How to apply to be a graphic designer

For several years at my previous position, I managed the marketing and creative team In that role, I had the opportunity to hire several full and part-time graphic designers. Having been through the process a few times, I thought I’d share some thoughts from the hiring manager side. Hopefully, I can share some tips and tricks that will help you stand out from the crowd and get that interview and  ultimately that position.

I like hiring designers. I think hiring a designer can be easier than hiring a writer, for example, because its very easy to see at a glance if the person who has applied for one of your position “gets it.” I’m not disrespecting writers – certainly a good writer can transform themselves and their work to meet the needs of an organization, position, or assignment.

The Cover Letter

The first step is having a decent cover letter. When I read them, I don’t spend a ton of time on them. Unfortunately, most of the time they’re filled with weird language, stuffy phrases, and are just plain weird.

I asked my friend and colleague Jen Lombardi, owner of Kiwi Creative here in Cleveland, Ohio, what she thinks about cover letters. She said:

A short cover letter that shows personality and a sincere interest in our company/culture/clients/anything! If you send over a 10-paragraph generic cover letter filled with politically correct fluff, you’re automatically disqualified for sending me the same bull$#it you’ve sent the eight other jobs you’ve blindly applied for that morning. Personalize, people! Show that you’re interested in us and explain why we should be interested in you.

The Résumé

The best way to get on my radar is to have a nicely designed résumé. I don’t mean an over-designed résumé, I mean one that’s clean and hierarchical. Please avoid crazy, hard to read fonts. I’m all for fonts other than Times New Roman, but no Zapfino. Or Impact. You’re laughing, but I’m serious. I’ve seen it.

Tell me where you’ve worked, what tools you are good at, and where you went to school. Won some awards? Cool, put them in. Certified in any special areas or topics? Good, throw them in.

Designer Resume skill bubblesOne trend I’m noticing on designer résumés is people using a bubble chart to show their skills. Don’t do this – it’s not helpful. Your 8 out of 10 in Photoshop isn’t my 8 out of 10 in Photoshop. Your 10 out of 10 in WordPress isn’t the same as my 10 out of 10. They’re visually cute, but they don’t help me gauge your skills and talents.

The Portfolio

The best way for me as the hiring manager to see if you “get it” is to include a link to an online portfolio. I don’t care if its web pages, rotating galleries, even a big PDF, make sure you are linking to something. I don’t care if you have a page on Coroflot, Behance, Wix, or whatever tool. Honestly, I think it’s worth a few extra points if you have your own domain name and designed a site as a way to further show your skills, but it’s certainly not a deal-breaker.

I can’t comprehend how a person would apply for a job as a graphic designer and not include a portfolio.

This isn’t a rookie mistake either. In recent searches, I found even experienced designers and art directors didn’t include a link to your portfolio. If you don’t have a portfolio, you’re not moving on. It’s not uncommon for me to get between 80 and 100 applications for a position, and I don’t have time to go search you out online in the hopes of maybe finding your portfolio.

NO QR CODES ON DESIGNER RESUMESI review resumes on my desktop computer, so make your portfolio link very obvious. Several resumes I’ve reviewed have had links to portfolios as QR codes. Don’t. Do. This. Please.

Now, on to your portfolio.

Please, put your best and most recent work in your portfolio. Put it the top. You may really proud of the annual report you did 9 years ago, but styles change, tastes change, trends change, and so on. When I look and I see stuff like that, I think that you’re stuck in the *INERT DECADE HERE*. Did you win 10 Addys for that piece? Cool, keep it in but tell me that you won for that piece.

I don’t see this a lot, but it’s always nice when a designer includes a little bit of narrative about what they did for a particular piece or client. For example, say “I was responsible for design as well as did low-level copy editing.”

If you are looking at your portfolio and you’re not feeling a particular piece, take it out. I’d rather see fewer awesome samples than 100 average ones.

Jen is looking for samples similar to the work her agency does. Your portfolio, she says, should have “design samples that reflect the type of work we do for our clients. (Hint: Our portfolio is online…it’s not hard to research.) Don’t apply to be a web designer and send me a portfolio full of children’s book illustrations.”


Here’s the stark reality.

There are many more designers than there are jobs. Jen says she often sees in excess of 100 applications for each designer position she has interviewed. That’s a large amount of people to try to stand out in. That’s why it’s critical you have a decent cover letter, an easy-to-read résumé, and a good online portfolio. It’s going to take great work to stand out, and if you are missing elements, or they’re bad, or incomplete, we’re going to move on quickly.


If you do get called in for an interview, and you don’t get the position, don’t take it personal. Same goes if you apply for a position and are not asked in for an interview. There are many reasons we select the people we do. My tip: thank the interviewer and team for their time, and keep an eye out for future opportunities.

I would also recommend not emailing or calling to argue the fact you didn’t get an interview or the position. You’re not going to change my mind, and it will ensure you get automatically disqualified from any positions we post in the future. Just sayin’.

Good luck out there!