Cover letters are a great way to make a positive first impression.
In the design world, the purpose of a cover letter is to introduce a portion of your work history, to exhibit your ability to write intelligently about yourself and your work, to explain the ways in which your work can benefit the hiring company, and to express a bit of your personality.
It is a rather tall order to hope to accomplish this in a few, succinct paragraphs, but it is a vital skill to develop.
No matter how amazing your actual design work may be, if you are unable to construct an understandable paragraph, your chances of being hired by any firm are reduced considerably.
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Unfortunately, undergraduate and graduate design programs do not usually teach writing for business, so writing cover letters can leave many designers feeling clueless. Below is a short list of things to avoid in your cover letters.
The following practices are destined to result in failure, so do your best to steer clear of them.
1. Trying Too Hard
As a designer, catching the eye of a potential employer is all about creating an attractive introductory package.
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Choosing attractive paper, developing an overall design for your portfolio, cover letter, resume, envelope, address label, and, in essence, branding yourself, are extremely important steps to take when applying for a position in design.
However, your cover letter should be the essence of simplicity.
Even if the logo you created for yourself is in all lowercase letters, or your resume sports a series of interlocking text boxes, do not repeat these images in the body of your cover letter. Though the stationary used can repeat design motifs, the body of the cover letter should be clear, concise, and clutter free.
2. Copping Out
Yeah, you’ve won every major design award for the last ten years. This is all well and good, but if the first paragraph in your cover letter changes tense three times and features repeated typos, no number of awards will save you.
If you know that your ability to write is not on par with your ability to design, find a friend or relative with more writing skill and experience, and ask them to edit your letter.
Don’t shrug and expect your portfolio to speak for itself. Without a proper cover letter, your portfolio may never reach the appropriate desk.
3. Skipping Research
Generic cover letters are as easy to spot as bad Photoshop jobs.
Before sending that cover letter with “Dear Sir or Madam” at the top, go to the website of the hiring company and look for the relevant name. If you are responding to a posted position, address the letter to the person listed in the notice, paying special attention to the way their name is spelled and whether they are male or female.
If you are introducing yourself to a company, use the company’s online directory to find the particular person who would most benefit from your design work, and address your cover letter to them. Read articles or blog posts about the company, so that you can write about them intelligently.
Do not send a cover letter that merely swaps one company’s name for another, or the design firm will treat you the same way.
A close relative of “Copping Out”, bragging, or talking about your own design prowess, is a no-no. It is probably not something you would do on a date, so why would you do it in a cover letter?
Giving a little information about your work background, and why it is relevant to the particular position for which you are applying, is a good idea. Waxing rhapsodic about the fact that you have been invited to the last three AIGA galas is far less of a good idea.
Keep your cover letter factual, clear, and make sure that it focuses on what you can do for the design firm, as opposed to what you have already accomplished for some other company.
Name-dropping can backfire horribly and spectacularly. If you put a name in your cover letter, know that it will most likely become a topic of conversation if you reach the interview process.
Be very certain that the person whose name you include in your cover letter actually knows the person who is hiring. Get the permission of the person you are name-dropping before including it in the cover letter. Make sure that they are comfortable with being contacted by the hiring company or person, if the need arises. If all of the aforementioned criteria are met, then, and only then, is it appropriate to include the name of an outside entity in your cover letter. Otherwise, avoid it. It can be very awkward for all involved and has the potential to damage your credibility.
A few final words to the wise
Writing cover letters actually boils down to using common sense and paying attention to detail. Having someone else read any cover letters before you send them off is very helpful. Plan ahead and take the time to ask for help.
With practice, writing cover letters will seem less daunting. Mind you, if you know what to avoid before starting, chances are, you will not have to write very many. What other errors and mistakes should designers avoid when writing a cover letter or applying for a job? Share your answers in the comments!
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People in this business are trained to make fast judgments, so avoid these errors in your first impression.
“Dear Sir or Madam...”
Only on a bad day do I feel like either.
Address me as “Dear Ms. Vrontikis” if you're the formal type, or just “Dear Petrula.” It's OK, my studio is small and we are pretty easygoing. The point is to use the level of formality appropriate to the type of firm you send the letter to. “Mr.” or “Ms.” (never “Mrs.”) is the safest choice for letters to large firms and in-house agencies.
Seeing casual greetings such as “Hello There” or “Hey” will immediately trigger my delete-key reflex.
Beware: “To Whom It May Concern” may be no one. This immediately indicates a canned cover letter. Keep in mind that only meaningful letters receive meaningful responses.
“Dear Mr. VonTrikis”
OK, my name isn't easy to spell. Well, neither is Steff Geissbuhler's or Michael Vanderbyl's. Even Margo Chase gets her name butchered.
Think of this as test #1. Do you really know how to research? Do you care if it's right? We certainly do. If it's not clearly stated on the company's website, call them to confirm this information. Review the spelling of the recipient's name, ask for his or her exact title, then use this opportunity to check the snail mail or email address you have. Designers move around a lot.
Ask if there may be an additional person in the firm to send your résumé to. The firm's principal may be too busy to see you, but it's the creative director's job to.
“… your message could not be delivered to one or more of the recipients …”
“… the number you have dialed has been disconnected …”
Timing is everything, so when a firm needs you, you want them to find you. The time after graduation is filled with change-which may include your phone number and email address. Your résumé should have some “permanent” way of reaching you-maybe a voicemail number, a free Gmail address, a LinkedIn account or your parent's home phone number. It's such a disappointment to not be able to locate the perfect candidate three months or so from when their portfolio was reviewed.
“So-and-so recommended I call you.”
There are times candidates have said this confidently, but I've never heard of “so-and-so.” It makes this transaction awkward and brings up suspicion. (See point #2 about research.)
Make sure you ask permission before using anyone's name. When you ask, confirm the relationship this person has to your desired target.
“I'll call next week to follow up.”
Great statement, and by the way, I believe you. So do what you say you're going to do. It's test #2.
Don't bother typing “Contact me if you are interested...” or “I can be reached at.... ” This is not the time to play hard to get. It's your job to get a job, and follow-up is in the job description.
“My work speaks for itself.”
If you're just starting out, this statement is a cop out. Please clearly and concisely explain the project and your approach. Don't make it a thesis. Proofread it carefully.
Invite them to view your website. Know that if viewers have to click more than twice to get an idea of what you do, they will probably just click away from your site. It's a good idea to give them links to specific projects that relate to the type of work their firm does or to the job description. This type of customization demonstrates that you have done your homework.
Because you are just starting out, there may not be that much work to present, so you need to focus on the presentation aspects. Enable the work you have to shine beautifully.
Don't try and show too much. We don't need to see a retrospective of your work from design school. Show projects that represent the designer you are today. The work is evidence of your current capabilities.
Be aware that employers scrutinize communication and organizational aspects of the site as well as the creative.
Use good email etiquette. If you include an attachment to an email, make sure it's not more than 5 MB or 15 pages.
“. . . I designed stationary packages . . .”
Designing inert packages doesn't concern me, but typos do. Misspellings and other language problems are death to this process.
In addition to the obvious purpose a résumé and cover letter have to introduce, inform, and impress, they are a way for you to alleviate my fears about hiring you right out of school. These include lack of attention to detail such as grammar and consistency. The truth is that we are fairly confident about your creative skills, but concerned about your competence and general work style. Some design firms just don't hire candidates right out of school, because it's so hard to know what a young designer doesn't know.
Using too many fonts and styles, or fonts that are too trendy is just annoying! Think of a trendy font as a hairstyle that looks great today-but looking back a few years from now, you're probably going to say: “What was I thinking?!”
Know the difference between “cool” and wrong. A current example of this is using all lower case letters. It may look cool elsewhere, but for these documents, it's just lazy and wrong.
“Worked on many projects for local design studios and directly with companies.”
Avoid vague references about your employment experience. I don't have high expectations of a recent grad in this area. Simply state your title, the name of the firm and its location. Include a brief sentence defining your responsibilities. Don't give me a long list of the firm's clients or other “padding.” Stick to what you worked on. Definitely keep school projects, including sponsored projects, out of the “Experience” category.
Beware: Listing a lot of experience, employed or freelance, but not showing any of the work in your book makes me suspicious. I'm concerned that your design approach may drastically change when the project is real. Do include a letter of recommendation if you've completed an internship or worked for a recognized design office.
The questions to consider are: What unique experiences have I had, and how will these experiences uniquely benefit this firm? Obviously this requires soul-searching and researching. Both of these are in your job description as a job hunter.
“I'll take it!”
One of the biggest mistakes is not going through this process. Accepting an offer before you graduate is so seductive. You may be relieved you don't have to go through the anxiety of a real job hunt, but beware: It's like getting married at 19. You'll never really know what else is out there.
This is a nerve-racking and stressful endeavor, but actually quite rewarding once you get going. It's one of the only times you can play “Show me yours and I'll show you mine.” Meeting people you've admired, talking about the ideas you've been passionate about, seeing great studios, and ultimately deciding what appeals to you most, is really great. It is an interesting test to trust your intuition to discriminate between perception and reality. It's the best way to be introduced to a design community that you'll be a part of for many years.
Petrula Vrontikis is a leading voice in graphic design. Her work has appeared in more than 100 books and publications. She lectures at conferences, universities, and to professional organizations worldwide about her work with Vrontikis Design Office; about graphic design education; and on the subject of inspiration. She has taught the senior graphic design studies course at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena since 1989. In 2007 Petrula received an AIGA Fellows Award honoring her as an essential voice raising the understanding of design within the industry and among the business and cultural communities of Los Angeles.