Part 1 – Getting the interview

I am sometimes asked how I evaluate graphic design candidates and what criteria matters most. They are great questions because the perception of how designers should engage prospective employers is more open-ended than in most professions and my opinions are similarly more subjective. So let’s just assume that what comes next is some combination of good judgment and my own personal advice on pounding the pavement.

The way I go about hiring creative talent varies by level, so for today let’s also assume you are a recent grad or still fairly new to the creative field, looking for a good place to grow as a graphic designer. If all goes well you will someday have a show-stopping portfolio, network of creative colleagues and reputation that opens doors. For now, the objective is simply proving yourself and getting the interview.

Online portfolio

To get an interview, you’ll need a website or link to your best work. I typically review multiple candidates at once and have less time than I’d like (it’s why we’re hiring) so I go right for the work samples. Just a handful that are easily accessible, well-conceived and executed is all it takes to keep me interested. Quality far outweighs quantity and what you don’t include says a lot about your judgment, so don’t dilute your best stuff with anything marginal. It’s probably the one I will remember.

The work itself

In most cases your samples will be products of your particular background. Anyone evaluating you should use that as context but will still want to see how you met your objectives in a unique, inspired way. If your work is part of an integrated campaign, showing how the concept crossed over more than one initiative and/or set of deliverables will impress. If you were part of a team that created the concept, be honest about your role. Everyone knows that great creative work often involves teamwork so all contributions, great and small, matter.

For static layouts that are predominantly yours, I like to see good design principles at work: an effective visual hierarchy that moves the eye where it should go with smart typography, image, color scheme and spatial decisions. (Featured video samples should meet the same standards within the first 5 – 10 seconds so you don’t lose attention.) For any medium, avoid sloppiness at all costs! Bad clipping paths, low image resolution, poor alignment or color correction issues will immediately send up red flags about your skills and attention to detail.


I of course look at the design of your resume before reading the content. There are a lot of clever ways to construct one but I favor utility over entertainment. (That’s what your work samples are for.) Visually branding yourself can work to a degree, but a clean, easy-to-read layout with good hierarchy is more important. That, in a portrait pdf that’s a reasonable file size with working links to a website and email address is enough to make me want to read the actual text.

Experience and skills are next on my list. For an entry to somewhat entry-level design position, you may not have much experience so including school projects is okay. Having cultivated your own clientele on the side, even through small pro-bono or passion projects also shows the kind of initiative that creative teams like. If you hold a position or internship, I match your responsibilities and exposures to your work samples, and since I have already determined that you have talent, I now match all three to our immediate needs.

Skill set

Because SHIFT offers a wide range of creative services, I look to make sure your resume shows a strong level of comfort with the core Adobe design programs–Photoshop, Illustrator and Indesign. Knowledge of other programs, particularly those related to video and animation, are good to know about, along with crossover interests like photography and sketching. Add programming skills too if you have them, but I would not typically expect a graphic designer to double as a programmer unless that became part of a transformative career goal down the road.

Cover letter

Cover letters can help, and I appreciate the ones that are sincere, succinct and free of typos and hasty grammar. Knowing why there is interest in the position and organization is useful, but unrelated personal interests are better left to the profile page on your website. 200 is a good cap for the word count.

Assuming everything above checks out, I then ask myself:

  • Do you have talent
  • Do you have enough experience to jump right in
  • Will you be a good fit for the team
  • Will you be positive, proactive and flexible
  • Will you be happy

If the probable answer to all five questions is yes, you’ll probably be hearing from us. 

Part 2 of this series will cover my thoughts on how to approach the interview

Pete Buhler
Creative Director


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