I do a lot of hiring. I probably see a dozen resumes a week and I’m constantly floored by the questionable design choices I see, especially coming from designers. Maybe it’s an attempt to stand out. Maybe it’s a lack of restraint. Maybe it’s inexperience with print design. Maybe they started with a terrible template they found online. Whatever the cause, a badly designed, laid out, or written resume is, in most cases, an automatic disqualification for me. After all, your resume is your best attempt at a good first impression and a demonstration of your talent for designing with content. It’s the first portfolio piece I see.

What makes a bad resume?

I’m neck-deep in them but, unfortunately, it wouldn’t be very cool for me to share examples of bad resumes here. Instead, I’ll outline a few troubling patterns I come across regularly.

Your resume is your first impression

First impressions

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Never forget that recruiters, talented people, and hiring managers will form an instant first impression based on the look and feel of your resume and a quick, two-second scan down the page. In fact, two seconds might be generous. And this is before they even start reading. From aesthetics to layout, to the organization of information, you have shockingly little time to put the right things in front of their eyes and into their brains.

Legibility

If I can’t read it, I won’t try. Seriously — if it’s hard to read your resume, I won’t. Avenir Narrow is a lovely typeface but I don’t want to see it in the body of your resume. Avoid using tiny font sizes, thin font weights, light gray text, and unusual typefaces. I recently received a resume that committed all of these crimes: tiny type in a narrow font with unforgivably low contrast.

I didn’t read it.

Wireframe of a resume
Keep your layout simple, clean, and easy to scan

Layout

Design with content. To tell a compelling story, your audience needs to be able to follow it. If you’ve gotten creative with your layout you may cause my eyes to jump around and maybe even focus on the wrong things first. Your layout should be organized neatly, aligned carefully, and ordered logically. You’ll probably want to keep it to two solid columns (I’ve seen resumes with different sized columns as you move down the page). Some people use bulleted lists in their job details, and some use paragraphs. I personally find lists easier to scan and that’s important when making a first impression. Again, never forget that the hiring manager will form an opinion of who you are within a few seconds of scanning your resume. Make sure they soak up the most important information first.

Your resume is your story

Poor writing

Your resume is your story. If you can’t keep your writing clear and concise, you’re in trouble. Remember that, as a fundamental part of your job, you must be able to convey information clearly. Writing is an extension of that — even if you won’t be doing any UX or copywriting in your role. Write out all of the things you want the hiring manager to know, then cut it in half. Then organize it ruthlessly. Then cut it in half again. Your resume is your story, and good stories have good writers.

Lackluster storytelling

Outcomes over output. If you’re looking for ways to make your resume stand out, don’t rely on cheap tricks like funky layouts and charts, and graphs (more on this below…). Instead, try to include outputs and impact in your job details. This shows that you understand that your job is a job and your work is in service of corporate success. It makes it clear that you approach your work thoughtfully and don’t simply focus on how many artifacts you can produce or how pretty your mockups are. Put your best foot forward. You’ve worked hard and helped your businesses to succeed, don’t let it go to waste by telling that story poorly.

Your resume is a portfolio piece

Content

It’s the notes you don’t playLeave. Things. Out. Don’t include every job you’ve ever held. Think about omitting irrelevant work experience or jobs from a decade ago. Don’t include that you’re a member of a certain “design leadership forum” or some such nonsense (I’ve seen this more than once — no one cares).

Personally, I care more about you than the companies you’ve worked for. Consider using your job title as the primary heading for each bit of job experience, and the employer as secondary information. Oh, and the location of the employer doesn’t add much value (unless it’s a part of your story).

Don’t forget to include ways for me to learn more. Some resumes don’t include links to a portfolio or LinkedIn profile. (Yes, I know, we all hate LinkedIn, but it serves its purpose and if I’m interested in you as a candidate I’ll probably check out your profile). I’ve even gotten a few that omit an email address or phone number. Don’t make it hard on me to get to know you better.

Lack of personality

Don’t try too hard. Your resume should show me who you are. Unfortunately, many designers rely on funky layouts, goofy types, colors, or graphics to stand out and show personality. These are turnoffs for me and many other hiring managers. Instead, consider sharing a personal detail or two toward the bottom. My resume (at the time of writing) casually mentions my affinity for woodworking and cats. Or, if you include a summary paragraph at the top, think about what you can do there. Tread carefully, as this area must be kept professional at all costs, but see if you can’t find some language that shows a little personality, and try to avoid the typical “outcome-driven, human-centered designer with a passion for creating unique user experiences”-type boilerplate. Finally, headshots. While I want to know who you are, and I believe a photo of yourself belongs on your professional site, I don’t love to see them on your resume. Keep it nice, tight, and clean.

Graphs, graphics, and gimmicks

Just say no to templates you find online that feature data visualizations to represent your skills. First off, I’m not interested in numerical self-rating. Secondly, they just feel out of place in a formal CV. This is stuff for brochures and promotional materials. They cheapen the feel of your resume, which should be somewhat sacred ground. Avoid icons, illustrations, and even logos of companies where you’ve worked. Let the text do the work.

How to get started on a good resume

Writing

As with most writing, I suggest you start with an outline. List out all of the content you’ll include. Start with headings and placeholders. Make sure the groupings and order of importance tell a good story. Then start filling in the details. By the end of this exercise, you should have a nice, organized, bulleted outline to start from. Then you can start copyediting. As mentioned above you’ll want to start by writing out all of the things you want a person to know about a particular job. Then re-write for clarity and concision. Then cut it in half. Then re-write for outcomes over outputs. Then cut it in half. It’ll be difficult and painful to get to the ideal level of simplicity, and you’ll have to make some tough calls. Be thoughtful and ruthless and you’ll get there.

Layout

The hierarchy of your outline should dictate your layout. The more important things are, the more prestige they get in your document. You’ll typically give the lion’s share of real estate to your professional experience. Be sure you’re not drawing eyes away from the good stuff to something less important.

Delivery

Always send your resume as a print-ready PDF. If you send me a .doc, I will not open it. I’m unlikely to read an HTML resume. Resist the urge to be clever and send a Figma prototype or some such nonsense. And be sure to host your resume on your professional site in an easy-to-find location. Mine is linked to from the main navigation and has a logical URL (jasoncarlin.com/resume).

Wrapping up

Your resume is your story.
Your resume is a portfolio piece.
Your resume is your first impression.

Keep it clean, clear, and concise. Treat it as sacred ground. Don’t use tricks to try to stand out — do that with the quality of your document and the value of your experience. And most importantly, I’ll say it again, remember that you’ve only got a few seconds of a hiring manager’s time to make a positive first impression. Legibility and scannability are key. Make it easy for them to like you in an instant.