1500 Design Leaders Discussing How They Hire Good Talent

Adam Fry-Pierce
5 min readMar 12, 2019
Leslie Witt (Head of Design, Small Business, Intuit) leading a Design Leadership Forum discussion on hiring.

The interview is the most vexing part of any application process. As a candidate you must absorb the culture, present the authentic you, all while making sure you’re a good match. It’s a lot to consider — especially if you don’t have a person on the inside.

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.

Design leaders from Disney, Khosla, and Hulu discussing hiring strategies at a LA Design Leadership Forum dinner.

Showcase your strong soft skills.

Many designers put emphasis on their portfolio when looking for their next gig. This makes sense. The portfolio showcases their work, after all. But rarely will it showcase how they work. And 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 — it’s the kind of thing that doesn’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.

Want 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 was 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?”

By the way, 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. As an interesting note: many Forum members mentioned that hard skills are easier to coach, and that hiring manager are more willing to certain hard skill deficits.

A shot from a Design Leadership Forum dinner in Paris.

Stand out by speaking the language of business.

Internal design teams often roll up into product, engineering, or straight to the CEO (validated in the recent study by InVision). 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 is 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/OKRs?

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.

One of the top mentioned “must-read” books in the Design Leadership Forum: Radical Candor by Kim Scott.

The most innovative teams have broad perspectives.

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

However, the wisest hiring managers are aiming to build a diverse design team to 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.

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, or Enneagram, 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 on the website.

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

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Adam Fry-Pierce

Empowering design and product leaders with connections + products. Creator of http://designleadership.com. DesignOps + product ethics is on my mind. Doodler.