First impressions

Your CV and covering letter give you your first foot in the door. You need to ensure they create the maximum impact?

Curriculum vitaes used to be dull things. More like a shopping list than a list of talent, the standard sheet of A4 seems to have been designed to make job searching as uncreative as possible. This is still arguably true if you're an accountant or an engineer, but the good news for creatives is that while you have to follow the format, you don't necessarily have to play by the same rules. Anything that gives you an edge and helps you stand out will help you get work. The key is to think of yourself as the product, and your CV and portfolio package as an introduction to your own personal brand. What employers and agencies are looking for is a demonstration of skills - that's what your portfolio is for - and some work experience, which goes on your CV.

At this point some newcomers start to tremble in fear because you run into the traditional quandary: how can you get work when you don't have work experience? Realistically, even brutally, this can sometimes be a problem. But it isn't necessarily a show-stopper, because clients and agencies are always on the lookout for fresh talent. If your portfolio stands out, a lack of work experience will disqualify you from jobs that need years of design expertise, but it will still put you ahead of the pack for those jobs you're qualified to do. And sometimes agencies will send out borderline candidates to clients if their portfolio is impressive but their experience comes up a little short - although it's good to be aware that this can vary between agencies. Some will take client requirements completely literally, and miss out on new talent as a result. This is bad for everyone, but it's still how the industry sometimes works.

The essentials
So how do you put together your introductory package? The main elements are the portfolio, which we're looking at throughout our tutorial pages, and the CV and covering letter. It's important to understand what the CV and letter are for, because many would-be designers spend too much time on one or the other, or put information that belongs in one into the other. As David Stephens at creative recruitment and training agency Artworkers' Republic explains, "The covering letter normally lets us know what the candidate actually wants and what they want us to do on their behalf, while their CV and portfolio are mainly for historical back-up, so the covering letter specifies your future plans and ambitions, and is the place to say your piece about the kinds of jobs and contracts you're looking for now. The CV and portfolio should literally illustrate what you've done in the past."

Agencies stress this over and over, but it's something designers still seem to struggle with. David Stephens continues: "A great CV is clearly laid out, short and concise with brief descriptions of both the day-to-day tasks and what someone has achieved in their previous roles. A bad CV is one that is too elaborate and too long." Carly Broome, a recruitment consultant at agency MajorPlayers, agrees. "We get a lot of CVs where there's a paragraph at the start that's basically PR blurb. We don't like that, because what we're really looking for are just the facts of the work that's been done and the people it has been done for. The cover letter is the place to explain where you want to go from here. And really we just want a few short sentences for that. But we do want it, because we want to know what your goals and aims are."

Another point that's emphasised over and over is clarity of presentation. As Carly Broome says, "We prefer CVs that are design-neutral. By all means make them look good, but it's the portfolio that we really assess for creativity. The one occasional exception to this is if, for example, someone sends in a mailshot they've designed that shows they know how to attract interest. But usually we don't want people to go overboard with fonts and logos. It can be good to think of CV design as an exercise in clear communication."

Professional presentation
"The point isn't to wow people with visuals, but to present the information with as much clarity as possible," continues Broome. "A little design input in terms of fonts and layout can help with that, but it shouldn't become a creative project. Part of that means not including a photo. That was a big thing in the 90s, but it has become a no-no now. People are more likely to laugh if you include a photo, because it's really not important what you look like."

So with the basic strategy covered, what's in the details? The outline is simple: some short personal information at the top including name, address, phone and email, some details about relevant education, and then a list of jobs and work experience in reverse order. Don't forget to list software skills, so clients know that you can manage InDesign as easily as Photoshop and Flash. Finish with references with contact details and context, and a line or two about hobbies.

Keeping to this template should be easy. So where do people go wrong? According to Fiona Jackson, a freelance recruitment consultant, the most common problems are too much detail in the education section, and overemphasising the hobbies. "You have to be careful with the hobbies. I had one CV where someone said their ambition was to trek to the North Pole and run a double marathon. They may have wanted to come across as dynamic, but clients thought they weren't as committed to the work as they could have been. Education is another area where people get it wrong. You don't usually need A Levels unless they're outstanding, and you certainly don't need GCSEs unless you're coming in straight from school. Usually just the degree and university are enough, with perhaps a sentence about any specialisations or project experience. The maximum length should be two sides of A4, although one side can be better, as long as nothing important is left out."

And these days no one uses paper any more. As David Stephens puts it "Paper? Things have moved on. Without digital files we just cannot pass portfolios on in the time clients require. And, to be honest, because of the market we are in and the software that our candidates need to be able to use, digital files are a part of their skillset."

Follow it up
So it's that simple - write it, typeset it, and email it off - or is it? According to Dean Garwood at Artworkers' Republic, there's one more thing to do - the follow-up call. "I'd always suggest calling after a week or so if you haven't heard anything, because sometimes we do find things go missing. As for 'We'll keep you on file', that's a hard one. Sometimes in the industry it is a palm-off, although here we like to give people more feedback so they know that perhaps they need more experience, a stronger portfolio or wider skills, such as InDesign training. Sometimes, of course, it really does mean we'll keep people on file, because clients can call in clumps and if there is a quiet spell, there may not be much happening for our artworkers. One good thing we get is people who mail us regularly with updated CVs. After a period of time your CV dates, so it's a good idea to send it again with a current update. People who do this can get more attention and sometimes more work than those who just leave it."

As a last word, don't forget that it's your work that sells you, not your ability to design a CV. As Carly Broome says, "As long as the work is good - that's the most important thing, and it will sell your application more than anything else. It's the creative work we're most interested in."