I wrote this blog post for Adaptive Path’s blog, but didn’t finish it until they’d stopped using it for posts like these.
Last year, I was responsible for hiring service design interns for Adaptive Path at Capital One. In my almost three years here, I’ve looked at a thousand resumes and interviewed dozens of entry- and mid-level service designers. Finding myself on this side of the table has been eye-opening — particularly when I see candidates shooting themselves in the foot.
Five or six years ago, before I had a job as a designer, I would look at the “People” sections of websites of firms like Adaptive Path and the LinkedIn profiles of the people who worked there, and while I saw that many of them had degrees in something like industrial or graphic design, some seemed to come from (what seemed to me at the time to be) totally random careers like teaching, or the performing arts. When it comes to the field of service design in particular, it can be even more confusing for new entrants to the field: there are almost no university programs in the U.S. where someone can study service design, even as an elective. How are all these journalists and chefs becoming service designers?
Now that I’ve interviewed so many new and aspiring service designers, I see people glossing over relevant parts of their career history in order to focus closely on more recent, more obviously “designerly” projects.
It’s easy for a hiring manager to look past this, generally. What’s hard to overlook, though, is when a candidate seems dishonest or tricky. Usually, this comes up when someone inflates some portion of their design experience to a huge degree.
This is a tough subject in the field of service design; most people, even many of the design leads at Adaptive Path, didn’t have a “service designer” title on their resume before working here. And unlike in some fields, it’s hard to make up a personal service design project by yourself to stick in your portfolio. I think this causes a lot of aspiring service designers to worry about whether their background is relevant enough — a feeling I can relate to personally.
For applicants who don’t have a strong service design or design strategy item on their resumes, it may feel like you have two options: either inflate a small scrap of strategic design work, or lean into your “non-traditional” background by talking about what you’ve done to understand and affect the services that you’ve been a stakeholder in.
Don’t inflate your design projects
It is better to describe what you learned as a telemarketer and how you could apply those skills to a job in service design than to pretend people won’t notice when you describe a two-day hackathon in terms like “back when I worked at IBM” or “when I was freelancing for Amazon.”
Here are some (anonymized) examples from my own experience as an interviewer. One applicant’s resume (and in-person conversations) made it seem like they had a full-time job with a local political organization while also a student. I was pretty impressed! It turned out to be a class project that all students in that course were assigned. My colleagues and I weren’t deterred by the applicant’s “non-traditional” work history from before they became interested in design; in fact, we saw it as a possible plus. Someone who pursues a “non-traditional” path might have the confidence and street smarts to be a savvy service designer in an always-changing corporate context, and likely has first-hand knowledge of being at the nexus of many complex services that don’t always work together in a “designed” way. However, the way the applicant phrased their very recent experience in such lofty terms was a faux pas to us, because it felt tricky. It was frustrating too, because we hoped to see how the applicant related their past work to what they’d recently learned about service design.
What should have been obvious to me, but only became clear once I was the one doing the hiring, is that interviewers want you to succeed. If you got an interview, it’s because someone thinks you have a high likelihood of being the right person to fill the (possibly urgent) empty spot on their team. Being specific and honest makes you memorable, and helps the employer see what is unique (and possibly valuable) about you. Career and life experience that seem “irrelevant” to you can usually be construed as a valuable contribution to the way you will perform on the job.
Nobody applying to an entry- or mid-level service design job is going to have eight years of experience in a service design role; evading the truth to try and cover up a prior career that you feel is “irrelevant” makes you look duplicitous at best and bad at interpreting reality at worst. Instead, celebrate your real past and how it brought you to a new career in service design. If you’re an otherwise good candidate, hiring managers will look for a reason to overlook the “irrelevant” things on your resume that you think you should hide. All you have to do is describe what you did do in a way that relates it to service design without being tricky. This isn’t always easy, but it’s worth the time and effort.
Lean into your unique experiences
One of our favorite candidates last year spent several months traveling around the world before grad school. The most common advice for someone looking to switch to design from another field would probably be to do a pro-bono design project or take intro classes on the side; however, this candidate explained what they learned and what personal skills and perspective they gained while traveling. They didn’t describe it as a vacation; they made their travel experience relevant by showing insight into how independence and quick thinking are important in an internal design consulting role.
Another applicant had studied ancient languages in undergrad and worked in high schools for many years. Rather than inflating their recent grad school experience and ignoring their previous career, they made a good case for why what they learned transitioning from teaching to managing teachers and improving the educational process could carry over to working as a service designer, and we bought it.
Of course, any applicant for an entry-level service design job needs to show some familiarity with service design methods and some experience applying those methods, whether in a formal design role or in a scrappier, more independent way.
One of our interns last year had been an anthropology major at college, and then worked as a florist for several years before starting grad school. She had a semester’s worth of good projects in her portfolio; but we were also interested in her work before grad school — because of how she described it. The way she described overhauling the floral shop’s business relationships with vendors really got our attention. She saw a need among the vendors that her floral shop worked with, and by changing her company’s internal processes, she improved other stakeholders’ service experience, and saved money and time for her company while improving vendor relations. By seeing a need and implementing new processes on her own, she was doing service design, even though that wasn’t her title.
What interviewers want to know is whether you’re suited to the role. For entry-level service designers, besides the necessary qualifications around communication skills and knowledge of design methods, hirers want to see that you think about systems and touchpoints and how both big-picture aspects and small details affect the human experience of all the people involved with a service. If you can identify the point in your career when you thought, “this is when I decided I was cut out for the service design career path” or “here’s how I learned I might be good at it,” you’re on your way to crafting a compelling argument for how your experience as a florist, high school teacher coach, or international backpacker makes you a unique and valuable addition to the team.