3+1 Things that Hiring Design Intern has Taught Me About Launching a Design Career in Startup

Over past weeks, I was hiring for summer design interns, browsing hundreds of portfolios, calling candidates to go through their projects, reviewing design challenges with engineers and evaluating on-site candidates. There are many enthusiastic young designers asking what it takes to get an interview, how to pass design challenges and how to launch an internship after on-site interview in startups.

Although answering these question varies on context, I want to share my experience of what I learnt in this process as an interviewer.

For young designers who want to launch a design career in sassy startups

Design Skills and Design Rationale

More often than not designers spend less than 30 seconds to browse a candidate’s project, and they will form an understanding about which kind of designer the candidate is after browsing couple projects. If a young designer is lacking design craft, for example visual design/interaction design/UI design/motion design/prototyping, or lacking design rationale — the legit design process, then the young designer won’t be in the priority list or standing out among peers. Nancy Douyon wrote an article explaining what UX Design includes. I’ve been browsing hundreds of portfolios from entry-level designers to senior designers, portfolios that stand out always have clear information architecture, easy to navigate, solid design process, clear evaluation of design options, smooth wireframes, and visually pleasing prototypes. It is a big point if candidates actually build the product.

During the intern hiring process, 70% of portfolios that I look into are from people whose background are not from design but want to leap into user experience design career, and they may well need to further improve in either design craft or design rationale in order to get phone call interviews. Admittedly, it would be unfair to ask young designers to be good at every aspect of design craft, like visual design, motion design, interaction design, UX design, product design, UI design, prototyping, or whatever the company name it, but fundamentally it’s the eye for good visual assets and hands that are actively working towards better solutions.


Product Thinking and Design Execution

For young designers who get phone call interviews or design challenges, it comes to product thinking that differentiates candidates. I take product thinking as deep understanding about what problems we are solving, how we solve it, and what is the best approach and alternative approaches that we should use to provide good user experience.

In startups, efficiency is really important which means legit design process we learnt from school are changeable and we will make decisions about which design methods to leverage in order to achieve the goal in a short amount of time without sacrificing qualities. Involving engineering team, sales team, marketing team, and design team in the early design process to understand constrains and opportunities, then iterating with people (I try to avoid saying ‘users’ as people do share lots of similarities) to refine products, therefore in the shipment process entry-level designers are more likely to come up with well-rounded set of scenarios and good design to push changes to happen.


“Creative Confidence”

“Creative Confidence” is a popular term and quite self-explanatory. After passing the portfolio review, phone call interviews, design challenges, it comes to personalities and potentials that distinguish young design candidates. For people who are interested in sassy startups, it’s more likely these are the people who not only want a career, but also want to grow to build products in the filed they really (are) passionate about. And they are expected to not afraid of targeting on hard problems, speaking out their opinions, actively seeking for better solutions, digging into creativities and getting their hands dirty. And startups will provide a supportive and encouraging environment for Creative Confidence to build cutting-edge products.

Judy from “Zootopia”

Side Projects

One day I was having dinner with founders of the company and discussing about how to hire the right person. Although hiring problem is always hard, the founder shared one of his secrets, side project matters. If someone spends her time and efforts doing things that is neither job nor course work but merely out of her interest, plus the task is hard that can’t guarantee the person will have predictable rewards, however the person still wants to try and do it and successfully make it. Then it will be a visible sign for the founder as an immediate hire.


I am a product designer designing for conversational AI and write about things I learnt about AI design.