Hiring your first designer: stand out as a startup that values design

Hiring the right design talent is crucial to the success of a company at any stage, but when you’re a startup or small business looking to make your very first design hire the stakes are much higher.

With the right approach, you can attract top talent and build a solid design foundation within your organization, ultimately elevating your product and setting your business apart from competitors. After looking back at several “first designer” hires, and chatting with Alex Palacios, the Director of Product Design at Pantheon (who recently built out their design team from scratch), we’ve compiled several suggestions for a successful first design hire:


1. Put yourself in a designer’s shoes.

A designer may take the following things into consideration when being approached for a design position at a startup:

Does this company value design? Does design have a seat at the table?

Like in any role, if a skillset isn’t appreciated or valued, frustration will ensue. Ensure that the designer you intend to hire will have an equitable role in the company. A first design hire should be empowered to make critical decisions at the same level as your marketing, product, sales, and engineering team.

Since I will not be in a team setting, will I get sufficient feedback?

Design functions best in a team setting, meaning that communication, feedback, and diversity of opinion are essential to a designer’s success. Be sure that you provide opportunities for mentorship outside of the business or encourage training that will contribute to your new designer’s professional development.

2. Consider why you want to hire a designer.

Take some time to assess the needs of your organization. Consider where design will add the most value to your organization and prioritize candidates with the right skillset. Contrary to popular belief, there is no unicorn candidate that has a firm grasp on all facets of design. Identify “where you are hurting the most right now,” suggests Alex.

Be prepared to answer tough questions such as: 

  • Why are hiring for design now? Why not before? 

  • Where will design fit within the general structure of the organization? 

  • What value do you see this hire bringing to your organization? 

  • Finally – what sort of support will this role receive

3. Become a Design advocate.

It can be tough to hire for a field you don’t have direct experience in. On the candidate side, there may be apprehension about joining an organization without other designers. By taking the time to understand the world of design and becoming a design advocate, you can show that your organization understands and values design. “Speak to designers in your industry, read about popular design topics and trends, learn design terminology, and try to absorb as much as possible; This will help you differentiate between what can be taught and what can’t,” suggests Alex. Not only will this help attract top talent, but this will also help you identify which candidates have the appropriate skill-set for your needs.

4. Establish a clear process.

One of the best things you can do as a hiring manager is to establish a streamlined hiring process. Not only will this help keep candidates engaged, but it will further show that your organization understands the current state of the design market. For additional insight on the importance of transparency in retaining top candidates, check out this article on keeping candidates engaged throughout the hiring process.

5. Know what to look for.

So far, we’ve made recommendations for attracting and engaging designers into your process, but what should you look for in a candidate who may potentially determine the future of your design org? “A natural sense of curiosity is what design is ultimately all about,” says Alex. The person who will grow your product should be excited to learn new things, and not afraid to ask questions or admit they don’t have all the answers. Alex recommends finding out whether the candidate takes time to attend design events, attend classes, or organize meetups and get-togethers in their own time. This, Alex says, is a strong indicator of a designer who will thrive in a startup environment.

The ability to communicate in a collaborative setting is also hugely valuable. “Technology and design tools change year by year, but characteristics like curiosity are here to stay,” says Alex. The team here at Robert Walters is inclined to agree. How has your experience hiring the first designer been? We’d love to hear from you.

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