Look for signals, not unicorns

How to spot and hire great designers

Shane Allen
Mar 20, 2017 · 7 min read

Context

A few folks outside of the design community have asked me to share my thoughts on how to go about hiring a product designer for their team, so I thought I’d write down a few pro-tips based on my experience. TL;DR, there is no such thing as a unicorn, and finding the right designer often means looking inward first to understand what kind of designer you need.

As with any hire, getting the right person for your team is hard, designers are no different. It takes careful planning, consideration, and patience. For those who have already bought into the idea that design is a strategic imperative, there’s no question that the right designer on your team can make a massive difference to the quality of your product. But for those who are just figuring out how design might find a home in their business, it’s worth considering how a designer can contribute across the org — from internal efficiencies and company culture to product process, effectively communicating ideas to stakeholders, and working with engineers. Having a deeper understanding of the value of design and how it relates to the success of your company will help shape what you look for in a candidate whether they are junior, senior, generalist, specialist.

So what does a good Product Designer look like? There is a tendency to stereotype all designers into silo’s — visual design, UX/UI design, interaction design, graphic design, etc. This isn’t that helpful because design skills are interchangeable depending on context. Product design is somewhat encompassing of all these skills with the addition of a number of ‘soft-skills’ which are as equally crucial as operating Sketch or having a detailed understanding of the latest design trends.

Most hiring managers will start by listing hard-skills or requirements they are looking for in a candidate — Sketch, Photoshop, UI/UX, prototyping. But if you take a moment and look at the design role holistically and within context to your product or company, you’ll start to see that their personality, creativity, experience, process, collaboration and communication skills are as equally important and valuable as their execution skills.

With that in mind, I often look beyond the standard skill set you find in your average job application. My hypothesis is that if a candidate can clearly account for their process, communicate ideas well, acknowledge that design is a collaborative effort, and demonstrate a commitment to their craft, then there should be no doubt in their proficiency to use Sketch or Photoshop.


Look for signals, not unicorns

When I’m interviewing designers, I’m looking for small signals that will inevitably make up a broader picture of their personality, passions, and skills. I ask specific questions related to their interests and inspiration. I ask about a project they’ve worked on recently and get them to talk through some of the problems they were trying to solving, as opposed to focusing on the pixels or visual design. This gives me a clear signal on their design process and communication skills.

As I mentioned earlier, there is no such thing as a unicorn. But gathering enough signals can give you more confidence when it comes to making a great decision and hiring a designer that meets your needs. Below is a framework I use when I’m interviewing design candidates. It’s not an exact science, but it’s a great lens to cast over the entire process.

Signal #1
– Personality

When it comes to personality, you’re not looking to see if they’re a great ‘cultural-fit’ for the company, but more if they’re a great ‘culture-add.’ You’re looking to understand if they identify with your core values, are energized by conversations related to design, and show a deep subject matter expertise that could inspire others around them.

Signal #2
– Communication
Good communication is a fundamental quality I look for in all designers. Designers need to be able to communicate their ideas clearly, concisely, and in a relatable fashion. Verbal communication is not everything though, Designers also need to demonstrate a level of emotional intelligence — listening, observation, and empathy are all qualities of a great designer.

Signal #3
– Generalist or Specialist

Are they an expert in one particular area of design, such as illustration or animation? — A ‘specialist.’ Or do they exhibit a range of skills such as visual design, UI / UX design, interaction design, problem-solving, research skills, etc? — A generalist. Depending on the role, either could be a valuable addition to your team. For the record, I consider myself a generalist.

Signal #4
– Collaboration
This is a big one. Product design is rarely a solo effort, especially in large companies. Most product designers are embedded in teams and contribute to one part of a cross-functional effort consisting of engineering, data science, research, product managers, copywriters, and other designers. To be a successful designer, you not only have to have a swag of skills related to design, but you have to be able to work well with other people. Excellent collaboration skills mean that you know how to bring people along in your process, you involve your team, you share ideas (big or small), and you also look to others to provide insights that help shape the solution.

As a side note, collaboration also builds morale and fosters trust. At the end of the day, you want a designer that everyone enjoys working with, not the opposite.

Signal #5
– Design process
Design process comes in all shapes and sizes, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. When I’m interviewing a candidate, I’m looking for signals that tell me they can be flexible in different situations. Can they operate within constraints, can they unblock themselves, look around corners, and be connectors to others in their team? Are they detailed orientated and a systems thinker? Are they more blue sky visionary types? Do they have the know-how and patience to increment towards a vision? What kinds of processes have they been exposed to previously? Waterfall, Agile, Design-led, Engineering-heavy, consultant, agency? All these signals help me understand if they are capable of adapting their process to suit the environment, and are capable of executing at a high level of quality and efficiency.

Signal #6
– They know how to ship
What sets a great Product Designer apart (in my opinion) is not how good they are at problem-solving, UI, UX, Sketch, or prototyping, but how well they can ship. Solving problems and designing in a static form is only one part of the process (albeit an important one). But achieving a high standard of quality in a live product without loss of fidelity, or compromising the essence of an idea, demonstrates the ability to work with engineers, product managers, researchers and data scientists from conception to completion. As much as I love seeing beautifully crafted mockups and prototypes, seeing the final product come to life is equally satisfying and essential.

Signal #7
– Ego
Ego is often mischaracterized as confidence. But, I would argue, they are different in that ego can rip teams apart, and confidence can be a positive driver that moves teams forward. A designers ego is somewhat notorious, and that one quality alone, regardless of how good the designer might be, is a red flag in my books.

Understand the role

Design is a pretty abstract discipline and can take many different forms. Graphic design, interaction design, user-experience design, interior design (there is a new form of design emerging every month). Figuring out what kind of designer you need on your team can be pretty intimidating. An excellent place to start is to write down the activities and tasks you expect a designer on your team to perform — this should include soft-skills as well. For example, a designer will often need good communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills, as well as the skills required to operate Sketch or Photoshop. But depending on experience needed, you might also need someone to manage a team of others while providing strategic support to leadership, or someone who has a research background to help you understand your users.

It also goes without saying that without a clear budget you’re going to find it hard to attract the right person (and potentially waste a lot of time). Learn what the industry standard salary is for the type of designer you want to hire, and then figure out what level you require — VP, Senior, graduate, etc. Most big tech companies will also operate under a somewhat standardized leveling system (5–11). Five being a graduate, and eleven being a VP. This is important to know if you’re trying to attract top talent from other tech companies.

One last thing, in a competitive landscape, you need to make yourself look just as attractive to the potential hire as they are to you. After all, they’ll be assessing you in just as much detail!


Hi, I’m Shane! I’m a cross-functional Product Designer who loves being at the intersection of design and technology and is driven by a combination of natural curiosity, formal design principles, and a healthy obsession for building products that are used by millions every day. Currently Senior Product Designer at Facebook, California.

Shane Allen

Written by

Designing global communities one pixel at a time. Senior Product Designer at Facebook, former Principal Designer at Airbnb & VSCO. www.modularism.com

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