How to get a Designer 

Julie Zhuo
Mar 18, 2014 · 7 min read

At least two or three times a week, I have a conversation with someone that goes something like this:

I need a designer on my project. You seem like you’d know how to procure one. Tell me, quick! Where can I find a designer?

(As if there were a secret cave somewhere, maybe near the Moria Arch or deep in the Arctic tundra, where legions of designers congregate sipping craft beer and awaiting their next assignment.)

Such a request is also generally accompanied by one of following:

  1. The intense enthusiasm of a person with a map to buried treasure, for whom finding a designer is simply the next obstacle to be crossed on the way to X marks the spot
  2. (More and more common now) The sigh of resignation long mastered by the person who trades in unicorns, yetis and other exotics for a living.

It’s a good time to be a designer. They’re so hot right now. Companies trip over themselves wrestling for talent, proffering perks and platitudes, cache and compensation.

Why? Because what’s needed to build hardware and software today costs way less than what it took ten years ago. Better resources and tools (AWS, Kickstarter, MakerBot, Parse, jQuery, etc) means you don’t need a team of twenty working for a whole year to make something meaningful; now, a single person or a small team can quickly and easily get the funding they need and launch something that could scale to millions.

These days, it’s harder and harder to distinguish a product on its value proposition alone. For every good idea, there are probably ten others that have roughly the same functionality. When everyone has the capability to build similar things, design becomes a greater and greater differentiator.

Why get a thermostat that can set the temperature for your house when you can get one that does that and can be controlled from your phone, anticipate your needs, and be lovely to behold?

Customers can afford to be choosy, looking not just at pure Can it do this? but also How easy is it to use? and How does it make me feel when I use it? Apple demonstrated a new bar for how good things ought to be, and the effects have been rippling through the industry ever since.

Your product ought to to be great too. If only you could find a designer. If only there were a formula for how to get a designer, how to fire them up so they’d be excited about joining you.

Read on to discover this one weird trick I found to get a designer for your project!

Just kidding. There’s no one weird trick. Those ads are truly awful. Stop falling for that shit.


Back to real talk. How do you get a designer excited about a project? Mostly, it comes down to the following:

Present an interesting design problem that you’re committed to solving together.

Pretty simple, right? Let’s break it down.

…Interesting Design Problem…

Of course, interesting is going to vary somewhat from person to person. Some designers may have a penchant for certain types of problems (only apps/services they could see themselves using, only specific platforms or verticals e.g. “iOS photo apps”, only visual problems or interaction problems or strategy problems, etc.)

But, by and large, most of the designers I know don’t bucket themselves into such narrow categories. Instead, they tend to look at the properties of specific problems to determine interestingness. The following are desirable characteristics:

  1. Challenging. This is something the designer hasn’t done a thousand times before, and promises to be learning experience. Many designers aren’t looking for easy, they’re looking to grow in their skills and experience.
  2. Open-ended. Every project comes with constraints. But interesting problems tend to have enough time and space within those constraints for a designer to apply her unique strengths to come up with creative solutions she can stand behind. If you’re looking for an executor to get the ideas you have in your head down on paper exactly as you’ve imagined them or fulfill a bunch of design-oriented tasks you’ve typed up in a document—unless it’s well-acknowledged that you are a product genius, to you I say: good luck finding a strong designer who’ll be fulfilled doing that for a long period of time.
  3. Impactful. If done well, this project has the potential to make a real difference, whether it’s deep impact for a well-defined group or broad impact for a larger group. Put another way, the problem as stated actually feels like a real problem rather than a vague premise like “this is a unique and exciting business opportunity!” or “we need to make an app because Company X made an app!”
  4. Realistic. Open-ended is good, but the problem can’t be so vague that it’s impossible to imagine what the general shape of the solution space is. “Let’s reinvent messaging” starts getting into pie-in-the-sky territory. What does it mean to “reinvent?” Where does one even start with a prompt like that?
  5. More details on giving the right problems to the right designers @ How to Work with Designers.

…Committed to solving together

It takes a whole team to ship a great design. Good designers know this, so they’ll be looking for the following:

  1. Broad commitment to solving the problem. The designer shouldn’t be the only one who spends all their time, energy and passion on this problem. There ought to be others who also believe this is an important problem to solve and are committed to making it happen. The size of the team doesn’t matter as much as the sense that it should be big enough to realistically make a dent in the problem, and that the team feels respected and valued within the company.
  2. Respect for the people on the team. Everyone wants to work with people they can learn from and are proud to call teammates.
  3. Trust that the team will value great work. A designer needs to be confident that if she works hard and comes up with great design solutions, that the team will also work hard to make those design solutions a reality rather than cut corners, make unreasonable compromises, or otherwise ship something that doesn’t live up to the potential of what was designed a la “Capybara Sunset”.

Present…

Don’t simply ramble, talk, or casually mention if you’re trying to sell a particular problem. Actually present. Think about the narrative here. There are a thousand different ways to talk about the design need you have. Some variations will sound exciting and inspiring. Some will sound trivial and boring. Avoid the latter.

“Hey, I’m looking for someone to help me optimize the click-through rate of our articles. You interested?”

No.

“Hey, we’ve got a ton of amazing content on our service. The people who know our service the best tell us they love all the content we offer, but we’ve got a bit of a discovery problem. Lots of people simply can’t find the articles that they’re interested in. How can we make this better?”

Hmm. Could be interesting.

The narrative matters. The specific words matter. Some tips:

  1. Be people-problem-centric rather than company-centric. “We need a…” is weaker than “The problem people are encounter is…”
  2. Make sure your passion for solving the problem comes across. If you aren’t really excited about this, or don’t believe it’s actually a big opportunity, it’s going to be downright impossible to get others excited.
  3. Talk about what in particular makes the designer well-suited to this problem. Get to know the designer’s work and their interests. Is this problem a good fit from an interest perspective? From a skills perspective? From a growth and development perspective? Don’t just make it seem like any warm body will do.

Like most design managers, I spend a significant portion of my days talking to designers about the exciting problems we could solve together.

The bad news is that there always seems to be more problems than there are designers to go around.

The good news is that, compared to five years ago, the design industry is flourishing. Every year, thousands of promising new grads come out of design, graphic arts, communication or HCI programs with strong fundamentals, deep curiosity, and a desire to make a difference. Every year, thousands more people without formal design training invest the time to observe their worlds, read books, watch videos, and tinker around with designing apps or websites in their spare time.

It used to be that we kept a spreadsheet of all the folks we knew of who had ever designed applications, and this spreadsheet was a hundred or so names long.

Now, on almost a daily basis, I encounter a new designer or a new product that inspires me.

(This either means I’m getting less discerning, or that the number of good designers is rapidly growing. Since I’m the optimistic sort, I’ll assume the latter.)

Designers aren’t a destination on a treasure map, and they’re not unicorns or yetis. The more you understand what great designers value, the easier it gets to find someone with whom you can work together to build something marvelous.

Thanks to Mike Sego

    Julie Zhuo

    Written by

    Product design VP @ Facebook. Author of The Making of a Manager https://amzn.to/2PRwCyW. Find me @joulee. I love people, words, and food.

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