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Building your core team: How to make your first Design hire

Getting a product with a great user experience to the customer is the main goal for early-stage startups. 

Because of this, the first design hire is typically a product designer. That said, they need to have a startup mentality and ‘figure it out’ when it comes to brand, marketing & communications design, as this will likely fall under their remit. The first design hire needs to be willing to jump in and contribute to this when needed, or be allocated the resources to hire an agency. 

Design candidate profiles to consider: 

The player-coach manager 

As a rule of thumb, the best candidates for a first design hire are player-coach design leaders (they have managed teams of 1 – 5 people, and still done some hands-on IC work in their last role, even if they only did 10 – 20% hands on work). Why? They can hit the ground running on designing features, but also know how to manage people and scale a team as the org grows.

The experienced IC

Another profile that works well is an experienced individual contributor (IC) with a strong desire to move into people management. Ideally, 7 – 8+ years’ experience. They have some experience mentoring and training junior designers (most likely when they were a lead on projects and the junior designers reported to them), but never had the “direct report” relationship—you’ll attract motivated people who want to grow into a leadership role.

The quick solution junior IC  

Hiring a relatively junior designer (3 – 5 years’ experience) to report to the Product Management leader can solve the immediate need to just get features shipped, especially if not having a designer is creating a bottleneck. 

However, a possible downside to this, is that a junior designer may lack the experience needed to navigate conversations with senior Product and Engineering leaders if they are being asked to design a feature in a way they don’t agree with, compromising your end users experience. 

What candidates will be assessing?

Interviewing is a two-way street and smart designers are evaluating you and your company as much as you are them. Here’s some things candidates will be looking at during the interview process: 

Does Design have a “seat at the table”

  • If the first design hire is a peer level to the most senior people in the Engineering and Product orgs, do they all have the same title? For example, if they are similar levels and Engineering and Product have “Head of” titles and there is a “Lead Designer” title for Design, it can be a yellow flag that the function is not respected at the same level. That said, if there is a significant difference in experience level (for example, a player-coach design leader with 8 years’ experience and Product leader with 15+ years’ experience and multiple successes) a VP title for the Product leader and a “Head of” or director title for Design makes sense.
  • If the most senior person in the Product and Engineering orgs report to the CEO, does design have the same structure?
  • Will Design be a true partner, involved in product development meetings? Or is the function seen as   a service to Product and Engineering to execute on what these two orgs have already decided. 

Pitfalls to avoid 

If there is no one that truly understands design at your company (which happens often at early-stage startups—that’s why you’re making this hire!) here are some pitfalls to avoid: 

Only targeting designers from large, brand name companies, known for good design. 

If you can attract talent away from these companies, awesome! But often these designers are very well looked after and because they are so in-demand it’s tough to lure them away. Only focusing on this type of candidate can lead to a very long, drawn out, frustrating process. My advice would be to target them in the search, but also be open to speaking with designers that have equally great portfolios of work, but have worked for earlier stage startups that don’t have a big brand name. In fact, the latter profile can often be a much better fit as they are used to working with less resources, in faster sprints, and in a “scrappier” startup style. 

Not getting help from a seasoned designer.

You don’t know what you don’t know, and if that’s Design, that’s ok! Be smart about attaining that knowledge. I would advise getting an experienced designer to review portfolios with you to help you understand what a good portfolio looks like. Then have them on your interview panel to assess candidates’ design chops, and do a portfolio review of their work. It will reflect positively on your company that you put in the effort, and will result in a better candidate experience for the designer. 

Suggested interview process

A thorough 3-round interview process that can be done in 2 weeks or less. 

If you leave too long in between interviews, you lose momentum and excitement on the candidate’s side. You may unknowingly give off the impression that you’re disinterested. Worst of all, you may lose your top candidate to another company that ran a more efficient interview process with a better candidate experience.   

1. Hiring Manager screen: learn about their experience, discuss their approach to design, get to know them etc.

2. Portfolio review and design exercise

  • The design exercise can be a whiteboarding design discussion with the Product and Eng. Teams that’s done live, or a take-home assessment they’ve been asked to prepare a short presentation on for the interview. Advice on this, whatever option you choose, just make sure the problem is not based on your own product, this is a major red flag for designers. For a take-home project, it shouldn’t take more than 2 hours and your best bet is to pay the candidates for their time on the project. 
  • There are pros and cons to both the live design challenge discussion with your team as part of the onsite, and the take-home exercise:
Take-home assessment  

  • The candidate is able to think about the problem and give a thought-out response without the pressure of an interview setting. 

  • You’re not guaranteed the work presented is 100% the candidate’s own work.
  • It can delay the process. 
  • If candidates have other commitments outside of work (sports, family, care-taking duties) they may not have time to do it, therefore you lose out on a potentially great candidate. 
Live assessment   

  • Typically the live assessment is done with a PM and Engineer, so you get to see how the candidate works with, and gels with your current team. 
  • Faster, more efficient process.

  • You might not get the depth of answer you would from a take-home exercise in an interview setting. 

3. Finally, one last round of interviews with necessary stakeholders.

By this time, you’ve already gauged their technical expertise, and this final conversation should focus on culture fit and if the candidate can build a rapport with the team.