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How to Get Hired: Advice From Creative Directors

This post is part of a series called Freelance Photography.
When and How to Volunteer Your Time as a Photographer or Videographer
How to Cold Pitch Work and Get the Creative Photography Jobs You Want

Here’s the harsh reality: the job market is competitive. For any enticing position you apply for, you’ll be up against dozens of other highly qualified candidates.

What makes it worse is that even if you’ve got the most talent, you still might not get the job. Research shows that half of all interviewers make their minds up about a candidate in the first five minutes. The decision is based on lots of factors, from how you shake hands to how you present your portfolio.

So in this tutorial, you’ll hear what creative directors and recruiters are looking for when they step into the interview room and sit down opposite you. You’ll find out how you can best prepare, what you should do, and what key mistakes you should avoid.

You’ve got the skills, after all. You’ve worked hard, and you know you could do a good job if given the opportunity. So maximize your chances of negotiating that final, awkward hurdle of the job interview by following these strategies.

1. Have an Opinion

As a Senior Creative Director at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Stephen Gates has interviewed hundreds of candidates, and one thing he expects is for them to “show up with something to say, some insights you want to share and some ideas of how you are going to make our work better.”

Having an opinion shows that you’ve really done your research and know the company and its work, he wrote on his website. It also helps him see how you think about design and branding, and how you communicate your ideas.

So the first step is to immerse yourself in the work of the firm you’re interviewing with. Don’t just browse the website, but really dig deep to look at as many of their projects as you can, so that you can start to formulate an honest, helpful opinion.

Then you need to find a way to communicate your ideas most effectively. You don’t want to come across as being arrogant by trashing their work, but on the other hand you don’t want to just give bland praise. Go for constructive criticism: really engage with what they’ve produced and acknowledge its strengths, while suggesting a few areas in which it could be improved or extended.

2. Get Your Portfolio Right

“I run a company,” writes Simon Manchipp. “It’s tough. Complex. Very time consuming. I am time-poor. So your portfolio has one purpose: Dazzle me.”

So how do you do that?

Manchipp, co-founder of London-based design practice SomeOne, says he is looking for “beautifully crafted, brilliant ideas. And don’t worry, it needn’t have actually been accepted by the client (although that always gets extra kudos). Show me your cut. The one that floats your boat.”

Dan Mall, founder of design studio SuperFriendly in Philadelphia, has a similar philosophy. He wants to see more than just "all the shiny results that everyone has on their portfolios." He wants to see "all the previous versions before you got to the final version that’s live." 

"Knowing how you think is what convinces me to hire you," he told me in an email. "Show me all your prototypes. Show me the photos of whiteboard sketches that you did. Show me the version the client hated, and show me how you fixed it. Show me all the versions that never made the cut. Show me that you can think through all types of problems, and you’ll likely get a job offer."

When Lee Newham was design director at Davies Hall, he liked to see candidates bringing not only their final work, but also mockups and sketches.  “We are as interested in how you got to the final solution as the solution itself,” he said in an article for graphic designer David Airey. “You can show other concepts.”

Don’t talk about your work too much at first. If you’re talking all the time, the interviewer will tend to look at you, not at your portfolio. Newham advises giving just “one short sentence to engage the interviewer with you.” Then move straight to the work.

If you’re showing logo work, be sure that it creates what Manchipp calls a “brand world”. In other words, “make sure it is applied to something, inventively, progressively, interestingly.” He wants to see more than “just an Illustrator vector whacked on a LiveImage Photoshop file. Show me how the work goes deep.”

And just for clarification, yes, you should always bring your resume and portfolio with you to the interview, even if you’ve submitted them before. The interviewer may not have your portfolio, may have forgotten it, or may have got you confused with the other ten people he or she is interviewing that day. Gates puts it very simply: “Bring your resume and portfolio or go home.”

3. Talk About the Why

After you’ve shown some of your work, be prepared to talk about why and how you created it.

“It's not only what you're doing it but the strategy behind it as well, how you tell the message,” said Skullcandy’s Nate Morley in an Inc Magazine article. “A lot of it is the energy that comes from someone. When they start talking about an idea, when somebody's really got that creative juice, it's almost like they can't help themselves from being flooded with ideas.”

Manchipp advises thinking of every project in the following terms:

  • what the challenge was
  • how you approached it
  • what the results were
  • why it worked
  • where it worked

It’s a simple framework, but can help you to describe what he calls “the creative work behind the creative work”.

Gates also places a high premium on finding candidates who can communicate the why:

“It really isn’t very hard to find someone who can create a great visual design, but it is really hard to find someone who can put thought, experience and originality into the thinking behind that design. So even if you have the best portfolio in the world but you can’t explain why you did what you did then there is a 98% chance I will pass on you as a member of my team.”

4. Look ’Em in the Eye

Remember that statistic about interviewers making up their minds in the first five minutes? It’s from a 2014 Harris Poll on behalf of CareerBuilder. It also found that by minute 15, that percentage rose to 90%. So first impressions certainly count.

In fact, other research suggests the window of opportunity may be even shorter. According to a report in The Guardian, psychology student Tricia Prickett showed videos of job interviews to observers, and found that they could predict whether or not the interviewee would be offered the job from watching just the first 15 seconds of the tape.

In 15 seconds you barely have time to say more than “Hello”, so clearly non-verbal cues are important. That same CareerBuilder survey found that hiring managers complained of the following mistakes made by candidates:

  1. Failing to make eye contact: 65%
  2. Failing to smile: 36%
  3. Playing with something on the table: 33%
  4. Having bad posture: 30%
  5. Fidgeting too much in their seat: 29%
  6. Crossing their arms over their chest: 26%
  7. Playing with their hair or touching their face: 25%
  8. Having a weak handshake: 22%
  9. Using too many hand gestures: 11%
  10. Having a handshake that is too strong: 7%

Some of this stuff is just how you naturally behave, and some of it is how you react to stress. For example, when I’m under pressure, I tend to reach up with my right hand and rub my temple. As habits go, it’s not the worst one you can imagine, but any nervous tic can get pretty irritating after a while.

The fact that these habits are so ingrained and unconscious makes them very hard to correct. If you can afford it, you could hire a body language coach, but a quick and cost-free home remedy is to have a friend video you, preferably while you’re doing something embarrassing or stressful like giving a speech in public, and then analyze your performance. The only way to get out of bad habits is to break them through constant practice and repetition. When you find yourself resorting to a nervous tic, stop yourself. If you struggle to make eye contact, force yourself to do it.

This can be a large topic, but if you work through that list from the CareerBuilder survey and eliminate any of those from your interviewing technique, you’ll be ahead of many other candidates.

5. Show You Want It

This last one may seem obvious, but it crops up time and again when creative directors and recruiters are talking about what they look for in candidates.

“Freelancers can tend to be too laid back,” Louise Coaker-Nugent, Director of The Fix Creative, told me in an email. “It can seem like they don't want the job sometimes. We have had that a lot recently.”

“Get excited,” advises Manchipp. “If you don’t want it more than the next person, the next person will probably get it.”

So how can you communicate that?

Well, first, notice that the title of this section is not: “Say You Want It”. I used the word “show” for a reason.

After all, pretty much all the candidates are going to say they want the job. That part is easy. Most of them will even make up convincing reasons for wanting the job (other than needing the money).

But showing you want the job is much harder. Part of it is following the other four steps we’ve outlined so far. If you can make a strong visual impression, show a well-prepared portfolio, and communicate fluently about your own work and the company’s, then you’re already a long way towards showing you want the job.

It’s also about doing the basics right. I asked Nick Finney, Director of NB Studio, for his one piece of job interview advice, and he wrote:

Don’t be late. Nothing says ‘I don’t care’ like turning up late to an interview—even if you really do care. Transport will let you down, and maps will misdirect you. Showing up stressed and sweaty won’t give you a chance to present the best version of you. So, plan ahead, get there early and relax; and while you’re waiting soak up the atmosphere, get an impression of what it's going to be like to work there.”

Also be sure to ask questions. Show an interest in everything about the company, and in the interviewer too. Companies routinely research candidates on social media, so you can turn the tables and research your interviewer. Find out something about his or her life and career, and ask questions that establish a personal connection, while showing you’ve gone the extra mile.

Also have some extra questions prepared in case the topics you’d planned to ask about have been covered during the interview. There’s only one thing worse than not asking any questions, and that’s asking a question that your interviewer has already answered.


It’s a tough industry out there, but people are getting hired every day, and there’s no reason why the next one shouldn’t be you. The good news is that in many of the creative directors’ comments, there’s a note of exasperation. When you hear them talking about turning up on time and remembering to bring your portfolio, you realize that many candidates are pretty much disqualifying themselves by making basic errors.

Nothing can guarantee success, of course. Sometimes you’re just up against a better qualified candidate, and sometimes you may be interviewing for a job that’s already been filled for reasons that have nothing to do with qualifications.

But if you follow the steps outlined in this tutorial, you’ll certainly increase your chances of passing the interview, being hired, and embarking on the career you deserve. Good luck, and if you have any more tips of your own, please share them with other readers in the comments below. 


Graphic Credit: Interview icon designed by Björn Andersson from the Noun Project.

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