Where to find great UX candidates

Part Three in a series of posts on how to recruit UX talent


“Where do you find designers to hire?” Now that you understand what UX skills you need to have for your team and have written a job description that describes these needs, it’s time to get the word out and start recruiting.

Most designers are sourced from large in-house teams, other startups, design agencies, universities, and online sites where designers congregate. For employers, this article will help you understand how to think about different ways to source candidates and what to look for. If you are a prospective applicant for startups, this article may help you decide how to best conduct your job search or develop your career. If you are a student, this article includes some programs to consider as you pursue your education.

Targeted outreach

Targeted outreach is among the most effective ways to find someone to hire, especially if the team has prior experience working with good designers and/or has a large network.

If you are an employer: With your team and everyone you know who might have worked with a good designer, brainstorm a list of all the great people they’ve worked with, reach out to them, and/or ask them to refer other people they’d recommend.

If you are a prospective employee: Network like crazy and tell as many connected people as you can that you are looking for a new opportunity. Sometimes this isn’t practical if you are already employed and don’t want word to get back to your current employer. If you’re in this situation, ask the people you tell to be discreet; don’t assume that people know that.

Large in-house design teams

Companies like Google, Yahoo!, LinkedIn, eBay, Apple, Adobe, Intuit, Twitter, and Facebook can employ hundreds of designers and are fertile ground for breeding designers who can work with cross functional teams to ship products. Because they have large teams, junior designers get mentored by more senior designers and are exposed to good design leadership and management practices. Oracle, Salesforce, Citrix, and SAP are enterprise companies that also employ many designers. Be willing to also consider some non-obvious places that aren’t top of mind; for example, I’ve hired some terrific people from Walmart.com and Bank of America.

If you are an employer: For early-stage startups looking to hire a mid- to senior designer who can eventually lead, grow, and manage a design team, a designer from a large in-house team who has worked there for 2–4 years makes a great candidate for recruiting into such a role.

If you are a prospective employee: If you are part of a large in-house design team, make sure you have a chance to own a significant project so that you can build/exercise critical design skills and your portfolio.

Startups and smaller companies

Startups and smaller companies are a viable source for designers, particularly if they have been with the company for 2–4 years and the future of the company is uncertain.

If you are an employer: Be aware that some designers who only have experience in startups may lack a mature design process and/or ability to lead or scale a design team as it grows. If a designer’s experience is mostly comprised of a series of short stints (< 18 months) at startups, take time to understand what happened, not just from the candidate’s perspective but also from founders, coworkers, investors, etc.

If you are a prospective employee: If you are thinking about joining a startup, you need to be willing and able to set yourself up for success. Your coworkers may want great design but not necessarily know how to support you in order for you to be successful; you will have to be your own advocate. Seek mentors outside the company. Teach your coworkers what good design means and what good design practice looks like — doing so will make it easier for the team to deliver good outcomes.

Design agencies

Design agencies are often filled with young designers who have been mentored by strong design leaders, and some of them are eager to work in an in-house team and have a chance be part of the shipping team and own equity. Many agencies also pay less than large companies can afford to pay, in exchange for a work environment that values and understands design and gives designers the chance to work on a wide range of projects. Agencies like IDEO, Frog, Method, and Adaptive Path (now owned by Capital One) hire well and train well, but don’t overlook small boutique firms that are less well-known.

If you are an employer: Be aware that some designers who only have agency experience may not have sufficient experience with seeing a design through to launch. Make sure you probe on their past collaborations with engineers.

If you are a prospective employee: Many designers in agencies either specialize in product ideation and conception, or in production and execution. If you are working in an agency and want to move to a startup, try to find opportunities where you can gain and apply skills in a range of activities throughout the whole lifecycle of a project.

Online sites where designers congregate

Increasingly, designers are posting work samples online to build their reputation and get discovered. Some startups have successfully recruited terrific designers by browsing through online sites for designers and searching relentlessly for portfolios that suit their design sensibilities. Dribbble, Behance, Coroflot, Carbonmade, and Cargo (more for illustration than UI or visual design) are all good sites to look at to find visual designers.

If you are an employer: These sites are great places to find visual designers, but not necessarily user researchers or interaction designers. The product might look great but not work that well. The hardest design work is what comes before the surface layer: the strategy, the vision, the principles, the interaction, the architecture, and these online sites don’t allow you to see beyond the surface.

If you are a prospective employee: If you are a visual designer, show your best work, show your versatility, and make sure the work samples represent you in a way that you want to be seen. For example, if you want to focus on designing online products and not marketing creatives, then post more examples of your product design work than marketing design work.

UX job boards

There are a few job boards focused on user experience opportunities. Consider posting on these sites:

Design recruiters

Many recruiters who specialize in design talent work on a contingency basis or on a retainer. I prefer to work with recruiters who specialize in UX because they understand how to screen candidates and have a good nose for culture fit.

For employers and prospective employees: Here is a short list of recruiters I recommend. While there are many other recruiters who can help with hiring designers, I’ve ruled many out because they take a “spray and pray” approach, contacting people about opportunities without really assessing whether there is a fit first.

  • Judy Wert — specializes in product design leaders and leadership roles
  • Amy Jackson — specializes in individual contributor roles for product design
  • Stephanie Shapiro
  • Aquent — specializes in visual design talent

New college graduates and interns

New college graduates are challenging for startups because they often lack real-world hands-on experience, even if they’ve had internship experience. Since many startups are themselves very inexperienced with design, having a new college grad as your lead/sole designer in a startup is akin to the blind leading the blind; they are too early in their careers to work effectively as the sole designer in a company and provide leadership necessary to do good design work.

If you are an employer: If you have a team and/or at least a few senior UX people who can serve as mentors, consider hiring interns and college grads to help build out your team.

If you are a prospective employee: Applied experience is critical to landing that first job out of college. Find as many opportunities as you can to apply your skills, work on projects, and build your portfolio, even if it means you have to invent your own projects and/or work for free. Try to cross-train as much as possible: if you are studying graphic design, learn as much as you can about human-computer interaction and vice versa. Learn to code; designers who understand the medium in which they are building often become stronger, more effective designers than those who don’t.

Different programs specialize in different areas of UX expertise. Here is a (not comprehensive) list of (mostly U.S.-based) notable programs and schools that have produced graduates with skills sought after by employers. The list is NOT ranked in any particular order.

Interaction design:

  • Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute
  • Stanford University (Symbolic Systems program, Product Design program, Persuasive Tech Lab)
  • University of Michigan’s School of Information
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Engineering Psychology, Computer Science, Industrial Engineering, Library Science)
  • University of Washington, Human-Centered Design and Engineering
  • New York University’s ITP program
  • UC Berkeley iSchool
  • MIT Media Lab
  • UC San Diego (UCSD) Cognitive Science program
  • School of Visual Arts (SVA)’s MFA in Interaction Design
  • California College of the Arts (CCA) Interaction Design Program

Visual design:

  • Rhode Island School of Design
  • Ohio State (Department of Design)
  • University of Cincinnati (DAAP program)
  • Carnegie Mellon School of Design
  • UCLA Design Media Arts
  • Institute of Design Chicago
  • California College of the Arts (CCA) Graphic Design program
  • Art Center College of Design
  • Otis College of Art and Design
  • Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD)
  • School of Visual Arts (SVA)
  • TU Delft
  • Royal College of Art London
  • Goldsmiths London

User research:

  • Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute
  • University of Michigan School of Information
  • UC Berkeley iSchool
  • University of Washington, Human-Centered Design and Engineering
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Cornell University’s Human Behavior and Design program
  • University of California at San Diego (UCSD) Cognitive Science program
  • Tufts University
  • Georgia Tech Human Factors program
  • Bentley University (Human Factors in Information Design)

A note on bootcamps: While there are many short programs and bootcamps that claim to train people to become designers, they are still relatively new and unproven so I did not include them here.

Consider relocation

Don’t rule out people who are not local. There are good designers that live outside your area, and there are good designers who are eager to relocate. One of the best designers I’ve met at a KV portfolio company relocated from Europe after being “discovered” by the CEO online. The CEO determined it was worth waiting for the visa and relocation to get a great designer of a caliber that would otherwise be difficult to find and hire in the SF Bay Area.


Good design attracts designers

A final thought on sourcing candidates: designers want to work in companies where they feel the company values what they do. If your product or website looks terrible or if someone coming to your site can’t determine the value proposition for your product from looking at the product, you will have a much harder time attracting designers to join your company. This is a paradox: the companies with lousy designs are the ones who need designers the most, yet most designers interpret bad design as a sign that the company does not value design, or that the company doesn’t understand their own raison d’etre which will make the designers’ jobs that much harder. It is crucial for these companies to (1) represent themselves well, and (2) build a design team with the right attitude: optimistic, can-do, proactive, take responsibility and not adopt a victim mindset.


Stay tuned for Part Four: “Reviewing Candidates”

(originally authored July 2014 for Khosla Ventures)