Steven Heller, like our man Stefan Sagmeister, gets far too many inquiries from student designers to respond to with any thoroughness or ease. While [the royal] we noted Sagmeister’s website handled commonly asked questions, Heller has posted a helpful cover letter critique on the AIGA website, which also appears below. (I’ve included the nifty drop cap for your pleasure!) Does Ofazomi agree? Sort of, but not entirely.
Form letters are not the way to go when job hunting. Boilerplate letters, however, are as much of a necessity as your elevator pitch. You need to get it out there quickly, with detail and with an explicit understanding of where and how you can hook your potential victim, er, boss.
1. Consider your reader. (over worked, under appreciated, vain, fighting with their significant other about who was more put out by the last DMV appointment, desperately looking for some small evidence their work has meaning… or maybe I’m projecting) You have two sentences, max, to cajole, seduce and entice. Lead with them.
2. Get your story straight. Tell your reader how you know them, why you love their work and how their existence in the world has affected yours.
3. It’s not about you. Do not start sentences with “I…” The reader doesn’t care about you or your story. Sorry. The good news is that it’s not personal.
The reader *might* hire you but only *if* they have more work than they can handle *and* some surplus cash that is worth less to them than getting some help. See, it’s not about you.
4. Do not ask for a job. Ask for an honest portfolio review. If you are serious about working for a particular firm, you need to be looking 3-5 years out. Go in as a disciple and get honest, brutal feedback about where your portfolio needs to be in order to come back a few years from now. Tell them up front this is what you are after! However, show up dressed to impress and ready to shine. If you’ve got the chops now, they will work you in or pass you onto a friend in need of help. If not, you know your work isn’t there yet… yet. Your foot is in the door and you have a clear idea of what you need to work on.
All portfolio review interviews are good. If your idol turns out to be an ass you’ve saved yourself years of prepping for a job you wouldn’t want. If you find them a mensch, joy all around! They will remember you and reward your hard work. Anything in between is good interview experience and well worth your time.
5. Thank them and keep in touch. Jobs happen when you follow up. Send thank you cards, send emails, send postcards. Diligence counts. Be gracious and thankful, even to the asses. Why? At the end of the day it’s about the person you are, not the work you do.
My example of a winning letter:
Dear Ms./Mr. So-N-So,
Your work on the ASPCA Spay and Neuter campaign floored and inspired me! To think of cats as graphic elements was entirely fresh and rather droll. The last year of my working life / education / felony sentence has been spent attempting to create work as evocative as yours. (mynamewebsite.com) While, clearly, more must be done, please consider granting me a portfolio review. It is my goal t0 work for your firm within five years and an honest evaluation would be incredibly helpful.
And here is what Heller said…
Iwon’t beat around the bush. If you are a student, a graduate or a professional, and you are looking for “Employment Opportunities” and decide to send an email query to various potential employers, you should really consider the following:
1. Don’t be informal or overly familiar in addressing your email.
- No first names (unless you’ve been acquainted, “Dear Mr. or Ms.”is advised)
- No down-river homey greetings (spare the “Hey there,” “Yoo hoo” or “Hello folks”)
- No “To whom it may concern” (take the time to find the name of a contact)
- No hyperboles (“Dear Mr. X, This is your lucky day”— well, I highly doubt it)
2. Spell check, spell check, spell check!
3. One size does not fit all.
Although it may be tempting to send the same “form letter” to all recipients because it saves time, it is always easy to spot a form letter. Here’s an egregious example (one that I actually received):
Hello Folks at [NAME OF DESIGN FIRM]:
My name is [NAME]. I’m a recent graduate from [SCHOOL], my degree is in Graphic Design. I’m extremely interested in getting involved in branding and especially package design. I am very impressed with the work your company has produced over the years, and I especially love the package design work you do for your clients. The reason I’m contacting you is to ask if [DESIGN FIRM] is looking for new designers in any capacity as a freelancer or a full-time employee. And if so, who would be the best person to contact. I’ve attached my resume and you can look at some of my work at [WEBSITE]. I would love if you could look over my resume and work, and let me know what you think.
Now, let’s analyze why this is wrong:
Hello Folks at [As noted above, “Folks” is too informal. Not knowing a particular name suggests you did not do your research]:
My name is [Skip this and get to the point, as your name should be clear from your signature].
I’m a recent graduate from [SCHOOL], my degree is in Graphic Design [Necessary info to share, but could you describe your education in a more compelling way?].
I’m extremely interested in getting involved in branding and especially package design [Being specific is good, but you might say why].
I am very impressed with the work your company [“Your company” always reeks of form letter—mention that company by name] has produced over the years, and I especially love the package design work you do for your clients [Could you be more specific, not so general? Show you’ve done your homework].
The reason I’m contacting you is to ask if [DESIGN FIRM] is looking for new designers in any capacity as a freelancer or a full-time employee. And if so, who would be the best person to contact [You should have found out already; make a phone call and ask for a name. Prove that you really want to work here].
I’ve attached my resume and you can look at some of my work at [WEBSITE] [Consider directing this potential employer to a particular project on your website; point out work that is directly relevant to the company you’re writing to].
I would love [Let’s leave love out of it unless it’s to demonstrate your passion for what you do] if you could look over my resume and work, and let me know what you think [This is asking a lot from one of the “folks”—better to get a name and say, “I would appreciate if you might grant me an interview,”offer to follow up, and then do it].
[NAME] [A “Thank you” or “Sincerely” would be nice!]
Indeed this young applicant would be much better off writing something that sounded more like the following. Shorter missives are less likely to be seen as form letters.
Dear Mr. Heller,
I have long admired the work you do, especially your [EXAMPLE]. I am a graduate with a BFA from [SCHOOL], where I studied graphic design as my major with a concentration in branding and package design. I feel that my skills might be useful for your studio. I have attached my résumé, and you can review my samples here [LINK]. In particular please see the work I did for [TITLE/LINK TO PROJECT YOU’RE PROUD OF]. If you could spare the time, I would appreciate your granting me an appointment to meet in person. Thanks in advance for your consideration. I look forward to speaking with you soon.
Another good reason for a more concise yet personalized letter is to avoid mistakenly sending an email addressed to a different person or firm. There’s nothing worse than Ms. X at Tutti Frutti Studio getting an email for Mr. Y2K at Oodle and Doodle Co. Sometimes you only get one chance to make contact, and such an error could ruin any chance of ever getting a meeting with that employer.
Obviously, looking for a job can be stressful. Interviews are sometimes difficult to arrange, and because you are eager to find work and facing serious competition, the pressure is on. But in the heat of sending an email it is best to take a few extra moments to make sure you are really reaching the right person. The kind of message you send is one way of demonstrating your competitive advantage. Read and re-read your email before hitting “send” and make certain you are not making a mistake— maybe even have someone you trust read it for you, just to be safe.
Folks, just think about what kind of message you would want to receive.