Check out some great work from Curt Bailey.
What kinds of portfolios get your attention these days? What brings in an industrial designer for an interview?
I get tons of résumés by email—I’d say 10 to 20 a week, particularly this time of the year around graduation. I try to look at all of the résumés and I do my best to respond to everyone, but I usually get busy on something else and stop responding as they pile up. The good ones I keep on file, the rest I trash.
There are a couple of things that I look for in a portfolio. First of all, there seems to be a rash of irrational aspect ratios in portfolios. What I mean by that is that they are not sized to fit on my computer screen. Instead they are tall and skinny or wide and flat. Consequently, I’m constantly zooming in and out and sliding back and forth. Frankly if I get one of those I usually just trash it right off the bat. Occasionally, I want to print a portfolio so it needs to fit nicely on letter-sized paper.
Secondly, I’m a little old school, but I am still looking for great sketching abilities. I’ve seen people who can’t sketch but do generate beautiful designs via 3D computer data and rendering software; however, I still want to hire somebody who can draw well. I think it’s important to be able to stand up at the white board and quickly and artistically put things in perspective.
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You mentioned sketching as an invaluable skill for an industrial designer. What is it about having a great sketching ability that’s so important for our field?
It’s an interesting thing. There are people who have good judgment and a good sense of design who aren’t great sketchers. Still, I put emphasis on it. I somehow believe that there is a correlation between sketching ability and talent and judgment. If you know where to put a line, versus where not to put a line, then maybe you know where to position a product. I think there’s an aesthetic decision-making process with sketching that’s congruent with making good product development decisions.
Beyond that, I also think that being able to stand up at a whiteboard or sit in front of a customer as they are describing something and interpret it visually with a really cool sketch that’s worthy of being shown around is very desirable. It can get some legs and go viral within a small community. That’s super-important versus chicken scratch. It’s just a powerful tool; it’s really nice to have. It’s nice to have in meetings from a communication perspective, and it’s a signal that the person has some aesthetic judgment.
What do you expect to learn from the designer during an interview?
The prerequisite becomes that your portfolio and phone call got you in the door, so it’s clear that you have some talent. It’s a must-have. The nice-to-haves, the way you get vetted further, are things like genuine and palpable passion for what you’re doing. A verbal and visual manifestation in the way you talk, the way your body language is, of that passion. If a candidate comes in with a beautiful portfolio but lackluster attitude, it’s not going to work out for our consulting firm where you need to be able to interact with a lot of people.
Beyond that I put a huge amount of emphasis on debating skills. I was a talented designer but I think the best class I have ever taken for the advancement of my design career, in any grade or school, was high school debate. A standard assignment was that our teacher would give you a topic but he wouldn’t tell you which side of the topic you would argue for until you showed up in class. So you had to prepare both cases, and what that does is, it makes you empathetic to the other argument. It makes you consider the alternative. You do a mental game with yourself and you argue it the other way. I think that’s one of the things that make a great designer. It forces you to think: why this way? Why not another way? Of these alternatives, which one is the best and why? I think it’s a terrific habit to develop when you’re making design decisions and dealing with people in general.
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If you were starting out just now, what advice would you give yourself?
I had a student call me and ask me that, and I said whatever job you get or whatever job you take, pretend like you own the place. Pretend like it’s your own company. I wish someone had told me that when I was at RCA because what happened there is that I went into it with an attitude of “this is a stepping-stone,” and in hindsight, that was a mistake. I was going to build my portfolio so I could get the hell out of there. That was unfair to my employer, and in the long run, unfair to myself. I think I realized that about a year into it. Instead of sharing the nice work I’d done, I was hoarding it and building a portfolio, making sure I could use everything. I wasn’t thinking like an owner of RCA would think, and that was a mistake.
So I pledged to myself that whatever job I got next that I was going to give it three years, be completely selfless, pretend it’s my company, act like everything I did was with my own money. I did that at Sundberg-Ferar. I was there for about 14 months and they asked me to be a partner. I was 24 years old.
I’ve watched talented kids come through here who have looked at our place as a stepping-stone. It’s so disappointing to me because you can tell that they’re just deliberately staying a little bit disengaged because they know they’re going to be leaving. They know what they’re doing is building a portfolio and they are doing themselves and us a disservice. Some of them never change their attitude, they don’t realize that their attitude is holding them back. Treat every job like you own the place.
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