The internet has not been the best design teacher when it comes to formatting résumés.
Since the time of Leonardo da Vinci, who once succinctly summarized his credentials for the Duke of Milan on a sheet of parchment, the document has been a jobseeker’s first (and hopefully best) foot forward. Even in the age of LinkedIn profiles, online portfolios, and personal websites, it remains a necessary formality—one that, done right, could land you the interview, if not the job.
Several prescriptive guides have emerged of late in an attempt to establish best practices when crafting such a defining sheet. But a recent crop of articles that either trivialize or fixate on fonts have missed the bigger picture. Like the business card or the cover letter (or any piece of graphic design for that matter) it’s not just about the typography, but also about the format, the audience and the medium.
For design wisdom, we turned to real professors, Alexander Tochilovsky and Cara Di Edwardo, who teach at the legendary Cooper Union School of Art in New York City, and organizers of a unique 10-day typography festival this month geared for “people who use type.” Here are some of their pointers.
Consider who (or what) is reviewing your résumé
Some larger companies use applicant tracking system scanning software with optical character recognition technology (OCR) to convert data from your résumé for their database. For those systems, many advise sticking to Helvetica or standard PC fonts, which electronic readers do a good job parsing.
“But,” Di Edwardo says, “if a human being with any kind of aesthetic sensitivity is reading it, then there’s a million that could work.” So how does one choose which font to use from the millions of possibilities? Sites like a Adobe have organized their collection by use but the choice really boils down to what kind of job you want to get.
As a rule of thumb, Tochilovsky recommends fonts that facilitate reading and advises against getting too hung up on the pseudo-psychology of individual typefaces. Steer clear of fancy decorative typefaces or script fonts that are difficult to skim, he says. Instead select a simple, legible font to accommodate all scanners—both humans or robots. “No matter what,” he says, “it needs to be a professional-looking typeface.”
Keep it in the family
A font has a family—light, bold, italics, small caps, or condensed, for example. The strategic use of these versions help create emphasis and hierarchy a document. For example, you might choose Helvetica bold for the job title and Helvetica light for the details. “If you pay attention to the mechanics of how font families work, you can elevate, emphasize and filter certain bits of information,” explains Tochilovsky. A résumé that switches between fonts tends to look circusy and will draw more attention to the acrobatics of its formatting than its content.
Tochilovsky adds that some fonts are designed to be wider, so you can beef up a slightly scant page with a fatter fonts. Or a slimmer font may allow you to legibly fit more information onto the page.
The font matters, but layout is key
Designing a résumé is all about conveying information clearly and quickly, Tochilovsky says, and to that end, there must be a balance between information and white space. “The more crucial matter is how it’s designed, rather than the typography,” he said.
Designing for speed-reading is critical here. A study (pdf) conducted by The Ladders, an employment website, in 2012 showed that recruiters spend an average of just 6 seconds scanning résumés before making snap judgements on whether to move it forward or not. “You don’t want them to be searching for what years you were at this job or other important details,” Tochilovsky cautions. “Ultimately it’s about the clear presentation of information.”
Don’t get too creative
Ignore what the internet says and resist the temptation to make your résumé into a poster design project. A résumé is a business document, not a canvas for artistic expression—even if you are an artist or designer looking for a job.
As Leonardo da Vinci realized, a resume is a summary sheet of your education, credentials and experience. Dazzle with your portfolio, but for a resume, be kind to your prospective employer’s eyes and follow a straightforward layout with sufficient margins and line spacing. Restraint, not pizzaz, is the creative direction to follow.