Ask DN: Where do you draw the honesty line?

over 4 years ago from , Partner at Authentic Form & Function

We recently fielded quite a few of applicants for the Digital Designer position our company had open (thankfully finding a fit recently!). But as I discussed on the DN internet tubes recently, finding that talent has been a struggle. Be it personal networks, job boards, more other job boards, and sharing in Slack channels, it's not an easy task. There's a lot of not great stuff out there.

One of my biggest digs was on the applicants we were seeing from the DeVry web program. A handful of these candidates applied, but their work was immensely sub-par, and sadly nowhere near the level of pro-ready work.

But they didn’t seem to know that: their introductory letters were very boastful, confident, and in some ways blissfully unaware.

Which makes me think, who hasn’t been honest all along? And also, where do we need to stop the high fives and kudos for making pretty pictures and get real with what will need to stand up in a professional environment?

It’s something I struggle with, but in this case I wrote a lengthy letter to DeVry explaining what we were seeing. They need to know. Someone needs to know, even if they already know and are looking the other way.

What about you? Where do you draw the line when it comes to feedback for young designers—even teammates—when what you’re seeing just isn’t going to cut it?


  • Floyd WilliamsonFloyd Williamson, over 4 years ago (edited over 4 years ago )

    I've seen you post twice about this talent issue now, and both times it has rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, it is true that finding actual talent can be difficult, but perhaps it would be more helpful to post constructive criticism to people trying to get into the design field.

    Many juniors getting into the field have nobody to mentor them. Most schools are pathetically incapable of preparing students for the job market. It's almost hard to blame new job applicants for their naivety and subpar skills.

    Oh and by the way, remember that even pros make big mistakes. I took a look at Authentic Form & Function's website. On a 150mb connection it took a little over 7 seconds combined for the load screen to finish and staggered intro animations to display everything above the fold (with the logo and menu coming in last - ouch). It is not that your team forgot to optimize either, it takes 7 seconds by design! That is not a pro design choice. Also, using Chrome at 1080p, I get this weird jagged 1 inch black edge at the corner of the browser (see here).

    My point above was just to show how easy it is to crap on other people, even at the pro level. You could do the same with my work, without a doubt. New designers have a lot to learn, and it would be far more beneficial to point them towards resources to improve their portfolios rather than posting pseudo-rants about terrible most of them are. Designer News is a place for designers of all levels, it is not an exclusive professional forum.

    32 points
    • Michael AleoMichael Aleo, over 4 years ago

      Maybe that's why, you know, they're hiring a designer?

      5 points
    • Chris Arnold, over 4 years ago (edited over 4 years ago )

      Hey Ted, I’m sorry my posts have fired you up lately. That’s obviously not my intention.

      Right away you take a shot at me about giving candidates constructive criticisms as a more helpful way to approach the topic. The fact is, we do, and a lot. As painful as it is, we not only reply to every single person, but also provide them with a more detailed “why” if they’re taking the time to ask us.

      And you’re right, a lot of juniors get into the field with a lack of mentorship, which is why we take that time with them. But in addition to that, we’re also taking the time to ask about why we’re seeing this, and the best way to provide that feedback and mentorship moving forward.

      With regards to your emphatic dissection of our company website, no one here said they were the best designer on the planet, or weren’t working around certain constraints, or aren’t consistently learning how to execute things better in the future. The animation you’re referring to has actually garnered a lot of attention and excitement for trying something new. Is it perfect? No, it isn’t.

      I'm not crapping on people. You’re crapping on people (me, and my team). You’re right, I could do the same with your work, but I’m not. And I’m not crapping on any other specific person’s work, for that matter, ever.

      The point of my post, which you missed, is that I’m seeing very subpar work, in this case from a single organization, and I’m asking to a group of professional creatives, how they approach that greater concern and related feedback without coming across poorly.

      And, hopefully, ultimately moving the entire community to a more well balanced and empathetic group without, as you said it, crapping on each other.

      12 points
      • A Paul, over 4 years ago

        LOL you mentioned the people applying for your position were boastful and blissfully unaware, yet when confronted about your slow-loading site (and may I add scroll-jacking?), you boasted about how much excitement that "feature" has generated. Really?

        7 points
  • Aaron SagrayAaron Sagray, over 4 years ago (edited over 4 years ago )

    I would be very honest, with the goal of being helpful.

    But don't insult them.

    DeVry is a for-profit "college" with a large advertising budget. It targets the lower income population with a promise of "better than minimum wage" jobs. By going to DeVry, despite the poor quality of the education, the applicants are probably working very hard to get from where they are now to where they want to be. It's much harder to educate yourself when in poverty, without the benefit of a middle class support system.

    Make it about the work. Give concrete examples and provide a list of resources that will help them be truly prepared for the workforce. Suggest internships (or if you have the resources, provide them).

    24 points
    • Chris ArnoldChris Arnold, over 4 years ago

      In total agreement here. We're never negative, always constructive, and the goal is to remain honest when a specific designers asks us what they can improve upon.

      I don't disagree the initial premise of the program isn't necessarily in line with more well known design schools, but as I noted in another reply below, at least provide students with a realistic expectation of what the program is preparing them for. Also of note, I'm not advocating that "poverty" conditions or not everyone's got a fair shot or starts from the same place.

      In the end, it's the work that matters, and I'm on board with that notion. I think, too, it's educating on general awareness and an understanding of what kind of job they're going after with such experience.

      0 points
  • Anthony Gibson, over 4 years ago

    I think the hardest part about landing one of your first jobs within the industry is that you don't know what the industry is like unless you work within it. It's also really hard to get quality feedback on any of your work unless you already know a handful of people within the industry that know the right type of feedback to give you. I think the most beneficial step we can take for not only people already working as designers, but also people who are aspiring to get their first job as a designer, is to be as honest as possible and explain context behind feedback.

    So much of what we do is in the grey and almost entirely dependent on the priorities of the client/company we work for. I've lost track of the times that I've had to re-priorities the "right" design process in order to fulfill whatever constraint was placed on me. And isn't that our jobs? Make the best use of the resources we have, and find creative solutions to complex problems?

    Looking back to before I got my first job as a Designer it was really hard to understand that good design was more about solving problems than looking good. On top of that, new designers don't have enough experience in the field to make an argument for why certain design decisions are the "right" decision.

    Thats my 2 cents: Talking about process and context is as important as how pretty the design is.

    7 points
    • Chris Arnold, over 4 years ago

      Great points. Half the battle is understanding what quality design work is in the first place, and the rest is trying to apply those approaches to work (e.g. client work) where the slate may not be free and clear of some junk.

      1 point
  • Thompson GeorgeThompson George, over 4 years ago (edited over 4 years ago )

    Right about...


    5 points
  • Dean HaydenDean Hayden, over 4 years ago

    You have high expectations. No one leaving college / university is going to be fully set and ready to venture in to the world of employment.

    Creativity, ideas and aptitude can not be taught; principles, methods and tools can.

    5 points
  • jj moijj moi, over 4 years ago (edited over 4 years ago )

    You'd be surprised if I tell you how many junior/fresh-out-of-school designers applied for a senior position or even a design director. I wouldn't have all the time in the world to give constructive feedback even if I wanted to. I just keep it professional and say that their work doesn't meet our expectations.

    Of course, if the applicants reply back and ask specifically for critic, I take the time and give a lesson or two.

    4 points
    • Chris ArnoldChris Arnold, over 4 years ago

      That's been our move as well, typically. Sometimes we'll hear back from applicants asking "why" and we'll keep it brief, but note a few constructive items of feedback that may stand out.

      0 points
      • Laurens SpangenbergLaurens Spangenberg, over 4 years ago

        I self-taught myself UI design in high school and am currently in art school. Having heard that my work wasn't good enough once felt terrible at first, although it made me reassess myself and work on improving my design skills. It's miles better than having no answer.

        2 points
  • Chris OChris O, over 4 years ago

    My experience leads me to believe that it is very difficult to hire someone directly out of school that can deliver "pro-ready" work. Someone with this level experience level would be coming in as a Jr. Designer, and will most likely require mentorship and coaching to to get them to the next level. In your case this lack of experience is also showing up in their introduction letters. I think another part of your issue is the source of the applicants. DeVry is a technical school and not a design school. Expecting someone to come out of that environment with a strong foundation in design theory may be a stretch. In the hiring process you can be clear that the candidates portfolio does not meet the requirements or level of experience you need for the role. I wouldn't say more than that as it can open you up for liability.

    When providing feedback for designers in your organization, teams that can foster open communication and critiques will provide benefit to the entire organization. I learned a ton as a Junior at the start of my career, and now I have the opportunity to mentor and help my team members as a Senior.

    4 points
    • Chris Arnold, over 4 years ago

      I agree that it's not our responsibility to necessarily dive deeper with each grad from a particular school, but it still brings up what expectations are being set within that program. And that's what I wonder about: what are those teachers saying? What are those program leaders expecting from what they're offering?

      What I expect from young designers is a general sense of awareness of what they're doing in the first place. Looking at their portfolio sites and comparing them to the company's they apply towards, for example. Being thoughtful.

      If it's a technical school, great!, provide expectations to students that the course work is providing a great fit in a print shop, or doing some production work as an intern while they grow. Nothing negative—just the reality of the program.

      1 point
  • Greg BowenGreg Bowen, over 4 years ago

    Business sense, learning to really handle criticism, how to move mountains on short time lines, how to communicate with other professional, this is something that is learned in a real production environment.

    New hires are new hires.

    My thing with honesty is more between client and developer, in the office and dealing with vendors.

    1 point
  • Michael AfonsoMichael Afonso, over 4 years ago

    This makes me feel like I was rejected from my last job application because my work is awful and I don't know it. Someone take a look at my work and tell me on a scale of shit to "okay" where I stand??


    www.michaelafonso.com/idproductsource pass - mafonso12

    1 point
    • Connor NorvellConnor Norvell, over 4 years ago

      You're work is fine! I think you have more work to do, to developer your own style. But your stuff isn't shit, its very polished, at least from what i saw on your portfolio

      1 point
      • Michael AfonsoMichael Afonso, 4 years ago

        PHEW, I know I definitely have a lot more to do but it's good to know i'm on that right track, at least from your perspective, haha thanks.

        1 point
    • Anthony Gibson, over 4 years ago

      Ditto, you're work is on the right track. I'd recommend a few things:

      • Focus your efforts on telling a really good story about your process. Start with one item in your portfolio and spend as much time designing the story that explains the why/how/what of your design as you spent on the design itself. Explain the process you took, initial concepts and why you made the decisions you made.

      • Second, when looking for design jobs find a few companies you want to work at and focus on pitching to them, not developing a boilerplate portfolio and sending it to everyone. This is a really good article on how much work it can take, but how much it can also pay off: http://joelcalifa.com/blog/how-i-got-hired-by-digitalocean/

      I'm no shinning example of these two recommendations, but 6 months into my first "real" design job, these are things I wish someone would have told me. Good luck!

      2 points
      • Chris Arnold, over 4 years ago

        I agree with these points as well. When I'm talking about sub par work, this isn't that :) Michael, keep up the strong work here and aim to get a little better with each project. Loving the suggestion to "pitch" a company, too, which Anthony elegantly points out as well.

        2 points
      • Michael AfonsoMichael Afonso, over 4 years ago

        These are two really great points. I really have noticed the first point already in my work and have to take the time to really develop my case studies a bit more. The second point looks like i'll have to delve into the link you posted and apply it. Thank you for the advice, it's really rare that I can get the chance for a decent portfolio review.

        1 point
  • Greg BowenGreg Bowen, over 4 years ago

    At 100%. I am sure I suffer for it.

    0 points
  • Aha Hah, over 4 years ago (edited over 4 years ago )

    I'd say programmers will follow the http://threevirtues.com of programming, and that's the starting point for assessment.

    0 points