Unsplash started as a stupid little side project. Originally, it was a simple Tumblr blog that shared ten free photographs a day for anyone to download and use however they liked. Soon enough, Unsplash grew so big that it became its own company with a team of 18 people.
Now, millions of photographs are viewed and downloaded on Unsplash every day. I got to hang with most of the Unsplash team in Montreal and I can tell you, they are some of the nicest people I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet.
Three of those nice people are Stephanie, Luke and Mikael. They are so nice, in fact, that they agreed to answer all my questions about getting a job at Unsplash.
Hey friends, let’s start here: 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?
Our team is small, 18 people total. We consider our design team as our two designers and three front-end developers who have thoughtful opinions on product and design. Two came through internal referral, two came through our application process and one wrote to us directly.
I've seen many offices, but the Unsplash one is hands down the best.
Say we decide to reach out with a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply? What puts us in the “no” folder immediately?
First, we have to say we’re grateful for anyone who takes the time to write to us about working on Unsplash. By writing to us, it means you’re interested in dedicating time in your life to working with us versus doing a million other things. And that means so much.
Like many people though, we get overwhelmed with email so we’re often forced to process information quickly. Unfortunately, we can’t read and respond to every email we get so the messages that get replies are the ones that make us feel something.
We can’t speak for all companies, but emails that make us feel something are ones that sound like they were written to a friend. Words that sound like they were written by a human, not a machine. Everyone making anything today is in the business of creating connection. An impersonal subject line or words like “Dear Hiring Manager” signal not only laziness but a lack of understanding for what connects.
How you write your email gives us a look into how you think about design. If you’re able to create a connection with an email, we feel confident you understand how to do that no matter the medium.
How you write your email subject line and your email is what gets initial attention. But showing something you made is what moves us from attention to action. Even better if you can show something you made along with an explanation of:
What work you specifically did on your projects
What did success look like for the project and did you achieve it?
How did you approach the problems the project was meant to solve? Why did you choose certain solutions?
If your portfolio shows interesting work and includes thoughtful context around each project, we guarantee you’ll get a response. There’s a lot of noise today in design. Everyone says they're a designer. Before Unsplash, I was CEO/Founder of Crew, a community for designers, so I’ve seen it firsthand, having reviewed thousands of design profiles. Everyone has pretty-looking static design shots. Those don’t cut through. What cuts through is not only the work but the thinking behind the work.
Write like a human. Share your work. Share your thinking behind your work.
“PDF resumes are artifacts from an economic time that aimed to turn people into replaceable cogs in a system.”
Yeah, we think the traditional attached cover letter/resume with bullet points are an outdated, inhuman form of applying for a job. PDF resumes that we were taught to make in high school are artifacts from an economic time that aimed to turn people into replaceable cogs in a system. They reduce you to comparison. They strip you of your personality and what makes you unique, which is precisely what we are looking for in a hire.
We want to see what you do when you’re not told what to do. Because that's what it's like at Unsplash. This is why we don’t have a hiring form on our Hiring page. Instead, we ask you to just send us an email. We leave it up to you to decide what to put in it.
If you’re applying as a designer, of course a portfolio of work is important. But overall, what we want to see is someone who understands how to connect with us and a body of work that shows you know how to connect with people through design.
Yes, this is an office. But the Unsplash team also turned part of their office into a coffeeshop for makers. (you see it on the left)
Tell us one thing you never want to see again on a portfolio. Anything you wish you saw more?
Generic writing and visuals. C’mon, this is your portfolio, the most important thing in your arsenal as a designer. If a portfolio looks and feels just like every other one, it’s hard for me to think that you’ll create a great product no matter how much you say you “handcraft websites.”
You don’t need to blindly follow the portfolio advice from Creative Bloq or Hongkiat or a well-known designer. Show your work and discuss it in a way that you find interesting. Share things outside your design work like your writing or personal projects or photography.
Apart from my Unsplash teammates, some of my favorite portfolios include: Tobias (he didn’t pay me to say this), Jonnie Hallman, Meg Lewis, and Jessica Hische. I know there are many many more great examples out there but these designers came first to mind because they not only have exceptional design work but they also share other parts of themselves.
We wish we would see more designers who write. Writing is great because it helps people understand your thinking. And your thinking is what ultimately shapes your work.
Seeing a portfolio of great work is awesome but understanding the person behind the work is even better.
The Unsplash team in action. Writing beautiful code.
Besides having a portfolio, do you like the idea of designers being invested in other interests? For example being active bloggers, photographers or otherwise outspoken in their community?
Hell yes. Having interests outside product design is super important. Other interests like photography, travel, luge racing or whatever help you see different perspectives and create new connections. Creativity comes from what we consume and if we all consume the same shit, our outputs will all the look the same. Creative solutions won’t exist.
By having other interests, you can draw new connections. We practice this ourselves as a company. Apart from building Unsplash, we encourage everyone on our team to take time to observe the world. This is why we don’t track vacation days. In fact, we require a minimum of three weeks vacation. Our bodies were not meant to work hours on end. We’re not machines meant to do one thing only forever. We need new inputs to improve. Otherwise, we stagnate. And if we stagnate, our products and company will too.
What are the biggest mistakes you see designers make when applying for a job at Unsplash? Are there any specific things that keep bothering you? Please complain to us! (:
A couple things. First, not enough of a focus on measurable product results. So many portfolios come in that focus entirely on visuals and the designer's opinion of UX. That doesn't tell us anything about the actual impact of the work. What were the problems before and how were those affecting the metrics? How did the metrics that matter to the company improve after the changes? And if you don't know those and aren't presenting those, then why are you presenting it as a success?
Second, there’s too much of a focus on presenting a large quantity of projects in a portfolio. I'd rather see one project explained really well than 10 explained quickly. Showing the process of a project that had unexpected learnings and deep thoughts behind it makes me feel confident that you'll be able to bring the same level of thoughtfulness to projects at Unsplash.
A view on the Crew/Unsplash coffeeshop. Photograph by www.dezjeff.com
Do you have a favorite story of an application that really stuck with you?
Our co-founder Luke’s application is one that stands out. We know this is going to embarrass the crap out of him but we have it here (our company was called ‘ooomf’ back then).
The thing we liked most about Luke’s email was that it felt like he was writing like he talked. Even though his email was a bit long by “email optimization standards,” we read it all the way through because we felt he cared. At the time, he didn’t have much experience in product design but he was flat out honest about it. He shared what he did know and that he was willing to do anything, including making coffee runs if needed.
Back then, we were a small team of four founders so we were looking for people who could jump in on a lot of different things. And if they didn’t know something, they'd be open to learning it. We could tell from Luke’s message he was eager to apply what he knew, learn what he didn’t and do anything to help move the company forward. He also went another step further by linking to an awesome introduction page he made just for us.
Luke’s message also sticks with me because it’s lead to one of the greatest relationships of my life. Luke and the two of us (Mikael & Steph) have worked together for five years now, which is practically our whole careers.
The Unsplash team in action
Say I make the first pass and get invited to an interview. Can you describe the interview process as briefly as possible?
Our process starts with a meeting or phone interview. That interview is informal. We don’t drill you with questions like, “If you needed to escape from a room and all you had was a stick of gum, a match and a Teletubbie, what would you do?” No. We ask you about you and your work. And we invite you to ask questions about us. Like we were getting to know each other on a first date.
If that first interview vibes well, we invite you to have a chat with each member of our design team. If we feel good after those calls, we make an offer. This whole process typically takes two weeks.
We also don't ask designers to solve our problems in the interviews. Interview questions that ask what you would do differently with our product are bullshit, because if you can come up with ideas that are better than ours on the spot over a phone interview, well then we're clearly not doing our jobs.
Design is all about context and you simply can't get enough context about a product from the outside. You need months and years of working on a product before you can really say you know anything about it with confidence.
We don’t follow the “churn and burn” model at all. We hire people with the intent of working together for the long-term. This is why we focus so much on conversations. You’ve already shown you can do good work. Now, it’s about both of us getting to know each other. To learn more about the work and the environment, so we have a clearer sense that this will be a great fit for everyone long-term.
Would you hire someone who is a cultural fit over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills? And what does cultural fit mean at Unsplash?
When we think of someone as a good “culture fit’” we think about it more as, “Would this person be able to improve our culture?” Not necessarily someone that will keep it the same way. In fact, we're actively trying to hire people who make us feel a little uncomfortable because they bring a different approach.
To build great things, it’s important to bring new/different viewpoints versus hiring people who all think and act the same. That said, there are some core underlying things we won’t compromise on like:
Having a work environment where it’s not about the number of hours you work but what you do in those hours that counts.
We’ll never mail anything in.
So someone who resonates with these values and brings a new, healthy perspective to the team but has less industry experience and hard skills would be hired over someone who has more industry experience and hard skills, but didn’t resonate with those values.
"A designer who can write? Ooh wee."
What are the secondary skills you look for in a designer, besides common soft skills? For example, do you prefer writing skills over coding skills? Photography skills over writing?
If we had to pick one secondary skill for designers it would be writing. Knowing how to code is a close second, but a designer who can write? Ooh wee. In design, the message comes first. Good writing can save bad design but not the other way around. You can make your designs sing if you know how to write well.
A great designer should be strong with many forms of communication because in the end, design is communication, whether it’s visual, written, or spoken.
How do you think Unsplash is different when hiring new talent compared to other tech companies or design studios? Please blow us away! (:
We don’t focus on resumes. We don’t focus on glitzy Dribbble shots. Instead, we focus on understanding you and your work.
This is why every person we hire meets either me or one of my co-founders during the hiring experience. This might sound like an impossible thing to do as Unsplash grows but we don’t dream of hiring thousands of people. We enjoy having relationships with our teammates. We could be bigger but we prefer to keep things small. It’s more human that way.
We also aim to give everyone, from the newest teammate to the CEO, the same level of information needed to make decisions. We believe in giving everyone on our team the power to make the call on their own without much approval. To do that, it requires context. You need to know the history behind why something was done. Why did we design the homepage that way? What were the trade-offs? What were the conversations that lead to the decision? Almost everything we’ve built has a conversation documentation trail. We open this up to everyone on our team. Everyone on our team should have the power to make decisions as if they owned the company. With context, great people create great things.
We don’t focus on spec work. We don’t have project managers. Our whole company is set up to get as much of the stuff that’s not the creative work out of your way, so you can do you what you do best.
Our aim is to create an environment for making great things and feeling fulfilled creatively. Ask anyone who started a company or joined one early on. Most people will say things were the best at the beginning when they were less people. You ship big stuff. You have a strong sense of autonomy, ownership and purpose. These conditions are what leads to great work.
Steph, Mikael & Luke, thank you so much for your time. I can easily say this interview is one of my all-time favorites from this whole job series.
And because I think this was all packed with so much wisdom, I want to summarize a few of my favorite takeaways, in case you, the reader, is interested in working with Unsplash:
Nr. 1- A resume is so 1999.
As Unsplash clearly pointed out, they don’t look at your resume the way other companies might do. We’ve heard this in a couple more interviews in the job series so far and I find this one of the most important things to highlight. Focus your attention on your portfolio or other things, but not your resume.
Nr. 2 - Talk about the impact and intentions of your work.
Instead of just showing off your work by sharing some screen designs, animations or prototypes, explain the thinking behind your work. Unsplash wants to hear the WHY and understand how your work made an impact. How did your work change something? How did it measure up to its goals? If it failed, why?
Nr. 3 - Write, even if you are not a writer.
Writing is thinking. I’ve shared my thoughts on that subject here. As a designer you are first and foremost a communicator. While color, shape and typography are essentials in your design toolbox, words are as much part of it. You don’t have to become a professional writer, but Unsplash cares a lot about the impact words have as part of your design solution.
I hope you enjoyed these insights into how Unsplash works and hires. Make sure to check out if they're hiring right here. I have to say, this is one of my personal favorites so far. If you're interested in working with Unsplash make sure to reach out to them with all the new things you've just learned, and if you're interested in reading about other companies in the job series, you can do this right here.