Marketing, Sales & Design

Sourcing candidates (3/7)

By Irene Au on

“Where do you find designers to hire?” Now that you understand what UX skills you need to have for your team and have written a job description that describes these needs, it’s time to get the word out and start recruiting.

Most designers are sourced from large in-house teams, other startups, design agencies, universities, and online sites where designers congregate. For employers, this article will help you understand how to think about different ways to source candidates and what to look for. If you are a prospective applicant, this article may help you decide how to best conduct your job search or develop your career. If you are a student, this article includes some programs to consider as you pursue your education. While there are many short programs and bootcamps that claim to train people to become designers, they are still relatively new and unproven so I did not include them here.

Targeted outreach

Targeted outreach is among the most effective ways to find someone to hire, especially if the team has prior experience working with good designers and/or has a large network. With your team and everyone you know who might have worked with a good designer, brainstorm a list of all the great people they’ve worked with, reach out to them, and/or ask them to refer other people they’d recommend.

Large in-house design teams

Companies like Google, Yahoo!, LinkedIn, eBay, Apple, Adobe, Intuit, Twitter, and Facebook can employ hundreds of designers and are fertile ground for breeding designers who can work with cross functional teams to ship products. Because they have large teams, junior designers get mentored by more senior designers and are exposed to good design leadership and management practices. Oracle, Salesforce, Citrix, and SAP are enterprise companies that also employ many designers. Be willing to also consider some non-obvious places that aren’t top of mind; for example, I’ve hired some terrific people from and Bank of America.

For early-stage startups looking to hire a mid- to senior designer who can eventually lead, grow, and manage a design team, a designer from a large in-house team who has worked there for 2–4 years makes a great candidate for recruiting into such a role.

Startups and smaller companies

Startups and smaller companies are a viable source for designers, particularly if they have been with the company for 2–4 years and the future of the company is uncertain.

Be aware that some designers who only have experience in startups may lack a mature design process and/or ability to lead or scale a design team as it grows. If a designer’s experience is mostly comprised of a series of short stints (< 18 months) at startups, take time to understand what happened, not just from the candidate’s perspective but also from founders, coworkers, investors, etc.

Design agencies

Design agencies are often filled with young designers who have been mentored by strong design leaders, and some of them are eager to work in an in-house team and have a chance be part of the shipping team and own equity. Many agencies also pay less than large companies can afford to pay, in exchange for working in an environment that values and understands design and gives designers the chance to work on a wide range of projects. Agencies like IDEO, Frog, Method, and Adaptive Path (now owned by Capital One) hire well and train well, but don’t overlook small boutique firms.

Be aware that some designers who only have agency experience may not have sufficient experience with seeing a design through to launch. Make sure you probe on their past collaborations with engineers.

Online sites where designers congregate

Increasingly, designers are posting work samples online to build their reputation and get discovered. Some startups have successfully recruited terrific designers by browsing through online sites for designers and searching relentlessly for portfolios that suit their design sensibilities. Dribbble, Behance, Coroflot, Carbonmade, and Cargo (more for illustration than UI or visual design) are all good sites to look at to find visual designers.

 These sites are great places to find visual designers, but not necessarily user researchers or interaction designers. The product might look great but not work that well. The hardest design work is what comes before the surface layer: the strategy, the vision, the principles, the interaction, the architecture, and these online sites don’t allow you to see beyond the surface.

UX job boards

There are a few job boards focused on user experience opportunities. Consider posting on these sites:

Design recruiters

Many recruiters who specialize in design talent work on a contingency basis or on a retainer. I prefer to work with recruiters who specialize in UX because they understand how to screen candidates and have a good nose for culture fit.

Here is a short list of recruiters I’d recommend. While there are many other recruiters who can help with hiring designers, I’ve ruled many out because they take a “spray and pray” approach, contacting people about opportunities without really assessing whether there is a fit first.

College hiring

New college graduates are challenging for startups because they often lack real-world hands-on experience, and even if they’ve had internship experience, they are too early in their careers to work effectively as a standalone designer and provide leadership necessary to do good design work. If you have a team and/or at least a few senior UX people who can serve as mentors, consider a variety of academic programs for your hiring the skills you need (in no particular order):

Interaction design:

  • Carnegie Mellon’s program in Human-Computer Interaction
  • Carnegie Mellon Master of Professional Studies
  • Stanford University (Symbolic Systems program, d.School, Product Design program, Persuasive Tech Lab)
  • University of Michigan’s School of Information
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Engineering Psychology, Computer Science, Industrial Engineering, Library Science)
  • University of Washington, Human-Centered Design and Engineering
  • New York University’s ITP program
  • UC Berkeley iSchool
  • MIT Media Lab
  • UC San Diego (UCSD) Cognitive Science program
  • School of Visual Arts (SVA)’s MFA in Interaction Design

Visual design:

  • Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)
  • Ohio State (Department of Design)
  • University of Cincinnati (DAAP program)
  • Carnegie Mellon
  • UCLA
  • Illinois Institute of Design
  • California College of the Arts (CCA)
  • Art Center College of Design
  • Otis College of Art and Design
  • Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD)
  • TU Delft
  • RCA London
  • Goldsmiths London

User research:

  • Carnegie Mellon’s program in Human-Computer Interaction
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Cornell University
  • Stanford University
  • University of California at San Diego (UCSD) Cognitive Science program
  • Tufts University
  • Georgia Tech

Consider relocation

Don’t rule out people who are not local. There are good designers that live outside your area, and there are good designers who are eager to relocate. One of the best designers I’ve met at a KV portfolio company relocated from Europe after being “discovered” by the CEO online. The CEO figured it was worth waiting for the visa and relocation to get a great designer of a calibrer that would otherwise be difficult to find and hire in the SF Bay Area.

Good design attracts designers

A final thought on sourcing candidates: designers want to work in companies where they feel the company values what they do. If your product or website looks terrible or if someone coming to your site can’t determine the value proposition for your product from looking at the product, you will have a much harder time attracting designers to join your company. This is a paradox: the companies with lousy designs are the ones who need designers the most, yet most designers interpret bad design as a sign that the company does not value design, or that the company doesn’t understand their own raison d’etre which will make the designers’ jobs that much harder. It is crucial for these companies to (1) represent themselves well, and (2) build a design team with the right attitude: optimistic, can-do, proactive, take responsibility and not adopt a victim mindset.

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