In this series we talk to people at some of the most admirable companies and studios out there, simply asking: How do we get a job on your design team? Finally, we're featuring Disney.
We've had Disney on our wish list for a long time now. I mean, we were all probably wishing on stars as children hoping we might someday work for Disney. Turns out, working on the Disney design team is an actual, real-life job you can have.
Case in point: Steven Boone. Steven leads a product design team at Disney and gave us practical, helpful advice for getting a dream design job on his team at Disney Parks and Resorts.
Hey, Steven! First, tell us a little about yourself and what you do at Disney.
I am a manager of product design for Disney Parks, Experiences & Consumer Products. Our design department is responsible for all aspects of the digital guest experience as it relates to the parks and resorts. This includes websites used for booking and managing reservations, mobile apps used at the parks and resorts, and all sorts of fun emerging digital experiences that add more magic to our guests’ Disney experience.
As a manager of product design, I oversee all aspects of design for Disney brand digital experiences, with my current focus being the Disney Cruise Line. I am also responsible for helping designers on our team develop their talents, grow in their role and accomplish their career goals.
Looking at your current design team, how many of them came through internal referrals or headhunting, and how many came through the traditional application process?
We use a variety of methods to source candidates, including general external recruiting, our internal recruiters who monitor our careers portal and candidates moving across different departments of the organization. Referrals from other cast members certainly have a positive impact on a candidate getting noticed.
This is a big company, so we don’t use any single process to bring in talent. That said, my opinion is that strong networking and trying to connect with or get advice from current cast members is one of the best paths for serious applicants. Get some 1:1 advice and maybe even start to build a relationship, all of which can go a long way in getting you a job at Disney.
Where’s the best place to start, assuming we don’t have an inside connection yet?
For Parks and Resorts Digital and most tech jobs, the place to start is our careers website, where you can link your LinkedIn profile, portfolio, and provide additional details about yourself and your career experience.
Our in-house recruiters use this profile information to start their search, so the next best step is to make sure all of your linked collateral is what you would consider ready for Disney’s review. That means your LinkedIn profile, cover letter, resume and of course, your portfolio. This is just where I would suggest starting, as every open position, department and hiring manager is different and there is no guaranteed formula for success. Disney gets an incredible number of applications, so being consistent in delivering a great impression across all your channels can make a big difference.
Mickey (left) and Steven (right), in case you couldn't tell
We’ve heard internships or student summer programs are a good way to get our foot in the door with Disney. Is that true if we want to work on the design team? How often does that turn into a full-time job?
Our internship programs are wonderful. For starters, our interns get a peek behind the curtain and can participate in the Disney creative culture. I have personally witnessed interns use their energy and determination to pitch fantastic guest experience ideas to our digital product and design VPs. While this may be a rare quality in an intern, it demonstrates Disney’s culture that we all aspire to deliver the best possible experience to our guests, and the best idea truly does win. To quote Ratatouille, “anyone can cook.” Interns who capitalize on this opportunity may have a great chance at a full-time career at Disney.
How important is a complete portfolio? Can we get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at Disney?
Having an updated portfolio is key, but even more important to my team is your design process demonstrated through your portfolio. When it comes to candidates’ portfolios, we are more eager to see actual content and thought processes — the storytelling that comes out through your design — than the finessing and perfecting of that content. The idea is to get the conversation going and demonstrate your capabilities. Disney is known for its masterful art, storytelling and attention to detail, so we’d love to see your skills in these areas and beyond!
"If your current job isn’t giving you opportunities for great work, create your own opportunities."
Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?
I wish all applicants would update their portfolios at least once a year. Nothing stands still in our industry, so if you are looking for a new position you must be able to demonstrate that you are current in your design thinking and skills. You only need to show 3-5 great examples, even if you have dozens that seem worthy. Variety is wonderful, but let yourself cut that circa 2009 non-responsive website or skeuomorphic mobile app. Only show the best of the best! It is far better to show a few and tell a great story than show a lot and leave us wondering about your contribution or strengths. If your current job isn’t giving you opportunities for great work, create your own opportunities.
One thing I always want to see more of is how designers can use their skills to provide value in ways that extend beyond the medium. Especially product designers or experience designers. For example, can you highlight key insights that you helped discover, whether it be through design-thinking, visual problem-solving in collaboration with product or tech departments, or by leading a group through a customer-centered immersion? A great designer first learns how to master their medium, but then learns how being a designer makes them a leader and influencer in ways that go beyond that medium.
Besides having a portfolio, do you like the idea of designers being invested in other interests? For example being active bloggers or otherwise outspoken in their community?
Absolutely. Your ability to be seen as a leader within your organization or design community shows your passion for the craft while giving the world a glimpse into your point of view on design.
That said, blogging is not required, and my personal advice is to be sure that you are really passionate about your writing if you are going to write. If not, it could reflect negatively. If you don’t want to write, you can show passion and engagement by simply sharing great ideas on social media and participating with your local design meetups, for example.
"Remember, Disney is known for attention to detail, so you could be asked about any small detail from your work."
Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?
The interview process varies based on the role that you are applying for, the hiring manager and other factors. That said, I’ll give some general ideas based on my experience with Disney.
The first step is typically vetting with our in-house recruiters. This is usually a light review of your portfolio and past experience (and yes, we do hire designers straight out of school if the role they are applying for is fitting). After that, applicants will have multiple conversations with design team members at all levels to share their experience and approach to design, and get added clarity and perspective on the role. They will also walk through their portfolio/case studies/work samples to demonstrate their capabilities, soft skills and approach.
Remember, Disney is known for attention to detail, so you could be asked about any small detail from your work. I would suggest that designers take a look through their portfolio and put some fresh thought into the design choices they made in their portfolio projects. This could help you be prepared with good answers if any one detail becomes the subject of conversation. One last recommendation: As you do this, be honest. You don’t need to have a brilliant answer for everything. Sometimes you made a choice because you had to follow standards. Answers like this are perfectly acceptable and much better than not knowing or making something up.
If you continue to move forward in the process, you will most likely visit the on-site location where you applied, to meet the team in-person and virtual conference with other offices.
What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at Disney? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us!
A common misstep I’ve seen in interviews is when candidates show decent design work, but without great answers about detail or a good story to tell. We want to hear your story: about your work, challenges, design decisions, partnerships, learnings, etc.
Do you remember a specific application that impressed you? Something crazy?
In my career, I have seen some creative and fun tactics from applicants. Whether it be a creative technologist’s amazingly customized GitHub page or an art director’s handmade origami with a personal message inside, crazy tactics can definitely get you noticed. That said, my personal advice is to remember that this is icing on the cake. Things like this can certainly help you be remembered, but if your portfolio and the story you tell about your work falls flat, the crazy-cool application may not be enough to move you forward in your career.
Would Disney hire someone who is a culture fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?
My team and I prefer the term "culture add" over "culture fit" as our culture is not stagnant. We look for people who will grow our culture by adding something we don’t have. People who will challenge us and play a role in constantly evolving and adapting our culture to be the best it can be. We tend to hire agile, optimistic learners who have a desire to create meaningful work, with the quality and character expected of Disney, and an ability to add value in a cross-functional and team-based culture.
Disney is all about relationships, so adding great people to our culture is very important. You don’t have to resemble or fit us in any specific way, but you do have to add something distinct that grows our culture and abilities as a team.
"We need designers who can stay cool, agile, open to ideas and iteratively produce great work."
You work on a range of Disney design projects, from web to product experiences. Aside from common soft skills, what are the secondary skills you’re looking for in a designer for your team?
As a hiring manager, I personally look for an ability to stick with a design project through multiple iterations, not get stuck or frustrated, and come out on the other side with a design that has evolved into something new and wonderful.
All of our product and experience designs will go through multiple rounds of input from leadership, user tests and other channels. Designers who think their first idea is perfect and should not be changed can get easily frustrated or struggle to get the best results. This includes cross-functional collaboration, involving product and technology partners early in the process, facilitating the process and driving results together. We need designers who can stay cool, agile, open to ideas and iteratively produce great work.
Finally, storytelling can take you anywhere – designers who have a viewpoint, present their thoughts clearly, creatively and concisely stand out at Disney.
We can imagine it only helps our case if we’re “Disney people." Should we be prepared to share our favorite Disney character and/or Disney classic in our interview? (:
Of course! Disney employees tend to truly love the brand, take being a steward of this brand seriously, and maybe let ourselves get a little dorky about Disney culture once in a while. I’m not saying we wear Mickey pants to work every day, but even the coolest cucumbers here have some story about how they connect with Disney. It could be your favorite character, movie, vacation memory or even seeing your nephew rock out to Let It Go. Whatever it is, bring it!
How do you think Disney is different when hiring new talent compared to other companies?
We certainly aren’t the only brand out there that expects greatness from ourselves and from those who want join our company. I think every company that is truly committed to great experiences does so in their own unique way. That said, I think Disney is special because we are in the business of bringing happiness and magic to our guests, and that does make us look at how we grow our team in a different way. Magic isn’t easy. It takes a lot of work, patience and collaboration.
We are also an incredibly special brand in that we touch so many different industries. There are a lot of jobs out there in entertainment, theme parks, resorts, cruise lines, food and beverage, media, digital experiences, etc., but only Disney really does all of these things. This is why we work so hard to find that special mix of culture, attention to detail and talent that has that potential for magic.
Steven! Thanks so much for giving us a peek behind the magic curtain at Disney. There's so much to learn here. For those of you dreaming about a design job at Disney, these are your main takeaways:
Nr. 1 - Storytelling is everything. This is Disney, after all.
Show how you’re capable of making some magic through storytelling. This doesn't mean you should write and rehearse some grand speech before your interview. It does mean you should be ready to have a meaningful conversation beyond the standard interview script. You should also write engaging portfolio case studies that tell a story and give depth to your work. Here are some tips for doing just that.
Nr. 2 - Demonstrate how you will add to Disney's culture.
Disney values relationships and diversity that leads to broader ideas and understanding of their guests. Showing that you can add to and build on their culture goes a long way.
Nr. 3 - Curate your portfolio and know the details.
Steven and team want to see content and ideas, more so than finesse and a perfect product. They care that your work is relevant and shows an understanding of modern design, with detail-oriented thinking in your design choices. Review your portfolio projects before your interview so you're ready to share the process and decisions behind your designs. These tips for updating and refreshing your portfolio will help as well.
That's all for now! If you enjoyed the interview or found it helpful for an interview, please do send me a tweet to @vanschneider and let me know. And if you're just now jumping into our How to Get a Job at X series, be sure to catch up on interviews with Electronic Arts, Spotify, Nike and more.