How to Interview and Hire a Designer

The right questions to ask.

By Jason Culbertson

I’ve worked as a creative/design director for the last 6 years and a designer for 9 years prior. In that time I’ve interviewed and hired dozens of designers. Recently, I was asked to help a startup interview designers that they were interviewing for a product design role. I had done some contract work for them as they didn’t have a designer on staff. I was getting paid to interview potential candidates. I realized then that interviewing designers is a skill that most don’t have but one that I can teach.

Hiring the right designer is critical to the success of any startup. The process below may not work for every company or situation but can hopefully help non-designers effectively interview and determine if a designer is right for the job.

Begin with their work.

When I look at a potential candidate’s portfolio I want to see three to four pieces of work that reflect what they would be doing on the job. I don’t need to see everything as I’m just looking for clues to help understand if their experience is applicable to the business.

It can take a discerning eye to be able to distinguish good design from mediocre design. But these questions are ones that I always ask to get a sense of their skill:

  1. Did you come up with this style or follow a styleguide?
  2. What problem were you trying to solve and how did you solve it?
  3. Did you do all of this yourself or were you working with a team?

Below are examples of what I look for in the work itself:

  1. Indicators that the work is coming from the same person. Each designer will repeat patterns across project and it ensures that they actually did the work.
  2. Clean, consistent layout of text and images
  3. Hierarchy of elements. Does your eye know where to go on the page or screen?
  4. Can you grok it? If you were the target user would you intuitively know what to do. Use your mouse or finger to act like you are really using the design.

If the portfolio looks good and you feel comfortable that they can do the type of design work that you are hiring for then move onto the next part of the interview.

What’s their work experience?

Every design role is different but for a solo designer they have to do two things that are unique: own the style and be self-guided. They don’t need to have managed others but should have led a project or product from start to finish.

If you are hiring someone who can’t do both UX and visual design then you should have more than one designer on hand. If you can’t hire both then you should decide for yourself which is right for the situation. I prefer UX designers with less visual ability than vice versa as it’s harder to solve design problems then make something pretty.

Formal education doesn’t matter

I don’t care if you went to art school, college, or even high school — these are not indicators of talent or skills. I’ve been asked while interviewing if I have an HCI degree. I don’t. But 15 years of experience and my work trumps any degree. When I graduated from art school I was terrible. Design takes years of hard work to get good. A degree helps but doesn’t get you there.

Do they care about what your company does?

A good designer needs to care about the product. When they care they are able to better understand why a user is using the site or app. They have to empathize. To understand if they actually care I ask these questions:

  1. Why are you applying for this job?
  2. What do you know about this industry?
  3. Why do you care about this problem?

Is this the right role for them?

Are they looking to build a team, own the brand, or solve problems. Whatever the reason every designer has a goal with a new job. They want to build their portfolio but also learn or achieve something. It’s your responsibility to ensure that they have a chance to do that in this role or its not going to work.

Ask them when they are looking to make the decision and if they have other pending offers. It’s a competitive market so good designers will often will have multiple offers on the table. If they do ask what would make them decide one job over another.

Lastly, I like to know why they are leaving their current job. Is it something that they will run into again at this company or is it due to their own issues? It’s usually one of four reasons: anger, frustration, feeling limited, or bored. Read between the lines and feel free to ask questions until you know which of the four it is.

Open it up for questions

It’s always important to give the candidate a few minutes to ask me questions. Common ones are regarding the team, the process, and more about the role itself. Good designers ask about software tools, the developers, and the importance of design in the company.

Done efficiently, the above should take no longer then 30 minutes. In addition I like to start with 5 minutes of chit chat upfront to relax everyone and, if I think they could be a good hire, 5–10 minutes afterwards to talk about current design topics. The entire process should take no longer than 35–45 minutes and many times I know within the first 15–20 minutes if the designer is the right fit.

Remember that the right candidate for your company should be able to own the design process, be a fit for the role and also have the role be a fit for them.

I hope this guide was helpful. Please let me know if you have questions or need help with your interviewing process.

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