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Get That Job!
Contributor: Joe Gillespie

The time comes in every designer's life when they have to get that first foot on the ladder. The ladder is, of course, their chosen career and that initial step is so very significant because it has, at last, committed them to a definite direction.

This article is about selling yourself. Obviously, this can't be your first step because you have to have something to sell but it might well be your first encounter with 'business' and business is what it is all about - never forget that.

Choose Your Path

There are two main paths you could choose. One is where you are looking for employment with an established company and the other is where you want to work freelance and design sites for clients. Personally, I am a great believer in working for somebody else, certainly to begin with. You benefit from their training and practical experience and are protected, to a large extent, from the real world nitty-gritties of seeking and managing a client base and all the extraneous baggage that comes with running a business. This can all be quite overwhelming when you don't have much experience.

If you want to be your own boss from the outset, and you think you've got what it takes, okay, the best of luck to you. Selling yourself to a potential client is quite a different story from getting a job with an employer – but we'll come to that later.

Purpose

If you haven't already identified it in so many words, the purpose of the exercise is this:

To demonstrate your skills and capabilities in the most concise way possible

There are a lot of things going on in this statement so I'm going to break them down into bite-sized chunks.

Demonstrate

Demonstrating is more than just saying, 'Here it is!' It requires you to 'convince' and 'prove'. These are basic communicative skills and if you don't acquire them, you are at a major disadvantage in this business.

Skills and capabilities

You might well be capable of making a very nice dinner for two but that doesn't necessarily make you a chef. In Web design, you might be quite happy to produce a logo or rollover button but without knowing 'why' it works, you can't really call it a skill. A skill is something that you can do better than most other people. It is a unique ability that makes you a valuable resource to a client or employer.

Concise

People are busy and don't like to have their time wasted. Not only do you have to convince your prospect that you are the best possible person for the job, you have to do it in the shortest possible time. Busy people will resent you taking up any of their time and will look for the first opportunity to dismiss you. Initial impressions are very important!

Presenting your work

There was a time when presentations and interviews were all done in person. It still happens, but with the Web when you are looking for clients, the whole World is your marketplace and being 'local' hardly matters at all. If you are looking for a permanent employed position, you will most likely have to be physically present but you could still land that first interview from work you send in or show online.

In person

Of course, it's your work and abilities that matter, but having face-to-face contact with a potential client or employer adds an extra dimension - personality. Yes, it's possible to take an instant dislike to someone before they say two words. There are many reasons - they can be too overpowering or too shy, overdressed or scruffy, or it can be completely subliminal and instinctive. That's the way it has always been and, even with the Internet, will be for some time yet. The only good thing about such a situation is that it precludes a bad long-term relationship.

A more positive 'good' aspect is that you are in control - well hopefully. You have the opportunity to present your portfolio using your own laptop computer and with the browser that you know works. You don't have that advantage when you present in any other way.

You also have the chance to talk about what you have done, explaining why you took particular decisions and actions and to answer questions. Establishing a rapport with the person you are talking to can help reinforce their favourable impression of your work - and you as their partner in business.

Web sites are interactive. If you are working the mouse or trackpad, it removes the possibility that the interviewer might miss some vital part of your presentation. The fact that you are explaining as you go along provides an element of continuity that would be absent in a remote presentation. Use the situation to advantage. Given the choice between a 'local' designer and a 'virtual' one of a similar standard, the 'devil' you know is always preferable to one that you don't.

Online

With a Web-based portfolio, what you see is what you get. There is no 'chemistry' involved or personality likes or dislikes. You could be an individual working in a home study or a company with loads of resources and a fancy office - who knows? It's only what they see on their screen that matters. I have emphasised 'their' because you have to ever be aware that they could be seeing something quite different from what you see. It's all very well producing cutting-edge designs using DHTML, JavaScript and Flash MX movies. If the client is running Netscape 4 on Windows '95, you could have problems. If you are using a Mac and they are viewing on a PC, that alone can make a big difference!

More than any time, make sure you test your personal portfolio pages on as many systems as possible to make sure there are no nasty surprises.

If you don't have a lot of working sites under your belt, that doesn't matter too much. At this stage, it's more important to communicate your abilities rather than your track record. I would certainly prefer to see a personal home page that was carried out with skill and taste than half a dozen indifferent sites for real companies. It's not the sites that matter or who they were done for, it's how well you did them.

As your career progresses, it becomes increasingly necessary to show the quality of your client-base too, because that establishes your professional pedigree. A couple of sites for well-known companies, whether local, national or international, go a long way in convincing a potential client or employer that you are exactly what they need.

By mail

Another way to present your work is to send potential clients/employers a selection of your work on a CD-ROM. This has advantages and disadvantages.
The advantages are that you have virtually unlimited space and bandwidth and you can do what you want by way of a 'shell presentation'. Here is a chance to use Flash as a front-end, linking-off to conventional HTML pages as necessary.

Having the bandwidth means you can add voice-overs, music, animation – whatever you like, provided it leads the viewer into the work and doesn't just become a barrier that keeps them out. That is a fine distinction, but a very important one.

If you have any special requirements for plug-ins or even complete browsers, you can deliver them on the CD along with the necessary instructions for installing or using them. On the other hand, this could easily annoy the recipient. I know that if I was instructed to install an unfamiliar browser or other software on my machine, I would probably not go to the trouble. If that meant missing-out on an important part of the presentation, so be it.

If you do send potentials a CD-ROM, make it very clear how they should be used. It is surprising how many people provide a diskful of folders with no clue as to where to start. Consider also that a CD-ROM alone has very little presence or 'come-on' about it. Make sure you dress it up for the occasion.

What potential clients look for

It's amazing, but whether it's a small-time supplier of bathroom fixtures or the art-buyer of a major agency, they always look for the same thing. They want to see their job already done!

What I mean by that is that the bathroom fixtures supplier will want to see half a dozen sites for other bathroom fixtures suppliers. Ad agency art-buyers that I've had dealings with seem to show a similar lack of imagination and take everything most literally.

Unless you specialise in very niche market areas, it is unlikely that you will be able to show several competitor's sites. I'd be more worried about their being 'typecast' if their work was as polarised as this.

All you can do is to try to fire their (lack of) imagination by showing possibilities that they never dreamed of and by pointing-out that where the 'products' are not the same, the principles of selling them are.

I've said this before but I want to emphasise it. The initial impression is very important. A presentation that worked for one client isn't necessarily the right one for another. If you just happen to have a similar sample to the one you are pitching for, show it first. The rest is icing on the cake!

It also helps to finish up with an outstanding piece of work, no matter if it is relevant or not, it leaves your presentation on a high note instead of an anti-climax.

If nothing in your portfolio is relevant to the clients needs, you have an uphill struggle. In this case, you have to demonstrate that you understand their needs and are capable of satisfying them without resorting to visual aids. In such a case, I would try to turn it into the advantage of being a 'fresh-eye' that sees new ways of looking at things and helps produce new, creative solutions.

What potential employers look for

Quite different from the client's cursory flick through your work, the employer will want to dig deeper. This is not a one-off job but a longer-term relationship and probably not just between two people. A potential employer will be looking for unique skills that you can add to his or her team and also how you will fit into that team at a personal level.

Also, an employer will want to look behind-the-scenes of your Web pages. Clients won't care too much about this but employers will. Even after you have impressed them with what is on the page, they will look at how well you have dealt with the HTML markup and JavaScript code - this can be very telling. Are all the correct elements there? DocType? Encoding? Meta Tags? Are you working to modern Web standards or still using obsolete and deprecated HTML tags?

There's no hard and fast rule, and it depends on the particular situation you are applying for. Someone who produces stunning graphics will have different qualities to one that specialises in coding and that will be taken into account. Even though graphics or coding is not your thing, you should be aware of what is happening around you.

If you are of a 'right brain' disposition and you can produce good-looking sites, the fact that you have used off-the-shelf JavaScript actions is acceptable. If you are trying to sell yourself on your coding abilities, those telltale signatures of Dreamweaver or GoLive JavaScript functions are easily spotted and don't look too good.

There's nothing wrong with using a WYSIWYG editor provided you can show that you are controlling it and it's not the other way around. Finicky hand-coding might be efficient from a page rendering point of view but few people will be impressed with it if it takes twice as long and they can't see any advantages in the final result.
It's certainly good to know how to hand-code but it's not the only factor in the equation.

Some Dos and Don'ts

Here is a short list of tips, some obvious and some not so. Try to keep them in mind when you present your work.

Do Try to control the situation and browsing environment. Finding out that your site doesn't work properly in the client's browser is too late - you've blown your chance!
Do Remember, looking at your portfolio is an imposition on someone and they will almost certainly be seeing other people too. Keep your presentation short, sweet and to the point.
Do Demonstrate the breadth of your skills. Don't be afraid to acknowledge your weaknesses, nobody can do everything.
Do Three or four good examples are better than a dozen indifferent ones. Quality, not quantity.
Do Watch the finer details. It's very embarrassing when a potential client or employer points-out typos on your page.
Do Be prepared to say what a site you are showing cost to produce. In business, the bottom line is very important. If your price is too dear (or too cheap), you won't be considered.
Do Be honest. Making wild exaggerations about your abilities, if not spotted at the outset, will return to haunt you later. Fooling the client is one thing but kidding yourself usually ends in disaster.
Don't Waste people's time. There are so many ways to do this and I think I've covered most of them already. Just consider that you will probably also end up wasting your own.
Don't Make excuses. A catalog of excuses about why a page doesn't work, visually or functionally, is another way of wasting people's time and a big turn-off.
Don't Spam potential customer or employers with your details. People hate spam and the people who send it. If you must send unsolicited email, make sure that it is worded appropriately and sent to the correct person. The subject should say exactly what it is you are sending, using spammer's tricks to fool people into opening your email won't go down too well at all.
Don't Don't tell them how good (you think) you are. They will decide that by their standards and on their terms.
Don't Put other people (or their sites) down. If you can think of a better way of doing something, say so but just trashing other people's work just for the sake of it is unprofessional and reflects more badly on you than them.

And finally

More valuable than your portfolio, or your resume, or any advertising or promotion you might contemplate, is a personal recommendation from someone your client/employer respects. An extension of this is your reputation – that's how everybody views you and your work. Protect it like a baby!

     
       
 
Authors background

Joe Gillespie is an expert designer, art director, multimedia specialist, and independent design consultant for large corporations. Joe also runs the well established and highly regarded Web Page Design For Designers at http://www.wpdfd.com/index.htm, a great site enjoying some 5 million hits per month, full with advice, articles, and original pixel fonts.

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The article above is used under strict permission, and may not be redistributed freely, except with the express permission of the copyright holder:
Joe Gillespie © 2002-2007.

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