I am gonna skip the talk on how to recruit on social media, how to review portfolios, prepare design exercises or interview candidates. I want to talk about something more basic than that. For the past year or so, I’ve been religiously working on how to grow my design team and been experiencing various challenges along the way. One of the biggest challenges has been to define the kind of designer we need and want to hire and then look for the right attributes. Before you pulled the trigger on running to your CEO or GM to fight for a “new head or resource” (I actually hate this terminology by the way. Great way to dehumanize people you work with and devalue their presence. I’d rather be a partner in crime, to be honest. And don’t even get me started with the unicorn or rockstar terms that our industry cannot stop using), first you need to define what you mean by a “great designer.” What is your definition of "great"? What attributes make a designer great? This can also vary from team to team depending on what kind of product you are building, what critical skillsets are missing in your current design workforce, etc. Here are some of the traits that we deeply care about and look for in candidates.
A designer that’s comfortable in designing end-to-end solutions, getting his/her hands dirty in every aspect of the product design process from concept development, interaction flows to pixel nudging. Let’s admit it. UX and UI is inseparable at this point. The traditional distinction between these two has added tremendous friction in the workflow and resulted in a disconnect in the design process and collaboration across different disciplines. Both skillsets add up to the value of the look and feel we design for our users and are critical to build the right product that people love to use. We design experiences that do not only look pleasant to the eye, but also deliver meaningful value to users. Because we all know by now that you can have a shiny front window, but what you are selling inside your shop is crap, your customers will abandon you in a heartbeat. Therefore, every design team is looking for the ability to switch from an abstract mindset for tackling high level problem-solving and concept-ideation to an execution mindset for diving into production. And yes, there are designers that might skew towards either of these directions, but it’s important to hire a designer that has a healthy mix of both (and maybe with a twist or super power like motion design, strong typography or illustration passion on the side) .
Curiosity and Passion
I have tremendous respect for passionately curious individuals. Curiosity is the fuel for creativity and curious individuals never choose to settle for what is given to them. They are constantly agitated, in search of something better, faster, and effective at all times and they never stop. After all we are building software that unlocks various parts of human life and aims to solve problems that do matter for people. And interestingly, most problems that real people are struggling with are still not clearly defined; they are hiding somewhere to be found by curious minds. Therefore, a designer with the curious eye and passionate heart to constantly update himself/herself is that golden child in our society to find what bothers people the most, look for different fields for inspiration and engage in tickling his/her brain cognitively while constantly searching for the best medium, design system, and methodologies. An average design team takes what’s given and executes within the solution space without questioning. A great team strives to poke as many holes as possible by firing their curiosity and digs deeper into the problem space before looking for solutions. Period.
Another inevitable part of our software design and development journey is facing ambiguity. Ambiguity in strategic or tactical constraints, the surrounding company/product space conditions, technical challenges or unknowns, and in many other ways. From time to time we might be facing ambiguity of information due to the lack of resources or ambiguity of context where primary personas, devices, activities might still not be clearly defined in a user scenario or ambiguity of relationships might arise with too many dependencies on third parties for technical or operational reasons. Sometimes things are not crystal clear in a product roadmap, or with a set of priorities and/or technologies we need to use. Sometimes things might be more open to interpretation and exploration rather than set in stone. During these tough times, you want a designer that is comfortable in her own skin, who can navigate through ambiguity, still grasp what the job requires her to do and make sense from ambiguity. Because guess what?! Design is actually based on a set of holistic methodologies that evolve to make sense from ambiguity. Our job is to read between the lines of what technologies can unfold, what users and businesses need, while buried in a big pile of user insights, technical constraints and business model uncertainties. Good designers adapt and evolve according to these circumstances and continue to work through ambiguity to transform uncertainties into opportunities to shape things up around them.
There are various layers to design. The nature of what we do comes in various levels of precision and intricacy serving for different purposes and goals. There are times when the designers wear their strategy hat working alongside PM’s, tech leads, their CEO’s on shaping up the future of the product and sometimes wearing their production hat cranking on their pixel game or tidying up their Sketch files. Each of these tasks comes with a distinct set of responsibilities and things to look out for. Sometimes you strive for visibility and consistency in your work when you are working on a style guide to help your team move quickly. Sometimes you strive for clarity and meaning while collaborating with business stakeholders. In any case, a good designer should be intentional in his actions and have a compelling reason behind every design and product decision. As Aristotle puts it very eloquently, “Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives - choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” Or, Massimo Vignelli says in his book the Vignelli Canon, "Discipline is a set of self imposed rules, parameters within which we operate. It is a bag of tools that allows us to design in a consistent manner from beginning to end. Discipline is also an attitude that provides us with the capacity of controlling our creative work so that it has continuity of intent throughout rather than fragmentation. Design without discipline is anarchy, an exercise of irresponsibility.” Design is always about choices and intentions.
I intend to stand behind my very fundamental philosophy in hiring which is a strict “no asshole policy.” It’s simple just like it sounds. Designers! Please be humble, be kind, and respect others. Everybody loves a sharp designer that dances with pixels in elegance, fearlessly attacks problems or challenges peers, but if he/she is simply an asshole that doesn’t know how to give constructive feedback, leverage other peers’ work for better results and be open minded towards others opinions, just spare us the drama and don’t come close to our team. I quite enjoy seeing the designers grow over time realizing what they think is probably wrong and they love to be challenged and proven wrong. That’s exactly the phase I went through in my own design journey and started to appreciate others input and learn “teamwork makes the dream work”! (God, I love this philosophy so much.)
As a hiring manager, there is a lot of responsibility on you and things that you need to make sure are well communicated and crafted. From how to define your hiring priorities, how to write the job description, set the tone for how you train your team to interview candidates. It’s a big process with so many “little big details” that make or break things. Hope these little nuggets of my experience help. Feel free to reach out to share your experience. Always happy to hear how other design managers tackle hiring.