Hiring for Design Part 5: Scaling your Design Team

By Andy BuddDesigner and Expert in Residence at Seedcamp

As startups raise funding and grow their customer base, the demands placed on the engineering teams tend to scale quite rapidly. This is one of the reasons you need a solid CTO from the onset. Not only to get your product off the ground, but also to manage the complexity that comes from hiring and managing a large number of engineers. 

On the design side of things, the received wisdom is that you need one designer to service five or six engineers. As such, design tends to scale slightly later than engineering and at a slower rate. That being said, there are plenty of startups out there with a 20-person engineering team, just barely getting by on two or three designers. So once companies have scaled their engineering teams, their attention generally turns to their design and product functions.

One of the challenges of hiring designers is that there are a lot fewer of them out there, so good designers are much harder to find. And it’s especially the case if you’re not that well connected in the design space. This is one reason why your first design hire is key

Your Founding Design is your Best Hiring Asset

A good founding designer will have strong connections within the design community, so when it comes time to scale, they’ll already have a line of potential talent. These may be people they already know and have worked with, or people they follow and admire on social media. They’ll also be connected to other members of the community through events and social media. As such, they’ll be able to circulate your open roles to a much wider audience than posting to a generic job board will allow. 

They’ll also be in a great position to review designers’ portfolios, understand what questions to ask at interviews, and set the designers up for success once they join the team. Just be aware that when you decide to scale your design function, your founding designer will naturally need to step away from their day-to-day design activities and take on more leadership roles. While it’s possible to be a player-coach for a while, this quickly leads to burnout. So at some stage, your founding designer will need to step up and become a full-time manager. Something not every design practitioner is comfortable with or prepared for. 

What Roles to Hire When?

Early-stage start-ups benefit from hiring generalists. People who can turn their hands to a range of different tasks. As such, it’s not worth worrying too much about job titles and specialisms at this stage. However, you do want to make sure that within the team you have a broad mix of skills.

You’ll obviously need the creative visionaries, the craftspeople, and the user champions. Because you’ll be building your brand through your interface, you’ll benefit from having people with brand, illustration, and animation skills.  Speed is important at this stage so you’ll need people who can move fast and work to tight deadlines. However, as you’ll be iterating towards product-market fit, you’ll also need people who can research and understand user needs. As quality and solution fit become more important you’ll need both conceptual designers as well as ones who think deeply and sweat the details. 

Character-wise you’ll want a few social mavens who bring the energy and keep everybody feeling upbeat. You’ll also want the agony aunts and uncles who can steady the team when they’re feeling stressed. You’ll need a couple of strategic thinkers — folks who are thinking two or three steps ahead. However, too many strategists and stuff won’t get done, so you’ll also need a strong backbone of delivery-focussed people. As the team grows, more processes will need to be put in place, so having a few more operationally-minded people can’t hurt either. 

Building a highly functioning design team is a balancing act. Your next hire is going to be informed less by job titles and more by the skills the rest of the team has (or lacks). To get around this, some leaders will take an inventory of the skills and characteristics their team currently have, in order to find the missing gaps. For instance, it will probably be a while till you have enough work to justify hiring a dedicated illustrator, but it may be worth hiring a product designer with a background in illustration to the team. Similarly, hiring a dedicated researcher may be a few steps down the line, so it probably makes sense to have research skills distributed across a few members of the team.

Scaling up is Harder Than you Think

Companies tend to start scaling their design team for a couple of reasons. The most obvious one is that the engineering team has scaled up so rapidly that design is becoming a blocker. While engineers are quick to request more resources, designers tend to take on more than they can manage, in order to be seen as team players. This generally results in the design team running too hot for too long, and then needing to scale quickly in order to prevent burnout.

Ironically this behavior can actually be a blocker to growth as the organisation gets used to the design team being able to deliver on reduced numbers, so generally question the need for more staff. The rest of the organisation ends up shouldering more of the slack, with front-end developers and product managers doing work that would be better served by designers. This has the effect of diminishing the value of design in the organisation by turning them purely into delivery people. It’s a framing that is often hard to escape from.

When it does come time to scale the team, it often doesn’t lead to the productivity boost everybody expected. In fact, you often see things slow down even more. This is because, in order to keep up with the demands of the organisation, the design team has been acquiring a lot of operational debt. This operational debt is usually in the form of inefficient or non-existent internal processes. Having a good recruitment process, a good onboarding process, a good managerial process, and a good team development process are all things that have probably been ignored up to this point. 

You can generally get away with this lack of process when there are only two or three people on the design team and you’ve hired people you already know. However, as the team scales, this becomes increasingly untenable and the cracks begin to show. 

Start Planning for Growth in Advance

I’ve seen a lot of design teams who struggle to hire quickly enough because none of the necessary processes are in place. This then leads to more stress and inefficiency as the team is having to deliver increasing amounts of work on reduced numbers for longer while trying to fix their operational debt. When folks do join, the lack of onboarding means it takes longer for new team members to get up to speed and start being productive, while the lack of good management practices often leads to increased churn. If it takes 6 months to fill a role, and a further 6 months to get your new hire up to speed, you’re already a year behind the curve. With designers potentially jumping between jobs every 12-18 months, this feels like a particularly poor investment. 

The way to get around this is simple: founders and design leaders need to start planning for growth much earlier than they expect. If they see their engineering team starting to scale, they know that the design team will need to follow suit. If you’re planning to scale your design team off the back of a raise, don’t wait for the round to close before putting your plans in place. Instead, spend the previous six months setting up the groundwork. This will mean a variety of things including setting up a good recruitment and onboarding process, codifying your team’s processes and behaviours, and starting to engage the design community in order to grow your employer brand. That way, when it comes time to hit the gas pedal, you’ll have all the necessary infrastructure in place and won’t be caught off guard. 

Even then, be aware that recruiting takes a surprising amount of time. I know plenty of design leaders who end up becoming full-time hiring managers during the scale-up process. This forces them to stop or significantly scale back a lot of the activities they were doing before, which can take a toll on them, their team, and their business. In fact, I see a lot of first-time design leaders burn out by the end of this process. The more support and upfront planning you can provide, the better. 

In short, scaling up a design team can be surprisingly challenging. Despite being a lot smaller than your engineering team, finding good designers tends to be a lot harder, and they generally need a lot more support and management. So don’t underestimate the work and planning involved, or you may find that it slows everything else down. 

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

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

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