If you’ve arrived at this blog post, congratulations! And not just on finding the post. But congratulations because you are either at a stage in your transition from student to graphic design professional where interviews will happen, or you have the foresight to look ahead to that time.
So, give yourself a pat on the back. Then let’s get down to business and dig into how to prepare for graphic design interviews.
Four “be prepareds” for a graphic design interview are:
- Be prepared for specific questions about your skill set (like Adobe Creative Cloud apps, accessibility compliance, color theory, design aesthetics…)
- Be prepared for specific questions about the type of graphic design projects you will be working with (like print, web, apps, multimedia…)
- Be prepared for questions about the specific design environment you will be working in (like public institutions, corporate branding, educational institutions, social media campaigns…)
- Be prepared to project your soft skills as a great listener, a quick learner, with calm, energetic confidence (that’s a mouthful and a bundle of contradictions, so we’ll sort through those)
A Personal Note
In general, in this series on making the transition from graphic design student to working professional, I avoid writing in first person singular (I just broke that rule, and I’m breaking it again). But here I’m going to break that rule in order to draw on many decades of experience. I’ve gone through dozens of graphic design interviews with employers and clients. Some resulted in job offers, others did not. But I learned from all of them. That’s me, by the way (on the right), in the photo, pitching a design concept (successfully) to Ear To Mind, a non-profit focused on presenting contemporary music, for a performance at Carnegie Hall.
Beyond my own direct experience, in decades of teaching graphic design I’ve prepared thousands of graphic design students to navigate job interviews, followed up with them, and added those experiences to my understanding of what works and what doesn’t.
So, I feel your anxiety about interviewing for a graphic design job or gig. And I’ll draw on my own experiences. But I’ll distinguish my own experiences from assertions based on broader sets of data.
Job Interview Dos and Don’ts
The focus in this piece is on specific preparation for a graphic designer job interview. But framing this focus is a bigger picture of preparing for job interviews in general. As there are many good resources for that online already, rather than rehash them, here’s a list of some of the most useful:
- Tips for a Successful Interview (University of North Georgia)
- What Do You Know About Our Company? Sample Interview Answers (Career Sidekick)
- 8 Good Questions To Ask An Interviewer (from the Glassdoor Team)
It doesn’t matter how well prepared you are for specific questions you’ll encounter at a graphic designer interview if you show up late, don’t know the name of the person you are meeting with, haven’t done your homework on the company, or forget to bring a printed copy of your resume! So don’t skip those things!
Do arrive early, dressed professionally, resume in hand, exuding energy and friendliness. Listen closely and make eye contact. Take notes (but don’t overdo it to the point where it seems you are not engaged in conversation with the interviewer). Thank the interviewer at the beginning and end of the interview for their time and consideration.
Dress professionally for interviews. What does that mean for a graphic designer? It doesn’t mean dress stuffy. But it also doesn’t mean sloppy. A good resource is the article Interview Attire for Designers: What to Wear at the AIGA Houston website.
Study a potential employer’s website to see what the culture seems like. Suit-and-tie is rarely the dress code for graphic designers. A button-down shirt or a nice sweater is usually right for a top along with clean, dark jeans and clean, nice shoes. But, again, have a look at the company’s website for clues.
Do your detective work
The more background you have on the culture of the company you are interviewing with, the better.
Step one is to go to the website of the company and familiarize yourself with the basics. What products do they create? How do they brand themselves? What news do they have posted? Be prepared to provide informed responses when asked by your interviewer about these things.
Step two is to go behind the scenes and get the scoop on the company from people who work there. Here, your go-to resource is Glassdoor (for background on Glassdoor, see Leverage LinkedIn and Glassdoor).
When you search for a company on Glassdoor, you’ll see tabs for Reviews and Interviews.
Start with the Reviews tab. There you can read candid, anonymous reviews by people who work for the company, and you can filter those reviews for graphic designer positions.
To get a sense of what questions you might be asked in an interview, visit the company’s Interviews tab at Glassdoor. Here too you can filter for graphic designer jobs. For example, one interviewee for a graphic designer job at Google reported that they were asked about their graphic design process and what they did outside of work. So those are specific questions you would want to be prepared to answer succinctly and coherently if you were prepping for an interview with Google.
Prepare to talk about skill sets
Skill set questions in a graphic design interview can be challenging. Here’s why: every design environment has evolved very specific and unique workflows, and nobody except people who work there can talk about them intelligently. But, unfair as it might be, you may well be asked questions based on specific workflows and skill sets that only people who already work for the company could answer with any detail or substance.
So how do you prepare for questions about your skill set? Two ways:
- Study the job requirements and brush up (or cram) to be conversant on all of them.
- Develop your ability to convey that you have the background and problem-solving, trouble-shooting mentality to quickly get up to speed in specific combinations of skills an employer is looking for.
Study job requirements
If you have a job interview lined up, it is absolutely worth the investment in your time and energy to be prepared to talk about, in a positive way, how your skill set aligns with specific job requirements.
For example, here is a set of “hard” skills (things like software apps, and not things like “teamwork”) from a junior graphic designer post at Monster.com:
- Creative and production skills with a good understanding of layout principles, aesthetic design concepts, and typography
- Proven skills in the latest Adobe Creative Suite (InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator) and Microsoft Office, including PowerPoint
- Web design experience is a plus
With that list in mind, you can prepare for an interview by breaking the list down to your strongest suit (perhaps Adobe apps) and your weakest suit (perhaps Microsoft Office). And think about ways to highlight and leverage your strong suit while covering any questions about skills that you don’t have (yet).
Weave in “soft” skills
Be prepared to talk about your “soft” skills. Look at the ones listed in the job posting for the position you are applying for, and align your strengths and skills with what you see listed.
Did you work with classmates on a team project? Bring that into the conversation. Did you manage to complete a certificate program while holding down a “day job,” or raising a child? Bring that in. Do you relish and thrive on crazy challenges and tight deadlines? Definitely bring that into the conversation with an example (but not more than one).
Play your strong suit
It is almost certainly the case that, as someone who has completed a graphic designer certificate program or similar course of study, you have worked with the three Creative Cloud apps listed in the job posted just referenced (Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign). So in preparing for an interview, think about how to present your experience with those apps.
One minor thing to note, but worth mentioning: the job posting referenced earlier refers to the suite of Adobe design apps as Creative Suite, which is now Creative Cloud. Without coming across as a know-it-all or someone trying to show up the interviewer (!) you’ll want to make a mental note to refer to the design suite by its current name. The person who prepared the job posting may not be up to date on that, but an interviewer likely will be.
But the main thing to prepare for is finding ways to integrate your specific experience with each of the listed apps into your response to a question. You should mention projects that used these apps, not just assert that you know how to use them. If you have projects in your portfolio that illustrate skills using these apps, be prepared to talk briefly about them. Here you can draw on the way in which your portfolio should document how you created projects (See Why Your Design Portfolio Should Emphasize Process, Not Just Content).
You don’t want to paint yourself into a corner in terms of projects. If you’re interviewing for job that focuses on photo retouching real estate developments, you can emphasize your experience retouching photos–invoking specific skills–without making a big deal out the fact that your class focused on retouching headshots, not high rise office buildings.
Prepare to address your weaknesses
It is likely that your skill set won’t align perfectly with the listed requirements for any particular graphic design job. For example, different graphic design environments:
- Use different tools for tracking workflow like Hive, Kissflow, Monday and Asana
- Use different protocols for managing files
- Standardize on different office suites (Microsoft Office, Google Workspace, or more specific tools)
If you see an app listed as a job requirement, prepare by doing a quick study. There are online tutorials for every app, and usually trial versions available for free.
For example, the job posting referenced earlier in this piece listed Microsoft Office including PowerPoint, but your experience with word processing, spreadsheet, and slideshow apps might be limited to Google apps. If the job interview emphasizes PowerPoint, and you are comfortable with Google Slides, you can quickly cram and become at least conversant with PowerPoint by searching for “PowerPoint vs. Google Slides” and reading an article, like PowerPoint vs Google slides. And, after a quick review of the article, sign up for the free version of PowerPoint from Microsoft and create at least one, simple slideshow. That’s an hour of prep for a quick learner like yourself, and allows you to answer “yes” when you’re asked if you’ve worked with PowerPoint.
Roll with the flow…
If you get hit with questions you aren’t prepared for, stay calm, smile, and roll with the flow. What’s the worst that can happen? You’ll learn something. Even if you’ve done a quick study on every app listed in a job posting, you can still get blindsided in an interview. When that happens, don’t make things up.
The watchword you will hear (if you haven’t heard it already) in graphic design career advancement is “fake it ‘til you make it.” That’s not wrong, but it has to be properly understood. It means being willing and able to build on what you do know, bust your butt – including watching YouTubes all night (hey, you’re young!), and reaching out for help as needed. But it does not mean claiming you know something you don’t. It’s a bit of a fine line, but you can walk that line if you understand where it lies.
For example, here’s how you might respond to a specific question about familiarity with a workflow you haven’t been exposed to:
Q: We use Illustrator effects and create graphics that we export to our digital animators as SVG code, but we export them to InDesign for our print team. Are you comfortable with that?
A: What you are describing is really interesting. It makes a lot of sense to me, and is well within the kinds of file handoffs that I have been exposed to in my classes. So, I’m in a good position to learn from and rely on your team because I’m sure they’ve developed a particularly productive workflow. Plus, I’m a quick study. And, if you don’t mind my asking, I’m actually very interested in the workflow you described, it sounds really innovative!
Here, the answer accomplishes a few things that can be applied more generally:
- Find ways to turn tough questions into forms through which to indicate your passion and drive to draw on and expand your skill set
- Express an appreciation for the work the employer has done to forge their unique workflow
- Use every opportunity to turn an interview into one where the interviewer is doing more talking than you are
Interview with empathy
In your graphic design classes, in one form or another, you came to appreciate the role of empathy in graphic design. That might have been in the form of studying empathy maps as a formal tool for visualizing the needs of a graphic design project. Or, it might have taken the form of just absorbing the passion your instructors conveyed and modeled for caring about the needs of users for whom you are creating a graphic design.
Apply that appreciation for empathy to graphic designer job interviews.
Express empathy with questions
Look for every opportunity in a graphic design job interview to ask questions that indicate your interest in what the company does. For example:
- Ask about how the company approaches specific design challenges – you can ask things like “what is the most challenging graphic design issue you face, and how might I help solve it?”
- Express genuine interest in, appreciation for, and enthusiasm for graphic design innovation the company has done in various projects or campaigns (and you should be familiar with them).
And with enough creativity, and preparation, you can draw on and convey connections between your life experiences and passions, and the mission of a design project or set of projects.
Based on studying the “hard” and “soft” skill requirements for a job, the specific required skills, a company’s product line, and work culture, you can hone your interview prep with a practice interview.
Come up with some questions, like:
- Tell us about your experience with logos
- How do you do under deadline pressure?
- Have you worked with multi-page documents in InDesign?
- What is your favorite thing to do outside of work?
Those were examples. Your set of questions will be based on the requirements posted for the job, and the homework you’ve done on the employer.
Then find a classmate, friend, or family member and have them pose your list of questions to you, and give you feedback on your responses.
That practice will help you prep for an interview in three ways:
- You’ll identify things you still need to do better at preparing for
- You’ll get more comfortable articulating your assets
- You’ll get more comfortable with being interviewed
The Touchy Issue of Salary
Discussing salary is a tricky issue, but it is much less tricky than it used to be. Why is that? Because job salaries are increasingly transparent.
On May 15, 2022, a law went into effect in New York City requiring employers with four or more employees to post minimum and maximum salary information in job postings for any positions located within New York City.
Where such laws are not in effect, Glassdoor is an excellent source for the range of salaries at any company for any position.
While the graphic design world has shifted to a significant component of remote work, location still matters in salaries. Glassdoor allows you to filter for location.
With that background, the etiquette is to wait until an interviewer brings up salary. If you have done your homework, you will know what the range of salaries is like, and you can be prepared, when asked, to identify where you think you fall within the range of salaries. For example, if you find that salaries for graphic designers at the company you are interviewing with, in the location you will work, range from $70k to $130k per year, you might be willing to suggest something at the low end as a start.
Of course, that’s all you can be, but don’t try to be something else. If you’re not a good fit for a job, that will emerge in the interview. If you are a good fit for a job, that will emerge by being yourself. Listen attentively and bounce off what you learn. Look at interviews as a learning experience. Trust me, your first one won’t be your last!
And, find ways to convey that you are a multi-dimensional human being, open to and capable of drawing on a wide range of interests. If you have a sport, you might weave that into the conversation. Same with arts like dance, music, or acting. If you are a voracious reader, find a way to bring that into the conversation. Employers will be, and should be, restrained about prying into your life, but that doesn’t mean you can’t share things that reveal how valuable you will be to an employer.
Finally, get a good night’s sleep before any interview!
- Prepare! Study your employer, analyze the posted job requirements, and study company culture.
- Be flexible. Don’t freak out over questions you didn’t expect. Seize every opportunity to emphasize your willingness and ability to learn quickly.
- Empathize. Express genuine interest in the company, the position, and the people who work there.
- Learn. The worst possible outcome from an interview, if you go in prepared, is that you will learn very valuable insights into the world of graphic design and professional workplace workflow, culture, and technology. With that orientation, no interview is a failure.
- The Graphic Design Certificate program at Noble Desktop is a real-world-focused introduction to the key tools you need to succeed as a graphic designer.
- Graphic Designer Interview Questions (UK Indeed) lists fifteen common interview questions for graphic designers, with suggestions on how to respond.
- For insights on projecting what’s unique about yourself, see A Million Qualified Designers, Only One You.