I scroll? Did you break the problem you were facing down into parts? Were you intentional?
Easier said than done, right?? Blerg!!
Ultimately, I can’t give you a roadmap for how to put together a portfolio, though there are many tools online that can help. It is my (maybe) controversial belief that a portfolio is merely a means to an end. I am most interested in your humanity. Be your human self.
Part 2: The Design Exercise
Sorry not sorry but I love hearing stories about failed design exercises. Every designer has at least one. They are funny and relatable and if you have a design exercise coming up, you should ask a mentor or friend to tell you about one of their interview fails. Usually, it comes down to a bad day, a missed opportunity, or weird energy coming from the interviewer.
“The vibe was just off from the beginning,” I told my friend after an absolutely miserable hour visioning a new kind of delivery service, after which I was swiftly rejected via templated email. Oh, the cloud space being occupied by templated rejection emails I have received!
Design exercises are hard. They are abstract and intentionally vague. They are long and kind of lonely — as you poke through an overlarge problem with very little feedback. The pandemic has also changed their typical format, from what was usually an in-person whiteboard exercise, to a screen-share of a Miro board or Google doc that’s hard for an interviewer to see and an interviewee to organize while trying to talk.
But design exercises are also simple: come up with a user-centered framework for breaking a big problem down into smaller parts.
What am I looking for…?
In short, I want you to identify and show empathy for a diverse set of users, envision a world that meets their needs within the constraints of the prompt, and come up with a way to measure whether or not what you are envisioning will be successful. I would also like you to have fun (if at all possible), ask big questions, and take risks with weird or offbeat ideas.
Logistically, keep your phrasing simple so you can note your ideas without writing long sentences, and help yourself stay organized by practicing using a tool you’re comfortable with. The exercise is as much about how you organize your thoughts under pressure as it is about the thoughts themselves.
In the end, enduring a bad design exercise is kind of a rite of passage, one that doesn’t always happen early in your career. My first truly terrible design exercise, the one I mentioned above, happened when I was already a senior designer! If you feel stuck or feel like you’ll burst for lack of feedback, just remember that you’re in control — for the duration of the exercise, it’s your world, and we the interviewers are just living in it.
Part 3: Behavioral Interviews
tl;dr: don’t discount the importance of the behavioral interview! Sneakily, it might be the most important round because it is the one most likely to give interviewers beyond the product team a chance to meet you and assess you as a potential collaborator.
There are a few behavioral interviewing mistakes that I see junior to mid-level candidates make frequently.
(1) Succumbing to recency bias
I know I’m about to hear a half-baked answer when a candidate begins with: “Well, on the project I’m working on now…”
And I get it! You get nervous during an interview and your brain freezes up, making it difficult to access all the possible experiences you may have had that fit the prompt. But the truth of it is, you’re not done with the project you’re working on right now, and you probably haven’t had time to fully reflect on or learn from it. While it’s certainly happened before that a candidate manages to pull out a decent answer by talking about a current project, it’s infrequent.
The best way to avoid recency bias is to write out a prep doc using the STAR method. Dig deep into your resume and experiences, outline 10–12 scenarios from the last 3–4 years that fit a variety of behavioral prompts (the lists online are endless), and then reference the list during your interview, checking off the scenarios you’ve used as you go.
(2) Sticking to work stories
I am fully aware and expect that junior candidates will have very little work experience. It can be a strain to try to squeeze a whole interview out of your learnings from one summer internship — so don’t try! I love hearing answers about other lived experiences that fit behavioral prompts and show off the rest of your personhood. Honestly, mid and senior-level candidates would do well to remember that other life experiences make for great behavioral answers as well.
Behavioral interviews are all about assessing your emotional intelligence, your self-awareness, empathy, communication, and the ways in which you’ve responded under pressure. Telling stories about other parts of your life adds texture and makes it easier for you and the interviewer to relate to each other.
(3) Trying to put a bow on it
I’ve fallen hard on this one before. I got absolutely schooled by an interviewer a couple of years ago who was simply not interested in the story I was telling in response to: “Tell me about a time your stakeholders disagreed with a decision you made and how you worked through it.” He kept interrupting me as I was talking with probing questions like: But did it really happen like that? Was it really that easy? Were they actually convinced by that?
And tbh his probing style was needlessly aggressive, leading me to feel more flustered and upset than thoughtful. Based on the hour I spent talking to him, I would have never wanted to work for the company he represented (just another reminder that interviewing is a two-way street!). But, after getting space from the interview, I reflected more deeply on the nudges he gave me and recognized a pattern in them.
It’s natural to get overly attached to telling stories with positive outcomes. When we interview, we want to show off our strengths, and so we spin our mistakes and failures to make ourselves appear more favorable. But in the process of spinning, sometimes the nuances and grit of the experience get left behind. What this guy was really trying to say with all his probing was: Tell me the real story.
I want to hear the real story, too — even if parts of it make you look bad and even if it didn’t work out all that well in the end. Your ability to reflect on your weaker moments and articulate how you’ve grown will help you stand out.
Like many things on the roads of life, love, and the pursuit of happiness, much of interviewing for a job comes down to chance and timing. When I was just starting out, it always frustrated me when I would ask for feedback after a rejection and get some version of: “You’re really great, it just didn’t work out this time, but keep doing what you’re doing.”
Now that I’ve been on the other side, I understand a little better. I am blessed to interact with really fantastic candidates every time I participate in a hiring process. In balancing competitive pools, competing offers, and the specific needs of a team at any given time, there are always really tough choices to make.
As you navigate your job search, put yourself first. Be open and direct about what you want. Make little adjustments as you go.
And remember that everyone you talk to during a hiring process was once a junior candidate in the hot seat, too.