I am constantly amazed at how little time people spend writing and crafting their resume yet your resume is probably the single most important document for the future of your career. I have found that reason, why most resumes and portfolios fail, is because the person creating them has no idea of who they are and what makes them different. As a result, their resume is filled with generic business-speak and overused cliché phrases that look impressive to fill up a page but ultimately say nothing about them. The result is then when this generic document is put into a pile of other resumes it immediately gets lost because it did such a bad job of introducing the person to the potential employer.
To solve this problem you have to be able to take a step back and think about how to treat yourself like a brand. That means that you have to be able to define your core values, brand voice, image, differentiators, etc. You have to be able to do this not only for your resume or portfolio but so can you can stand out in an interview or even at your current job by having the ability to articulate and build on those images and strengths. Here are a few steps that I have used to help build your brand and define what makes you different from everyone else.
Step 1: Define why you are different
If a client came to you and wanted you just to start designing a piece of communication with no brief and no message then you would stop them and back up to ask them questions that would help you find the message you need to communicate. Creating your resume is no different as you have to take a step back and ask yourself one simple question – why am I different or better than everyone else? There are two different ways I have coached people on how to start this process and depending on how they like to work.
If you like creating idea from scratch then I suggest the process with a simple exercise where you create a document that starts with the words “I am…”. Then take a few days to think and write down the things that you think define you and why you are different. I started with the things that I thought would be more obvious like “A creative director who knows how to build and lead world-class creative teams” and “A hands-on designer who never wants to stop designing”. But I took a few days to work on this because I wanted to move beyond the simple and obvious answers to try to find more meaningful insights like “Someone who cares deeply about his team, their growth and taking the time to understand their creative process”. It is these later insights when you have taken the time to think about what matters to you where you can start to define what makes you different from everyone else.
If you are someone who works better when you have a thought starter to work from then there are two different versions of those I have found to be effective. The first is using SY Partners Creative Superpower card deck (you can read my article about them here) to define what your core strengths are. If you don’t want to order a superpowers deck then you can use a more time-tested method by choosing one of the traditional hero archetypes. This method is used for everything from writing movies to defining the brand strategy of every major brand you can think of. You can get a complete list of all the archetypes and their meaning here to get you started.
I have found these to be a good starting points because they define specific roles and have a lot of good insights you can use to start writing your brand foundation. The key to all of it though is that you have to be honest with yourself when using either of these techniques. I think it is a good idea to test your results by having co-workers do the same exercise and if they come up with the same results as you do. If they don’t then you may need to rethink, modify or add-on to your brand foundation.
Step 2: Tell a clear and focused story
Once you have gone through the process to write down all the things that you think define you and will form the foundation of your brand then it is either time to start fleshing them out or edit them down depending on the method you went with.
If you went with the ‘I am…” method then you will probably have a list of 8-20 things in your list and you need to edit the list down to the no more than 4 of the biggest things you believe make you different. You have to do this because just like any brand you can’t be all things to all people and you have to be clear and focused. You can do things like looking for commonalities where two or more items might be able to be combined into one item or ranking the list from most to least important to help you prioritize.
If you went with the creative superpower or archetype method then you have to take those starting points and make them your own. You can not simply use them as they are because they will provide some insight to a potential employer but they will not give them a clear picture of who you are and what makes you different.
Once you have done that then you need to start to craft those points into your story. The story should be as simple and clear as you can make but be sure that it also has tangible proof points to support your story. This means that if you are talking about something like how you have great ideas then you need to add things like how your ideas have increased revenue, won awards, gained new business for your agency, etc. You need to do this because like any great story you want to get the reader’s interest and move them into taking action.
This story is also critical for more than your resume as you should use it for your portfolio, cover letter and even in the interview when you get the eternal first question of ‘So, tell me about yourself”. Your ability to deliver this simple but powerful story at any of these moments will make all the difference between being someone who stands out as an asset and someone who is just a commoditized list of employers.
I will warn you that there is a trap here in that you want your story to be personal and insightful but you also want it to be clear, strong, focused on making a great first impression. This means you have to only put in the things that REALLY matter. 95% of potential employers could care less about your personal interests, part-time hobbies, dog grooming certificates, Tough Mudder medals or that you think faxing is a skill (I have seen all of those on resumes). It will be tempting to add things like this to make you resume look more impressive and make you look more well-rounded but they are just noise that distracts from the core story.
Step 3: Tell the truth
You would think that this step would be the most obvious thing in the world but I can tell you from experience that it isn’t for a lot of people. That being said I think that it is almost understandable why it happens as you want to look impressive to get a new job and ultimately improve your life. The problem is that it never ends well and I have found this step goes wrong in one of two ways.
The first is exactly what you would expect where people flat-out don’t tell the truth. I have never understood this because the design community is too small to take the risk of saying you did something you didn’t. Creative Directors talk so when we get a resume and see that the candidate worked for someone I know then I am going to reach to them to get their opinion. If I find out that you are lying about something then not only am I not going to ever interview you but I’m also going to let other people like creative directors, recruiters, etc. know that you don’t tell the truth and they should stay away from you.
The second way people don’t tell the truth isn’t as much of a betrayal of morals as a flat-out lie but it something that is, even more, maddening for a creative director – not telling the whole truth. This usual manifests itself when you get a portfolio, love the work that usually has minimal descriptions of the person’s role in the project and have the candidate come in for an interview. Only once they are in your office do you discover that the candidate didn’t do all the beautiful site designs in their portfolio but they just did some small part like the main promo or footer design. Technically the person never lied because their portfolio never said they did the whole design but then again they never said they didn’t do it either. My problem is that they led me believe that they did the design through a lie by omission. This is so maddening because if someone lies on their resume I can make a phone call and find out the truth in a few minutes which is frustrating but not a huge waste of time. When someone lies by omission then they are wasting my company’s time, my time and my teams time because we had them come into the office for a day of interviews. While it may seem harsh I deal with these swiftly by ending the interview and sending the candidate home immediately so they don’t waste any more of my or my team’s time.
If you are ever tempted to lie or make your role out to be something more than what it was you need to think through this decision. So while it may make your ego feel better to look more impressive there isn’t a good outcome here. It will end one of three ways with you either blackballed as a liar, getting the interview but not the job or getting the job only to fail miserably when your new employer figures out you don’t have the skills you said you did. So do us all a favor a be happy with yourself, your career accomplishments and just tell the truth.
Step 4: Design matters
The last thing you need to think about is the design of your resume since it also says something about you – especially if you are a creative. Just like with a brand everything communicates so even the best-written resume will fail if it is thrown into Microsoft Word and typeset in Comic Sans because that says something about the person level of taste, attention to detail and brand awareness.
If you are a designer then take the time to design something beautiful that will show off you thinking and design skills right from the first moment they read your name. If you aren’t a designer then there are a ton of resources and templates you can use as a starting point.I recommend just going to Pinterest and search for ‘resume template’, find one you like and get started.
No matter how you design your resume it has been able to pass a few simple tests. The first is that it needs to look good in color and black & white since you never know how it is going to be printed by a potential employer. I even go so far as to fax my resume a few times to myself to see how the typeface and type sizing holds up in conditions like that. Next is that needs to be easy to scan the first time someone reads it they probably won’t read every word so make sure the most important things and major sections easily stand out. The last is that you need to make your resume in multiple formats – most common will be PDF, Microsoft Word, and LinkedIn. You have to do this because ideally you will be able to email a PDF copy of your resume to your potential employer but there are a lot of cases where you have to paste it into an online application or you have to send them your LinkedIn profile. In those cases, you have to be sure that your resume will communicate jut as well as when you were able to nit pick every detail for the PDF version. I find that making the three version at once is the easiest because it lets me make adjustments that will work in all three formats and then I have them all done when I need them.
The reality is that just like the creative process, leadership styles, and many other critical business skills, writing a resume is a very personal thing with no magic bullet to do it right. The answer has to come from personal insights and putting in the time to get it right. Hopefully, these starting points will help you go back and look at your resume with fresh eyes so you can go out and get your use it to get your dream job.