I’ve spent half this year hiring designers. Here’s what I discovered.

Seven key differentiators of exceptional designers

Colin Narver
Oct 21 · 5 min read
Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

There’s a mystery and opaqueness to the hiring process. Transparency is often shunned in favor of privacy, precedent, and protocol. Although seemingly antiquated, there are often good intentions for this. All candidates deserve respect. Part of that respect comes from keeping applicants protected from the back and forth between hiring managers, teammates, HR directors, budget coordinators, and talent acquisition specialists — to name but a few. Candidates are shielded from these conversations to save their sanity as well as their time. While the process could improve, the desired intent remains unchanged—matching the top design talent with great products and teams.

As a design manager at IBM, I’ve spent more than half of this year identifying and hiring exceptional designers. I’ve looked at hundreds of resumes and portfolios. I’ve conducted dozens and dozens of interviews. After spending time with designers from diverse backgrounds, specialties, and years of experience, several things stand out.

Today, I will cover how great designers distinguish themselves. In subsequent articles, I’ll speak to the traits of great teams and then how leaders can create environments where these teams can thrive.

Steve Jobs famously said, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Sometimes the same could be said of hiring managers. All companies are seeking innovation and excellence from their employees, yet the skills it takes to get there are often vaguely defined or disassociated from the definition of the gig. Too often, job postings can read as uncurated laundry lists of desirable traits. As a job applicant, it’s easy to feel as if companies don’t really know what they want.

“Our company is looking for a unicorn/wizard/samurai, ass-kicking, stereotype defying, creative insurgent-thought leader to wear 10 hats while delivering under budget, ahead of schedule, and with a 😀.”

For even the most seasoned, talented, and desirable candidates, it’s common to feel neglected, overlooked, and marginalized. The job search process can feel impersonal as well as physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting. And that’s just for the candidates. For the hiring managers, assessing candidates is hard, time-consuming work.

While there’s a lack of predictability with every candidate, several constants have emerged to afford an added layer of confidence. For job seekers that are already finalists, I’m looking for a reason to say yes. While I don’t always get there, the path to an offer has often been paved with evidence of the following qualities:

  • Deep Curiosity — Is a designer satisfied with problems as they’re presented, or is she curious/obsessive/incessant in her understanding of the root causes of a problem? Is she asking questions that implicate strategy and deconstruct intent? Curiosity can be showcased in any number of ways and is a core differentiator that high impact designers possess.
  • Acute Ecosystem Awareness — Unless a designer is working in a company of one, everyone is executing within cross-functional teams. Regardless if a designer is at a startup or a giant enterprise, there are layers of complexity and dependencies that are critical to identify and understand. It’s not enough to see the forest from the tress. Are design decisions tied to a holistic understanding of the product, producers, and partners at the systems level? Another extension of this ecosystem awareness is an appreciation of one’s own biases and how they may shape one’s perspective.
  • Audacity— Every business has a big, hairy, audacious goal. How is design pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and helping enable or actualize that goal? As an example, if your company is trying to democratize education for lifelong learners, how are you designing levers that enable that outcome? I see audacity here as internalizing the ambition of a product or business and helping to realize it through thoughtful design.
  • Willing Contrarian—As my friend and colleague Alison Entsminger reminds me, the ability to object or voice contrary opinions is dependent upon the prerequisite of psychological safety. Assuming that exists, having an outsider’s view of a problem space can be a huge advantage as opposed to a liability. One of the first things I learned at IBM was the value of strong opinions loosely held. Having an informed, unique POV is an asset, but it should be malleable and open to change.
  • Data Empowered—Is a designer using data fearlessly to self examine one’s impact and identify areas of opportunity or growth? Perhaps it’s a critical conversion rate that is missing the mark. If we are assured a level of psychological safety, as noted above, designers and organizations don’t need to be paralyzed by data. If a designer knows she will not be vilified for exposing truth within a feature, product, or organization, she has the ability to advocate for improvements in transformative ways.
  • Comfort with Ambiguity—Ambiguity is a common reality for every product team and every designer. If a designer shows the ability to move forward tactically without requiring certainty, she acts as a catalyst to move a product forward. At IBM, we do this constantly through Design Thinking. It takes comfort, humility, and trust to move confidently into uncharted or ill defined spaces and is a necessary skill for every designer.
  • Resilience and Resourcefulness — There will always be setbacks on any product or project. Has a designer shown the ability to handle adversity, diagnose setbacks, and persevere? It’s often less important to know something than to demonstrate the ability to figure it out. This is also a manifestation of one’s network. Knowing the right person to ask is often just as valuable as being the single source of truth.

In my experience, designers that posses the above capabilities are in the best position to lead, affect change, and drive outcomes on product teams. That said, in order for designers to be successful, the architect of the team needs to assemble diverse folks with complementary experience and clearly defined ownership roles. That’s the subject of my next article — the common traits of the highest functioning design teams.

This post covers the attributes I’ve witnessed with the highest caliber designers. I’m fortunate enough to be able to manage many of them on my team at IBM. And I’m still hiring! If you’re the kind of designer I describe above and want to find out more about what my team is building at IBM, I can be reached at cknarver@us.ibm.com.

Colin Narver is a Design Manger on IBM Cloud, Data and AI in Austin. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Design at IBM

Thanks to Greg Storey

Colin Narver

Written by

Design Manager and Team Lead, IBM Cloud, Data & AI, NYU (ITP) alum. Thoughts and opinions are my own.

Design at IBM

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