I’ve advised and worked at many startups over the years. Most recently, I helped build the design team at Disqus and am now helping build the design team at Teespring. The number of startups who don’t know how to hire or integrate designers is astonishing. I would give partial credit for the knowledge gap to the lack of design founders and the designer’s transition from UX to product design in such a short time within the tech industry.
The role of a designer within a company is fascinating. It's one of the most in-flux positions in a startup's organizational structure. Understanding the designer's purpose, what they're motivated by, and how to organize a design team are vital to the success of your team building efforts.
General Hiring Advice
Makers make the best employees.
People who have a passion to create and build will be your best employees. Base your decision on their personality first and their skills second. Anything can be learned with the right mindset.
Problem solving is the most important skill.
It's better to hire someone who has a problem solver's mindset but lacks a specific skill than to hire someone who has that skill but lacks a problem solver's mindset.
Ask yourself, "what does this person do better than I can?"
Each designer should bring a unique skill to the team. When everyone is good at something different, everyone settles into projects that fit their strengths and you’ll be less likely to run into ego battles.
Don't make exceptions.
Even if you're extremely desperate for help, a bad employee will cost you more time and money than what they temporarily saved you. If you absolutely can't wait, hire someone who is teachable.
What Makes a Good Designer?
A good designer is like a Miner’s Canary.
Designers should act as an early warning system to spot problems before they occur. They should be able to forsee potential implications of their product and design decisions.
Designers should love to solve problems.
Problems are universal. Product design, communication design, and illustration all have their own unique challenges to overcome on a daily basis.
"Design" is not one thing.
There’s illustration design, brand design, visual design, interaction design, UX design, and even design engineers. “Product designers” have multiple skills and many companies assume a product designer will cover everything. However, every designer has their strengths. Some will be better at visual design while others might excel at designing flows and funnels. Familiarize yourself with these skills and define what you’re looking for before you start hiring.
Designers with a sense for visual style are important.
As your company grows, you’ll need help with logos, branding, etc… and many product designers with visual sense find this work therapeutic in their down time. (Unless you want an ugly product that turns away customers, don’t overlook the usefulness of good aesthetics!)
If you can design, code doesn't matter.
The industry is really hung up on whether or not designers need to code. It doesn’t really matter. Coding or not, there’s always plenty of work on a designer’s to-do list. Don’t skimp by passing on a great designer who can’t code just so you can “kill two birds with one stone” by hiring a mediocre designer who can. (But by all means, if they’re a good designer who can code, hire them!)
Where to Find a Good Designer
Design is in high-demand.
Simply put, there aren’t enough good designers to fulfill the industry demand. Sourcing can be difficult but it’s not impossible. Dribbble and Authentic Jobs posts will surface decent candidates if you have a brand they want to work for.
Agencies are gold mines.
I have decided it’s finally time to reveal my dirty little secret. Agencies are incubators for potentially awesome designers. Working at an agency is tedious, often ungratifying work. There’s nothing more depressing than continuously saying goodbye to projects you slave 12-hour days over. (Keep in mind many agency designers may need a few weeks or months to transition from an agency design workflow to a product design mindset.)
Designers are motivated by having an impact and want their work to be seen by many.
The best designers enjoy shaping an unestablished product or brand. Explain how your brand offers them the best opportunity to define something new and exciting.
Designers like to feel needed. Let them know how much you want them.
I have actually missed out on hiring great talent because I kept a poker face instead of telling them how needed they would be. On the flip side, make sure they want to work for your company and aren’t just looking for a paycheck.
Designers are not starving artists.
Money is still a motivational factor. Be willing to offer fair equity. A top-notch designer is worth every penny. If a company doesn’t have a design founder and isn’t willing to offer decent equity, I would be wary of joining.
Design Candidate Interview Process
Having a grounded design philosophy is important.
Ask candidates about their favorite books, movies, and hobbies. One of my favorite questions is, “If you could be anything but a designer, what would you be?” I have found many designers just love to build and create, digital design just happens to be the fastest way for them to do so (and that’s okay).
Ask about a candidate's favorite, recently released apps.
Designers who are hungry to learn new interaction and style trends will stay up to date on the latest apps and industry news. Ask them to explain why they prefer certain apps to alternatives.
Ask for a portfolio walkthrough of two of their favorite design projects.
Since a designer is constantly learning and improving, a learning designer will only have a couple of projects which showcase their most recent, full potential. (You've also probably seen a wider range of the candidate's work on their online portfolio.)
Find out where they want to fit within a team.
As mentioned before, there’s a wide range of skillsets within design. Let them know in the interview it’s okay to hate drawing icons or write code. If they’re honest about their strengths and weaknesses you’ll both be happier.
Structuring a Design Team
Cover the full spectrum of design.
My goal when building a team is to spread out the various skill sets. I usually start by hiring a few generalists who cover a wide range, but will add specialists down the road.
"Unicorns" can be great, especially when the company is small.
Unicorns can code and design, but don't forget the more a designer is coding the less they are designing. I can't stress this enough, don't underestimate the usefulness of a designer who doesn't code!
As a company grows, hire more specialists.
Unicorns who are "T" shaped (i.e. they have a broad skill set but are still very good at one thing) will scale better and experience fewer growing pains. When everyone is specializing, a generalist will have trouble fitting in.
Technical designers aren't always amazing visual designers.
With a few exceptions, I have often found designers who code to be slightly less naturally gifted artistically and visually (myself included). If everyone else on the team codes, it can still be useful to have one person who is dedicated to branding, visuals and interaction design, without knowing how to code.
Hire detail oriented designers before it's too late.
The bigger and older your product gets, the harder it is to brush off the rust. If you have great UX and visual design from day one, you’re less likely to be embarrassed by the version 1.0 error page you haven’t deprecated yet. Make sure your first designer is strong enough visually to pave the road for the future direction of your design.
It’s common for designers who code to enjoy the “big picture.”
Integrate them with engineers and feed their hunger for building the whole product. If they lack visual skills, encourage collaboration throughout the team. This is when a style guide is especially useful.
Understand when "visual design" is useful.
Designers with a sense of style are often best in detail-oriented roles like interaction design and branding. These designers will often serve as a bridge between your marketing and design team.
A good design team is like a tactical special forces group you can deploy anywhere in the company.
Integrate designers within product teams. I find it best to sit designers with the engineers they will be working with. But be sure to allow time to sync, without interference, as a design team.
Don't be intimidated. Hiring the right people will save time, money, and make up for the stress of the hiring process. Building a strong design team is time-consuming, tedious work. But let me tell you, it's some of the most satisfying work you'll ever have.