4 min read

100% Clever, 0% Hired

Resumés are communication documents that gain nothing from the addition of sparkles, graphs, and your little big data
100% Clever, 0% Hired

Q: So I have started seeing this in a lot in designer portfolios and resumes recently. A candidate will have a title that says “My Skills”, and below are bar graphs that are in percentages. What do the percentages mean? If you say Photoshop: 85%, does that mean you know 85% of all there is to know about Photoshop? Is this even a good way to represent this? I’m afraid it makes no sense to me.

“Photoshop: 85%,” this makes 0% sense to me which is to say, none-at-all. And since when in the hell is Photoshop a skill?

In the last 25 years, I have personally reviewed hundreds of applications, resumes, and portfolios. As I recall, the “percentages” started appearing around the time Nicolas Felton started to publish annual reports with visualized data on all facets of his life in 2004. A year or two later young persons, fresh out of school, started trying to make their resumes stand out by visualizing their data, even when it meant making things up.

There are two problems with this. First, trying to communicate something as a percentage of 100 without any context. Second, mistaking tools with skills — likely to fill in for a lack of experience (that’s how it comes across to an employer). For the sake of discussion, let’s take on the first problem and try to apply a percentage of knowledge to something broader: walking.

I don’t know exactly when I started to walk upright, but I’ll take a stab and say that I have 43 years of experience in walking. That’s a lot of time on two feet, but that doesn’t mean I know everything about walking. For instance, I have no experience in speed walking. Walking up hills is an activity I try to avoid. Growing up in Alaska, I spent a lot of time walking in snow, but not all types of snow. I’ve spent time on a treadmill, but not enough that I can coach someone to improve their level of competency. I could go on. So where does that leave me in communicating my experience in walking as a percentage of the total? Nowhere.

This is exactly where you get when trying to enumerate the fractional knowledge of a skill. Even with my decades of experience, don’t take my word for it. As soon as I came across this question, I took this problem to the recruiting team at IBM Design. This group evaluates thousands of applications, resumes, and portfolios each month. I asked what they thought about resumes that tried to convey experience as percentages, and I got gnarled, annoyed, confused, faces. “I hate that,” said one member of the team, “because I have no idea what it means.” Knowing their distaste for resume visualization, I inquired what format they preferred, and they replied with the tried and true triad of “beginner, intermediate, or expert.”

You may think this boring, but percentages are simply not the best way for anyone to report their skill level. Looking for clear guidelines, I headed to good ole Monster, which has processed millions of applications. Here are their guidelines for rating skill levels:

Beginner: A novice understanding of the skill. You have exposure to the skill and understand its basic concepts but lack experience.
Intermediate: Between a beginner and an expert. You have experience with and can carry out the skill but don’t understand its advanced concepts.
Expert: A highly developed skill level. You have solid experience and training with the skill and understand advanced concepts. You demonstrate proficiency and superior skill level.

In an era of non-stop data visualization, it’s easy for designers to get caught up in trying to design everything, but it only works in the context of what needs to be communicated and how it needs to be conveyed. Otherwise, you’ll end up being this guy and that’s no bueno.

Let’s move on to listing Photoshop as a skill. Yucky — don’t do it. Stating that you are an expert in Photoshop doesn’t tell me anything about your skill as a designer. It only tells me that you know how the application works, and knowing tools does not make you a designer. Here’s more practical knowledge from Monster:

Job-related and transferable skills are the most desirable to list on your resume. For each skill, indicate your skill level and years of experience.

The people who hire designers want to understand what you know how to do, your level of competency, and how long you’ve been doing it. How well can you select and set type? Can you design for email and for how long? What is your level of competency in editorial design? There are many straightforward ways to promote skill levels, and they are fundamentally more important than reading your knowledge of applications.

Warning: Trying to be clever with “design” will only get in the way of your objectives. Whether applying for a job or delivering client work, apply design only when and where it’s appropriate. When applying for work there are better ways to stand out from the pack like solid typesetting, a well-written cover letter, and demonstrating that you can use design when and where it’s needed. Remember that expressing an idea in words is a vital core design skill. And check your spelling and grammar, because bad writing leads to deleted resumes 100% of the time, every time.

Greg Storey is a designer, writer, and occasional speaker currently serving as Design Practice Lead for IBM Design. He can be found around the cyberspace as “Brilliantcrank” and is infamous for Airbag Industries.