Hiring a designer? Eight things to look for

Dear readers: A colleague — a non-designer — wrote to me last week asking for help in hiring a “creative services lead” to head up a new project for his business. What should he look for in a designer? Here are the eight qualities I like.



1) Passion, vision and self-motivation. Without these, you’ll be dragging a rock. You need someone who shares your vision. Nothing’s worse than a “what-do-you-want-me-to-do-next?” kind of designer. Well, no, yes there is. One who’s touchy and confusing, too.

2) Vocabulary. A creative lead should be able to articulate what’s happening and why, in language that you and your staff can understand. If you start hearing vague terms like “pop” and “impact,” make him explain what he means. Listen for, “If we do A and B, we can expect C.” This is not trivial.

3) Inquisitive intelligence. Look for someone who’s curious about almost everything and approaches life with a sense of wonder. Similarly, I want someone who’s taken the time to learn about my company and whose questions are perceptive.

4) Good conceptual skills. There are many ways to achieve any stated design goal. Conceptual skills find the new and interesting ones. You might articulate a hypothetical situation and ask her to describe three possible directions. Prepare to get out of your box. The best concepts are often unrecognized at first.

5) A portfolio. You’ll know in 15 seconds the designer’s skill level. Compare his work to excellence that you’ve seen, and don’t compromise. If it’s below what you’re seeking, end the interview right there. Politely, please.

6) Projects. If you see a lot of one-off stuff, no matter how attractive, it won’t tell you much; most designers can do nice, single pieces. Look for complete projects — Web site, print material and stationery, for example — that share a common look and purpose. Such work is more difficult to visualize, organize, and execute.

7) Real-world experience. The emphasis here is on “real.” Always ask under what conditions a design was achieved. How did the designer interact with the client? What was the role of each? Time frame? Revisions? Budget? Fantastic “portfolio pieces” are less desirable than solid design done under realistic conditions. If you find both, cheer!

8) Production skills. Your person will need production skills or know how to hire them. Nothing will slow you quicker than not being able to make something happen that you want to happen. Also, someone who understands typography is preferable to someone who can just type. Likewise, someone who understands the guts of Web coding is preferable to someone who can just run Dreamweaver.


Miscellaneous notes:

It goes without saying that personalities must be compatible. Never hire an otherwise perfect candidate assuming that “he’ll change,” or that “you’ll change her.” You can usually feel the vibe right away. Trust it.

Even if you (both) like the vibe, it’s a good idea to establish a trial period. A person can be qualified and compatible, but for one reason or another can’t get the work done. You’re out of rhythm. Your work styles don’t jell. Something was misunderstood. Whatever the case, give yourselves at least a 90-day period in which either of you can terminate employment at will, for no cause at all. This is good for both of you. Creative work comes from love, passion and relationship. It can’t be faked.

Consider hiring and working long distance. Design is perfect for this, what with live chat and e-mail and FTP sites. I’ve worked with designers for 20 years who I’ve yet to meet face to face! If face time is really important, fly in once a month. That said, remember that it’s a slow market, and you may find the perfect someone who’d love to transfer to your area!

If your designer works from home, arrange for a trial period. I had a designer who tried working from home and his productivity plummeted, yet another thrives at home.

Last thing. I don’t look for a college degree. About 50% of my lifetime hires have had degrees. The average difference in skills is slight. The ones who’d been in good design programs were better than those who hadn’t, but such programs are not plentiful. I have observed, speaking broadly, that the college people tend to show better discipline in their work.

There are, of course, exceptions to all of this.

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34 Responses to Hiring a designer? Eight things to look for

  1. Alvin Martinez says:

    One aspect that you didn’t mention is age. Whether those in the industry like to admit this or not, age has become a factor in hiring practices (unfortunately) in some creative circles, though it is not an easy thing to point a finger at someone during the hiring process.

    How does age factor in your hiring decisions? It has no bearing on my end as a Design Director when I look at portfolios, although older designers may have the better ability (through experience) to troubleshoot client relationships and put out “fires.”

  2. Joann Sondy says:

    Thank you.

    The more I read/hear about the need for right-brain thinkers (and doers) in these modern times, I’m dismayed at the continual flow of free and stock designs available.

  3. What isn’t addressed here is the education level of the person doing the hiring. Do they understand design and how it can help them get it? Do they understand what it can offer their organization in terms of either impact from creating something totally new and different, or the time and money saved through creating a design system and sticking with it? Do they understand design vocabulary? Can they look at a portfolio and evaluate it? Do they understand what is good typography and why? Do they even have metrics for what they want their project to accomplish?

    What I’m saying is, given that marketing executives are responsible for hiring designers and design firms and advertising agencies for thousands and millions of dollars, there should be more emphasis in the industry on becoming educated in what the design firms and advertising agencies can provide under ideal conditions, and the sorts of information necessary to provide to designers and art directors in order to get the best result.

    Given that your colleague wasn’t a designer, I hope you went over these eight points with him carefully, fully explained them and showed him examples; otherwise, many of these points would be like giving a book on hiring a Swahili interpreter to a person who doesn’t know Swahili.

    You might want to read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. He makes the same point you do about a trial period; that “good vibe” you feel on first meeting may be all personality, and no ability.

    Finally, if you are looking for someone who truly is thinking outside the box, you should be prepared to be nervous, not simpatico; outside-the-box thinking challenges your assumptions, and that’s stressful, not calming.

  4. Beth Watson says:

    I agree with you in all eight points, but I do look for a college degree. In my experience, my employees with degrees are better at solving issues and handling “opportunities” than my other employees. I can put those with a degree on the spot and expect at least an attempted resolution. I am not at all concerned with age; as a matter of fact, many of my interviews are done over the phone, so I don’t know what they look like until the final interviews.

  5. Tammy Aramian says:

    I heartily second Alvin’s comment!

  6. Fran Edgar says:

    What you said about the importance of having a good graphic-design education is very true, Deane. And, there’s nothing wrong with “thinking outside the box” as long as design follows the “basics” that were tested, tested, and tested again; and have continued to hold true through the years. Deviate from the basics and you won’t connect with your target market, no matter how much you spend.

  7. sandra says:

    “If you start hearing vague terms like ‘pop’ and ‘impact,’ make him explain what he means.”

    Or make her explain what she means :-)

  8. Shawn Smith says:

    Thanks for the nice article. You make some great points.

    I’m glad you mentioned the success you’ve had with non-college grads. It’s been my experience that the cream will rise to the top whether it has a degree or not.

    I’ve encountered the clueless and ineffectual in all realms. And I’ve encountered some highly motivated, intelligent, and gifted people in all realms.

    I find myself impressed with skills, abilities, and aptitudes far more than educational background or lack thereof.

  9. Randy Martin says:

    In almost all cases, it’s better to hire for character than skill. Skill can be taught, character cannot. This is especially true for onsite positions where interpersonal relationships can grind all day long.

    Placing folks in work-related situations is also good. In this case, give them a hypothetical and see what they do with it. Do they start by asking questions? Are they the right questions? Or do they start by coming up with a final idea? And is that good or bad? If you’re working with mom and pops or small non-profits, having quick and workable solutions is often better than long-drawn-out expensive ponderous ones. One can eat at Mc Donald’s or Ruth Chris or somewhere in between. It all depends on your intentions if it’s the right choice or not.

  10. mark bernardo says:

    Great points! My comments elaborate on your third.

    Perhaps it would be enlightening to ask the candidate for a professional opinion of an anonymous project portfolio.

    The healthy design ego can, with self confidence, appreciate and honestly evaluate external ideas. Designers should be fascinated with creative solutions other than their own; this is particularly important when the idea is remarkably incalculable, or the creative source has questionable design credentials.

    The antithesis is a person who can function only under absolute unquestioned circumstance, and moreover who cannot improve.

  11. Brett says:

    One other essential (to me as an employer) is the capacity of the person to know when they’re in trouble and their willingness to ask for help.

    I always ask something like, “So what do you do when you find out that you are unexpectedly in way over your head?”

    The answers are always interesting.

  12. Kris Driscoll says:

    Excellent essay. My experience with a freelancer (intern, college art degree) bears out, I think, Randy’s assertion that character may trump skill. I’ve seen my intern grow from someone who thought skill was everything to someone who can assess situations and respond appropriately; who’s grown from someone who has to be told, “Today I need you to do this and this and this,” to someone who’s better at anticipating the real needs of a client and chiming in. My experience is limited to this one intern who has lots of technical skill and a good basis in the fundamentals of graphic design. What I’m trying to coax out of him is team play, a recognition that we’re both good in different ways and that we need to create synergy by working together. Thanks, John. Thanks.

  13. Choose a freelancer every time; working for themselves, they’re confident of their own abilities. They have a broader skill base — having to sort their own IT and accounting issues, for example — have a greater experience of life, and wouldn’t be self-employed if they weren’t motivated.

    Whilst you’re at it, choose someone who can create concepts and take pictures as well as design. We’re a great bunch, and reward trust with enormous loyalty.

    And finally, if the relationship doesn’t work out, it’s easier to part company with a freelancer than a regular employee.

  14. phyllis says:

    I’m glad you mentioned the bit about not having a college degree. I’m a working designer but had a degree in a different field (English). I’m so glad that employers have been willing to hire me based on my experience and portfolio! My employers have been very happy with my work. :-) But with that said, I am trying to improve my education credentials. I recently finished a certificate in Graphic Design (through online courses) and am now working on a certificate in Web Design. I hope that these will be viewed favorably next time I’m on the job market: Perhaps the employer who requires a degree will accept a non-related degree plus two design certificates. :-) That’s my hope anyway. But if not, I’ll stick with those who base their hiring on the other criteria you list! I’m doing my best to fit all of those (great list!). I love the design field. :-)

  15. Jason Simmons says:

    “…I always ask something like, ‘So what do you do when you find out that you are unexpectedly in way over your head?’ ”

    Being able to admit that you don’t have the answers to everything is a great trait for a designer to have. Taking advice, accepting criticism and having a group of peers to turn to when you need help can make a huge difference when a project is in danger of floundering. You still have to be able to filter the comments and make your own decisions though.

    When I’m stuck I fire off a few emails or make some calls asking for other people’s opinions. The replies aren’t always flattering but often provide a spark of inspiration.

  16. Nancy Bond says:

    Stuart – Thank you so much for your very apt description of freelancing. Your words accurately describe a dedicated freelancer as someone who feels confident enough and motivated enough by their experience to be successful even in a down economy because they know, through that experience, that their clients need them. I’ve found that also adding other skills such as photography are valuable assets. Thanks again Stuart : )

  17. Naomi Byrnes says:

    I found this list very practical. Thanks! I am interested in hearing more about how you work remotely with designers. Very encouraged to hear that you’ve been working with some for twenty years remotely. Any tips on how to make that work? In particular, the briefing process.

    • John McWade says:

      Naomi, it’s as easy as arranging a conference call or video chat; just get everyone online, face to face in real time. Then you can talk freely, send graphics back and forth, sketch, point at things, all that. With today’s technology, it’s almost like being physically present.

  18. Great read! I wonder if anyone could comment on the “age factor.” My art director and I have gone ’round about this for a while. He feels that age is a plus. I’m of the thought that designers are less hirable at 40 than, say, 30. I really hope I’m wrong.

  19. Max Nomad says:

    While this was a great essay — one that many “freelance” sites would be good to expose to their customer base — here’s another thing that should be stressed from the customer side: honest communication. Because of the proliferation of “software jockeys” out there among talented designers, there’s a greater tendency for hiring directors to respond with flowery, politically correct ambiguity instead of conveying what they mean — especially in situations where the director communicated one goal, and the designer discovers (too late) that they really meant something else. Unfortunately, this type of scenario has forced me to resort to using questionnaires to sort out a client’s needs before I dedicate more than a few minutes entertaining their questions.

  20. Terri says:

    I’m surprised about the people commenting about how age factors in. Age, race, sexual preference and gender shouldn’t be considered when hiring a person. I have always been under the impression that preferential treatment because of those factors is discrimination (to some degree.)

  21. Guther says:

    I haven’t read all comments, but I’d add another point: look for a designer who’s able to fulfill deadlines. For me, sometimes, it’s more important than nice portfolios.

  22. idezine says:

    Great article, John — one that clearly addresses guidelines and requirements for people in this field.

    To reply to Bridget Drendel’s question regarding age:

    Bridget, I think it really depends on the position you are hiring for. These days, design seems to overlap into Web development, which requires constantly keeping up with software. It may even require a certain aptitude for scripting and programming languages. In this scenario, youth trumps age — generally speaking, the younger person assimilates this kind of new knowledge and skill better and faster than the older person.

    But . . . if design and artistic ability is a requirement, then age is an asset.

    The main reason is that no matter how incredible your design skills are, they’re irrelevant if you do not have self-discipline, communication skills, presentation skills, the ability to deal with clients, time-management skills, and above all, the confidence and self-motivation of a self starter. These are all qualities that accumulate with age and experience.

    In an office environment, there is a distance between the young and older designer, but with a freelancer this handicap is removed.

    I would emphasize really strongly that if someone is looking primarily for a designer, that you ditch “age” from your vocabulary and perception.

    As someone with firsthand experience, I can tell you that regardless of your expertise, you may not get past the interview door if you are over a “certain” age.

  23. Gordie says:

    When hiring a designer or a photographer, I always walk them to their car after the interview. The upkeep on their vehicle speaks volumes.

  24. Don Cheke says:

    Just wait until you hit 50 and see how much age matters. I never in my life thought that I would be discriminated against because of my age, but it is obvious that this is the case. The young pups simply don’t want “dear old dad” at the office with them. It wouldn’t matter how good you are — you are old — and the generation gap lives (even if you are a totally cool 50-year-old). Thank goodness that freelancing works, and one need never meet face to face and encounter this age-old phenomenon.

  25. John Anthony Evans says:

    I’d add a technical understanding of the medium they are working in.

    One would never employ an industrial designer who doesn’t understand plastic; why would you ever employ a graphic designer who doesn’t understand a simple concept like CSS? They do not have to code, but they must be able to understand.

  26. David Harper says:

    It’s sad but not surprising to learn that age 40-plus designers are less desirable in a staff position. Freelancing may be the ideal solution for older designers who work for corporations, associations, and businesses other than agencies and studios. It was for me.

    After 15 years in agencies and studios in Dallas/Fort Worth, I have freelanced for 25 years with corporations and associations and at age 61 am always busy with projects. Every client is younger than I, and some are the ages of my daughters. Thus far, my age has not been an issue.

    To those considering a freelance transition, I would suggest focusing on large corporations and associations. The projects are generally more challenging, and their staffs appreciate the specialized skills that veteran professionals bring to the process. Another suggestion is to draw a line around the areas that can be driven in about 90 minutes or less from your studio to define new business areas. Occasional face-to-face meetings (particularly in the beginning stages of a project) fit well with emails, phone and uploads.

    Good luck!

  27. Good article, good comments!

    I am 44 years old — design, sculpture and photography experience. I worked ten years as art director and creative manager for an advertising agency. Nobody want “oldies” inside. Now I just started my own business. Everybody appreciated my skills and experience but not my age to hire me. Freelance is better, but it’s hard to design, hard to concentrate for good work and at the same time to account works . . . to solve financial problems. As a freelance designer, you haven’t much time for design.

  28. Rex Kwondo says:

    The fastest way to find out if the designer really knows his/her stuff is to ask, Why . . . did you use that typeface, that colour? etc., as a good designer has considered answers for all these elements and has done his/her thinking before acting. It surprises me how many young designers don’t express any real insight into these things. Mind you, neither do many clients.

  29. Katrina Chu says:

    I am absolutely shocked at the number of people encouraging age discrimination here. If an edgy look is what you want, LOOK AT THEIR PORTFOLIO. Good work is good work. And if you see good work, then you obviously have an individual who knows the technology and can learn. As stated in the post, mental curiosity is readily apparent in an interview or trial period.

    Age discrimination is not only unethical, it is illegal. http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/age.html

  30. Stephanie Machinski says:

    Thanks so much John McWade for your article on this website. I am an AIOP student. And our instructor sent us here. And, this has been very informative.

  31. Anthony Minchinton says:

    From the commercial printer’s perspective it is difficult to define good design, but it is easy to recognise it when you see it. Consequently, when we are asked by clients to suggest potential graphic designers, we simply show them the best of the print jobs we have received. It has not failed yet — at least not since 1972 when I was first taught to do this for clients.

  32. Pingback: Eight Things to Look For When Hiring for the Web - Honest Site Success.com :: Honest Site Success.com

  33. Mary Baum says:

    Why on earth do you assume that someone over 40 can’t learn to code? I started learning CSS at 47 and designing for WordPress at 50. Now I write CSS to relax and love to muck about with php – I’ve outgrown the child themes I bought for the Genesis framework, except when they release a new one and I’m in a hurry.

    Yes, JavaScript is still an issue. And no, I don’t always do 25 thumbnails for every home-page design as I should, or for every direct-mail piece.

    But why indeed discount everyone over a certain age out of hand – even us compulsive learners (I’ve also picked up video production in the last three years, too) just because some 40-year-olds you know have made the astonishingly unwise decision not to keep learning, and especially not to start learning the tools of the web – and by this I mean html, CSS and php at least for WordPress – when the web is now arguably the bulk of our trade?

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