Hiring for Design Part 2: Hiring Your First Designer

By Andy BuddDesigner and Expert in Residence at Seedcamp

Hiring your first designer can be tricky, especially if you don’t come from a design background. You’ll struggle to know what to look for, where to look, and how to attract the right talent. As a result, a lot of early stage start-ups end up hiring underpowered designers that are little more than stylists; folks who are good at mimicking the latest trends, but lack the strategic depth to drive the product forward.

As a start-up advisor, one of my most common requests is to help founders hire their first designer. I see this a little like a first time car buyer asking an experienced motorist to accompany them to the car dealership in order to avoid making any obvious mistakes and buying a lemon. Fortunately most start-ups make the same mistakes when it comes to hiring designers, so this article is intended to help steer you in the right direction.

What Does Your Job Ad Say About You?

Founders often approach me when they’re already a few months into their search and find they aren’t getting the quality or volume of applicants they’d expected. They found it easy hiring their first few developers, but designers are proving a lot more tricky. 

I’ll usually start by taking a quick look at their job ad. Now it’s my belief that talent is rare, but mediocre companies are plentiful. As such, your job ad is essentially a sales pitch, explaining why a super talented candidate should want to come and work for you rather than a dozen other companies. It’s also worth noting that it’s a seller’s market at the moment, so the role of your ad is to attract as many potential candidates as possible, rather than put off all but the most dogged of applicants. 

To do this, your job ad needs to explain why your company is a great place for a designer to work, and what they’ll gain from the experience. Once you have them hooked, you can then outline the qualities you’re looking for in return. 

Sadly most job ads have this formula the wrong way round. They read as though this role is the most sought after job around, and you’re lucky to score an interview. Then they’ll go on to list a dozen, often conflicting skills that are essential to succeed in the role. This idealised view of the perfect designer is usually quite far removed from what a company at that stage could command, so it’s likely to put off any but the most deluded candidates. 

As well as a shopping list of competing skills, the jobs ad will usually contain a lot of “work hard play hard” type rhetoric. When you run these ads through a gendered language filter—something you should do by default—they tend to come out heavily gendered, which often correlates with their somewhat homogenous candidate pool.

Taking the above feedback in mind, I usually advise folks to rewrite their job ads to be much more focussed on what it’s like to work at the company and what the new hire will get, rather than focus primarily on what the company wants and needs. After all, if you’re looking to hire user-centered designers, taking a user-centered approach to hiring makes sense. 

What Does Your Product Say About You?

As you can tell, good designers want to work for companies that really get design. Companies that will give them the respect, agency and space to do some of the best work of their careers. By contrast, a lot of designers will be moving on from their current employers because they didn’t foster that sort of environment. Instead many designers find themselves trapped in companies where they are forced to continually justify their own expertise and fight for every small decision. As a result designers will be looking for indicators that your company really cares about design. However this presents a bit of a catch-22 situation.

You’re probably hiring a designer because you know your product isn’t up to scratch. Probably because it was designed by your founder or CTO using an off the shelf UI kit. It looks professional but prospective designers will smell the templates a mile off. This will set alarm bells off in the mind of a good designer. How did this product get this far with no meaningful design resource, and what does this say about the company’s view of design? Am I going to be constantly fire fighting here, or worse, having to indulge the whims of the founders?

The irony here is that while most of us would think that it would be a great opportunity for a designer to come on board and fix all the obvious design problems, designers see this as a threat. Of having to unpick a bunch of poor decisions that are already baked into the code base, if not the culture. Instead good designers generally prefer to work at companies with a strong design culture and other designers to bounce ideas off, and more importantly, learn from.

The best way round this problem is to hire a designer from the outset, before a single line of code has been built. This clearly communicates that you value the design of the product as much as the engineering. Failing that, you’ll need to come up with a good justification as to why you’re only now investing in design. 

What Does Your Recruiting Process Say About You?

One interesting development I’ve seen recently is companies outlining the recruitment process in their job ads. This is generally a good idea as it helps manage applicant expectations. Is this a relatively simple process or am I going to have to jump through a tonne of hoops? This is especially important in a sellers market, as you want to put as little friction in the way as possible. 

There’s one potential “red flag” I see in a lot of these recruitment processes, and that’s the use of “design tasks”. Now I’m not going to go deep on this subject as we’d be here all day. Just be aware that they’re highly contentious amongst the design community and are likely to put many of the better designers off. Designers often see these tasks as “spec work” and the time involved can be seen as unfair and potentially discriminatory. As such, my general advice would be to avoid design tasks and focus primarily on portfolios instead. However if you insist on running a design task—maybe because you’re hiring first time designers with a limited portfolio—consider switching from a take home task to a joint whiteboard exercise or mock design review. That way you can understand their thought processes without taking up too much of their time. 

Get Help

Of course one of the biggest problems with recruiting is not being active in the community you’re recruiting from. As such, you tend to rely on posting adverts, which will only capture a small percentage of people actively looking. You can massively increase your talent pool by growing your employer brand amongst the wider design community. This is one reason why I recommend hiring experienced designers out the gate. When it comes time to grow your team, they’ll know who to talk to and where to look. In the meantime, having a design advisor like myself involved can help bridge the gap. 

I’d also suggest engaging with a specialist recruitment consultancy for your first hire. They’ll understand the market, be able to advise on the suitability of the role and package on offer, and connect you with appropriate talent. Recruitment consultants can be costly, but unfortunately that’s the tax companies pay for not having a route into the talent pipeline.

How to Judge Talent

Once you have a potential pool of candidates, it’s time to review their capabilities. While it’s tempting to focus purely on their aesthetic output, design is about problem solving as much as anything else. So when reviewing their work it’s important to understand the problems they were solving and how they went about solving them. Did they jump straight in with creative direction, or did they take a step back to look at the wider user journey? Did they deliver exactly what their previous founders asked them to do, or did they try to understand what their users really needed? If they did try and understand the users needs, how did they go about doing this efficiently and effectively, and if there were disagreements along the way, how did they tackle them? 

Design is very much a team sport, especially in early stage start-ups, so you’re going to be looking for somebody with strong craft skills and the ability to work quickly and effectively with their cross- functional peers. At the same time you’re going to want somebody who will champion the user and push back on bad or incomplete ideas. The key to it all is pragmatism. If the designer is too dogmatic, you’ll end up with opinion battles where perfect becomes the enemy of good. If the designer is too much of a people pleaser, you’ll end up with a stylist who’ll add little value to the product or the team. So it’s important to get the balance right.

The other thing to remember is that your first designer will often end up leading your design team in a couple of years. Maybe even moving into a product leadership role.  As such it makes sense to gauge their future leadership potential. How do they feel about recruiting and managing a couple of designers? Is this something they’re eager to explore or are they happier as an individual contributor?

Like all the best hires, when recruiting your first designer, you should be looking at future potential as much as existing craft skills. So don’t focus only on what you need now, but about what you’ll need from that person over the next couple of years. Hiring a great founding design can have a huge effect on the direction of your product, so it’s worth investing the time and getting this stage right.

In my next article I’m going to look at how you start growing your design culture and scaling your design team.

This is the second article in a series on hiring for design. Read the first article on why a good designer should be one of your first hires here.

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