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Regulars / The Graduates 2019

Job interviews: Pentagram, Wieden+Kennedy and Bureau Borsche on how to get them and what to say

No part of starting a career strikes fear into the hearts of graduates (and everyone else, for that matter) more than the job interview. Even long into our careers, for many of us the nightmare of the interview still returns. We sit in front of a panel of stern judges, the setting resembling a courtroom more than any office, our palms moist and mouth sandpaper-dry. Somehow we’ve already done something wrong before we even introduce ourselves.

In reality, job interviews are nowhere near as terrifying as they can seem when you first begin your working life. Think about it – if they were, they’d be a pretty unhelpful process for the organisation that’s hiring, because nobody performs to the best of their abilities or speaks truthfully when they’re petrified. And that is exactly the point of a job interview from the point of view of a company – to understand who the candidate really is, what kind of person they are, and whether they’re the right fit for the role. Interviewers aren’t trying to catch you out.

Unless, that is, you’re not fully honest in your application. If there’s one message that ran through all my research and interviews for this piece like a golden thread, it was: Be honest. If you’re not, eventually you’ll get found out and there’s never a good time for that to happen. Even though it might seem like getting a first job is the most important thing in the world right now, it’s worth remembering that this is just the very start of your career; trust and relationships are going to be more important than anything else across the course of that career, so don’t try to hoodwink anyone into hiring you, because at some point you’ll have to reveal that you’re not the person you professed to be.

For what it’s worth, the most helpful piece of advice I ever got was this: Use the interview to find out whether or not the company in question is right for you too. This is a two-way street and a job is not a gift from a company to an individual; you are also investing your precious career in those who might hire you, so take the time to make sure it’s a good fit.

Still, definitely don’t just take it from me. I’ve spoken to five people from across the creative industries to gather their insights into how graduates should look to secure an interview, how they should behave once they’ve got one, and all the other do’s and don’ts surrounding the dreaded interview. Read on for their words of wisdom.

Yuri Suzuki, Partner at Pentagram London

For Yuri Suzuki, who was made a partner at Pentagram late last year, the most important thing a candidate needs to remember is: Be genuine. “It’s tempting to over-decorate yourself,” he says. “But if you overpromise, eventually it’ll become clear, which is bad for you and bad for us, too. So don’t say you can do above what you can do.”

One form this “decoration” sometimes takes is that candidates take credit for work that wasn’t really theirs, Yuri explains. “Sometimes you’ll see someone has presented something as their own, when actually it was a collaborative project. You have to mention what you really did. Don’t take credit for other people’s work.”

For Yuri, presentation skills are far less important than the ideas being presented. “Sometimes creative people aren’t the best communicators and everyone is different,” he says. “Don’t be nervous and just try to be clear about what you want to say. Above all, we want to see passion, not perfect presentation.”

One thing that shouldn’t escape your attention, though, is how you submit your work or portfolio. “I’d recommend thinking about how you’re sharing your work,” says Yuri. “Don’t upload a 1GB file with just four pages in it. You’ll need to think about this kind of thing with clients, too, eventually: What’s the easiest way to communicate this?”

Yuri also offers some consolation to anyone who doesn’t get the position they’ve applied for. For him, that’s rarely the end of the road. “I never forget who applied for a job and I always remember people I want to work with,” he says. “Every project I have is really different, so just because you’re maybe not right for this one doesn’t mean you’re wrong for every project. So don’t worry and don’t give up. There may be an opportunity in the future.”

“We look for work we’re jealous we didn’t do.”

Melanie Myers, Global Talent Director at Wieden+Kennedy, Portland

Melanie Myers, Global Talent Director at Wieden+Kennedy, Portland

Nobody has a better overview of Wieden+Kennedy’s global recruitment processes than Melanie Myers, who heads up hiring from the company’s Portland base. “Our global talent team is in constant ‘find badass people we want to work with’ mode,” she explains. Essentially, what they’re looking for is applicants who surprise them. “What are you passionate about?” she asks. “Show us what you love. Show us your drive to make exciting, provocative, interesting, smart, innovative work. If we see that, you’ll very likely get hired.”

Basically, Melanie adds, “We look for work we’re jealous we didn’t do.” She cites the example of one candidate, who caught the team’s eye with a very unusual application. The applicant created a “custom Instagram post for one of the recruiters”, Melanie says. “It was done in a smart, funny way, so we paid attention. Getting our attention, in a creative and non-irritating way, is the first step to an interview at Wieden+Kennedy.”

To find that type of person, Wieden+Kennedy also gets creative with their interview questions. Melanie asked around the office for some examples the team had put to candidates in the past and the responses she got back were pretty out there: “You choke on a peanut and die – write your own eulogy; Sum yourself up in 3 emojis; What is your favorite place on the Internet?; What was your favorite thing you ever did and why?; What’s the most shit thing you’ve ever made?”

Arguably one of the best things about such completely unpredictable questions is that, as a candidate, you basically can’t prepare for them. But Melanie still says that preparation is the key to reducing any pre-interview anxiety. “The fastest way to get rid of nerves is to BE PREPARED,” she says (the emphasis all hers). “Know the company you’re talking to, look at their work, study their history, research the people you’ll meet.”

Finally, if you don’t end up getting the position, Melanie says, there’s always a silver lining. “Pay attention to the doors that open, as well as the doors that close. Good luck!”

“It’s normal to be a bit stressed”

Mirko Borsche, Founder of Bureau Borsche, Munich

Mirko Borsche, Founder of Bureau Borsche, Munich

Being the head of an internationally renowned studio based in Munich comes with its own set of challenges when it comes to hiring. “We’re often asking people to move to Munich,” says designer Mirko Borsche. “It’s a big decision to move here – it’s not New York or Paris. So [in interviews] we want to know if the person applying really knows what they want, that they want to move to Munich, and they know what that means.”

Aside from that, the main thing Mirko is looking to find out is what they’re like as a person. This philosophy feeds into the specific questions he and his team tend to ask. “I’ll ask if they’re reading a book at the moment, and what the book is,” he says. “I’ll ask if they like sport or if they have any hobbies, if they’re in a relationship at the moment, why they’re wanting to move jobs and move to Munich.” All of this gives him a better insight into the person he’s speaking to.

When it comes to design skill, this is actually less important than you might think. “They can learn the design direction of the studio once they’re in, but at the beginning I want to see strong conceptual thinking behind their work and solid work processes.”

Like Yuri, Mirko too is not overly concerned with perfect presentation. This, too, can be learnt at a later date. “An interview is a weird thing, so it’s normal to be a bit stressed,” he says. “I’m actually more weirded out when someone is really confident in a job interview. That freaks me out. As a designer you do have to learn to be confident talking about your work, but you can learn that.”

Something Mirko continually comes back to is that candidates need to do their research into the company they’re applying to. “Some people just know the name and some of our work, but don’t do much deep research,” he explains. “We have quite a clear way of designing, so if you don’t like what we do, then you probably shouldn’t apply.”

Others apply expecting to do a particular kind of work. “They think that everything we do is super fun and playful, but in reality a lot of what we do is more about following a grid. Sadly, you can’t design entirely from scratch for every project, because nobody is going to pay for that. Earning money sometimes needs a grid.”

“The most important thing for me is their process"

Irene Pereyra, Co-founder of Anton & Irene, New York

Irene Pereyra, Co-founder of Anton & Irene, New York

“I always think it’s a good sign when someone asks a lot of questions in an interview,” says Irene Pereyra, co-founder (along with Anton Repponen) of New York agency Anton & Irene. “It shows that they’re trying to work out if the position is the right fit for them, that they’re concerned for themselves too. Every job has to be mutually beneficial. After all, you’re not a prostitute. Otherwise I worry that they’re just desperate for a position, any position.”

In an interview, Irene says she focuses much more on the candidate’s thinking than on their actual work. “The most important thing for me is their process,” she explains. “The least important thing is the output. So I never say, ‘Show me the work.’” There are often too many variables that might determine why the work is a certain way: “It could be because of the client or the timeline or something like that. I want to know how they got to that solution.”

Another reason Irene is wary of portfolios is that, like Yuri, she has seen people try to pass off someone else’s work as their own. “I’ve even seen it in reverse – people claiming they were the lead designer on something we did, when actually they were helping out on it. That’s the problem with portfolios – it’s difficult to know who was actually responsible.”

Clearly, then, having a solid portfolio is important, but only up to a point. Once you’ve secured an interview, the portfolio seems to become less important than talking through how and why you got to your specific solution. “As someone talks about their work and their process, you find out if they’re a self-starter, if they’re passionate, if they’re curious,” says Irene. “You get way more insights than looking at a portfolio.”

“I also look to see what their points of reference from outside the industry are"

Dave Lane, Founder of Lane & Associates and co-founder of The Gourmand, London

Dave Lane, Founder of Lane & Associates and co-founder of The Gourmand, London

For Dave Lane, co-founder of foodie magazine The Gourmand and founder of his agency, Lane & Associates, the two things he’s looking for at interview stage are personality and taste. “Lots of people are fairly proficient with ideas and design,” he explains, “but being organised and friendly, and having good taste are much rarer and you only get to know that through getting to know someone.”

Starting with personality, Dave explains that, because his studio is relatively small, friendliness and character are of the utmost importance. “Fundamentally, the work has to be of a certain level, but after that – how easy they are to be around, how they communicate their work, how honest and upfront they are – these are the essential things.”

As for taste, we all know it’s such a tricky thing to define and quantify, but for Dave it comes down to an awareness of wider culture and a portfolio that displays a strong sense of personality: “I’m not particularly interested in working with people whose work looks like everyone else’s. Often, when you actually drill down into the brief and why they made it, it’s not really a relevant solution to the problem, and was done more because it looks good on their site. Fundamentally, everything I do needs to be a successful solution to a brief.”

Bizarre hobbies also go a long way. “I also look to see what their points of reference from outside the industry are, because the best ideas always come from somewhere else,” he says. “So if they’re really interested in a specific film or fashion or if they have a really obscure blog about 90s B-movies, then that’s more interesting to me than a portfolio of projects that show they’re ready to be commissioned commercially.”

All that said, Dave also suggests thinking twice about applying for jobs too early in your career (throwing something of a spanner in the works of this article). His career has followed a more meandering route, he explains, but now he’s seeing the benefits. “The longer you can hold out doing your own interesting stuff, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to jump in at a more senior level with your own viewpoint and work.”

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