Hiring Designers: The Ideation Spectrum

Svilen's Realm
Published in
5 min readMar 10, 2018


Hiring is tough.

Getting to know a person in a formal setting with limited time to determine if he/she can add value to your organization is an incredibly difficult task. There are dozen of approaches used by employers to aid them in assessing design candidates: reviewing portfolios, issue design challenges, ask behavioral questions 👎, brain teasers 😡 and check references. But there’s a dimensional aspect which is grossly unconsidered by employers…

Every product, service or project lies on…

Most startups reside on the left side of the spectrum as they are exploring uncharted territory; their products and services are in early developmental stages and could pivot at any moment.

On the right side of the spectrum are fully developed companies with proven products and steady revenue streams. Occasionally they jump to the left side when launching a new product or enter a new market.

When hiring designers, managers should consider not only their product’s placement on the spectrum, but a designer’s placement as well…

Hunters vs Farmers

Aaron Walters (previous Head of UX at MailChimp) categorizes designers who thrive on the left side of the spectrum as Hunters:

  • Excited by freedom to wander — too many constraints deplete their energy
  • Comfortable with uncertainty and unfamiliar territory
  • Thrive on new products and redesigns

…and one’s who thrive on the right as Farmers:

  • Love constraints, and feel lost without them
  • Enjoy slogging through existing products to find a more refined design solution
  • Thrive on product iteration and refinement

Walters shares an interesting anecdote in the Design Leadership Handbook :

The MailChimp UX team was shorthanded as it wrapped up a key project, and to help us meet a deadline I brought in another designer to help. The product workflow had been sorted out — we just needed some details polished. After reviewing the work in progress, the new designer immediately started redesigning everything. These were interesting ideas, but none of the work was in the project scope. In the end, the designer pushed the team further off course, making it even harder to hit the tight deadline.
I had sent a hunter to do a farmer’s work.

Late 1 year, with some extra time on our hands, I asked 1 of my designers to begin exploring ideas for a major redesign of MailChimp. She created dozens of concepts, but I could see it wasn’t going well. Her stress was palpable. She continually sought guidance, but we had little to offer — we were venturing into new territory. After 2 months of exploration, she could take it no more — operating without constraints proved too stressful.

I had sent a farmer to do a hunter’s work.

Once you’ve determined where your product falls on the spectrum, you need to find a designer who matches your positioning in order to take your product to the next level. But how can you determine if a designer is a hunter or a farmer?

The Side Project

Sure, most interviewers might ask “What do you like to do in your spare time?” to which candidates respond with a sentence or two, followed by a “Cool, very interesting!” then interviewers glance over to the next question.

This is a missed opportunity.

Side projects are the easiest way to look into candidates’ psyche, understand what drives them, what they’re passionate about, and what other expertise and skills they may posses that are not listed on their resume.

Side projects are a great tool in assessing where a designer lies on the ideation spectrum because they live on it as well:

On the left you have experimental and unorthodox concepts that imagine future possibilities that perhaps don’t yet exist. They present novel approaches from interesting angles, and propose unusual solutions. These are the designers you need to hire when developing new and revolutionary products, or if your organization is in need of fresh solutions and could use of an innovation boost.

On the right are the re-designs of pre-existing products and services; perhaps they’ve been reorganized, rearranged, or have a UI refresh, but remain the same and haven’t been re-invented or rethought fundamentally. It is also likely farmers don’t have many side projects as their main work satisfies their creative urges. These are the designers you want when you’ve cemented a winning product but need to optimize or refine it further.

But doesn’t a work portfolio already serve the exact same purpose?

Not really.

Portfolios could be problematic for several reasons:

  • Non-Disclosure Agreements will often censor a portion of a designer’s work.
  • It’s easy for designers to share credit for communal achievements, and hard for employers to isolate their contributions.
  • The work designers have executed for past employers is seldomly the work they are passionate about.

On the other hand, side projects could demonstrate:

  • Extreme Ownership: there’s little to no room for excuses as designers have full creative control.
  • Actions Over Clichés: “Innovative,” “creative,” or “self starter” are clichés littered on resumes and LinkedIn profiles. Personal projects enable you to judge for yourself if a candidate lives up to his or her self-described adjectives.
  • Passion Over Paychecks: full time jobs are exhausting as is, so it speaks volumes when a designer choses to pursue other side ventures mostly for free.

Next time you’re hiring design resources, take into account both your company’s and the candidate’s position on the ideation spectrum. Take some time to review side projects much like you would a portfolio of prior work, as they will not only give you a better idea of a designer’s strengths, but might inform you of skills and abilities that are not captured otherwise.