Debug your design interview journey, stage 1: Application

Catt Small
5 min readAug 31, 2023


This post is part of a series about the design interview journey. You can learn more here.

Before you start meeting members of the hiring team at your future employer, you’ve got to get noticed by them. This requires you to either submit your information to an online form or get referred by someone who works at the company. I’ve applied to countless jobs throughout my life. If things go well, it’s usually quite straightforward: you submit your résumé and portfolio, then you hear back from a recruiter within a week or two.

If you’re not getting bites at this stage, it might be because you need to seek out more direct referrals. Cold applications are a dime a dozen. Hiring managers don’t have the energy to wade through hundreds of applications, and referrals always get prioritized over manual submissions.

Let’s talk about how to get more referrals!

Building a referral pipeline

To get referrals, you’ll need to reduce the degrees of separation between you and the people who work where you want to work. Your likelihood of moving to the next stage depends on who recommends you. Here’s my personal hierarchy, based on quality and impact:

Tier 1: Former coworkers

The highest-quality referrers worked directly with you at a former employer and can attest to your experience. These people will have major sway with the hiring manager because they know what it’s like to be on a team with you. If their experience with you was very positive, they’ll even reach out to advocate on your behalf and help move your interview process along!

If you have any relevant experience in the field, you’ve gotta try to get recommendations from people you worked with. Maybe you’ve only done an internship. You could have a few freelance projects under your belt — or perhaps you’re more experienced with full-time roles. Reach out! Former coworkers and collaborators can have a huge impact on your future employment endeavors.

Tier 2: Friends and family

Next is someone who knows you fairly well (say, a friend or family member). While they likely can’t speak to your work experience, these people know you on a human level and might be able to influence on your behalf. Even if they don’t know what you’re like at a day job, they’ll definitely put a good word in for you.

Tier 3: Friends of friends

These folks are people you’ve met once or twice through friends. Or maybe you mentioned you’re looking for a job and a friend offered to connect you to someone else they know. These loose connections are wonderful to have, but the quality of the referral will be lower. For example, they likely won’t advocate for you with the hiring team because they don’t know you very well.

Maybe you met a nice person at an event in 2018 and connected with them on LinkedIn. You haven’t spoken to them since. Now, they’ve posted an interesting role and you’d like to reach out for a referral! Be warned: social media connections are the loosest, and you should avoid asking them for much.

If your social media presence is well-curated and you have a fair amount of clout, you might organically get referrals from social media connections. However, most people who barely know you and only have your internet presence to go by wouldn’t refer you outright. I recommend getting on a video call before asking for a referral. Otherwise, this person won’t be able to vouch for you.

Getting referrals

Make a habit of searching for connections at potential employers before submitting an application. If you have multiple connections, use the aforementioned tier system to prioritize your contacts. Reach out to the highest-quality connection, ask to catch up if you haven’t talked in a while, and offer them the potential for a sweet referral bonus from their employer.

Newer to the industry? Or, maybe you didn’t have great previous employment experiences? It’s time to build your network by meeting more people. Attend local meetups, join some online events, or just chat with cool folks on a social media network.

Here are just a few examples of communities you can join:

  • Merit — connect 1:1 with design mentors
  • UXDX — A free Slack community and design conference
  • Design Operations Assembly — A design community for education, jobs, mentoring, networking, and more
  • DesignX — A Slack community that also hosts various events
  • Design.Systems — A group of design systems practitioners

There are loads of communities and meetups out there, I know and putting yourself out there can be scary. But humans are often quite friendly and usually want you to succeed. Don’t be afraid to make genuine connections!

Troubleshooting the application stage

If you’ve gotten referrals and are still not getting to the screening stage, something else is up. You may need to modify your portfolio, for example. Are you showing your process or just the prettiest final mockups? Design leaders want to understand how you work, and that means not being afraid to show early thinking.

Your résumé could need tweaking. Is the layout easy to scan? Are the descriptions of your role easy to scan? Did you ship a project and forget to include post-launch stats? Employers do actually read this stuff, and design leaders have high expectations for the legibility of a designer’s résumé.

Perhaps the issue is more logistical. Did you forget to send the password to your portfolio along with your application? Are you password-protecting content that’s already been released to the public? These little details add friction, and most employers won’t put in an effort to overcome them before rejecting you.

Or, maybe the issue is that you don’t have enough recent work. Strengthen your portfolio by doing a few freelance, volunteer, or personal side projects — for example: a hackathon, nonprofit, local store, or that business idea you’ve been mulling over for a long time. Please avoid speculative redesigns of popular products, as they’re usually quite corny. Employers want to see work that is grounded in reality (even if it didn’t get shipped).

If your application meets all the criteria outlined in the job description and you got a referral, you’re almost a shoe-in to get to the next stage. Unless someone else got in before you and received an offer first. It’s brutal out here.

Next up: Screening

Once your amazing application gets picked up by the hiring team, you’ll need to hop on a call and chat with the recruiter or hiring manager! In the next post, we’ll discuss how to debug your performance in the screening phase.

Originally published at on August 31, 2023.



Catt Small

Product Designer, Programmer, Game Developer, Artist, & karaoke ♥er. Bronx-born & raised. She.