July 9, 2020

Hiring Your First Designer

Most of my career has been spent at early-stage start-ups. Due to the nature of small design teams, I have had to get familiar with design practices across the full spectrum of design within a company. Most companies separate design into two functions: product design and brand design. As companies scale, they might separate these functions further by creating new teams like UX Design, UX Research, Growth Design, or IxD.

I often talk to founders who are looking for guidance on making their first design hire. This might be the founding design hire, or it might be the first internal hire who is taking over for a combination of external agencies and design contractors. The design community is filled with a ton of talented creatives, so searching for the right person can feel like a daunting task. What are the skills required to support a new business finding its footing in the market? Here are a couple of learnings from my past experiences. I hope it helps answer some common questions.

Should I hire a generalist or a specialist?

This is somewhat dependent on the type of business you are building, but in my experience, I have found that there is generally (no pun intended) a good fit for most situations.

If your product is a digital product, you might look for a designer who can spike in more strategic thinking, user research, and building an MVP to find product-market fit. In your search, you might feel confident with a specialist in Product Design. On the contrary, if your business is more aligned with traditional DTC companies and can leverage out of the box digital solutions like Shopify, you might feel good hiring someone more specialized in marketing and branding. In both cases, you will be able to tackle immediate needs.

The common mistake I see when hiring specialists is a lack of understanding of how the holistic picture of design affects the big picture view of the business. Hiring someone who specializes in a certain type of design without a generalist’s understanding of design’s impact on every facet of the business can put you in a situation where you will need to hire more designers to fill that gap in understanding. (Something I wouldn’t recommend doing early on.) For example, a great product designer still needs an understanding of marketing design to help support your acquisition strategy, and a marketing designer needs to understand how product design works or else you will be sending high-quality traffic to a poorly functioning digital experience.

My advice is to hire someone who has more of a generalist approach, with a deep understanding of building a business. This type of hire is extremely important when building a design team, and can be equally important when finding someone to manage your design team as a whole.

Should I hire a senior design hire or a junior design hire?

This is mostly a question about optimizing your budget, which is understandable. Ultimately, you should be optimizing for strategic thinking, experience, and understanding. If you have strategic team members who can help drive design strategy, you might be able to get away with hiring more junior talent on the team. This is a great way to give a talented designer exposure to an experience that allows them to take on responsibility and learn through exposure to complex problems.

If you feel like you need someone to fill your gap in understanding of design practices, definitely hire senior design talent. I would suggest this for most companies if there isn’t a founder who has a background in design.

A common mistake I see here is that founders who have a passion for design (but no experience working in design and building design functions within organizations) feel that their sensibility for aesthetics will be enough to carry a junior designer to success. I would advise against this strategy. Design at this level is a function of process and thinking and not simply defined by the output. Good design can’t be defined by your objective view of what good design is, and you are much better off hiring someone who you can delegate defining that term to.

Should I work with a contractor instead of hiring?

This is a tough question. It is highly dependent on your needs as a business. A good way to determine if this is a good route is to draft your job description for your first design hire. If you need someone proficient in: motion design, 3D, product design, illustration, marketing design, leadership, prototyping, and everything in between…you are probably overreaching. If you can find this person, pay them a ton of money and hold onto them as long as you can.

Define what your core needs are and hire someone who can help you build a strategic plan to outsource things like photography and motion design. If you are passing on a great designer because they aren’t a photographer, you aren’t ready to hire a designer. Fill the gaps with contractors until you’re prepared to build design as a function within your organization.

There are a lot of other questions I get asked, but these were the top questions I felt would set folks on the right path. If you have more questions or would like to suggest additions to this list feel free to reach out!

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