Tips on how to hire a good designer

It seems like everyone is hiring designers! They’re hiring product designers, UX designers, creative directors, directors of design, UI designers, visual designers, etc. There are even acquihires of entire design teams! So…how do you find a good designer?

First, a quick backstory for people who have never read my blog before. Until this past August I was the Director of UX at HubSpot, a SaaS marketing company here in Boston that went public in October. So for three years (in which HubSpot was growing quickly) I was the hiring manager for product designers and UX specialists. There is nothing I did at HubSpot that I am more proud of than the team I hired there. This article contains a bunch of tips from that experience.

Always be building relationships. The best strategy to take when looking for designers is to always be building relationships with the best designers you know of. This is not typical “recruiting” (which is too often about trolling LinkedIn and sending cold emails). This is building relationships through personal interaction with designers. I know…I just made the task way harder! Always be recruiting, even if you don’t have an open job posting. Go to design meetups and just talk to designers about what they’re working on. Email someone with a killer shot on Dribbble a heartfelt compliment without expecting anything in return. Ask who is doing great work. Ask for intros to friends, etc.

Portfolio, portfolio, portfolio. Education is fine. Experience is fine. Job titles are fine. Talk is cheap. The portfolio is what really matters. Can this person do the work you need? If your goal is to hire a junior designer and grow them you can overlook a smaller but promising portfolio if they have everything else you want. But if you want someone to step in on day one and get the job done, you need to see something in their portfolio that is already at the level of what you need. Have they built a similar product before? Don’t let someone with a great personality fool you…if they cannot show you great work and tell a compelling story about it then they will not be able to do that on the job. Frankly I don’t care if you have any education or degree…if you have the chops it doesn’t matter how you got them. My favorite portfolio ever was a single white page, beautifully designed, containing only text and an extremely focused message about why this person was the right fit for the job. They had thought about exactly what that page was for, how it should be designed, what it would be used for and by whom, and was just as effective as a dozen screenshots on some portfolio site.

Can they tell a story? Storytelling is a crucial skill for designers. First, can they tell a compelling story about the pieces in their portfolio? About why a design is a certain way and not another? Can they connect the design they ended up with all the way back to an initial problem they’re trying to solve? This doesn’t mean that they’re captivating soothsayers with amazing voice inflection, but they need to be able to narrate the lifecycle of their users and show how they solve for it in their design. Or do their stories fall apart and have logical gaps? This is important in hiring but also on the job…if a designer can tell a story then they can convince others that their design is the right one, that research is important, that they’re solving the right problem. I’ve seen some fantastic visual designers who just couldn’t tell a story and who ended up always designing for themselves…beautiful things for themselves.

Are they designers all the time? Some people do design as a job and nothing more. Some go into work and design from 9-5, collect their paycheck, and leave. They can do good work this way. The best designers I know, however, are never not designing. They’re thinking about it all the time, they’re working side jobs, they’re getting emotional about their favorite products latest update, they’re designing products in their spare time, they’re never not thinking about it. These are the passionate people and the ones you want.

Know what motivates designers. It’s interesting to me how often I talk to folks who are trying to hire designers but who aren’t emphasizing the right things. You need to know what motivates designers in order to hire them. If I had to rank designer motivations generally it would be something like: Always be learning (from great teammates), cool/tough problems, fun/flexible culture, room to grow professionally, compensation/benefits. Note that compensation is last on the list…that rang true every time for me. When I would get into discussions with designers who were focused on how much money they were going to make it was never a good fit…even if I could pay them more than what they were asking. Money is not what good designers are motivated most by.

Understand their current pain. In addition to knowing what motivates designers generally, when interviewing designers I would try to understand what their current pain is or what they’re not getting in their current job. If they’re at an agency it’s probably that they’re not talking to and getting direct feedback from users or that they’re considered just visual decorators. If they’re at a startup they are probably by themselves without a lot of support (and working crazy hours). If they’re at a big company they’re probably not being challenged or are feeling like just another cog in the wheel. By understanding the dynamics of their current situation you can better position your job to them as a solution to their current frustrating situation. You gotta sell! It turns out this is an easy thing to find out, just ask: “what is frustrating about your current job?”. (You usually don’t have to ask…people are always talking about what’s frustrating in their jobs)

Ask anyway. It’s easy to assume that people aren’t looking if they’re not updating their LinkedIn profile or posting to Dribbble. But people don’t mind being asked if they’re interested in talking. If someone was adamant that they were happy in their current position (couldn’t be poached), I would say “Well, if you do reach a point where you’re considering leaving, I can get you in for an interview immediately”. This makes it clear that you’re interested in them. This also sometimes accelerates their leaving…because now they know there is an opportunity ready and waiting for them. (Looking around is work for designers…if they’re happy they probably aren’t looking or actively considering other opportunities)

Have them hang with the team. One of the best changes we made to our hiring process was to have the design candidate meet and hang out informally with the team *before* an interview. This has several positive effects. One, it allows the team and the candidate to assess each other outside of the tight schedule of an interview. Second, it makes the interview much less formal and puts the candidate at ease…if they’ve met the team before the interview they are much calmer and more effective during the interview. To do this well means that as the hiring manager I was meeting with each candidate before they would meet with the team…so I was acting as a strong early filter. This is worth it. Just meeting with the team meant that I was already pretty positive about them and thought it was worth taking that step.

Do design exercises. Another critical part of our hiring process was refining the design exercises we did during an interview. This allowed us to effectively assess the problem-solving skills of candidates and allowed us to compare designers against each other effectively. You can get a good sense of someone’s visual design skills from a portfolio but it’s often harder to discern problem-solving skills that way. (not enough designers spend the time to really show design thinking in their portfolios!). There are also people who put pieces in their design portfolios that aren’t *really* theirs…and having them do design exercises forces them to show their stuff.

Do recruiting yourself. It is tempting to offload candidate searches to recruiters (in-house or headhunters). Don’t offload completely. Instead, use recruiters as channels for finding potential candidates and as quickly as you can build the relationship yourself. This builds trust in your candidates and lets them know you’re serious about their work and the possibility of them working for you. You can let recruiters do non-contact screening but I like to do any other screening myself (e.g. phone screens or coffees).

Reach out yourself. The recruiters at HubSpot were amazing, but without exception it was always most effective when I would personally reach out to design candidates myself and tell them that I was interested in their work. Don’t say “We’ve got a job that you should apply to” say “Hey I like your work and would like to meet you”. If you really mean it (and you should) you’re much more likely to actually get that meeting. Designers hate worst of all dealing with recruiters instead of the hiring manager. The best recruiters know this and work with the hiring managers to make it their relationship quickly.

Trust your gut. The more I recruit the more I’ve learned to trust my gut. In those few times when I didn’t trust my gut, I regretted it later. This might be self-fulfilling (I don’t know) but if you’re the hiring manager it’s your ass on the line when you choose to hire someone so you better be confident that it’s going to work. Even if you can’t articulate why your gut is saying No it’s still a signal you should listen to.

Trust your team. We interviewed one or two candidates who I thought were a good fit but not all designers on the team did. We often agreed but in this case we didn’t and I had to make the choice to not hire. I still think those candidates may have worked out but if I had hired them despite the judgment of the team the signal sent would have been negative. It’s one thing if the team is on the fence about a candidate and you’re the tie-breaker, but when they’re not into the candidate it’s just better to pass.

Can they critique/take criticism? One skill that applies for nearly every kind of design job is the ability to critique others and to accept criticism well. If a person isn’t good at this then I immediately pass. (they might have a solid portfolio but if they can’t work with others it doesn’t mean shit) An inability to critique/take critique means that they’re not able to fully design for others. In general designers need to get over themselves and that means they can clearly communicate without getting emotionally involved in the specifics of their work. And designers who can give objective criticism to others are valued like gold by their peers.

Be nice when saying no. When you’re in hiring mode you’re essentially working two jobs: your regular job and the extra job of hiring someone. It’s crazy and exhausting. That’s why its easy to skip over niceties like responding to everyone who inquires or everyone you say “no” to, and letting the recruiting team do it for you. I was pretty good at responding to everyone I should have but I really regret the two or three who fell through the cracks for one reason or another. What I learned was that even if the candidate is not a fit it doesn’t mean your job is over or that you don’t want to just end the relationship. It is very possible to say no and stay on extremely good terms with that person and end up working with them in the future.

Conclusion: Hiring designers isn’t easy but it isn’t black magic either. It’s mostly about building relationships, doing the work yourself, and having a process that introduces them to your team and company well. If you are able to keep the focus on the designer and their work then you’ll be able to find the right one for your company. It may not be a fast process but it’s worth the effort to find a candidate who really syncs with you and your mission.

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Published: January 14th, 2015

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