Thoughts on Hiring Design


Hiring design is hard. Why? Low supply, small networks and high demand. The solution: Find your internal design champion; assess your needs; craft your design story; and then review your options which include hiring internally, hiring freelancers/contractors, or engaging a design studio. Your best option: most often some combination of all three to balance the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Design is more than a position on a product development team. It is a discipline that contributes strategically and tactically to product success and is increasingly critical to staying competitive. Whether you’re starting from scratch or with one or two lower-than-director-level designers, read on for guidance on when and how to build a design team that contributes high value to your product development efforts.

A note on what we mean by “product”: it is our general term for both worker (B2B) and consumer (B2C) mobile and web experiences that are fundamentally task-based. We draw a line between these task-based experiences and marketing websites.

How to know when you need more design resources

Design staffs are smaller than those of other departments. A good rule of thumb is one designer for every ten developers and one designer for every two product managers. At the management, director, and executive levels, the right ratio is 1:1:1. If these ratios are off, you should assess your design needs.

Symptoms that indicate a need for more designers include product releases that create an uptick in customer support issues or lower key usage measures, or misalignment between product management and engineering teams.

More and more frequently, we hear engineers saying they feel frustrated and unsupported during sprint cycles because their designers are too busy working a sprint ahead and don’t have a moment to spare to help engineers with their current build.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s time to hire design.

Assess your design needs and goals

The right first step to “hiring” design is to define specific needs and goals for design, just as you would with any other critical element of product development. A design requirements audit will reveal whether you are looking at a systemic, broad design initiative or a product-focused project. Systemic level initiatives might include becoming customer-driven across all teams, integrating design thinking at all levels of product development, or implementing design testing before execution. Product goals for design might include creating a next release, reducing training and support costs, or speeding and simplifying onboarding and configuration.

Long-term and Short-term Product Design Initiatives

Long-term Business Initiatives

  1. New business unit or startup
  2. Services to product transformation
  3. Digital transformation from offline to online
  4. Individual products to single suite and platform
  5. Software to SaaS
  6. Agile Transformation
  7. UX as a key differentiator

Shorter term projects

  1. New product vision
  2. Major product pivot
  3. Key product enhancement
  4. Product re-architecture
  5. Funding support

Find your design champion

Our most successful engagements are with clients that have an internal design champion who is not a designer but does understand that design is a foundation for good process, not just a tool for good results. A design champion can be an executive, VP, or director of any business function who understands how to make data relatable to end users, can calculate the ROI of design, and, most importantly, can communicate the value of design to everyone from engineers to product managers to c-suite executives.

Your design champion will also be the key to hiring a great design team because he or she will provide insight all phases of the process, from prospecting and attracting talent to vetting and hiring the right person or studio.

If you don’t have an internal champion or the time to develop one, look outside for someone external to take on the role of design advisor. There’s no lack of passionate champions for design who would be more than willing to help you.

Hiring Internal Designers: We Know How Hard It Can Be

Many of us at DesignMap come from internal design teams, at both startups and enterprises, and we’re intimately familiar with the difficulty and time-consuming nature of the designer hiring process. Designer supply is low, demand is high and the relatively small size of designer networks limits access to candidates. In addition, the unique requirements of portfolio assessment and cross-discipline interviews expands the timeline for hiring a designer.

Some Unique Challenges to Hiring the Right Designer

  • Designer networks are smaller than other disciplines.
  • Supply is low and demand is high.
  • Assessing design ability requires a lot of experience.
  • Internal design expertise may be low.
  • Reporting structure doesn’t account for design.
  • Design jobs, roles, and titles are highly variable.
  • Enterprise or high-tech experience is hard to find.
  • Finding designers with direct experience relevant to your needs further narrows the candidate field.

Know what you’re looking for: it’s not a unicorn

Companies hiring one or two designers often fall into the common trap of seeking the mythical unicorn: that magical person that can design logos, craft UI copy, write HTML and CSS, and more. Advertising for this all-in-one candidate will not only keep great candidates away but will attract in the wrong ones. When you need product design, look for product designers.

Product designers need hard skills and competencies that address tools, methods, deliverables, and processes. “Essential and Desirable Skills for a UX Designer” includes a complete list, compiled from several sources, that cover the core skills, business skills, communications skills, usability skills, technical skills, and more of product design.

Product designers also need “soft skills”, such as planning, working with others, empathy, and being effective and efficient, that apply to any role or job. At DesignMap, we look for designers that are emotionally intelligent (EQ), or are self-aware, self-regulated, socially skilled, empathic and motivated. In our experience, the biggest challenges a person, team, or company faces during product development are fundamentally social and not design, business or technology related. With their high EQ, our staff can overcome these challenges as they arise.

Craft your design story

How critical is design to your company? That’s your design story and designers want to know it. Designer Fund, a venture group focused on companies founded by designers, publishes company design stories on “Bridge”, its professional service that matches design candidates with companies looking for design. One particularly good example is the design story from Asana. Other companies, such Airbnb, publish design-centered content to show off their design chops. Ultimately, taking the time to articulate how and why design matters to your company will attract like-minded designers.

Use specialized recruiters

Building the pipeline for a design hire is much more nuanced than it is for other disciplines. HR departments and recruiters need to know that every step in the designer hiring process, from job descriptions, to outreach, to assessment, to screening, and interviewing, requires a design expert’s involvement. We have used many recruiters focused on the creative fields with great success. We also recruit from college design departments and trade schools such as General Assembly and Tradecraft.

These creative agencies, some of which are national, have strong San Francisco presences, are good places to start:

Where to start hiring

Not having enough designers when you need them is a common challenge, whether you’re a startup or an established business. When building an internal team, however, instead of focusing on numbers we recommend starting at the senior level with a designer that has either direct or relevant experience in your industry. This person should be an individual contributor who can address immediate project needs and who also has demonstrated management skills for working with vendors or freelancers.

The next decision on the organizational structure for design is whether to centralize or distribute design resources. Centralization can enable cohesive user experience design across products while distribution supports faster design execution for individual teams. In our experience, organizations tend to transition between the two options. They start with centralization to create and support standards and cohesiveness and then, after a few years, they decentralize in response to individual teams’ desire to have their “own” designers.

On freelancers and contractors

You can opt to meet design demand by hiring temporary design staff, of which there are two types: freelancers and contractors. At DesignMap, we define “freelancers” as specifically skilled designers hired for short-term projects and “contractors” as designers hired for a significant project phase or a project’s duration.

Freelancers, with their lower management needs and budget overhead, can be a perfect solution to short-term needs, such running a usability test or creating a landing page. To ensure success, freelancers should have a proven track record of delivering the solution need for fast, efficient onboarding.

Contractors offer the right solution when major initiatives exceed available internal design resources. For successful engagements, contractors will need to be a cultural fit for your team and be managed by a design manager or director. One caveat: contractors can require almost twice the budget of internal design resources and can vary significantly in skill and experience.

Even with temporary staff, however, finding the right fit involves many of the same unique difficulties as finding internal designers, so it’s not a short cut to hiring internally.

Hiring an outside design vendor or an internal designer is not an either/or proposition. They are highly complimentary, amplifying their respective value and contributions to product success.

Hiring a Vendor

Hiring an outside design vendor or an internal designer is not an either/or proposition. They are highly complimentary, amplifying their respective value and contributions to product success. Like any other design decision, the choice should be based on design needs as they relate to internal design resources and project time frames.

Working with a vendor has multiple benefits, the first being an accelerated time frame to adding design to your initiative or company. Hiring internal designers takes significant time and effort, whereas finding and hiring a vendor to address your specific needs is a faster process.

The best vendors bring with them perspectives based on experience across many different situations, which results in higher quality, proven design solutions.

Vendors offer a pool of at-hand resources, including research, analysis, interaction and visual design, and more, giving clients flexible access to resources when they need them.

Vendors manage both the user-centered design process and the design resources, an invaluable benefit for companies that have built UX design into a discipline.

Another point worth noting is that hiring an external vendor doesn’t mean that you “lose design expertise” when they leave. The right vendor will help you learn, adopt best practices, and extend design long after an engagement ends. Many will also help you source, interview and hire internal designers and integrate them as part of their project team. In many ways, this integration of internal and external design resources during a project is ideal because the project’s rationale, ideals and goals can be stewarded by the internal designer beyond the time limit of the vendor engagement.

Types of design vendors

Boutiques are small groups of design practitioners that focus on the craft of design, acting much like individual contributors. They are typically generalists and lean heavily towards execution. Look for groups that will integrate closely into existing teams.

Design studios employ individuals with specialized roles in research, interaction, visual UI, and prototyping. Cooper and DesignMap are good examples of a user experience design studios with cultures and processes weighted towards outcomes and agile-like design development. Look for deep experience in verticals and a strong, iterative and collaborative design process that includes design training.

Digital agencies are “full service”, encompassing business, design, and technology strategy and development. They typically focus on clients in traditional, broad industries, such as entertainment, finance, retail, pharmaceuticals, and consumer goods, that are adding digital channels to existing products and services. Digital agencies focus on end deliverables and waterfall-like process, which they lead and you follow. Newly branded SapientRazorfish is a good example.

Business and IT consultancies are building digital design capabilities, many through acquisition of digital design strategy and consulting firms, into their legacy services. By adding digital design expertise, these large, global consultancies can offer a full spectrum services for companies that build products around digital customer experience. Recent examples of note include Accenture’s acquisition of Fjord; McKinsey’s acquisition of Veryday; John Maeda’s 2015 fellowship at KPCB, and, most recently, Capgemini’s acquisition of Idean.

Engagement styles

Staff augmentation provides temporary dedicated resources that work onsite like full-time employees. This style works well for long term initiatives which require staffing that, for budget reasons, cannot be full-time employees. One drawback: such temporary resources may not have the same level of motivation as internal staff or consultants.

Phase-based engagements are typical when working with smaller or single service consultancies, such as a research and usability firm. In these engagements, designers work closely with an internal team as well as other vendors on a specific portion of a larger initiative.

Project-based work is the most common vendor engagement style. The key differentiator is the upfront definition of schedule, milestones, phases types, and activities/deliverables. A “fixed fee” for these services is arrived at by calculating resource requirements over time, multiplied by a rate card. Other additional fees and overages are accounted for in a detailed SOW.

Agile engagements eschew milestones or deliverables, and rely on the sprint schedule for scope. Cost is calculated by resources and potential number of sprints multiplied, by a rate card. This type of engagement lowers the upfront detail in the SOW, using continuous story grooming and agile/scrum process to determine success. As it moves upstream within organizations — it’s not exclusive to engineering — we see Dual Track Agile/Scrum becoming the primary methodology for product design.

Questions to ask vendors

We’ve been asked a lot of questions and heard a lot from clients about how other vendors answer them. We built this list of best practice questions from our experience. Ask them to evaluate whether a vendor is the right fit for your needs.

How and when do you incorporate research?
Beware agencies that provide solutions for your design challenges right away, without any research. Good designers get excited about the opportunity to learn from your SMEs, stakeholders and users, because ultimately it leads to better design.

Do you value continuous iteration with many cycles of improvements and testing?
The best design isn’t a single event, it’s an ongoing process of incremental steps. Find out how the agency in question includes iteration and testing within their process.

Has my project lead ever worked for an internal design team before?
Sometimes designers with out a lot of in-house experience can be dogmatic about process. Designers who have experienced different processes, on the other hand, can adapt to yours and know how internal teams get a product released.

Where will you leave off in the process?
You’re want a firm that’s in it with you to the end, e.g. your successful product launch, not one that leaves once they’ve finished a limited set of deliverables that they’ll get paid for.

Can you show me KPIs from other successful projects?
Do the people you’re talking with understand the details of an end-to-end project? Can they help you set up success metrics for your project?

Can you describe your interaction design process?
How does the vendor learn about your users/consumers? How do it reflect that understanding in a design that accommodates how a product actually works?

Can you show me examples of work in progress?
Ask to see the “sausage making,” the actual work in progress, not just the deliverables. Ask for case studies/work samples from three projects that align with your own in one way or another. Nothing (hopefully) will be exactly what you’re doing, but look for intersections with your company size, target market, project goal/work product, and domain/complexity of domain.

How will we work together?
Will you get shuffled to the B-team once you sign the proposal? How will you manage meetings, documents, and communications together? Will you meet in person at all? How often?

DesignMap: Where we fit in

DesignMap is a studio of design-centered people. In answer to the questions above, we get very excited about researching design challenges and we are well-versed in applying agile development to iterating product designs. We pride ourselves in being transparent and are happy to let you in on our process. We understand metrics, use them to measure our own success, and, again, are willing to share them with potential clients. Finally, our engagements typically follow the entire life-cycle of product development, from start up to launch, and we are always educating our clients along the way.

More reading

Assessing Your Team’s UX Skills
GV Library: Tagged in Design
Championing UX Design
Hiring a designer: hunting the unicorn
Essential and Desirable Skills for a UX Designer