Hiring for Design Part 4: What a High Performing Designer Looks Like

By Andy BuddDesigner and Expert in Residence at Seedcamp

In order to hire a top end designer—or for that matter a product manager, marketer or engineer—you need to know what “good” looks like. Otherwise you may end up hiring somebody who looks good on paper, but is actually a bit of a dud. The best way to know what good looks like is to have worked alongside amazing designers in the past. That way you’ll already have a model in your mind of what you’re looking for. However if you’re not from a tech background, or have been unlucky enough to work alongside less talented designers, it’s hard to pick the wheat from the chaff.

Getting External Help

One way around this is to spend some time in the company of a good designer. Get them to explain what good looks like to them; what should you look for in a portfolio; what questions should you ask at the interview and what characteristics and attributes should you be trying to ascertain? Maybe ask them to walk through a couple of CVs or portfolios and tell you what they like. Or maybe have them point out a couple of designers they think are operating at a high level, and explain why.

Of course, if you’re already struggling to know what good looks like, you probably don’t have somebody like this in your network already. If that is the case, reach out to friends, advisors or investors for introductions. This is essentially my role as Seedcamp, so don’t hesitate to drop me a line if you’d like to chat. 

While talking to a talented designer can be super enlightening, you’ll get even more mileage by asking them to help out with the actual recruitment process. This could be taking a look at your job listing, or helping you understand the best places to advertise. Or you could go deeper and ask them to take a look at resumes, review portfolios, or sit in on interviews. The more external perspective you can get, the better. 

This is a little like asking a knowledgeable friend or family member to come with you to the dealership to help pick out your first car. They’ll be able to check out the vehicle, know what questions to ask, and let you know if they think the dealer is laying it on a bit thick; all in order to make sure you don’t end up buying a lemon. 

How to Keep Good Designers Once You’ve Got Them

As I’ve mentioned in previous articles in this series, that first design hire can be critical. However designers often struggle when working in a silo, so it’s important to build a culture that understands and values the role of design. I’ve seen many tech firms lose amazingly talented designers because they didn’t quite understand what they were getting themselves into, or how to best use them. 

It’s safe to say that good designers work best when they’re actively involved in shaping the product. This is because they need to understand the context they’re working in to be effective. Architect Eero Saarinen sums this up best in his famous quote — “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

As such, the best designers will want to understand your strategy, talk to customers, look at your analytics, and wrap their heads around why certain decisions have been made. Good designers are naturally curious and will ask a ton of questions. In fact, this can become slightly irritating at times—like your niece or nephew asking why the sky is blue or why ducks quack. They’ll also want to explore a range of options before landing on the one they think is the best fit. Even if it’s exactly the one you were suggesting in the first place.  

This may feel wasteful, so it’s tempting for founders to try and shortcut the process and simply tell the designers what to build. However this is like telling somebody what your holiday was like in the hope that they’ll somehow absorb the benefits of your week in the sun. It’s a natural part of the designer’s process and is difficult to short-cut. 

As such, hiring your first designer can bring up all sorts of challenges around the decision making process. Challenges you’ve not had to think about before. However with it comes a tonne of benefits, like looking at your product from a user’s perspective, and with a beginners mind; one of the reasons I think having a founding designer on the team can be invaluable. 

Check our past blog posts in this Hiring for Design series:

Part 1 Hiring for Design Part 1: Why A Good Designer Should be One of Your First Hires
Part 2 Hiring for Design Part 2: Hiring Your First Designer
Part 3 Hiring for Design Part 3: Interviewing Your First Designer

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