advertisement
advertisement
  • 10.31.14

Where To Find Great Designers

Irene Au, a partner at Khosla Ventures and former design lead at Google, offers 10 tips for finding the best design talent.

Where To Find Great Designers
[Illustrations: Kilroy79 via Shutterstock]

Where do you find designers to hire?

advertisement

Twenty-five years ago, you might’ve mined the halls of the Rhode Island School of Design or the cubicles at big, traditional design agencies. Today, with designers employed across the working world, from tech startups to banks, the smartest employers are casting a wide net. Design schools aren’t a bad place to look. But they’re just a start. Here, 10 tips for finding your next great designer:

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 has a large network.

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, or ask them to refer other people.

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 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.

advertisement

For early-stage startups looking to hire a mid-level 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 two to four years makes a great candidate.

Startups and smaller companies

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

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

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 to 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.

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.


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 are all good sites for finding visual designers.

advertisement

The emphasis is on visual designers. The sites are not necessarily great for finding 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.

UX job boards

If you’re looking explicitly for a user experience (UX) designer, 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 whether people will fit into the work culture.

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

advertisement

New college graduates and interns

New college graduates are challenging for startups because they often lack real-world, hands-on experience, and even if they’ve had internships, 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 have a team and at least a few senior designers who can serve as mentors, consider hiring interns and college grads to help build out your team.


Different programs specialize in different design areas. Here is a (not comprehensive) list of (mostly U.S.-based) programs and schools that have produced graduates with skills sought after by employers.

Interaction design:

  • Carnegie Mellon Human-Computer Interaction Institute
  • Stanford University (Symbolic Systems program, d.School, 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
  • Carnegie Mellon Master of Professional Studies
  • 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)
  • TU Delft
  • Royal College of Art London
  • Goldsmiths London

User research:

advertisement
  • Carnegie Mellon Human-Computer Interaction Institute
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Cornell University Human Factors program
  • University of California at San Diego (UCSD) Cognitive Science program
  • Tufts University
  • Georgia Tech Human Factors program

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 who 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 San Francisco 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. 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 its 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, proactive, takes responsibility and does not adopt a victim mindset.

This article was adapted with permission from the author. Read the original here.

About the author

Irene Au is an operating partner at Khosla Ventures, focusing on design for its portfolio companies. She formerly led design at Google, Yahoo!, Udacity, and Netscape, where she built teams from scratch, delivered design at scale, and elevated design's strategic value.

More

Video