How To Rock Any Design Interview – Part 1

Interviewing for creative positions is kind of bizarre.  You’re being asked to demonstrate in less than a day that you have a creative drive that will hold up for months or years.  Game design positions are especially troublesome, since as a hiring manager, I want to hire someone who has a vision of what makes a good player experience that is both complete, and to a reasonable extent, compatible with my own.

In short, the task of the hiring manager is almost impossible.  In fact, many interviewers and interviewees are struck with the same question – what exactly is the point of this? Well, I have some help for you.  Interviews are a game.  Games have rules.  Games can be won.

1.  Do your homework.

This is the one bit of traditional interview advice that really holds up.  Interviews are about people, so make sure you learn as much as you can (without being creepy) about the people you’re going to be interviewing with.

Before the interview, email the nice HR person and ask for the names of the people you’ll be interviewing with.  Do some quick searches.  Linkedin, Mobygames, and of course, consult Professor Google’s Knowledge Emporium.  Take notes.  (And bring your notebook with you to the interview itself.)  For all the people you’re going to talk to, find out where they’ve worked, what notable titles they’ve worked on, read their blog if you can find it – you’re not looking to impress them with your knowledge of their history (see: creepy) but instead to get a sense of what kind of design and development philosophy they hold.  If there’s time and they’re accessible, make sure you’ve played some of the games that your interviewers have made.  Be prepared to talk about them – have a thing you liked, and a thing you’d improve already picked out.

2.  Wear A Suit

No, really.  Even if they explicitly say you don’t have to do it, do it.  If you don’t think you look good in a suit, find a fashionable person of the opposite sex and ask them why you don’t look good in a suit, then do whatever they tell you until you do look good in a suit.

You wouldn’t go on a raid wearing mismatched armor, so why would you go to an interview looking anything but your sharpest?  Equip the right gear for the quest.  Wear the damn suit.

3.  Be Bold

The meek have to inherit the earth, because that’s the only way they’re ever going to get anything.

Most people don’t have meaningful relationships with people who they agree with all the time.  You goal is to establish your own identity, personality, and views.  You don’t want to come off as overbearing, but much of a design interview comes down to “Who is this guy/gal?  Will having them on the team enhance, or detract from our process?” This is a question your interviewer deserves an answer to, so it’s your job to answer it for them in no uncertain terms.  If you believe something, say so.  Don’t put a lot of qualifiers and caveats on it.  If you disagree with something, say so.  Explain your reasons.  Represent yourself as an equal in the conversation.  And if you don’t know the answer to something, say that you don’t know. Ignorance of any particular issue is probably no big deal.  Misrepresenting yourself is.  In poker, bluffing will win little hands and lose big hands.  Interviews are the wrong place to make that kind of gamble.

4.  Get Out Of The Box

One of the first challenges you face as an interviewee is to stop being a resume, and start being a person as soon as possible.  In the world of design, life experiences matter.  As a systems designer, it matters what sorts of non-game systems you understand well.  As a content designer, it matters how broad a knowledge you have of stories and narratives of all forms.  As a level designer, it matters how much of the world and its infinite strangeness you have seen, just to name a few examples.

People need to hire for a role, but they need to hire a person.  A person they’re going to need to spend a lot of time with.  In your interview, try to bring up some interests and skills you have that are not directly related to game design.  The things that make you interesting and unique are going to be the things that your co-workers will appreciate when you bring different perspectives to the discussion.  Don’t force yourself to keep the conversation to just your work experiences.  Conversely, don’t get too far off on tangents.  Just present yourself as a complete person.

5.  Flip The Question

Your goal in an interview is to reframe the question on your interviewer’s mind.  The interviewer will start off with the question, “Should I hire this person?”  Instead, you want to reframe the question as “Why shouldn’t I hire this person?”

Use “we” and “us” as pronouns when discussing you and the potential team working on a particular problem.  Talk about the project as if you’re already working on it.  It’s subtle, and it should be; don’t actually draw attention to your word choice, but consistently try to put yourself on the other side of the table, and avoid “us versus them” language.


This is a large enough topic that I intend to come back to it, but my top five should be enough to get a discussion started.

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6 Responses to How To Rock Any Design Interview – Part 1

  1. I think these are all good points, except #2 — I don’t know why, exactly, but I never take a designer seriously if he’s in a suit. It screams “I AM A JUNIOR DESIGNER TRYING TO IMPRESS!”

    If you’re a junior designer trying to impress, that’s cool. If you’re there for a senior position, you’ve just made your job harder, if you’re interviewing with me.

    Even my mileage varies here — I have the same problem with artists wearing suits, but it’s fine for senior programmers to wear suits — it doesn’t win them points, but it doesn’t hurt them either. (Perhaps it’s because I assume engineers are more likely to be tone-deaf and not realize that the suit is out of place.)

    Thinking about it, I suspect it’s because wearing a suit makes you look like a middle manager type, or an HR person, or god forbid a PR guy. In your example of seeing four cubes with one person dressed in a suit, I immediately know that guy is not an important designer. I may need to impress him (in order to get a job), but he’s not important to the day-to-day design process. I can kind of tune him out and pay more attention to the people I’d be working with every day.

  2. And just to be clear, I do think first impressions are important, and appearance matters. I’m always annoyed at how easily I can be swayed by raw confidence and a lack of nervousness. My brain also interprets piercings and tattoos as “things for teens” which is probably not a plus in terms of garnering respect. I’m not immune to first impressions, I don’t think anybody is… but for designers, I don’t know how reliable the old standby of a suit and tie is.

    • Nik says:

      I knew the suit thing was on the line, but in general for interviews, I’m still going to stand by it. The rule should be to look your absolute best. In most cases, for men, that’s a suit. If your demeanor and your suit don’t match, well, maybe that’s not the best choice. But it works for me, and I’ve seen it firsthand working for others.

      Appearance is a tool for communication, and communication is the primary job of a game designer. The point to stress is that it needs to be consciously controlled.

    • Katie says:

      Largely I think it can come down to, “Wear the suit, don’t let the suit wear you.” Wearing a suit to an interview is sort of par for the course since it has been listed as Top 10 interview advice for at least 100 years. However, if someone comes in looking uncomfortable, confidence-wise, due to the suit then we can pick up on that and it can affect their presence throughout the interview. Nik, who is very comfortable in a suit, would wear it like an accessory and I’m sure you wouldn’t mark him down for it.

      If you feel like you’re wearing something weird, you’ll look like it to others too. Learning to wear a suit can be a very useful since you get the benefit of looking your sharpest and it doesn’t diminish your confidence. I’d always be appreciative of a suit-wearer to an interview since, at the very least, they tried. I’ll let their performance in the interview determine whether or not they’re overcompensating. 😉

  3. I kind of agree with both of you here. I think dressing up for an interview is important, but I would stop short of wearing an actual suit.

    This, of course, depends on quite a few factors. The company at which you’re interviewing. The people with whom you’re interviewing. The prepositions at the end of sentences you’re trying to… never mind.

    Anyway. Most of the time when the air conditioning is working, I’m wearing a blazer, T-shirt, and jeans — otherwise known as “The Seattle Tuxedo”. It works for me in my workplace, and it works for me when I wear it to interviews. I feel like I’m conveying the appropriate level of respect to the people I’m talking to, while not giving the appearance of — as Eric said it — “TRYING TO IMPRESS”. But, as Nik implies, I’m comfortable in it. If I were more comfortable in a crappy free T-shirt from E3 and sandals, it would be trickier.

    Nik, I definitely agree with the rest of your points. I think you can (and should) own a suit that makes you look good, and be prepared to wear it on the appropriate occasions. Like, say, giving a lecture at a developer conference. But I don’t think it should be an automatic thing for a job interview.

    Of course, I’m also the guy who wears brushed steel hoop earrings with orange matte interiors every day to work, so maybe I should just put on the Joseph Abboud and keep quiet.

  4. Day late, dollar short, etc. but it’s been a busy week.

    For the suit thing, I’d say it goes back to your first point: do your homework. Find out the company culture. If it’s a really laid back place, then showing up in a suit might not be appropriate. Or, if you’re talking to someone about joining a startup, other people might assume your tastes are perhaps a bit too expensive for the startup life. But, if you’re applying at a much more established game company, then a suit is probably a lot more appropriate.

    Personally, I’m like Eric where I assume someone wearing a suit to an interview at a game company is junior and/or not likely to be able to fit into the culture easily. (When I started working at 3DO, people always knew I was “the new guy” on the team because I was still wearing business casual clothes from my time outside the industry.) Wearing a suit sometimes just screams that the person has aspirations of management and that your little position is just a stepping stone to bigger and better things; not a selling point.

    So, dress the part and do what feels right. If you have the panache to pull off a nice suit, then by all means do so. But, there have been a few times where people have said it’s better for me to show up in jeans and a t-shirt, like when raising money for a startup company so I can appear to be the “creative guy”. One co-worker commented that I’ll be good to present some information about my current company at a tabletop role-playing game convention because I “look like a Unix programmer. You know, one of them.” :)

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