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How to get hired as a designer (according to 1000+ design leaders)

4 min read
Adam Fry-Pierce  •  Mar 27, 2019
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The interview is the most vexing part of any application process. As a candidate you have to absorb the culture and present the authentic you, all while making sure you’re making a good impression. It’s a lot to consider—especially if you don’t have an inside advocate at the company you want to join.

Lucky for you, we have more than one person on the inside. We have 1,500.

Every month we host several Design Leadership Forum events where we encourage candid discussion among design leaders from companies all over the world. And 48 events later, the Forum is marking its one-year anniversary. So we’re gathering the best we’ve learned.

Below, we asked hundreds of hiring managers what they look for in candidates, especially during the interview process. To distill down the insider’s look at what today’s leaders are looking for.

Speaker and Author Bob Baxley leads a discussion at a recent Design Leadership Forum event.

Showcase your strong soft skills.

Many designers tend to put emphasis on their portfolio when looking for their next gig, which makes sense. The portfolio showcases their work, after all—but rarely will it showcase how they work.

“Many Forum members mentioned that hard skills are easier to coach, and that hiring managers are more willing to certain hard skill deficits.”
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To figure that part out, hiring managers have different strategies for bringing someone’s character to the surface during an interview.

Hiring managers present applicants with design challenges, ask a prospect to lunch with key members of the team to see how they mesh together, or “casually” inquire about life outside of work. They care about traits like empathy, ability to give feedback, and capacity to take constructive criticism—the kinds of thing that don’t easily show up on a resume.

They’re asking: will my team enjoy working with this person? Because, ultimately, that’s what this career thing is all about. It’s about making the office a productive, pleasant, and (dare I say) fun place to be while quality work is done.

Our recent Design Leadership Forum in Paris under the watchful gaze of the Eiffel Tower

Want to know how to best present your soft skills? Come prepared. These are the questions are design leaders like to ask:

  • What’s your passion outside of work?
  • How do you partner with teams across the org?
  • What’s your favorite book or magazine that has nothing to do with design?
  • How do you learn, how did you grow up, what was your life like?
  • Draw a journey map of your past education and experience. Where do you imagine yourself growing?
  • Where would you rank yourself on this team? What’s keeping you from being #1? (Also a good question to ask references)
  • What’s some great advice you’ve received that’s changed your life?
  • How often do you travel? Why?
  • What’s your ideal adventure?
  • ”Why are you working in this industry? Why do you want this company? Why do you want to work on this product? This team?”

Of course, hard skills are still important. But those will be easier to identify in your portfolio. Leaders in the Forum reported that hard skills are typically vetted during the initial screening round and during the design exercise round.

“Managers aren’t looking for someone who’s perfect —but they’re usually looking for someone who’s self-aware. “
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(As an interesting note: many Forum members mentioned that hard skills are easier to coach, and that hiring managers are more willing to overlook certain hard skill deficits.)

Stand out by speaking the language of business.

Internal design teams often roll up into product, engineering, or straight to the CEO. As such, designers who can speak the language of business will be able to have a bigger impact with their work.

When interviewing, candidates make a mark when they’re able to demonstrate their business chops by asking questions like:

  • What metrics are our team measured by?
  • Which member of the C-suite does design roll up to? How does that executive measure the design team?
  • In a year from now, what measured business outcomes should I aim to produce?
  • Are our design principles based on business objectives? How do we translate these design priorities against top-line KPIs?
  • Note: If you’re interviewing and these terms or phrases seem foreign, be sure to do some research before your interview (I like this resource from Hubspot!). It’s one thing to ask these questions, and it’s another to understand the importance of their foundation.

    Irene Au, Design Partner at Khosla Venture, addresses the Forum

    The most innovative teams have broad perspectives.

    A successful design leader builds a well-rounded team that will help them achieve desired outcomes. This is why so many companies talk about finding the “unicorn designer” who can do it all, though they seem to be a rare, if impossible, person to find.

    The wisest hiring managers are aiming to build a diverse design team that will produce the most innovative results. Well-balanced departments can be everything the business needs them to be. This is to say, the design team should be comprised of diverse backgrounds, different personalities, and a mix of specialists and generalists.

    “A successful design leader builds a well-rounded team that will help them achieve desired outcomes.”
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    The key here: Know thyself. As you’re looking for your next role, it might be helpful for you to take a personality assessment and have the results ready for the hiring manager. Whether it’s Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, or any of the hot new online tests, it might prove useful to know which type of personality profile you are.

    While we don’t suggest to deliver a personality report to your hiring manager, it can be helpful to know the context and perspective for your own personality traits.

    Managers aren’t looking for someone who’s perfect —but they’re usually looking for someone who’s self-aware. Not just because self-awareness is a desired trait of a team member; effective managers are also coaches, and they’re going to want to know how to work with you.

    This is just a fraction of the insights gleaned from all of the discussions in the Design Leadership Forum. If you or someone you know is a design leader with stories to share, consider nominating them—or yourself.

    Thank you to all of the members of the Forum for helping us all create a stronger community, together!

    In the featured image: Leslie Witt, Head of Design, Small Business at Intuit.

    Want to read more about landing a great design job?