Design Domination Podcast Episode #102: How to Respond to a Job Opportunity the Right Way

Whether you're looking for freelance design work or contract work or a part-time or full-time job as a designer, find out how to respond to a job ad the right way. This will help you stand out and get the best chance of getting a new client or a new job.

In this episode, I’m going to share tips on how to respond to a design job opportunity the right way—whether it’s someone looking for a freelancer, part-time help or full-time help.

I’ll also tell you some things I’ve seen that you should avoid.

That’s why I had to do a podcast episode about this—because I’ve seen firsthand how designers respond to a job opportunity or a post requesting design help. Some do it well, and some make it difficult for themselves.

I am not trying to shame anyone—not at all. I even made some of these mistakes early on in my career and also got feedback at some point about how to increase my chances of being considered.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence—the looking for work and the looking for help.

I want to help designers put their best foot forward, so that you give yourself the best chance to be considered for any type of work. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for contract work or a part-time or full-time job. All of these practices will help you get a much better chance of getting work.

So here are my tips to help you do that.

1. Follow Directions

This first one seems so obvious, but follow directions. Many designers are so eager to reply, they overlook the details.

What did the job ad or post say to include in your reply? If it says to do include your résumé, your rates, a link to your portfolio and answers to certain questions, do it. Do it all.

Read it over and over again to make sure you don’t miss anything.

You might think this is trivial and that if they’re interested, they’ll just reach out for more information. Maybe, maybe not. They don’t necessarily have time.

A lot of times, the entire process is a test—at least with me. If you don’t follow this part of the process—sorry to say—you’ll probably disqualify yourself. You just disqualified yourself by demonstrating you don’t pay attention to directions.

I always ask applicants to put something in particular in the subject line, such as a favorite color, typeface or even food (I got that idea from Mike Killen).

What’s funny about the subject lines is that I remember what so many of them are. But it also gives me a chance to get to know someone a little better.

It’s surprising to me how often this small request is overlooked. I even put it first in the instructions.

It’s of utmost importance to me—and to many others—that someone shows attention to detail. So many designers say they do but then they don’t demonstrate it.

You can’t say you do and then not show it. Whoever is hiring doesn’t want to wonder if you will do that on a client project—when it really matters, when there’s a deadline and when there is money involved.

Again, following the directions is a test. Anyone can say it. I need to see it.

2. Personalize Your Reply

Simply replying to a job post isn’t enough to get you a chance at the work. It isn’t a lottery.

Personalizing your reply is important if you want to have a chance to be considered and even stand out.

If the post includes the name of the person to respond to or if there is a first name in the email address, address your response to them.

If there is a last name mentioned in the email address, you can use “Dear Mr./Ms.” whatever it is.

If there isn’t a name at all, you could address it to “Dear sir” or “Dear ma’am.” But avoid that if there is some semblance of a name.

The other thing you can do is research and see if you can find the name of the person attached to the email in the post. That can also win you bonus points.

You can also earn bonus points and really stand out by doing some research on who you’re responding to. Do a quick online search about the company and include something interesting you found that you relate to or are interested in or have experience with.

Maybe they volunteer with an organization whose cause is one you’re passionate about. Maybe they went to the same college or studied the same thing. Maybe they have a dog.

I’m not saying to go stalk them, but oftentimes, on LinkedIn or a company’s About page, you can find interesting details in people’s bios.

The other thing is to write a custom cover letter.

As someone who’s done hiring, nothing’s worse than getting a cover letter that has clearly been copied and pasted, the same one sent out to everyone and anyone with a job opening. I am shocked by how many copy-and-paste template responses I have gotten.

When I get a response to a design-related position that starts out talking about their experience in IT or administrative work or, say, video editing, I can tell it was copied and pasted.

They didn’t take the time to tailor it to what I’m looking for. That doesn’t help you.

Anyone who’s doing any hiring is taking time to look at your letter, your résumé and your work. At least spend a few minutes tailoring your response. You want agencies and employers to take the time to review your work, your credentials. Give them a reason to.

Otherwise, it says you didn’t care to take the time to personalize your response. So why should someone take the time to check you out?

3. Lead With Relevant Work

Another thing you want to do is lead with relevant work.

Show the work that is most relevant to the job at hand, so that whoever is doing the hiring can see that you can do that work. That’s their biggest concern. Do you have experience with this work? Do you understand what is involved in it? Can you be trusted to do it well?

For instance, someone might be an amazing logo designer or web designer, but that doesn’t mean they will be great at page layout. That is totally different.

The other thing is that people have limited time. You want to make it a slam dunk for whoever will be reviewing your work to see that you can do that work. So demonstrate first and foremost that you are capable of doing that type of work.

4. Show Your Best Work

Show your best work. Don’t just provide anything and everything. Think quality over quantity.

Showing a bunch of work just to show you’ve done a lot of work isn’t usually a good idea. And, trust me, I’ve done it!

I get that not all designers have a lot of work in their portfolios to show. I very much remember those days. You might even try to overcompensate for that by showing work that isn’t so great, just so that you can show more.

But when you show work that isn’t your best, it can actually hurt you. It dilutes the positive impression that good work gives.

It could make it appear that the quality of your work is inconsistent—a crap shoot. Designers and companies want to see quality and consistency.

It makes someone wonder if you will be able to deliver quality work consistently or if it’s more of a rare occurrence.

Seeing really good work from a designer also tells me… I can almost feel that they enjoy the work. That’s a very different impression than just seeing that someone put some text on a page with an image. Anyone can do that.

5. Provide Context

Putting your work into context can make a huge difference.

By that, I mean, explaining your work. What were the client’s goals?

What restrictions, if any, did you have? Were you up against a super tight timeframe? Did you deliver ahead of schedule?

What role did you play? Did you do all of it? Did you do custom illustration or photography as well? Did you do photo retouching—color adjustments or removing the background?

What were the results of the work? How did it do? Did the client get more sales from it? More event attendees? How many or what percentage?

This is all helpful information that will let them know more about your skills and what to expect from working with you.

After all, nobody hires a designer just to hire a designer. They have an end goal—make more money, connect with an audience or something else.

Put it into context, explain it. Your work needs to speak for itself because you may not get the opportunity. Otherwise, you leave it up to interpretation—which could work for or against you.

Someone might assume you did more work than you actually did, which may lead to disappointment if they hire you.

Or they might assume you did much less than you did, which may result in them not hiring you. Don’t be afraid to stake your claim on the work that you’ve done and all that you’ve done for it. Take credit for that.

6. Present Your Portfolio

When presenting your design work, put your best foot forward with a portfolio. The best thing is to have your own website with your work and case studies.

The next best thing is showing it in a PDF or on a portfolio site such as Behance.  But I do have some concerns with Behance because you’re sending people to look at your portfolio and other designer’s portfolios there. You don’t want them to go looking and search for someone else’s.

I’ve gotten links to individual images in Google Drive or Dropbox, which makes it tedious for someone to assess your work. It’s time consuming to click through individual images and that doesn’t include any information about the project.

It’s most helpful when the work is grouped by client or campaign and with an explanation. It makes it much easier to understand the work and see the bigger picture.

I talk more about how to create an effective portfolio website in episode 52, 17 essential elements for an effective portfolio website. So be sure to check that out.

Need Help With Your Portfolio?

If you would like one-on-one help putting your portfolio together, writing case studies or replying to a job opportunity, inquire about a mentoring session.

Free Webinar

On another note, I will be doing a free webinar called 3 Easy Steps Into Web Accessibility+ 3 Common Mistakes on September 1, 2021, at 12 PM EST. Register today.


  • RE: lead with relevant work/cover letters during the pandemic
    • When all there is is a job board posting with no email (and sometimes no company mentioned because it was posted by a recruiter), and you have a portfolio site to send them to, what’s the best way to “lead with relevant work” and get it to the right person?

    • I get super conflicting information about cover letters. A lot of recruitment and hiring pros say nobody looks at them, especially when they receive hundreds of applications. What’s your take?


    1. Hi, Diane! Great questions.

      If there is a post by a recruiter, I imagine it would still talk about what they are looking for in terms of skills or experience. So I would focus on similar work and even potentially creating a page on your site (could be private or just not indexable by search engines) that is directed toward them and shows that work.

      Sometimes recruiters may have more information, so it’s worth asking what other info they might have or if you have any specific questions.

      If there is a company mentioned, you could look up some names. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee which person you find is the one to direct things to. But it shows you did some research. It could even be directed to multiple people or the name of their team.

      As for cover letters, I can’t speak to them much other than I personally pay attention to them. It gives me a chance to see if they are paying attention to details, which is very important to me. I also may learn a bit more about them than I would by just reading a résumé or application. I also look to see if it’s tailored to my position rather than a copy-and-pasted letter that they didn’t spend any time on.

      I hope some of this is helpful.

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