When You Are Not A Designer, But Need To Hire One

Hiring the right people is crucial. Your team’s talent will have enormous influence on the success of your product. It’s a no-brainer, you want the best designer to work on your vision. But how do you select the one? It will be easier down the road. You will have a design team lead or an art director to do the hiring. Now, however, it is your job to look at all of those portfolios and figure out who is the best match.

This article lists a number of tips about what to look for in a graphic designer’s portfolio when hiring for UI work either as an employee or as a freelancer. Hiring in other fields, such as UX, print, illustration, etc. require different ways to look at portfolios.

We based this list on our own experiences and hopefully, it will help you make a better choice of talent. Probably, however, a full book could be written just on this subject.

Print, Illustration, And UI Require Different Skill Sets

A while back, a new client contacted us for a redesign of a web tool that wasn’t even released yet. A redesign already? Apparently, their first designer did a less than ideal job. She was very talented, and they got plenty of recommendations for her, but her experience was in the field of advertisement design, not UI. Her design didn’t even resemble a web tool.

There are many fields within the design profession. Each requires a different set of skills, talent, and experience. For example, a designer who focuses on printed catalogs needs to have a deep understanding of print technologies and their limitations. She needs to know about the latest design trends in the field and be able to design for the printed, material experience. On the other hand, she probably has lesser knowledge about designing for UI. The required know-how is very different. You need a UI designer, get a UI designer.

Is The Focus Where It Should Be?

Usually, our eyes go to human faces or large and loud objects first. Designers (should) plan the order in which the observer’s eye will scan the screen. A good design purposefully controls the eye’s movement through the major items on the design. Observe what is the first, second and third thing you notice when you look at the design for the first time. Are they in line with what you would expect from that kind of product? Is there a particular order at all, or there are just too many loud objects and your eyes just jump between them?

In our past, we worked with senior managers of products who wanted everything to be big, loud and to pop-out on the screen. It took us some communication skills and persistence to convince them that that doesn’t work. In fact, designing a page this way will have strong negative effect on conversion rates.

Design Clarity And Semantics

User interface design is visual communication. If you, as a user, look at a screen and have no idea what it is about or what are you expected to do with it, then there is a problem there. I have to point out, that there are niche products that, if you are not experienced in their field you will not easily understand them. All the mainstream consumer products, however, you should be able to understand. This is also true for objects within a design, such as icons, buttons, menus, etc. Aesthetics comes after clarity. A beautiful share button, for example, that no one understands its purpose just won’t do.

Personal Style

Every designer has a personal style. If now you are asking “Isn’t a good designer should be able to adapt her style to the project?” you are right. She should. Nevertheless, a personal visual style is something that affects every project and in most cases can be recognized even with the differences between projects. Just ask yourself, would I be able to spot one of her screens between the works of others? So why is this important? Her personal style will also touch your project, even if it is very different. It has to be in line with your product’s vision. The other reason is, that for most it takes time and experience to develop that personal style. There is something weird about eclectic portfolios with no personal style. They feel unprofessional.

Details, Details, Details

“The details are not the details. They make the design” — Charles Eames.

Look at the distances between objects, different font sizes, margins, alignment between close and distant objects, size relations between adjacent items, consistency of line thickness, radiuses or sharp edges, shadows. The list goes on. A designer should always keep these details in mind and make a conscientious decision about them.

Consistent Design

Developing a unique style for a project requires talent and experience. Carrying the design throughout the whole product, down to the smallest details is a different skill. Look at multiple screenshots of the same project. Would you be able to tell that they are different parts of one product? Here is an example of what I mean: You ask someone to open a secondary screen or a minor dialog within a website or app that you are familiar with, without telling you what it is. Can you tell instantly which product it is? If the design is consistent, you will be able to tell.

Past Experience Beyond Design Execution

Being the only designer working for your startup requires a wider skill set than being part of a design team under an art director. Essentially a single designer is her own art director. This means, that your future designer should understand your product strategy, business goals, brand message, story, tone of voice, etc. and incorporate these to design strategy that supports the product visually. So what to look for? An experienced freelancer should already understand the big picture. A designer who was employed in the past as the only designer in a company has also probably learned to be her own art director. Finally, a professional with a past in a design lead position will definitely have the right experience. If none of the above is true for a designer you think about hiring, then talk about these subjects. See if this is something you can discuss or it falls out of scope for her.

Responsibilities Within The Project

We once interviewed a designer who showcased brilliant projects in his portfolio. During the interview, he casually mentioned that he didn’t design those pages. He got the PSD files from other designers and just cut and saved assets from them. These kinds of tasks should definitely not be showcased in a portfolio. At least he was honest about it. If the portfolio doesn’t include information about what was the designer’s professional involvement in any given project, you should ask about it.

The Ability To Make Choices

To see a rich portfolio with tons of projects, where each one offers lots of images to see is great. It feels that the designer has a lot of experience, and did tons of projects. However, I would be careful with that. Yes, having a lot of experience is great, but the ability to make hard choices is a crucial skill for a designer. The designer’s process requires making countless design choices every day. There are many possible solutions to every design problem and a tough decision is always needed to be able to proceed. This is also true for the portfolio. We sometimes see portfolios with tons of projects, some of which are very similar, therefore do not offer additional information, or very different in quality of work. Other times there are lots of irrelevant or uninteresting screenshots showcased for a project. These kinds of portfolios force us to ask ourselves: does this designer have the necessary skill to prioritize and make hard choices?

The Client’s Implementation Sucked Is Not An Excuse

In many cases, the client might implement the design differently than the designer intended. This difference can come from conscientious decisions or by skipping some of the details during development. In her portfolio, a designer should always showcase her best design work, regardless of the final implementation. This means that if a screenshot from the final product is not as good as the design, the image in the portfolio should come from her design files, not the product. Building a good portfolio takes time, a long time, and it should promote the designer’s best work only.

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