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The Non-Designer’s Guide to Hiring a Designer

If you’re a start-up founder looking to hire a designer, chances are you (1) aren’t entirely sure how to go about it, and (2) are wishing you’d done it months ago. Hiring a designer can feel confusing, especially if you’ve never hired one before on your own. There are a lot of questions that come up: What kind of designer am I looking for? How do I get them excited? Where do they fit into our team or workflow? Will there be enough work? Or too much work?

And if design isn’t already part of your company’s DNA, finding the right answers can be a real challenge. As with any good hire, you’ll want to follow your instincts when assessing whether a candidate will be a good cultural and organizational fit. Even if the designer’s role differs greatly from other functions, it’s by no means an island, and it’s important to have a clear path for how the designer will work as part of an integrated team. Here are some tips that may help as you begin your search:

1. Define the role clearly: Most designers can do a lot of things, but even the best designers can only do a few things exceptionally well. Make sure your designer will be engaged in work that utilizes the depth of his or her expertise, not just the breadth of capabilities. You can run into trouble when you bring a designer in and ask them to do a little bit of everything—they are likely to be dissatisfied with the work they are doing, and you are likely to be disappointed with the results.

So, it's really critical to figure out what you need and prioritize. Here are some examples of skill sets:

  • Interaction Design

    • User Experience How your product works and feels—user flows, wire frames, key interactions, etc.

    • Visual Design How your product looks

    • Front-End Development HTML, CSS, Javascript, etc.

  • User Research Understanding user needs and behaviors and how that relates to product; usability testing
  • Product Design What your product should do—primary use cases, feature requirements, business needs, etc. (often heavy overlap with User Experience and Visual Design)
  • Graphic Design/Marketing/Branding All the non-product related work—your identity, marketing website, print collateral, event materials, advertisements, etc.

Of course, you’ll want all of them, but prioritize based on where your company is today, and what your product needs are (e.g. consumer vs. enterprise). Pick two or three as key skill sets and then start to filter candidates based on those priorities.

2. Help them see and feel their impact: Engineers are motivated by complex challenges. Business folks are motivated by big markets and opportunities. Designers feed off of making things that are both useful and beautiful. (Red flag: if a designer only cares about making it beautiful, they are unlikely to thrive in a start-up environment.) Chances are your product will need to be both, so once you’ve identified someone you want to hire, help them see that their mandate is to make the product sing both functionally and emotionally. Help them see that the product is a valuable problem to be solving and appeal to a designer’s inherent desire to create positive impact. Even if your product is an enterprise product, help them see the broader effect your product and company will have at scale.

Help your designer also see the big design challenge inherent in the product and reinforce that there will be many different kinds of challenges to work on down the line. Make it clear that the role isn't just about doing the same thing over and over again. Share examples of comparable businesses where design played a central role in the company’s success (e.g. solving intractable problem, differentiating product from competitors, etc.). Designers need to feel inspired to do their best work and you're going to need to do that to convince them to join your team. I've found that many designers are less driven by equity and more by the work they’ll be doing and the impact it can have.

3. Make sure they are not alone: In order to set a designer up for success on your team, make sure that your existing teams know why it’s important to have a designer and how the designer will fit into the existing workflow. Too many times a designer will be brought onto a team and be made the subject of complaints for taking too much time to make things ‘pretty’ and not understanding business needs. If you have a product team, be clear about how design sits either within or side-by-side the product team in determining feature requirements. If engineering has been doing some of your wireframes along the way as you were scaling, challenge them to think about how that process might be improved in collaboration with a designer.

Conversely, help the designer understand how engineering works, how to know when to balance business needs with making the design ‘pixel perfect,’ and give them visibility into how the product team makes decisions. You may find a disconnect (particularly with designers who have been in agencies) in how they prioritize; they often don’t know how quickly a start-up needs to move, and that getting something out the door now is more critical than making it perfect (unless you are a lifestyle brand, in which case everything should be amazing). The best designers are amazing synthesizers, though, who can hold multiple needs in balance as part of their design, so give them visibility into all the inputs for decisions. You may even invite them to help you 'design' a process for how to incorporate all the needs of the various teams.

Lastly, if you are bringing on only one designer or a handful of junior designers, find them someone outside the company to give them critique and serve as a design mentor. You could, for instance, find a senior designer that is at a more established company and bring them on as an advisor. Designers start to struggle when they don’t have someone to talk to and iteratively hash things out with, so if you can’t find someone on the outside, make it the job of the product owner on your team to be their thought partner and carve out time for dialogue and review.

While bringing on design talent can feel like a big organizational leap, the truth is it’s a critical step for most businesses. Design’s role in the start-up world is no longer just about wire frames and front-end development; design is infusing every aspect of a company's product and business. Yes, that means design talent is highly sought after—but that shouldn’t be a daunting prospect. When you understand what designers want and how they work, you will be able to position your business and the opportunity in a way that attracts and inspires top talent. After all, great people seek out great companies—this is as true for designers as it is for anyone else.

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