I've been a big fan of Virgin Atlantic for a long time now. If you've ever flown with Virgin, I'm sure you understand why.
Virgin Atlantic creates an experience for their passengers, from their excellent customer service to the mood lighting on their flights. The Virgin brand just feels cool, and I know a lot of loyal Virgin fliers agree. So naturally, I wanted to know what it's like working on the awesome Virgin brand as a designer — and how we might get a design job on his team. I reached out to Michael Stephens, the head of creative & brand at Virgin Atlantic, and he was kind enough to answer all my questions.
First, please tell us a little about yourself and what you do at Virgin Atlantic.
I joined Virgin Atlantic in January 2018 to head up the talented internal creative and design team, which sits within the wider marketing function. As a brand guardian I’ll work alongside our numerous creative agencies to develop and future proof the brand’s visual identity and tone of voice across multiple channels. I collaborate with all areas of the business on both external and internal comms, ensuring that whatever we do it feels Virgin.
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?
I’d say it’s a mix really. We’re always keen as a business to retain talent and promote within where possible but we also understand that in order to acquire new multidisciplinary skills and develop the department’s capabilities, we might need to look externally.
Say we decide to reach out with a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us?
We’re always on the lookout for new blood. We welcome applications from talented people who are passionate about what they do and massively encourage proactive behavior. My advice? Go on, be brave and just do it.
How important is a complete portfolio? Can we get away with not having a portfolio when interviewing at Virgin?
A well structured and thought-out portfolio is hugely important. It’s the first thing I look at! We’re a company that cares a lot about design and aesthetics, so fundamentally the work has to speak for itself.
"A portfolio isn’t just a documentation of all the work you’ve produced to date; it should be adapted with time."
Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?
A portfolio isn’t just a documentation of all the work you’ve produced to date; it should be adapted with time. It needs curating bespoke to the prospective client to ensure relevancy both in terms of content and aesthetic, to demonstrate your understanding of the business. It should be annotated to provide clarity where necessary but not take hours to read through — keep it visual, please.
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?
Totally! I want my team to have a personal opinion as well as to feel connected to and influenced by what’s going on around them in the world. Virgin has a global reputation for being a rule breaker and a rebel. As creatives I think we all need to channel a bit of that in our lives.
Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?
We’ll normally first invite you to our head office for an informal chat. It’s a chance for you to talk through your portfolio in person, see our work environment and get a feel for whether or not we are the right cultural fit. Depending on the level of seniority we may then do behavioral assessments, design tasks or ask you to meet other team members. As a member of the creative team you’ll engage with stakeholders of all levels across the entire business. At Virgin we like to keep interviews casual though, so don’t wear a tie!
"A good portfolio should merely support a great designer in an interview. We like to engage so please don’t look and talk into your iPad."
What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at Virgin? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us!
Don’t rely on me to do the work; you should be in control. A good portfolio should merely support a great designer in an interview. We like to engage so please don’t look and talk into your iPad.
Do you remember a specific application that impressed you?
It’s a cliché but sometimes when I set a design task it’s not just about giving me what I want, but perhaps what I don’t want. At Virgin we like to push the boundaries so be creative — surprise and delight! Whether that’s going the extra mile with your design task and producing something physical / digital or it’s doing some more in-depth research and demonstrating in the interview your understanding of the business / industry.
Does that mean we should do something crazy to get your attention? Prototype our own Virgin app or uniform design, maybe?
I’m not sure crazy is quite what we’re looking for, but certainly outside of the ordinary and full of personality. We are essentially an internal creative agency so pitching to stakeholders is often part of the process. It’s sometimes worth showing work on a gradient of safe to radical. That way you can put the client at ease initially and then hopefully sell in your more progressive ideas.
We imagine as a designer at Virgin, you’re working on everything from marketing and digital design to the physical customer experience. What are the secondary skills Virgin looks for in a designer, besides common soft skills? What range of skills do you want to see?
You need to understand our point of difference. What makes us unique and amazing as a business? Spotting those opportunities to stand out and make us famous is a skill we can never have enough of. The creatives in my team all need to do three key things: 1. Have great ideas. 2. Produce beautiful work and 3. Tell a coherent brand story.
Would Virgin hire someone who is a cultural fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills?
A cultural fit is a must, and your skills certainly need to fully equip you for the job at hand. Experience however is something that could set you apart as we really like having teams from different industry backgrounds, whether it’s a magazine, a website, a store, a fashion label or an airline. I personally came from a fashion background having never worked in aviation previously. Before, I worked at i-D, Vice, Liberty and Ted Baker. There were clear brand personality links to Virgin — all the brands were British, bold, colorful, glam, eccentric, rebellious and a little bit cheeky.
One of your new job postings is design manager. Is an internship a good way to get our foot in the door with Virgin? How often do internships turn into full-time jobs?
This is the first time we’ve introduced an internship opportunity within the creative team and it’s really exciting. I know how hard it was to get that first job after university (countless applications and interviews) so I was keen to create a role that specifically targeted recent graduates. It’s only a 12 month contract but this gives the designer a great foundation to understand the business, make connections and present themselves as potentially the perfect candidate should a permanent role become available.
Virgin is headquartered in the UK and all current creative job postings are located there. Do you ever hire remote designers for your team? What about international hires?
Although we do have other offices internationally, the creative team is currently based in the UK. We do however work with several freelance artists and photographers on a global scale.
How do you think Virgin is different when hiring new talent compared to other airlines?
We’re not looking for ordinary – after all, we’re no ordinary airline.
Thanks so much, Michael! We appreciate you taking the time and giving us these insights. Here are a few key takeaways:
Nr. 1 - Be bold and make an impression.
Virgin is all about creating a culture and experience. That goes for the design team too. Don't be afraid to show your personality – in fact, make it a point to do so. Whether you're trying to make a connection via email or you've scored an-person interview, be confident and show you understand the Virgin brand. Your personality might be the most important factor in getting the job.
Nr. 2 - Curate and update your portfolio.
Not only does Virgin want to see a portfolio of your work, but they expect it to be curated for their aesthetic and the position. Michael came from a fashion background so you don't necessarily need airline brand experience, but showing experience with a relevant brand or style makes a difference.
Nr. 3 - Virgin is hiring for their creative design team!
Check out these open positions Michael shared with us, including a brand new internship role:
If do get a job on the Virgin design team, please let me know. I would be very happy for you and jealous of you (:
That's all for now! If you're looking for a design job, be sure to read our other How to Get a Job at X interviews with admirable companies like Nike, Spotify, Pentagram and lots more. And tweet me at @vanschneider if you have a dream design job and want to see a specific company in the series!