A Facebook Designer’s Guide to Building a Design Career

A Facebook Designer’s Guide to Building a Design CareerStories From the Trenches

A few days ago, I was approached by a friend for career advice. Like many other of my friends, he was looking for a job and didn’t know where to start.

Some of the questions he asked:

What do you look for when hiring? Is my portfolio site good enough? What could I be doing better?

Really, there are much better and more eloquent designers than me who can do a fantastic job answering these questions.
Nevertheless, this was my response. I hope it is useful to you.

What do I look for when hiring?

Usually, companies look for designers with a specific role in mind (UI, UX, Visual, Web, Print, etc). The bigger the company, the more specific designers they tend to look for (E.g., a start-up might want a more generalist designer than a more established company like Apple).

The most important thing here is to have a clear understanding of what you want and focus on that. For example, if you really enjoy working in Photoshop all day and would be happy just doing that, a bigger company might be a good fit for you. If you’re interested in learning code, then look for a team that works closely with engineers and allows you the room to learn with them. Obviously, there are other constraints when choosing which type of company you’d like to work for. Company size also has an effect on salary, equity, etc.

A complementary skill set to the existing team

Designers with special skills are really useful here. For example, while working for Mohawk Digital, it was very valuable to me that a candidate had experience with video, since it complemented the skill set of everyone else in the design team and allowed the candidate to collaborate with the video team to realize our designs. Another example: I have been able to use my background in music and sound mixing to work on the Automatic Link beeps and other audio elements within the app. This is invaluable to a team that would typically not have the budget to hire a proper audio engineer. Every company has tons of little gaps like these that need to be filled. If you can be the one to do that, that will be even better.

A clear understanding of the design process and all the moving parts in completing a project

Many designers are hyper-focused on making things beautiful and simple to use, which is great. But a better designer is someone who understands how to take a product from inception to completion. This requires a lot of discipline with creating designs that are flexible, easy to use, and lean. Understanding how to reproduce something with code, or the difficulty of translating a certain design into code, is very important. At the very least, a designer must be willing to collaborate with engineers to figure out the best way to execute a design concept. In the case of web design, knowing your way around CSS and HTML is almost a requirement. In other words, if you don’t know code you better be an incredible visual designer.

A positive attitude

I cannot stress this enough! Being able to work with others is a huge factor for me. A designer must be enthusiastic, open to (sometimes brutal) critique, and not afraid to challenge their own work as well as other design decisions around a company. I think a healthy design environment is one in which everyone understands and believes in the design decisions being made. This means that those in leadership positions need to allow room for designers to fail on their own assumptions and those in followership positions need to understand and respect the reasoning behind the decisions coming from the top. The point is, it’s a very collaborative environment, so showing an enthusiastic and positive attitude is key.

Attention to detail

This means no typos. Pixel perfection. No lorem ipsum. Make sure all the screenshots make sense and have real content. No image as text. Retina images. You get the point. If you could slip an easter egg or two in there, even better! For example, if you’re applying for a job as a Mobile Designer at Samsung, make sure you use Samsung phones in your mocks and not Droids or something. I think a lot of our work as designers is to create delight in users by using the products we create, so why not inspire delight during job applications? Attention to detail goes a long way!

Great work (not necessarily a great portfolio site)

It’s hard to judge a designer by their portfolio site. It could be very flashy and impressive, but it may have been coded by someone else, or a Wordpress template, etc. What I really look for in a portfolio site is a clear, in-depth look at a very carefully curated selection of works. Most people are not going to sit through 10 projects in detail. Instead, 3-4 case studies is perfect.

Make sure you’re very thorough on each project and carefully describe your intent in non-marketing words (everyone wants to make “clean, intuitive, and user friendly design”). Talk about real problems that you faced in a human way that show a deep understanding of the problem and your solution to that problem. A great example of this is Teehan+Lax; their work section is a joy to read.

Should you make your portfolio responsive?

If the job you’re applying for is even remotely dealing with mobile design (very likely) then I would say yes. It doesn’t even have to be your own design. Squarespace has some great responsive portfolio templates and Envato has a ton of amazing responsive Wordpress options for $40.

The reason you should have a mobile site is that it means that you’re giving mobile the priority that it deserves. Everyone and their mother is trying to take their business to the mobile market and you, as a designer, should understand that and address it with your own “business”. Don’t even doubt for a second that any designer visiting your site will resize the browser window within a minute of opening it. Again, you don’t have to code it yourself. Having a clean portfolio that properly shows your work on desktop and mobile is much better than having a fancy desktop-only site.

What should you be doing better?

This is tricky to answer because I don’t know what you’re already doing. I would recommend having a very clear sense of what field you want to get into. If it’s the agency world, try to find out about their events and meet someone that works at an agency that can help you get your foot in the door. Meetup is a great tool for stuff like this. Be more active on Twitter (take it seriously!). Be more active on Dribbble. Don’t be too picky if you don’t have many options. You can always quit after you find a job — having a job for a long time is not as impressive as people think it is. Finally, make sure the work you have is very solid. If there’s a bad piece in your portfolio, it will ruin the rest of them. In other words, it’s better to have 3 great pieces than 3 great ones and 1 not-so-great.

We live in the best time for design. Companies like Apple have found success with design at its forefront and evangelized its value along the way. More than ever, design is everywhere. More than ever, people are aware of the design around them.

Don’t be discouraged if you’re not currently the designer you want to be. The future is exciting! Keep working on your craft until you find what you really enjoy about design — then be the best at that! My bet is that you won’t find one specific area to focus on, but the incisive exploration for it will open doors to opportunities you couldn’t have even dreamed of.

This article first appeared on Medium, and has been republished here with the author’s permission

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Gabriel Valdivia is a product designer at Facebook currently living in London. You can follow Gabriel on Twitter or check out his website

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