How my terrible spelling saved me from a potentially awful design job
The manner in which leaders of a company respond to mistakes can offer valuable career insights
There’s no shortage of interesting stories regarding job interviews, especially within the design industry. But never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that my bad spelling would act as a toxic work culture compass.
The spelling snafu in question happened during a fourth-round in-person interview for a position I was recently pursuing.
By the way, when did this trend of extensive interviews become the norm? I thought such a comprehensive hiring process belonged to organizations like NASA and the CIA, not corporate companies that produce products and services for the consumer market.
The job I was applying for was a creative marketing director position. It was a unique job that required design, marketing, and leadership skills. It was also an in-person role, which I was specifically looking for.
I don’t want to include too much information about the company for obvious reasons, but to provide context, they deliver services and software for various national and local facilities.
The first interview was a phone call with a human resources person, likely to ensure I was who I said I was. They asked basic questions that one would expect in such a conversation.
The second interview was a video conference with relevant team members, such as human resources, sales, and design. Again, this was a routine call that went quite well. The team seemed competent, and everyone was friendly.
The next day, I received an email asking me to come in for an in-person interview. Exciting. However, they also mentioned they had a design test they would like me to perform.
A design test?
First of all, I’m not an entry-level designer. I’ve been designing for nearly 20 years. My portfolio and resume provide enough credibility to highlight my abilities for someone with my particular experience.
However, what struck me as odd was not the test, per se, but that this was a creative marketing director position. Although the role mentioned the ability to design, there was no indication that a design test was required or needed.
That red flag should have been enough for me to say thanks, but no thanks. But I was having trouble finding local in-person jobs, so I figured I’d follow through and see where things go.
I know some people have their opinions about design tests. As mentioned earlier, the only thing that bothers me is testing someone of a particular experience level— it’s almost insulting for folks like myself with nearly two decades of designing under their belt.
For this test, they wanted me to work up a two-sided postcard handout for a conference. They supplied some suggested copy, imagery, and branding guidelines.
Honestly, this type of project felt like something you would ask an entry-level graphic designer to handle. So, I decided to expand the task to demonstrate how I would approach this from a perspective that aligns with the position I thought I was applying for.
Nonetheless, I created what I thought was a well-designed postcard. And to add a little more relevance to the expected responsibilities, I developed a comprehensive pre and post-marketing campaign strategy. This process included designing two engaging emails and social media ads to promote the conference booth, targeting an existing email list. My objective was to demonstrate my proficiency in strategic marketing and brand continuity.
The following in-person interview was in a few days, and the collateral only took several hours to create. After completing the task, I packaged all the files and submitted them to the company.
A few days later, I took the short 30-minute drive to the company’s office. They had a beautiful new building. From the looks of it, they were performing construction, expanding the second floor to accommodate the growth.
In one of the large conference rooms, I met with the same group I talked with over the video conference. However, this time, the CEO sat in the meeting.
We discussed typical interview stuff, such as background, skills, motivations, etc.
They had me run through my designs from the test, which resonated wonderfully with everyone except the CEO. Honestly, it felt like he got pulled into the meeting at the last minute and had little idea about the job position.
I spent a reasonable amount of time mentioning how I approach design and marketing from a strategic and analytical perspective. I explained how I use data to support decisions and ensure hypotheses have a way of being measured. I even talked about how user experience (UX) is a beneficial factor for successful marketing initiatives.
However, the CEO seemed unimpressed by my knowledge and skills. From what I could gather, he seemed to interpret marketing in the Don Draper sense. Big, bold, and intuitive. I don’t blame him. That’s a sexy way to think of marketing, and it worked well 30-plus years ago. But times have changed, and so has the marketing landscape.
Regardless of my feelings about the CEO’s presupposition of marketing, it was a productive meeting that left me optimistic. So much so that I received a text that day for another follow-up in-person meeting— this would be the fourth interview.
This next meeting included the same group as before and the CEO again. The purpose of the follow-up was just to go over some more specifics about the position.
It was during this meeting that things got awkward.
The CEO asked me to bring up my designs from the test again. So I did. He then asks me, in front of everyone in the room, “Can you tell me what’s wrong with this layout?”
I knew what he was likely referring to. I had made a typo on one of the emails and social ads I had created. I noticed the error after I had sent it, but I forgot to mention it the first time I presented the designs. As a reminder, this was one of the extra sets of designs I created that were not part of the original assigned test.
I told him, “Yes, “conference” is misspelled. I did my best to explain what happened by saying, “In a typical process, this type of error would likely not have occurred, but because I created this on the fly, I overlooked the proofreading process. However, that is no excuse, and I should have caught it.”
It was an honest mistake, and I tried to take responsibility for it.
I understood where he was coming from. Here I am, trying to impress a potential employer with my work, and I have a glaring typo — a rather stupid oversight by me.
But I was genuinely shocked he called me out like that — especially in a group meeting. I wondered if they had me back just to put me on the spot.
The CEO even said that he was surprised by the typo because it says I’m also a writer in my resume.
So, not only was he trying to embarrass me, he was insulting me.
There’s nothing I despise more than the grammar police. Being a lousy speller was one of the primary reasons I had avoided pursuing writing for much of my life.
It wasn’t until I had to write a blog article for work several years ago that one of the editors said my writing was great— and I’ve been writing ever since. It’s amazing what a little encouragement can do for us.
As a side note, for anyone who lacks confidence in their writing because they’re bad spellers, just remember that renowned writers like William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, and Ernest Hemingway were also terrible spellers.
Being a great writer encompasses more than just the technical accuracy of words — it’s about the profound ideas, meaning, and emotions conveyed through those words that truly matter.
Back to the fourth interview, the CEO was so obsessed with the fact I designed something with a grammatical error that everything else was irrelevant. The extra work I had done, my design skills, and my qualifications were nothing compared to a single misspelled word.
I wanted to tell him off, get up, and walk out for trying to embarrass me like that in front of potential peers. But I have thick skin and decided it wasn’t worth the energy. Instead, I kept myself composed with the singular thought of knowing I could never work for a company whose leader treats people this way.
It’s one thing to pull me aside and say something, but to parade my work around and put me on the spot is pure immaturity — especially coming from a CEO — this told me all I needed to know about the company.
After that comment from the CEO, my demeanor changed. Any excitement I had was gone. The energy for the rest of the meeting was lackluster. There would likely be no follow-up meeting, and if there were, I would politely decline any offer.
In many ways, I’m grateful for making that typo. If it were not for my bad spelling, I might have ended up at a job with a toxic boss, which, as we all know, trickles its way into the entire company culture.
There is a valuable lesson to learn from this experience. No matter how tempting a job opportunity may seem, evaluating how you and others get treated is essential. This behavior, whether from leaders, managers, or employees, can indicate the company’s culture, which can help you determine whether you will have a fulfilling career there or not. Moreover, it is vital to remember that the company is not just interviewing you, but you are also interviewing them.
So the next time you make a mistake in your resume, portfolio, or design test, take note of how people respond — it may just save you from ending up at a job that you despise.
If you would like to read more of my articles, support my writing, or want to connect online, visit me at michaelfbuckley.com