Designing The Machine That Designs the Designs by Bob Baxley

Ben Peck
Front Utah
Published in
38 min readSep 26, 2016


This is a transcript of Bob’s talk to 600 designers and product managers at the Front Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah in May of 2016. Bob’s comments have been lightly edited for readability and clarity.

I’m here today to talk with you about building the machine that designs the designs. The last couple of days, you’ve heard a lot about how to actually do the work. For the next 45 minutes I want to pop up a level and talk about how to create the environment and the machine that produces the work.

A lot of people think about Steve Jobs as having created a bunch of amazing products. I think about him however as having created a couple of remarkable companies. Companies that reliably produce amazing, creative work. So I’d like to spend our time together to to share a few things that I’ve learned at Apple, Yahoo, and Pinterest about how to build the machine that designs the designs.

I’ve been a design manager for about 10 years now, and I’ve learned about five different things. Actually, I’ve learned probably 500 things but there’s five of them I want to share with you today.

The first one is that management is a way to scale your impact as a designer.

In 2005, I had the opportunity to interview for a Director of Design job at Yahoo! to lead the team that was working on Yahoo’s search. I was a little anxious about moving out of the chair, as they say, getting out of the chair and getting a seat at the table.

It felt like I was going to lose the craft, I was going to lose my impact as a designer. Being a manager was a decision I was trying to think through really carefully. I had a chance to reach out to a friend of mine, a terrific designer named Hugh Dubberly, and he told me an amazing story that I want to share with you because I know that many designers face this same question and wonder what they want to do, if they want to go on the management track or stay on the individual contributor track.

He told me a story about these two gentleman. On the left is Bill Paley who was president of CBS—pictured here in an amazing portrait by Richard Avendon. And on the right side, William Golden, who served as Creative Director of Advertising and Promotion at CBS. He’s the man who designed the CBS logo which is one of the great marks in American graphic design.

So it turns out that at one point Jack Benny decided to retire from CBS. And since he’d been one of their major stars Bill Paley called up Golden — because of course they worked together and they knew each other really well — and he said, “Hey, Jack Benny is going to leave the network and I think we should throw him a big retirement party. I’m thinking we’ll do something at the Waldorf Astoria. It’ll be a really nice affair. Could you work on an invitation over the weekend?” Golden says, “Yep, I’ll take care of that this weekend.”

Later he’s driving to the Hamptons — because I guess that’s what you do when you’re in New York — driving to the Hamptons thinking it through and he realizes, you know, Jack Benny is sort of famously cheap. He’s really well known as a cheapskate. The Waldorf Astoria is probably not the place that Jack Benny wants to have a retirement party. And instead he has this amazing idea over the weekend: he comes back on Monday and pitches it to Bill Paley.

The idea is instead of the Waldorf Astoria they’re going to have Jack’s retirement party at an automat in Manhattan. An automat for those of you who don’t know, is sort of like a convenience store that only has vending machines in it. It’s something you do if you don’t want to spend a lot of money so it was perfect. It perfectly captured Jack Benny. They called up Jack, they pitched the idea and Jack loved it.

They had an amazing party. Jack Benny stood at the door, handed out rolls of nickels to people as they came in, got out of their limos, fancy dresses. Played the violin a little bit. An amazing event. It got covered in newspapers all around the country. I’ve seen photos of it. It’s a phenomenal story, a phenomenal party.

Hugh told me at the end, “The reason I tell you this is because there’s not a chance that William Golden would have ever had the opportunity to pitch that idea if he had been deeper down in the organization. The only way he could have that sort of leverage and that sort of impact is to be right next to the seat of power.” He said, “You should move into management, because it’s how you get to the table. It’s how you’re going to scale your impact and your influence.”

So I did. I took the job at Yahoo! and it wasn’t too long before I got there that I had to confront this question: “If I want to be a manager, what does that mean? What kind of manager do I want to be? Do I want to be a player coach? Do I want to be a coach? Do I want to be a dictator?”

There’s lots of different models for management and I wasn’t really quite sure which one I wanted to use because I hadn’t worked in a lot of big companies where I had a manager to look up to. But then I came across this book, which was referenced earlier today: Orbiting the Giant Hairball.

Orbiting The Giant Hairball

I’m going to make a bigger pitch for it — You should definitely get this book and you should definitely get it in hardback. It’s an amazing physical artifact and it’s just a terrific book, written by Gordon MacKenzie. It must have come out around 2003, 2004.

Gordon was a designer at Hallmark cards, and so he was trying to design greeting cards but he had to deal with this gigantic corporate hierarchy in Kansas City in order to do that.

The book talks about navigating as a creative, navigating the bureaucracy. In part of the book — the whole book is not like this but in part of the book — he goes to these yellow sheets, which is why you want to get the book in physical copy and not electronic. He compares these models of the pyramid and the plum tree. And this became how I started to think about management.

The Pyramid

He starts out here. We’ll jump over there to the pyramid—conversations within the pyramid organization. The executives are at the top saying, “we can see forever. It’s awesome, right?”

Middle management, “get out of my way.” I’m pushing, I’m shoving, I’m trying to get up to the top.

Down at the bottom, the product producers—the people who are actually coming up with what the company is valued for—they’re like, “Jeez, I wonder what it’s like up there at the top, what’s the weather?”

Things get a little stressful. Folks up at the top are thinking we must grow or we’re going to die. Middle management—they’re pushing and shoving, they’re looking down at the bottom, “you guys have to work harder.” The people down at the bottom, “Can somebody just get me out from underneath this crushing weight?”

The Plum Tree

But McKinsey also talks about the plum tree as a different model. The plum tree—the people who are producing the work—they’re at the top of the organization. They’re the ones closest to the sky. They’re the ones closest to the air. They’re producing the plums, which is actually the crop, the thing that the company sells. And in this model the role of middle management is to be the branches, to get the nutrients out to those individuals. And the trunk is the executive management. It’s providing the stability and bringing all the nutrients from the soil up.

The conversation there is very different. The people at the top are saying, “Man, on a clear day we can see forever.” The middle managers, “What do you need to help you? What can we do?” And the response is, “We’re great. We’ve got sunshine, we’ve got water, all is good.”

He closes this section, over on the far side there, with a semantic comparison between the pyramid and the plum tree. And somehow I never really thought before about the pyramid being a tomb; I thought about these giant structures in Egypt which of course are tombs but I don’t know if I really thought of them that way.

Bureaucratic hierarchy for creative people; it’s kind of like a tomb. It sucks, and probably some of you know that. The comparison of the plum tree is interesting because the tree is ever changing; it’s ever growing. It’s very dynamic.

Most of the companies you work at are probably like this; you never know from day to day what the branches are going to do and where the leaves are going to show up. At times it probably seems really disorienting but if you buy into the idea of it being a tree, it can be a really wonderful ride.

And so I began to realize that as a manager, I wanted to be one of those branches that got the nutrients out to the edges, I didn’t want to be at the top of that pyramid. I wanted to be part of the plum treee more than I wanted to sit atop a tomb.

And the philosophy—the basic framework that I came to as a designer is this: if you get the right people and you surround them with the right process you’ll get terrific products as a consequence. Instead of focusing just on the product and thinking about how to make my stamp as a designer, I realized that my focus should really be on getting the right people, enveloping them in the right process, and then letting them do the magic they’re designed to do—that they’re intended to do. Like the work we just saw from Sam and Vanessa at Asana.

“If you get the right people, and you surround them with the right process, you’ll get terrific product as a consequence” — Bob Baxley

Lesson One — Management

I realized that in my job as a manager I was going to have the opportunity to not only use my design talents but also to leverage how I approach the world as a designer—I saw how managment was going to give me the opportunity to use those skills to design the machine that designs the designs.

Even though I’m a manager, I still go to work every day thinking like a designer. I think about doing research. I think about trying different things. I think about trying to create a future that I want to live in, and then developing all the mechanisms and frameworks and communication to get there.

Done thoughtfully, I strongly believe design management will significantly broaden your influence, increase your impact, and further your reach.

That’s lesson number one. Management is a great way to scale.

“Done thoughtfully, I strongly believe design management will significantly broaden your influence, your impact, and your reach.” — Bob Baxley

Lesson Two — Predictable Path To Yes

Lesson number two: every product development process should feature a predictable Path To Yes.

People kind of get upset when we talk about the Path To Yes because in a way, it’s talking about process. But you know, process exists in every decision you make with somebody else.

For example, I had a chance to be at dinner with Ben last night and he was talking about his family. He’s got four kids and I was wondering, how do you guys figure out dinner? Six people. That’s just a lot to deal with. But it turns out they have a process — as a family — they have a process to figure out dinner.

“Every product development process should feature a predictable path to yes.” — Bob Baxley

All of you have a process with your team to figure out what you’re going to build and how you’re going to build it. You can’t not have a process because process defines the rules, the norms, and the methods by which you’re going to make collective decisions. And you can’t function as a team without making collective decisions.

So I believe the key purpose to process is to establish the Path To Yes. Specifically, how are we going to decide when something is good enough to go out?

I think there’s at least four different models that people generally use for the Path To Yes that I want to go through in a little bit more detail.

1. Date Driven

The first one is date-driven. At some point, you just agree to a date and everything moves to hit it.

This is Buzz Aldrin on the moon, summer of 1969. This is a date that many people were working towards for seven or eight years. 400,000 people were involved in getting Buzz Aldrin onto the moon along with Neil Armstrong. Thousands and thousands of companies. They committed to a date and nobody wanted to be the person that blew that date. Lots of decisions were made to hit those dates and the people involved in those decisions recognized the compromises and they went home at night thinking there was a fairness to the system because they understood the importance of hitting the date.

For those of you who are family photographers, I’d love to point out one thing about this photo. Neil Armstrong, was of course the first man to walk on the moon but there’s only one photograph of Neil that was actually shot on the surface of the moon and it’s this one — even though it’s a picture of Buzz. See if you look in Buzz’s visor you’ll see a reflection of Neil. Just like all of you family photographers who don’t show up in your family photos—it turns out Neil had the camera and so there’s only pictures of Buzz on the surface, except this one reflection showing Neil.

2. Metrics-driven

Sometimes you’re going to make decisions by metrics. This is sort of the famous 27 shades of blue approach — you just decide you’re going to live by whatever the numbers say.

We heard from Keenan the other day [about] the difference between metrics-driven and metrics-influenced. I like metrics-influenced a lot more. It speaks to me more as a designer although there are also times you’re going to make decisions from a metrics-driven perspective.

I kind of compare this a little bit to Darwinian evolution. We’re going to decide what the survival of the fittest means — and typically that means click-through rates, sometimes it means new accounts, sometimes it means something else. In Darwinian evolution—it means reproduction.

How are we going to decide? We’re just going to try permutations, and we’re going to see where it leads. Now if you give evolution a really long period of time it gets you cool stuff. It gets you tigers and panda bears and moray eels. It takes a few billion years and it doesn’t really ship on time but no doubt it gets you some really cool places.

The problem is, it might also vie you a six headed shrimp along the way. And so if you’re going to make decisions and you’re going to live and die by metrics, you have to ask yourself if you’re willing to live with a six-headed shrimp.

3. Consensus-driven

Then there’s consensus-driven, which is probably what many of you use. I’ve talked to a bunch of different startups and a few of my friends over a Twitter about this. At Twitter they have these meetings they call EPD meetings — engineering, product, and design — and lots of companies talk about trying to balance this triad.

I’ve heard this triad over and over again but I haven’t heard too many companies that really had it working well, even though they all aspired to it because they tended to believe that was where they needed to get.

Those conversations made me think about the structure of the federal government. This is James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution. The federal government’s structure and this idea of balance of powers — three separate but equal branches of government, the executive, the legislative, and the judicial — is, an interesting model for balancing engineering, product, and design.

Think about the President sort of like a product manager. They have some power, they don’t have all the power. The tend to set the timelines. They tend to set the agenda. They’re out talking a lot, advocating, constantly pushing.

Then you look at the legislature as a little bit like engineering. There tends to be a lot of them. They’re a little contentious, kind of fight amongst themselves. They own a lot of resources, they have a lot of influence, and they do come up with ideas of their own that they try to push to the other branches. And obviously, if you want to do anything you’ve got to get them on board.

Then, you have the judiciary, which for our purposes I’ll describe as the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is a little bit like design. It’s about nine people, should be nine people. They tend to debate a lot of stuff behind closed doors. The rest of the team doesn’t really quite know what’s going on. Over a period of time they come out with recommendations that have been deliberated. Which tend to be logical arguments that emphasize consistency and precedent and people tend to go along with them even though they’re really, at the end of the day, just opinions. And the Supreme Court, like design, has no enforcement capabilities. Doesn’t have an army. Doesn’t have a budget. But people go along because they know it’s the right thing to do.

Now if you think about that structure when it’s working well—as it has generally for the last few hundred years—it’s incredibly well balanced, stable, and reliable, and people understand that’s how we make decisions. The trick is, everybody in each one of those groups has to appreciate and understand the incentives of the people in the other groups and they have to be sure to never take it personally.

I think when you see the EPD model in companies working really well, it’s because they’re arrived at that sort of understanding of each other and what they’re all trying to do. Consensus-driven.

4. Authority-driven

Then finally, the fourth one that a lot of people are familiar with is authority-driven. It’s probably the easiest one to understand. Somebody is going to make all the calls. Somebody is going to be the dictator.

This guy probably doesn’t necessarily look like an authority figure, but he is. This is John Lasseter, founder of Pixar, director of the Toy Story movies. By all accounts a happy go-lucky guy. But at the end of the day, he’s making the decisions. He’s operating in the role of dictator.

It turns out the movie industry figured out the authority-driven Path To Yes a long time ago. They have this model called a director and the director is responsible for the movie creatively—from soup to nuts.

Very few technology companies have pulled that off and very few projects really demand that. I think it’s because movies are a fixed deliverable in time; whereas technology and software products keep going and going. You don’t really want one person having to make all the decisions for a never-ending product life cycle.

If you’re doing something brand new it’s not crazy that you would need a single authority figure to help guide it through all the different debates and trade-offs required to bring it to the market. I don’t know however if authority-driven scales. I don’t know if it’s sustainable. But it’s definitely a model and it’s a really clear way to get to a Path To Yes.

I bring all of these up — and I think there’s probably a bunch of other ones — because they all have pros and cons and they’re all applicable to different problems at different times.

The trick for you as a manager is not so much which one you’re going to use as much as it is to make sure you’re clear and consistent in your own head and with your team, about how you’re going to make decisions together. What is your Path To Yes going to be?

And to be sure, the Path To Yes should be a lot more like mountaineering than spelunking.

Spelunking, cave diving—this is a really cool looking picture. These guys are in a cave. Looks awesome. The funny thing is they don’t really know what’s behind that corner over there so even though they think they’ve gotten the four VPs approval they need, just behind that corner they might hit the legal department and suddenly they’re in for another gauntlet of approvals and requirements.

You heard the story earlier [about] the woman who came up with the Citibank logo and how many approvals she had to go through. There was no clear Path To Yes for her.

When we see pictures of caves, we see them like this because they’re lit. If you’re actually in the cave, if you’re actually the person trying to figure out the cave, it looks like this [total darkness] because they only light the cave long enough to take the picture.

If you have a Path To Yes that’s not clearly defined, it feels like total darkness to the people stuck in the middle of it.

I mentioned earlier how it should feel a bit more like mountaineering which, as you can see in this photo looks scary — but it’s clear, right? You’re trying to get to the top; you can actually chart a course there.

I’m not saying people don’t struggle in all these things. I’m not saying the Path To Yes should be simple or easy, but it should be clear and it should be reliable. This is lesson number 2: the importance of the Path To Yes.

Lesson Three — Always Be Learning

Number 3: a great manager helps their people grow. The last few years have taught me that clear expectations are not only the number 1 predictor of employee satisfaction and employee engagement for myself in my own work, but also for my team. It is absolutely critical as a manager to be clear about what people are supposed to do, what the expectations are for their behavior, and what is their scope of responsibility.

I was also a little surprised to learn that designers rate opportunity to learn as the most important thing to them in their job. We’ve heard that a little bit over the last couple of days. And perhaps I intuitively knew that designers, like myself, are intensely curious people, but I don’t know if as a design manager I came to work every day thinking it was an important part of my job to provide opportunities for my team to learn.

I actually did this little poll on Twitter a while back for another presentation. I got 545 votes, which my high school children laugh at but I thought it was a decent number. Twitter only let me put 4 options up there although I should say that these specific four came from a couple of other designers I worked with.

You can see right off the bat: 33 percent opportunity to learn, after that personal impact, and then pretty far back you pick up company mission and compensation. As a manager it was always easy for me to talk about compensation or company mission because I could pitch the company mission and I could affect compensation.

But again, I don’t know if I came to work every day as a manager thinking that a big part of my job and my team’s happiness and their creativity was going to depend on me maximizing their personal impact, giving them an opportunity to learn. One of my takeaways from all this was the importance of having career ladders in your company. Something that helps define what someone is going to learn and how they’re going to build their skills.

Unfortunately I haven’t worked in too many companies that had really clear career ladders although I’m starting to see it more and more. Recently however I was able to take a little time to back up and look at what a career path might look like and I think this is one of the the main things Ben Peck reached out to me to talk with you about today.

These titles actually come from an AIGA salary survey, it’s a little dated…2014, 8700 respondents…a little bit better than my 500. You can see that they start with zero to two year of experience for junior designers and then move up the ladder to principal designer, which we might also call a creative director, at 10 years plus.

I put the salaries up there because I think a lot of times we lose track of how lucrative our field actually is. $40,000 is a pretty good salary for somebody just out of school — and I like to point out design doesn’t require a college degree. It’s great if you have a college degree, but a lot of design jobs can be done without a college degree.

Right out of school making 40 grand — and this is a nationwide median figure — that’s a pretty good number. That second number, a couple of years in, you get your first promotion and you’re making 53 thousand dollars. I don’t know what that buys in Salt Lake City — these numbers vary a lot — but of course they’re almost double what’s shown here when you get into San Francisco and New York. Still, $53,000 is pretty close to the median household income for a family of 4 in the United States. That’s a good job. And if you go all the way up to principal designer, you’re breaking into 6 figures. Again, in San Francisco and New York it’s twice that high — around $200,000. These are really good jobs.

But more than just salary and experience level, I want to talk about what each one of these mean. Junior designer, what does that really mean? We tend to use these labels to talk about how long people have been in the industry but they’re actually different jobs with different responsibilities and expectations.

Junior Designer

A junior designer’s primary job is to work in the service of other people’s ideas. They help other designers scale by being their hands. For example, they tend to execute a lot of the permutations that need to be explored in order to make an intelligent design decision. I like to break this down into how these different roles perform within the framework of people, process and product.

In the case of people, they’re an integral part of the team. They’re focused on their individual output. They’re assigned specific tasks and they receive prescriptive feedback: “Make this blue. Change that font size. Change this animation.” They’re told what to do and their job is to go execute it.

Staff Designer

When you move up to the next level, staff designer, you’re working in the service of your own ideas. That’s probably where the bulk of designers live. Any time you hear somebody say, “Oh, they’re the only designer on that project,” they’re working as a staff designer because they don’t have any help. They’re working on their own, executing against their own ideas.

They’re driving cross-functional interactions. They’re reaching out to product, engineering, research, the executives. They’re focused on their individual output but they’re also starting to interact with junior designers and interns and trying to mentor and grow the next generation of talent. They’re given specific deliverables and feedback and occasionally present at the executive level.

They’re starting to develop the story-telling skills that Keenan talked about. And they’re executing high quality solutions in an established problem space while finding their own way to do it. They’re creating relatively predictable solutions to things like checkout, search, and other known problems like that.

Senior Designer

Next level up you get senior designer. This is the crew that’s really developing the work and creating the ideas that are going to be executed in part by the junior designers. If you’re a senior designer, the company’s investing in you and helping you scale. You’re proactively engaging with other disciplines. You’re a key collaborator for other designers.

Senior designers are sought out by other people on the team for their creative input. You’re presenting your own work at all different levels of the company and you’re synthesizing feedback. You’re probably getting differing feedback from different people and you’re trying to listen through that and figure out your own interpretation of what it all means.

Finally, you’re creating and perfecting different solutions in established problem spaces. You’re coming up a new way to do something that other companies have explored.

Lead Designer

Next, lead designer: you’re driving and coordinating ideas for specific product areas. In the case of Facebook you might be the lead designer for news feed, or search, or growth, or account management. You’re probably coordinating multiple senior designers, multiple junior designers—not necessarily managing them but helping to coordinate their work.

You’re presenting at all levels of the company, internal and external. You’re talking at conferences like this, you’re talking to the press. You know how and when to engage feedback from others. You’re starting to figure out how to really navigate the company, how to understand how to use the organization to get your ideas out into the public.

You’re imagining and executing original solutions in a problem space that’s unique to your company. Again, somebody at Facebook might be focused on News Feed. News Feed is something that’s unique and critical to Facebook’s success so you’d have a lead designer working on it.

Principal Designer

The top of the career ladder here, principal designer. Principal designers set the tone and drive the framework for system-wide ideas. They’re saying, “This is how the product works as an entire system.” and they’re communicating that system down to the other designers.

They’re providing the framework for all those other ideas to take place. They’re a key leader across the company and they’re a major factor in recruiting. People come to your company to work with your principal designers.

They’re also championing process improvements and they’re able to listen through feedback for deeper meaning, even when they’re hearing competing and differing ideas from the various executives.

They’re the ones that have to figure the path through all that feedback. They’re imagining and coming up with completely original ideas for the company. They’re ahead of the executives, they’re ahead of the industry, they’re ahead of the competition.

I think the great thing about that progression is—as Baden-Powell did when he developed Boy Scouts—is it gives you this great progression of ranks. It shows designers the skills they need to get to move to the next level. It helps you as a manager figure out how to develop those talents by giving them particular problems, particular opportunities to get those experiences to move up that ladder.

“Developing talent is business’s most important task, the sine qua non of competition in a knowledge economy.” — Peter Drucker

A big part of your job as a manager is developing the talent. Something like these career ladders — which are just the are ones I’ve come up with — are a critical part of growing and developing the talent on your team. And of course, I would hope you’d come up with your own that are appropriate for the unique needs of your company — something that provides clear milestones and steps for the employees as they move up the ladder and progress through their career.

Lesson Four — Candidate Experience

That’s number 4, the candidate experience; it’s one of your most important design projects. I’ve had a chance to interview at a couple of companies recently. I hadn’t been on that side of the table for a long time. It’s a little bit like a doctor having to go in for surgery and trust me, being a patient is a really eye-opening experience, I can promise you.

And one of the things that I’ve learned from this is that the candidate experience is probably the best predictor of what it’s going to be like to work at your company. And that means it needs to be designed and thoughtfully executed. I could tell that not many of the companies I talked to had actually designed — in a thoughtful and careful way — their hiring experience.

It seemed to vary quite a bit with not only differences from one company to another but also from what the recruiter told me was going to happen to what actually did happen. Most companies didn’t seem to have a playbook that they were consistently following. And as a candidate I came to value transparency, consideration and efficiency. What do I mean by that?

At the beginning were they transparent with me about what the process and timeframes were going to be? Did they have well-defined job requirements? Did I really know what I was getting into as a candidate?

Also were they considerate? Were they timely and punctual? Did they call me when they said they were going to call? Did they show up to the meetings on time? It’s simple stuff, but when companies get really busy it’s not always the first thing they focus on.

Efficiency: efficiency simply means are you making good use of everyone’s time? Does it feel like things are moving towards a decision? Did I feel like there was a Path To Yes that was somehow embedded in what they were doing?

I came to think that the ideal interview process, certainly for individual contributor candidates, probably shouldn’t take more than about 14 days. That’s a pretty efficient process. Maybe some of you move faster than that but I know quite a few companies that move substantially slower.

Once you hit the phone screen you should be trying to schedule the on-site interview, hopefully later that week or early the following week. You shouldn’t be the bottleneck for the on-site interview. It should be the candidate. If their schedule doesn’t afford it, that’s understandable but you should be making time for those on-site interviews.

As soon as that interview takes place you need to be gathering feedback, hopefully that same day. Then you need to be working with a hiring manager to move to a decision, and as soon as a decision is made you should notify the candidate. I think it would be a great experience if I talked to you on the phone on a Monday, and I know if there’s going to be a job offer by the following Friday and a half, 2 Fridays out.

It’s anxious when you’re interviewing for these jobs. If you try to close this quickly the candidate’s going to respect you more because they’re going to realize, “Wow, this company’s got it together. They know what they want, how to work the process, and how to move to a decision.”

On-site Interview

We’re going to spend a little bit of time talking about the on-site interview itself. It’s the bulk of this process, and I’ll get through these really quickly. The on-site interview, 6 steps, starts with the warm welcome.

Warm Welcome

The recruiter greets the candidate, explains the day, answers any questions they might have, provides their contact info.

Sometimes people won’t make it to the interview. Sometimes the candidate’s wondering what’s going on; and there’s nothing worse than sitting in a conference room wondering who you’re supposed to text to tell them so and so didn’t show up. And don’t forget to make sure the candidate is comfortable — have something to drink, known where the bathrooms are, that sort of stuff.

Portfolio Presentations

The first thing designers are going to do, is they’re going to go into a portfolio presentation. It’s stressful. They have to get up and share their work and it’s anxiety-producing. How do you calm them down and help them feel comfortable with that?

The portfolio presentation itself, this isn’t just a portfolio review. You’ve probably seen their portfolio online already. This is about how they present it. How do they talk and show their work? All the interviewers that are going to be there in the day need to attend.

Be sure you clarify the time constraints with the candidate at the very beginning. Make sure they understands you’ve got 45 minutes. “Looking forward to seeing your work. It looks like we’re scheduled until 10 am.”

Ask questions. Interrupt them as they’re talking. Ask more questions. Ask them about the team, their specific role. Dig into some of the designs. See how they respond. It shouldn’t just be a lecture, it should be a conversation even bordering on a debate.

I also think you should use a standard grading system. For most of my career as a design manager we just all sort of walked out of the design presentation and it was this Roman emperor thing with just thumbs up, thumbs down. We didn’t really have a shared way of thinking about, “What are we trying to grade these people on?” I’m going to dig into detail here on that in just a second.

The number 1 question you’re trying to answer in the portfolio presentation is, “Can they do the job?” It’s a big question, right? Sometimes you’re going to walk out of a portfolio presentation and it’s not going to be very good.

I would encourage you to actually just cut off the interview at that point. The reason I say that is because I’ve never seen somebody get an offer after a bad portfolio presentation. And I’ve also never failed to make an offer to somebody who had a great one. So while I hate to say the portfolio presentation is a tryout, in reality, the data indicates that it’s basically a tryout.

If it doesn’t go well there’s really not a lot of sense in tying up everybody’s time, stringing the candidate along. It’s a tough conversation, typically for the recruiter, but it is clear and it simplifies what’s going on for the rest of the day.

So what about evaluating portfolio presentations? We should talk about what a standard criteria might be for that. For me I came up with these 3 top-level areas: craft, collaboration, and communication. And I like to see everyone in the presentation rate the candidate on a scale of 1 to 5 against these 15 different attributes.

In terms of craft Ilook at information architecture, interaction design, typography, color and motion. For collaboration how they collaborate with design, product, engineering, researcher and executives. Then communication ended up being the one I thought, as a manager, was surprisingly critical; that I hadn’t necessarily been thinking about as deeply as I could.

Do they own the room? Do they really control what’s happening in the room? Are they engaging everybody? Are they moving the conversation forward? Are they open to feedback?

When you start asking questions about the work do they get defensive? Do they blame things on the client? I hate that; that’s like the mortal sin of all portfolio presentations: “Oh, the client just told us to do that.” Do they think on their feet?

One of the most important things is: do they manage their time well? Do they manage the clock, because when they’re presenting to the team, when they’re presenting to executives, they’re only going to have 15, 20 minutes. I’ve seen designers come in and we tell them they’ve got 45 minutes to present their work. And then they’re like, “That’s great, I’ve got 3 projects.” 40 minutes have gone by and they’re just wrapping up their first project and they just run out of time. In the presentation they’ve got to show that they can manage the clock. It’s a big deal.

Cross Functional Interviews

Continuing with the process, the cross functional interviews. Now you’re doing 1 on 1s, and 2 on 1s with people across the company. I’m sure that all of you do this already. The main thing you’re trying to see here is if the candidate is a good cultural fit? Do you want to have this person on your team? Do they make sense in the company?

Collaboration Session

The next one: the collaboration session. I’ve used this different times. I don’t know how many of you use this. I’ve found it to be really useful. Basically you get the candidate in a room with 1 or 2 other folks and you just riff, you have a jam session about some idea. Preferably it’s not about your product, because you have way too much knowledge and most of the ideas they come up with you’re not going to like because you’ve already tried them.

You need to come up with something that’s neutral territory for both of you. Travel sites are always pretty interesting because everybody has some experience with them. Travel sucks in general. The state of design there is not terrific and so it’s usually a really rich problem space.

What you’re watching for is creative chemistry. Does the candidate help make the ideas better? Do they move things along? It’s a critical thing and it’s a key part of being successful as a designer on your team. I actually think all the product managers and engineers should do these collaboration sessions as well. My friends on those organizations haven’t been quite so willing to do that but I think it’s great to see what the creative chemistry is like between people that are joining any part of the product development team.

Hiring Manager 1:1

The hiring manager 1 on 1. This is where the hiring manager comes in. This is really your job now, to help make a decision and to sell the candidate. For me personally the main thing I’m looking for in a candidate is: what do they hope to learn? We all know that there’s a good chance they’re going to leave the company at some point in the future. That happens, 3 to 5, 7, 10 years from now—they’re going to leave.

They’re going to walk out of here with a few bullet points. They’re going to go to LinkedIn and they’re going to put those bullet points on their profile. What do they want those bullet points to be? As a candidate do you think at the beginning of the job what it is you want to take out of it at the end? As a manager, that’s a great indication to me as to whether they’re naturally curious. What do they want to learn? It helps me understand why they want this job. Why do they want to work at this company?

Fond Farewell

Finally there is the fond farewell. It’s a chance for the recruiter to come in and ask if the candidate has any final questions. A really critical thing here is for the recruiter to get feedback on the day. How did it go? This is your chance to do some design research and see how your design for the hiring process went. You can get some really great feedback about the interviewers and whether they had different ideas about what you were looking for or what the job is. Was everybody clear on the reporting structure? Did everybody describe the company mission in the same way? Often as not they don’t.

Then of course you thank them for their time and you communicate the follow-up.

Look, hiring is hard. It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of patience, but it’s the most important thing you’re going to do, and it’s something you’re going to be asked to do over and over again.

You’re not always going to get it right, and trust me, it’s really painful when you get it wrong. It’s something to think carefully about and to try and pour your design sensibilities into really thinking through the candidate experience.

There’s a great quote from Ed Catmull, founder of Pixar — Ed wrote Creativity, Inc., which is another wonderful book I hope all of you will read:

“Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.” — Ed Catmull

Again, people plus process, you get great product as a consequence.

Lesson Five — We Need A Lot More Designers

This is my fifth lesson. We need a lot more designers. Sitting in Silicon Valley I’m relatively convinced that design as a skill set is the number 1 constraint on most tech companies. Over and over and over again, every tech company I talk to talks about how hard it is to find design talent.

This is an interesting stat. This is from 2014 as well, US Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is the number of people in the United States writing code professionally. The US government breaks it into 3 different skill sets: software developers, programmers and web developers.

Programmers you might think of as IT people. Their estimate is that right now there’s 1,591,100 people writing code professionally in the United States. If we assume a 10 to 1 ratio between engineering and design, which I think is the bare minimum — but fortunately it also makes for easy math — that means we need about 159,000 designers working in the US right now.

“We need about 159,000 designers working in the US right now” — Bob Baxley

Does anybody think there’s 159,000 designers in the US working on software right now? Does anybody think there’s 80,000, which is half that many? Okay, no. I don’t think we’re even close to that 10 to 1 ratio, which is where most organizations need to be. Of course, it gets even a little bit trickier because as you look forward from 2014 to 2024 you see a 12-and-a-half percent growth in the number of jobs.

I have to point out, this is the number of jobs, this isn’t the number of people. There’s actually more people because some folks are going to fall out of their current jobs. It’s 200,000 additional new jobs in the next 10 years—12-and-a-half percent growth. 200,000 additional coding jobs in the US in the next 10 years, 3-and-a-half million new jobs internationally, 18 times as many people writing code internationally as are writing in the United States.

If you look at the math, that’s 20,000 additional design jobs in the United States — 357,000 new design jobs internationally. As a design manager, and as you’re thinking about growing your organization over the next 10, 15 years you have to ask: “Where in the world are all these designers going to come from?”

Of course like all things, they’re going to come from the next generation.

This chart comes from the Pew Research Center. There’s some debate as to how you break up the generations and so this break between Millennials and Gen Z is still being debated. But Pew uses 1996 as the demarcation.

If we stick with that for a second, you realize that Generation Z — which doesn’t get a lot of airtime because we talk so much about Millennials and Gen X — are already 25 percent of the US population. The largest generation in American history numerically and growing by 4 million a year. And they probably still have another 4 years to go before the next generation starts being born.

Already 25% of the U.S. population, Gen-Z is the largest generation in history and growing by nearly 4 million a year. — Center of Disease Control and Prevention

They could add another 16 million people to their generation. If you look at this raw data they’re going to absolutely dwarf every other generation in terms of numbers because of course they’re the only generation still growing. Look at baby boomers at 74 million and then jump up to Millennials, they’re a good 6 million behind at 68 million. Gen Z already in 2015 had 10 million more people than Millennials. We could end up with 26 million more Gen Z than there are Millennials.

So what does it mean to be part of Gen Z? I have a couple of teenagers at home and we talk about how technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.

“Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.” — Alan Kay

We ask the question of what happened when they were born. My son who’s 17, was born in 1998. Let me show you his experience of technology. Starting in the year 2000 when he’s 2, we’ll overlay a couple of historical moments here so we can all orient in time. The presidential election, some big economic events, and of course the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

This is what happened with him in school. You see he enters elementary school right after Bush was re-elected. At this point he would have been very aware of what was going on with terrorism, the various wars. Kids know what’s going on. You guys have kids. They know what’s going on, right? And then junior high just before Obama’s re-elected, high school just after that.

Their experience of growing up is very much like the experience of what they call “The Greatest Generation.” They’re growing up in an era of perpetual war and economic uncertainty, very much like the Great Depression and World War 2. And it’s creating a generation that’s very pragmatic and is already thinking about jobs.

The oldest cohorts in Gen Z, they’re already making career decisions. And the reason I’m talking about them to you today is because if you want to get to them you need to start getting to them now. Otherwise they’re probably going to go into engineering, product management, other fields.

If we want them in design, I think we need to go talk to them about design right now. We need to talk to them about the supply, the demand, the economics and we need to start trying to recruit them.

Now look at the last column — this slide always makes people feel old. We start in 2001 when my son is 3, that’s when Wikipedia came out. When he was 4, LinkedIn; when he’s 5, iTunes and the iPod; when he’s 6, Facebook came out. He started elementary school, YouTube was launched. Second grade he gets Twitter; third grade he gets the iPhone; fourth grade we pick up the App Store and Spotify; fifth grade WhatsApp; sixth grade Instagram. And yes, we live in Silicon Valley so he had accounts on all those services and he had all those devices. He’s living in technology. By the time he hits junior high he picks up Snapchat as a seventh grader; Vine as an eighth grader.

So by the time he hits high school none of this stuff is technology. None of this new, none of this is novel. He’s not trying to figure out how any of this stuff works. This is his life. This is just the background of his life. This is how it works. Gen Z is clearly the first truly digital native generation in history. Period.

Fortunately I also think they’re probably going to be the greatest design generation in history as well. And the reason I think that is because they’re going to grow up in a technology savvy world where design has really come to the forefront, at least in the American culture. I actually have a lot of hope and promise that they’re going to be a phenomenal force for design.

Again, I think if we want to get hold of them though, we need to start crafting a culture that brings them into our companies now.

I want to finish really briefly.

This is a bonus lesson. There’s 3 quotes that I’ve collected and hung onto over my career. They’re all short and pretty easy to memorize.

Favorite Quote One:

“There’s nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept.” — Ansel Adams

It’s really easy to jump into Photoshop, jump into Sketch, do some really cool gradients, make things look great, a lot of digital pyrotechnics to impress the boss, but then when it gets to users maybe it doesn’t make sense because you didn’t do the work to really think through the concept.

I find that jumping to the visual solution can be incredibly distracting from the harder conversation, which is the one about the concept and what purpose it truly serves. I encourage you to never create brilliant images of fuzzy concepts. Work on the concept.

Favorite Quote Two:

“Design is clear thinking made visible.” — Edward Tufte

I like this quote because it talks about design more as a way of being in the world. Design isn’t just what we do, it’s not just the artifacts we produce, it’s how we think. Designers imagine a future they want to be a part of and then they think through how they would get there. They try to make it in logical, rational steps, and they try to communicate it to other people and get them on board. That how I try to think about design management: clear thinking made visible.

Favorite Quote Three:

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” — African Proverb

I’m going to let that one stand on its own.

Thank you so much for your time and attention.

— Bob Baxley



Ben Peck
Front Utah

Husband & Father of 4. Product Advisor (UX + PM) Cofounder of @front. Director of @product_hive.