A List Apart

Ask Dr. Web with Jeffrey Zeldman

Looking for Love: Standing Out from the Crowd of Web Job Seekers

A note from the editors: During the 1990s, “Ask Dr. Web” was a regular part of Zeldman.com—and now Dr. Web is back to answer your career and industry questions. Read on for his advice, learn the story behind the column, submit a question of your own, and join Dr. Web along with Sarah Parmenter for a live career consultation on Wednesday, December 02, 2015, from 1–2 p.m. EST.

In our last installment, we talked about when, why, and how to quit your job.

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This time out, we’ll discuss what to do when you have a lot to offer but can’t seem to connect with the right job.

I was hoping you could give me some direction on how to find a design mentor. I was laid off from my product design job about three months ago. I’ve been working as a designer and developer for almost 15 years, so I feel like I have a decent understanding of the industry.

I’ve found myself stuck in a position where I’m seeing little to no traction finding a job or even getting interviews. I don’t know if it’s because I’m currently unemployed, my portfolio is weak, or if I appear too senior on paper, or what. I’ve sought feedback from peers, but the only thing anyone wants to tell me is “you’re a good designer and your work is solid.” I can’t seem to find a source of objective feedback. I don’t know how to grow in order to get out of this slump. Do you have any advice for someone in my position?

Slumpy in Seattle

Dear Slumpy:

Judging from your website, your design work is excellent. Solid, yes—with a light, warm, human touch. Understated craftsmanship that conveys a sense of brand and place, using ordinary typefaces, colors, and interface conventions. I know how hard it is to achieve that level of elegance and grace. You are clearly a mature and seasoned designer.

Perhaps you’re looking for the wrong jobs. You may not be presenting a focused enough persona for the jobs you’ve applied for. A skilled and seasoned generalist designer can always find good work, but won’t get hired at, say, an overfunded and under-directed startup that is looking for cheap designers.

For that matter, a seasoned product designer with a general background won’t get hired by a startup—they’re not only looking for product specialists, they’re looking for product specialists who have a track record at companies just like theirs. They might not hire an excellent designer with a deep understanding of product who hasn’t worked at places like that. Slack, for example, might hire you as a product designer only if you’d already worked as a product designer at Twitter or Facebook. (I’m using Slack simply as an example. Their hiring practices may be entirely different from what I’ve described. But most startups hire people who’ve already worked at startups.)

In other words, people may be providing bland or vague feedback not because there’s anything wrong with your work, but simply because you’re not in the hiring track from which they draw candidates. I had a similar experience during my advertising career, when I was told I could never be hired at a hot boutique agency because I hadn’t started my career at one. (I ended up working at a hot boutique agency anyway, but only after years of wandering in the desert, and then only for peanuts.)

Given that your work is good but people aren’t responding so far, maybe the particular niche you’re seeking work in isn’t hiring people with your background, or maybe that niche is simply overstuffed with good candidates, making it harder to rise above the crowd and get noticed.

If that’s the case, maybe you need to freelance. Maybe you need to start a small independent studio or company with a like-minded peer or two. That’s what worked for me. My career was absolutely going nowhere until I started Happy Cog, originally as a design studio with only one employee—me. Today it’s a boutique studio with offices in two cities. (The kind of boutique studio that might not have hired my younger self.)

What worked for me won’t necessarily work for you, but it might. When you start your own business, you can stop worrying about other people’s limited judgements and their rules about who they want to hire, and start shaping your own destiny. Just an idea.

Not cut out for the rich-today-poor-tomorrow freelance life? Try seeking work outside the obvious circles. If you’ve been an agency person all your career, look in-house. Good web design isn’t limited to digital companies. Traditional businesses need great web designers, too. They may need them more than digital businesses do. Look for a gig at a place that desperately needs design help and acknowledges it in an interview. (You don’t want a job at a place that needs design help but doesn’t know it and won’t understand or value it. You want a place that’s ready to change and looking for the right designer to lead the charge. That’s you.)

Meantime, you’ve been stuck in your cubicle too long. Get yourself out there. (If your current peers aren’t providing feedback that gets you out of your comfort zone, take solace in their assessment that your work is very good—I agree!—then seek out new peers who can push you harder.)

Look for a mentor like you’d look for a mate. Attend meetups (they’re plentiful and free) and lectures (there are plenty of good ones that are free or affordable). If you like what someone says during the Q&A, go up to her or him after the Q&A and start a conversation. If the conversation goes well, exchange numbers. Invite your new friend to coffee. You may have met your mentor. And even if you haven’t, you’ve met a colleague who can help you gain the perspective you seek. Not all mentorship comes from folks in positions of seniority and authority. Sometimes you learn the most from someone else at your own level. Hope this helps!

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