5 Common Ways Designers Screw Up Their Cover Letters

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Cover letters are a great way to make a positive first impression.

In the design world, the purpose of a cover letter is to introduce a portion of your work history, to exhibit your ability to write intelligently about yourself and your work, to explain the ways in which your work can benefit the hiring company, and to express a bit of your personality.

It is a rather tall order to hope to accomplish this in a few, succinct paragraphs, but it is a vital skill to develop.

No matter how amazing your actual design work may be, if you are unable to construct an understandable paragraph, your chances of being hired by any firm are reduced considerably.

Unfortunately, undergraduate and graduate design programs do not usually teach writing for business, so writing cover letters can leave many designers feeling clueless.  Below is a short list of things to avoid in your cover letters.

The following practices are destined to result in failure, so do your best to steer clear of them.

1. Trying Too Hard

As a designer, catching the eye of a potential employer is all about creating an attractive introductory package.

Choosing attractive paper, developing an overall design for your portfolio, cover letter, resume, envelope, address label, and, in essence, branding yourself, are extremely important steps to take when applying for a position in design.

However, your cover letter should be the essence of simplicity.

Even if the logo you created for yourself is in all lowercase letters, or your resume sports a series of interlocking text boxes, do not repeat these images in the body of your cover letter.  Though the stationary used can repeat design motifs, the body of the cover letter should be clear, concise, and clutter free.

2. Copping Out

Yeah, you’ve won every major design award for the last ten years.  This is all well and good, but if the first paragraph in your cover letter changes tense three times and features repeated typos, no number of awards will save you.

If you know that your ability to write is not on par with your ability to design, find a friend or relative with more writing skill and experience, and ask them to edit your letter.

Don’t shrug and expect your portfolio to speak for itself.  Without a proper cover letter, your portfolio may never reach the appropriate desk.

3. Skipping Research

Generic cover letters are as easy to spot as bad Photoshop jobs.

Before sending that cover letter with “Dear Sir or Madam” at the top, go to the website of the hiring company and look for the relevant name.  If you are responding to a posted position, address the letter to the person listed in the notice, paying special attention to the way their name is spelled and whether they are male or female.

If you are introducing yourself to a company, use the company’s online directory to find the particular person who would most benefit from your design work, and address your cover letter to them.  Read articles or blog posts about the company, so that you can write about them intelligently.

Do not send a cover letter that merely swaps one company’s name for another, or the design firm will treat you the same way.

4. Bragging

A close relative of “Copping Out”, bragging, or talking about your own design prowess, is a no-no.  It is probably not something you would do on a date, so why would you do it in a cover letter?

Giving a little information about your work background, and why it is relevant to the particular position for which you are applying, is a good idea.  Waxing rhapsodic about the fact that you have been invited to the last three AIGA galas is far less of a good idea.

Keep your cover letter factual, clear, and make sure that it focuses on what you can do for the design firm, as opposed to what you have already accomplished for some other company.

5.  Name-dropping

Name-dropping can backfire horribly and spectacularly.  If you put a name in your cover letter, know that it will most likely become a topic of conversation if you reach the interview process.

Be very certain that the person whose name you include in your cover letter actually knows the person who is hiring.  Get the permission of the person you are name-dropping before including it in the cover letter.  Make sure that they are comfortable with being contacted by the hiring company or person, if the need arises.  If all of the aforementioned criteria are met, then, and only then, is it appropriate to include the name of an outside entity in your cover letter.  Otherwise, avoid it.  It can be very awkward for all involved and has the potential to damage your credibility.

A few final words to the wise

Writing cover letters actually boils down to using common sense and paying attention to detail.  Having someone else read any cover letters before you send them off is very helpful.  Plan ahead and take the time to ask for help.

With practice, writing cover letters will seem less daunting.  Mind you, if you know what to avoid before starting, chances are, you will not have to write very many. What other errors and mistakes should designers avoid when writing a cover letter or applying for a job? Share your answers in the comments!

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About Tamsin Ingot

Comments

  1. really good advice! I have to apply for an internship next year and I’m looking for advice in the approach department. It never hurts to look around for what people consider politeness and what means being an egotistic bastard. good to know.

    • @Sergiu, Best of luck to you! Please let us know how it goes when you start applying for internships. We’d love to hear what the world is saying about getting a design job/internship.

  2. We get resume submissions every often and regretfully a good ton of them see the bottom of the waste basket before even the first paragraph is read.

    Why? That’s because they all seem written by one person.

    I believe that if one were truly interested in the agency he/she was applying for, there’ll be adequate background homework done to find out certain traits of the company’s office culture/style and specially style them in a customized cover letter just for that occasion and not just a generic ‘Dear HR Manager….blah blah blah etc’.

    • @Website Design Singapore – Morgan & Me Creative,
      Super-great advice! Thanks for sharing. I’d love to hear what other tips you have for our design community on getting a design job…

  3. I just love the fact that in #2 you talk about typos, whereas you have a few typos in that paragraph alone.

  4. Excellent post! I think point #3 has merit, but not always does the hiring company list who the hiring manager or relevant contact person is. There have been times I have done as much research as possible on a company, even included the extent of calling the main number to gain the correct person’s name and spelling, only to be met by “the gatekeeper” who gives me generic information. Not a very good help. I wouldn’t necessarily discount the cover letter for an applicant if generic, provided the resume and references check out. Many designers I know were taught to read phonetically, and they spell the same. Just a thought.

  5. Eek, good catch on the typos. How embarrassing!

    @Website Design Singapore – Agree entirely. Having recruited freelancers myself over the years, I find that even semi-personalized cover letters are easy to spot as ‘fill in the blanks’ formats. For the length of time it takes just to do some research and write the letter from scratch, trying to short cut it is only cheating oneself.

  6. Please could someone give me some advice I am trying to start a career in Graphic Design and gain all the experience as possible but struggling to write a cover letter. Does anybody have any examples they could forward to me by my email? I am currently self studying programs such as Adobe CS5, using such programs as Indesign, Illustrator also Photoshop. HELP! thanks.

    • My advice to you is: Be absolutely certain to use proper English Grammar and correct spelling when writing your cover letter, resume or anything else you present.

      As a professional Graphic Designer, it is crucial for you to possess excellent written English Grammar skills. It is you who will be expected to produce properly written, correctly spelled professional artwork

      I too, am a self-taught Graphic Designer. I’ve worked 12 years in the Direct Mail Marketing Industry and have designed THOUSANDS of print ads & produced hundreds of magazine publications as well as postcards, brochures and other types of marketing materials.

      I love graphic design. I wish you well!
      Good luck with your job search

    • My advice to you is: Be absolutely certain to use proper English Grammar, punctuation and correct spelling when writing your cover letter, resume or anything else you present.

  7. If you won every major design award for the past ten years, companies will fight to hire you even if you can’t speak. This is probably written by someone who majors in business, or a “designer” who has no talent. You can only hope having 0 typo makes a company hire you over someone who wins awards all the time, so you would have a chance.

    Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree that correct grammars and spellings are important, and they could make a difference sometimes. Just don’t over exaggerate it.

  8. @meh

    Regardless of who you are, if you write a cover letter with a lack of awareness to proof read it, gives a first impression what kind of professional you portray.

    Also for yourself to comment on someones talent is a questionable thing to do. Every designer has a possibility of being great, and unfortunately the elitist mentality is crowding out alot of young talent! If the industry decides to only hire from certain schools with certain creditations we may aswell set up in westminster and call ourselves politicians!

  9. What if you are applying through agency, usually it is not stated company name or even a person name who placed an add. How do you address your cover letter then?

  10. In a rush to get out a cover letter, I crammed in the sentence:

    ..”I take great prode in the dseign work I create…”…. Yep, I spelt ‘pride’ and ‘design’ wrong!

    Never rushing another job app. Lesson learned :D

    Great article and tips, keep up the good writing!

  11. gregg mcphedrain says:

    how a writer could produce less drivel

    give solid real world examples when stating something is wrong

    generic fill in responses (amatuers and people email bombing job sites do this)
    more indian companies write poor letters this way when introducing themselves

    you skipped grammer entirely

    you skilled make it stand out

    you lack anything but rudementary ideas

    in the 20 years I have been a design consultant – I never needed someone like you to tell how to write a good letter – I THINK HAVING A GOOD EDUCATION (not just drawing and design classes help)

    I am sick of the internet self help people who really have nothing more than marginal common sense ideas at best – calling themselves writers and career specialists. Your not.

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