Dear Design Martyrs: The One About Being a Better Interviewee

Posted inDesign Inspiration

“Dear Design Martyrs” is PRINTmag’s latest advice column from Debbie Millman. Debbie will respond to your most burning questions about design, branding, work-life balance, and so much more.


Dear Design Martyrs,

How can I get better at interviewing? I’ve gone on a few interviews since graduating, and I thought they went well, but I haven’t gotten any job offers—or any feedback at all. My friends and family keep telling me the more I do something, the better I will get. But with interviewing, it seems that I need to be good right away! I don’t know what to do!

Jobless in Jacksonville

Dear Jobless,

Interviewing is not just about interviewing. It’s is a journey of tasks, behaviors, and hurdles that will ultimately result in getting the job you want. 

People will hire and pay you to sell more products, communicate ideas better, move things off shelves, write code, and invent and innovate. But when we work for someone, we are essentially asking them to give us money to do something we love. But they’re not interested in what WE love—they’re interested in moving more products or communicating more clearly or winning an election or inventing new marketplace opportunities. What we need to realize is that our employers are looking for a return on their investment of giving us money to do what we love.

In interviews, we signal our affiliations and beliefs. We telegraphically communicate who we are by the way we look, the things we carry, and the way we carry ourselves. In addition, you must understand how to communicate what you can do and what benefit you can provide memorably and intelligently.  

Some important principles I’ve discovered, often the hard way:

Be on time. Unless you win the lottery on the way to your interview, you must be 10 minutes early for your meeting. You can never, ever be late. Ever.

When you arrive at the location of your interview and are waiting for your contact to see you, DO NOT SIT AND LOOK AT YOUR SMARTPHONE. Stand at attention and look engaged and intelligent and wait until you are beckoned. You don’t have time to text your friends or check Instagram.

As soon as someone escorts you to the place you are meeting in, assess the room. What can you learn about the person who is interviewing you? Are there clues you can decipher about the environment or the people working there and the person you are meeting? Observe EVERYTHING. Use what you see to help spark potential questions you might want to ask.

Everything counts in an interview—even where you sit matters. And you must be careful where you sit! If possible, try and avoid the classic combative stance of face-to-face as counter-intuitive as that might seem. You are better served sitting catty-corner or side-by-side. That puts both you and your interviewer on equal “sides” rather than opposing ones.

NEVER ever ask anyone how much time you have. Expect that you have an hour and, if you’re lucky, that’s how long it will last. Anything more, and you can practically guarantee you will get an offer. 

NEVER apologize for the state of your resume or portfolio. If there is anything wrong with it—if it’s got spelling mistakes, smudgy or wrinkled paper, or is anything less than perfect, you shouldn’t be showing it in the first place. 

Once you start talking about or showing your work, there is no place for combat in an interview. Despite how you feel about your own work, you can never pressure anyone to appreciate your work in the same way you do. You can only inspire others to like your work. Under no circumstances can you bully anyone to feel anything they don’t feel. If a person you are interviewing with or showing your portfolio to is not enamored with what you are showing them, you must let them have their opinion. If you’ve ever been in a department store and been told by a salesperson that you look good in a pair of jeans that you believe you look fat in, you know you can’t get persuaded to like something you don’t like. That is a fairly universal response. The fact of the matter is this: you can’t convince someone to embrace something they don’t like—no matter what persuasive reason you might have that you believe will change their mind. If interviewers or potential clients express that they don’t like your work or your portfolio, let them not like it. Don’t belabor it, don’t combat it, and don’t try to convince anyone that they’re wrong. 

Watch your body language. Mirror your interviewers empathically by paying attention to theirs. Be attentive. 

Genuinely connect while you are talking. Look at everyone you are meeting with directly in the eye and project as much sincerity and positive energy as possible. Optimism is contagious. Avoid any sarcasm and don’t giggle or tell bad jokes. Be careful with your language: speak slowly and carefully and be aware of potential verbal tics such as “kind of,” “sort of,” “you know,” “um,” and so forth.

Don’t interrupt when anyone else is speaking. You don’t have to fill up pauses; it is not your job to be the interview entertainer. Let someone else talk first if there is silence. Most people speak and wait for someone else to finish talking before they start up again. You can learn a lot about a person if you listen when someone else is talking.

You will likely get asked if you have any questions for your interviewer. You must always have two good questions to ask anyone. Good questions to consider asking are the following:

  • What do you see as the company’s biggest challenges over the next year?
  • What are the most important qualifications you are looking for in the candidates you are interviewing?
  • Is there anything you are looking for in a candidate that I haven’t addressed?
  • How long have you (the interviewer) been here (at the company), and what is the most fulfilling thing about working here? What is the most challenging?

NEVER EVER ask about benefits, vacation time, bonuses, and pay raises in the first interview. Wait to ask about these things if you get to the next round.

If someone asks you about your “weaknesses,” be wary. There are only two acceptable answers; they are both “humblebrags,” and they are as follows:

  • I am a perfectionist.
  • I am impatient.

Finally, an interview is not over until you get an understanding of what can potentially happen next. Realize you must ask for what you want, and you need to ask what the possible next steps are. Prepare to be persistent; you might not know the immediate next steps right away.

After the interview is over, you must send a handwritten thank you note to everyone in the meeting. Be as gracious and engaging as possible in your note. 

Frankly, these tips are just the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully, they will give you a good start!