How You Can Find A Design Job You Will Truly Love

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Susie Pollasky is Talent Ambassador of Digital Telepathy , a UX design company that is passionate about crafting meaningful experiences and products [like Hello … More about Susie ↬

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As a designer, you might start looking for a new job when you feel you have hit a wall with your current employer or when greater opportunities are present at other companies. When you’re honest with who you are and what you want in a job, you will be able to determine whether the position meets your criteria. Planning for job requirements, salary and perhaps location before applying is obvious, but many people forget to set criteria for one major thing: corporate culture. Corporate culture shapes every aspect of an organization, from operations and business policies to “extra-curricular” activities and day-to-day staff interactions.

There comes a time in nearly everyone’s career when changing jobs is the natural next step. As a designer, you might start looking for a new job when you feel you have hit a wall with your current employer or when greater opportunities are present at other companies.

After taking the necessary steps to prepare for a job search, like updating your resume and nurturing a small savings account to provide a little cushion, think about what you want in your next job. Planning for job requirements, salary and perhaps location before applying is obvious, but many people forget to set criteria for one major thing: corporate culture.

The Foundation For Innovation

Corporate culture is defined by an organization’s values and philosophy; it is a set of collective beliefs or personality traits that govern everything a company does. Corporate culture shapes every aspect of an organization, from operations and business policies to “extra-curricular” activities and day-to-day staff interactions.

To be truly happy at a job, you have to find a company that resonates with your personality and that provides an environment in which you can thrive. In the US, the average full-time employee works nearly 1,700 hours each year. When you spend that much time at work, the job becomes a part of your identity, an extension of you. Isn’t it fair to say that the company you work for represents you as much as you represent it?

What Helps You Thrive?

Before even applying for a job, consider what kind of culture you feel you would best fit in. After all, you are 27.2% less likely to leave a job in the first year if you join a company that is a good fit for you.

Think about what kind of work environment is best for you. (Image credit)

List the traits that you feel a good corporate culture should have by considering the following:

  • Management style. Are you more comfortable working with few restrictions, or do you like a more hands-on approach? Do you need feedback and affirmation?
  • Opportunities for growth. Where do you want to be in the next three years? What would you like your responsibilities to include?
  • Work environment. Do you work best in a fast-paced, collaborative environment, or do you do your best work in silence? Do you enjoy socializing throughout the day, or do you work better without interruptions?
  • Corporate personality. Would a more serious and professional environment work best for you, or would you prefer a more casual workplace?

By thinking of these criteria, you will be able to determine what kind of research to conduct and what kinds of questions to ask before and during your interviews.

Become A Culture Detective

Most of the time, you get only a few hours with the hiring manager to determine whether a company is a good fit for you, and vice versa. One of the best ways to find out whether the company you are interviewing with has a culture that meets your requirements is by doing a little detective work beforehand.

A company’s culture is strongly molded by the people who make up the organization. Use tools such as LinkedIn to get an idea of the work experience, skill sets and possibly even hobbies of your prospective colleagues. Look at the profiles of the leadership and management team. Do you feel you could learn from them? Do you have experiences or skill sets that seem compatible with those of employees of the company?

Do research to uncover the true nature of a company's culture. (Image credit)

On a few occasions, I have seen applicants even reach out to a current employee in a similar position within the prospective company to get a better idea of the culture and work environment. This is a great idea. You will often get an inside glimpse of the organization, while also getting to know a potential colleague.

Common Criteria For Designers And What To Ask

The interview is a crucial time to prove to the company that you are a good fit for it, while also determining whether the position is a good fit for you. The number-one piece of advice I can give at this point is to go into the interview prepared to be yourself. This is a two-sided discovery process. When you’re honest with who you are and what you want in a job, you will be able to determine whether the position meets your criteria.

Through my work with designers and UX professionals, I have witnessed patterns in the environments that creative professionals truly thrive in. To give you some ideas, consider asking variations of the questions under the headings below to determine whether a company makes sense for you and fits your criteria.

Is The Company Design-Driven?

Challenge yourself to grow in your skills and experience by working for a company that puts design at the center of its business. Companies such as Apple and Airbnb have built a culture around design, making it a priority and an essential part of their innovation. Working for a design-driven company will force you to work outside of your comfort zone, to innovate, to work smarter and grow beyond the confines of “ordinary.”

  • “What is your design philosophy?”
  • “How do you as an organization value design in your daily work?”
  • “How has design changed your business?”
  • “What do you feel is the most innovative design project your company has done recently?”
  • “What inspires you about your employees’ most recent work?”

Does Creativity Trump Tenure?

The best working environment for a designer is one in which creativity is rewarded above all else. Companies that discourage risk are actually cultivating a norm of anti-innovation, and nothing crushes a designer’s soul faster than that. As a creative, you know that your job is to take risks and to seek out new ways to solve problems. You will thrive in an office that encourages this behavior, that nurtures your ideas and that moves people up based on initiative and skill, not just tenure.

  • “What do you look for in your employees?”
  • “How do people in your organization move up? What qualities do you look for?” (Consider how this translates back to your career path.)
  • “What does the career trajectory look like for this position? How do you groom your talent for growth?”

Are Togetherness And Collaboration Valued?

A corporate culture of “togetherness” emphasizes collaboration among employees. For designers, this is extremely important. Collaborating with people with different design backgrounds and experiences, and possibly even from different industries and professions, will help you to solve problems in ways you had never thought of before. This process of collaborative learning is crucial to your continued growth as a professional and an artist. Togetherness can also take place during a company’s extra-curricular activities.

  • “What is the day-to-day interaction like between the different departments here?”
  • “How do you establish or nurture a sense of camaraderie among employees?”
  • “What do your coworkers or employees do after hours?”
  • “What kind of non-professional events or activities does the company sponsor for employees?”

Is Innovation A Priority?

What propels you as a designer is likely a desire to create amazing work and to do it better each time. Because of that internal drive, you would likely become complacent by doing the same work over and over. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, for instance, demands that employees be inventive. Amazon even established a group within the company, Web Lab, that is in charge of experimenting with UX design to find improvements — they are constantly innovating.

Companies that place innovation high on their list of priorities will look to their designers to think creatively and strategically, to solve problems with design answers. You will be encouraged, perhaps expected, to use cutting-edge tools and techniques in your work, which will also push you to continue honing your craft.

  • “How do you inspire innovation in your employees?”
  • “What work has your company done that you feel was cutting-edge?”
  • “How much time does your company dedicate to learning or teaching employees new skills?”
  • “Where is your company going? What are your major initiatives for this year?”

Read Between The Lines

When evaluating a company’s culture, listening to what the interviewer doesn’t say is as important as listening what they do say. Pay close attention to body language and hesitations when asking questions. An interviewer struggling to come up with an answer to a question as easy as, “How would you describe your corporate culture?” could indicate that the culture is not well defined. This is dangerous, because I often find that corporate culture is the glue that keeps everyone working together, the grease that keeps the engine moving the collective forward.

Listen to what people tell you during the interview and read between the lines. (Image credit)

While waiting for the interview or when exiting the office, look around you. How do people look? Happy? Miserable? What do they have on their desks? One study suggests that messy desks indicate a creative environment (perfect for designers). If you make eye contact with someone passing by, do they smile or quickly walk by without acknowledging? These are all ways to better understand the corporate culture in which you might be working.

Evaluate Based On Your Criteria

After the interview, sit down with your list of criteria for corporate culture and go through it one by one, noting what you heard during the interview and observed in the office. Make sure to cover the most important items. If your criteria have not been satisfied by the information provided by the interviewer, perhaps this is not the position for you.

Sometimes the evaluation process will last beyond your acceptance of a position. Even after carefully considering all of the aspects we have discussed, things might not fall into place. If, for some reason, you start a job and find that what you thought the culture would be misaligns with what you are experiencing, you still have an opportunity to make an impact and offer ideas to influence the organization.

It could just be bad timing, a case of a great company going through a rough patch. In this case, evaluate the leaders of the organization. Do they have a vision and a plan? Is the plan clearly defined and actionable? This will give you a sense of where the company is at, as well as a road map of where it is going and how the journey will affect the culture and your future at the company.

However, if it truly is a mismatch, then account for these factors as you look for your next position. Before deciding when to leave, consider whether you are financially and emotionally prepared to leave or are in a position to remain there while you look. Ultimately, finding the perfect corporate culture means understanding where you fit in best. That process takes time, so sometimes getting it wrong is perfectly natural, despite our best effort.

Joining a company with a culture and personality that align with your values and that support your ambitions will ultimately make you happier and more successful in your new position. Be honest with what you need and want in an employer, and settle only when the most important criteria have been met, even if that means leaving a new job for a better fit.

If you want to know more about what is possible in a corporate culture before drawing your list, check out these great reads:

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (ah, il, al, mrn)