Over the past four months, I’ve been on a mission to find product designer #1 for BuildZoom. Over that period, I’ve reviewed several hundred applications; spoken with at least 100 designers on the phone or in-person; and looked at countless portfolios.
Having never hired a designer proactively, there were a lot of things I needed to learn in order to hire intelligently, which I’ll write about in the future. In the present, I’d like to share some general observations of things I believe worked (and didn’t work) from the perspective of a start-up founder, looking to hire designer #1.
#1. Think holistically about your portfolio We had pretty good lead flow at the top of our design applicant funnel. When you’re dealing with a large population of candidates, many folks including myself, will begin to look for opportunities to quickly filter. With design candidates, the most straight-forward heuristic was my initial impression of their portfolio. This was not only informed by the portfolio pieces but also by where it was hosted and how the portfolio itself, looked. The optimal portfolio was hosted on a personalized domain with a beautiful theme. If a portfolio was hosted on Weebly or Wix, it immediately tainted my impression. I’m not saying that Weebly and Wix aren’t great; I’d recommend either for SMBs but you are a designer. It’s actually better to showcase your work on Dribbble, Behance or even a PDF than on a free Website builder.
#2. You don’t need to put everything in your portfolio Just put your best and most recent work in your portfolio. There were several times my first impression of a portfolio was really positive but as I dug deeper, started seeing janky, dated work. More often than not, the work was just old and even though I could rationalize the lower quality, it still detracted from my overall experience of the portfolio.
#3. Be specific about your contributions There was nothing more frustrating than being excited to speak with a candidate with a gorgeous portfolio, only to find out the visual design was someone else’s work. Unless you explain the specific nature of your contribution to the work in your portfolio, my general assumption is that you were responsible for everything (unless you are really clear about what type of designer you are).
#4. Do some homework before the interview This is applicable to just about any role, but there is nothing more frustrating than having an initial conversation with a candidate and having them ask, “What do you guys do?” I always had more respect for candidates who had spent time looking through the site and developed a general sense for the existing design language (and business goals) so we could have a more focused and personalized discussion. I was really impressed when they had insightful recommendations or ideas that were based on research they had done.
#5. Don’t nitpick without offering solutions One of my favorite ways of learning how a designer thinks, is to walk through certain flows and get their feedback in real-time. I actually love critical feedback but found myself getting frustrated when the candidate would just tear everything apart without offering insight into how they would fix the problem.
#6. Don’t recommend changing everything I can recall one interview in particular where at one point, the designer bluntly stated, “I don’t really like the brand or the name. Have you thought about changing it?” When I probed to better understand their reasoning, the response was along the lines of, “It just doesn’t feel very exciting — I think one of the first things we should do is change the name.” Good founders have a roadmap that sits in the forefront of their consciousness. If they are talking with someone they just met, who doesn’t have an intimate understanding of their business, hearing a bunch of ‘critical’ things to do can be stressful. I’m not suggesting it isn’t worth articulating a perspective on what’s important but make sure to understand the roadmap and business goals before having this conversation.
#7. Understand the role of design within the company I personally believe that design needs to be a core strength in order for us to be successful. When it comes to the product, I think product management should advocate for the business; design should advocate for the user; and engineering should be responsible for determining what is actually possible. I also believe that design should have a seat at the table in helping structure the roadmap. Not every founder shares these beliefs. In the interview, it is imperative to understand the founder(s) perspective on design; how they value it; and how they believe design should work with both product and engineering. You could end up with a great comp package at a rocket ship company, feeling completely unfulfilled if the founders vision for design doesn’t align with your own.
#8. Quantify your impact (when possible) I love when designers talk about their work and proactively quantify their results against business goals. I definitely have found that ux and product designers do this with more frequency than visual designers, which makes it all the more impressive when visual designers are able to clearly articulate the impact they had. At the same time, I also like when I ask about the impact of a certain piece and the designer looks me in the eye and firmly states, “I just wanted to make it look and feel awesome.”
#9. Don’t talk about brand unless you know what it is I’ve had too many conversations with designers (particularly designers from NY) who obsess about the brand. Out of about 100 interviews with designers, I’d say at least 20 involved a recommendation to rebrand within the next year. My automatic response is, “Can you define what you mean by ‘brand’?” And I never really felt like I got an answer that made a whole lot of sense. I know that brand is a thing that matters and I know that it has profoundly benefited some companies. I also believe the obsession with ‘brand’ emerged from the Madison Avenue advertising culture, which primarily served large, consumer companies, operating in zero sum markets. In Silicon Valley, I think we need a new definition of brand (this is probably better suited to a future article). The bottom line is, don’t obsess over brand in an interview unless you have really thought critically about it and are able to clearly articulate a defensible position on what it is and how it will help.
#10. If you don’t obsess over user-centered design, you’re probably not a product designer We relentlessly study user behavior and elicit user feedback, to inform our approach to iteration. This has resulted in consistent improvement in our key metrics, but also some design that can seem counterintuitive at times. It is my belief that a true product designer, can balance left and right brain predilections. They should be able to synthesize user inputs and create something that balances product goals with aesthetic considerations. If there is something that functions well but looks odd, their inclination is to tell a better visual story without disrupting the essence of what is working. This type of designer is really hard to find. As a start-up with strong institutional ux sensibilities, I’d rather find a strong visual designer with great taste, who is interested in becoming a full-stack product designer; than a ux designer who needs to improve their visual design capabilities. Note: Thanks to Sean Shadmand for convincing me to try Medium and thanks to Deny for providing guidance on hiring.