Alright, you have a resume, and chances are it looks pretty bad.
That’s okay—I don’t blame you—it’s likely you used a template you found online. And who could blame you? You’re not a designer…
Well, that’s going out the window right now because I’m about to tell you a bit of psychology that will blow your mind (and maybe earn you a job, so pay attention.)
It’s called Gestalt Psychology, and it’s how we interpret the world around us—including that bloody ugly resume of yours. The cool thing is, though, that once you learn why your resume fails to stand out, it’s easy to make it one-of-a-kind.
The main Gestalt principles that matters for your resume are Similarity and Proximity.
Similarity just means that if two things look more-or-less the same, we’ll automatically think they’re in the same category. That’s one way companies brand their products—without even seeing the label, you know a Coke by the shape of the bottle.
Proximity means that if things are close together, we interpret them as being linked. I.e. If a whole bunch of birds are sitting on a telephone wire together, you assume they’re buddies.
These two psychological principles help determine how people group things together. When we’re talking about your resume, these two principles are why it’s being grouped together with all the other boring resumes from boring people they’ve seen over the years:
The resume looks like all the rest, so the hiring manager thinks of it as being in the same group. (Similarity)
And since the document is in a stack with all the others, the employer has no reason to doubt that it belongs in the same group. (Proximity)
This is our challenge: to make your resume so dissimilar—so unique—that it overcomes it’s proximity to bad resumes. In fact, if you really spruce it up, it’s proximity could be a bonus, making it really stand out.
Okay, so how do you accomplish all this? Using the same principles, you create a unique and strong hierarchy in your page.
Hierarchy… like class hierarchy? Sorta, but without the systemic income inequality. (Yikes.)
Establishing a hierarchy just means creating visual relationships among the pieces of text on your page. I.e. how do you tell what’s important and what is less important? How do you tell what’s Experience and what’s Education?
First, go through your writing and figure out what the different levels of importance. Generally, you’ll have something like this:
1st (top) level: Name
2nd level: Section titles (Education, Experience, Skills, Contact)
3rd level: Entry titles (Job titles, schools, etc.)
4th level: Body content (Job descriptions, Major, email, etc.)
So do this now with your resume—figure out exactly the different levels of importance are.
Now we’ll create visuals to represent these levels of importance. Remember, they can’t be too similar, or people will interpret them as being the same. Then again, they can’t be too different—otherwise your resume will look like a 3rd grader’s art project.
To walk this line and create meaningful, subtle differences among your levels of importance, we need to learn a bit about dimensions of contrast.
Dimensions of Contrast
This is just a technical term for: the possible ways one thing can be different from another.
When dealing with type, these are the main dimensions of contrast:
S p a c i n g
Most people, and as a result most resumes, make use of the same few dimensions of contrast: Scale, weight, style, and maybe underlining. People make their titles huge and underlined. They make their job titles bold. Their body content italics. They all do the same things, so they all look the same—boring.
Let’s look at a few different ways you could make your resume stand out. As an exercise, make all the content the same size and same font. With this restriction, how can you make certain things stand out?
Well, you could bold your title, then make your section titles a different color; finally, you can physically separate your body content from your entry titles, so they’re not mistaken.
Okay, how about instead of one size and one font, you used only size and font to make the differences? Well, you could have the title and section titles in one font, with one bigger and one smaller, then make the entry titles and body content a different font and different sizes. This could end up looking good, or it could look terrible.
That’s kinda the point, too. By taking the design into your own hands, you’re daring fate. Templates exist for a reason—they look alright. They don’t break any rules—they don’t try to stand out. They’re off-white paint. They’re Times New Roman. They’re Helvetica. They’re McDonalds. They’re luke-warm water.
By creating your own design (albeit, an informed design) you’re making gamble—it could end up looking awful. There’s a better chance, though, that it will help you stand out in a good way, and that’s worth the risk.
Two final pointers. First, start with your body text, then work your way up to the title. The body text is the most important part of any page. Second, try to make your changes one dimension of contrast at a time. In other words, just change one thing at a time.
- Is your body text 11pt, black, Caslon, regular weight?
- Make the entry titles 11 pt, red, Caslon, regular weight.
- Make the section titles 15 pt, black, Caslon, regular weight.
- Make the title 15 pt, black, Univers, regular weight.
(Disclaimer, I have no idea if that is a good-looking combination, but it ought to be.)
For more tips, read Schools teach sh•t typography
If you enjoyed this article and live in Charlottesville, Virginia, come out to Hack C’ville on the Corner this Thursday (the 22nd) at 6pm for a 2 hour workshop. I’ll be there to answer your questions and provide feedback on your design ideas. Check out the Facebook event.