• 9 minutes
  • December 28, 2022

How to hire the top 1% of design talent (Part 1)

In a product design landscape where Airbnb is setting extraordinary design standards and challenger banks such as Revolut are out-competing others on the user interface alone, getting the right design talent is important to set your product ahead. Being an unregulated industry where there are no defined standards the range of design capabilities is astronomical. From beginners staking the claim to highly skilled designers that sit under the radar, getting the right people is the key ingredient to the success of any digital product.

Attracting the right design talent will directly correlate with the quality of user experience, customer satisfaction and the rate of product growth. Every product organisation needs design talent to excel. The competition for the very best is growing fiercer in recent years and the companies that want to attract the top 1% have to be differentiated. From experience building a design culture with talent that thrives in less than 12 months, this article will uncover the secrets our agency has used to stay ahead in a hyper-competitive landscape.

Defining the job description

Designers don’t want a job, they want a career with an abundance of progression opportunities. To be around a team of talented people who are all passionate about what they do. To be inspired every day and do work that delivers impact. To wake up in the morning excited about the project they are working on. Keeping their motivations front of mind is what leads to a compelling role that attracts the best talent. Job descriptions should ideally be rebranded as “design opportunity descriptions”. With the purpose of inspiring designers about where they could be and how their perfect day designing could look.

The first step to any successful design hire is to be able to articulate the exact specification of the individual you are looking for. Many companies make the mistake of writing short, broad descriptions that lack clarity of relevant design expertise. With a broad range of design skills out there, what exact gap are you trying to fill? In the case of our agency, writing a spec for a UX/UI designer drastically differentiates from a visual designer or a brand designer. A common revolt from the design community is when they discover a job description that is overly broad e.g. “UI/UX Branding Full-Stack Developer”. Designers know they can’t deliver everything under the sun and prefer to have key areas of competence where they excel. The focus must be specific on a certain skill set to obtain an individual who is truly an expert in their respective field.

Product organisations at different stages will have varied requirements. For a newly established startup, acquiring design talent in UX/UI that is able to operate as a “swiss-army knife” and take on a variety of tasks, will likely prove more valuable that a design-system specialist that an enterprise organisation will seek. Being able to forecast the relevant design activities that will be needed such as user research or high-fidelity prototypes will enable you to seek out a person that will facilitate organisational growth. To effectively distinguish, the job description should ideally be written by a specialist who has the most knowledge of the design field in your organisation. Rather than offloading to HR or talent acquisition, leveraging the knowledge of a product person, design manager or founder who knows the field will pay back dividends. Talking in the candidates’ language will bring the role closer to what they’re looking for and inspire them to apply.

Structure of the job listing

  1. Intro to the company. Delivering the elevator pitch and conveying the mission in relation to the product or design vision.
  2. Intro to the role. Articulating a high-level overview of the role and challenges. Key differentiators as a design org.
  3. Types of projects or typical workload: Explaining the type of web or mobile applications they will be designing. Detailing strategy requirements or design collateral they will be expected to produce.
  4. USPs of this role: Are you invested in professional development? Is the team small and supportive? Do you aspire to create a world-class design?
  5. You have: Explain the level of experience, the standard of portfolio and specific design knowledge or frameworks required.
  6. The role. Articulate the deliverables the designer will need to produce on a day to day and how they will be involved in the design operation.
  7. Must haves. The deal breakers that the candidate will need. Commonly this is language proficiency and a true interest in what they’re designing.
  8. Soft skills. Articulate presentation skills, stakeholder collaboration and other communication skills that are needed to excel.
  9. Environment. Do you offer a hybrid structure? Is there an option to work remotely from anywhere in the world? Designers value the flexibility to do their best work.
  10. Our impact. Explaining what your organisation does, that has meaningful contributions to the world gives designers the bigger picture.
  11. Salary. Be transparent upfront about the range. This will filter candidates to ones that match expectations and be appreciated.

See the sample job listing here

Once the job description is written, reviewed by the team and final edits made, it’s ready to go out to the design community. Hosting the listing on your company website will drive candidate traffic to the page and also give the added benefit of them doing further research on your company before the first conversation. To make the page stand out, use the first-party photo of your team doing UX work, smiling and looking positive. When landing, this will give the instant impression to candidates that it’s a place they want to work. Stock images can also be leveraged. Shutterstock can often provide inauthentic variants so using genuine images from Pexels or Unsplash will yield the desired effect, 

To stand out, self-hosted listings give the best impression, but second to that LinkedIn is the recommended choice. The job URL can be used to share with candidates when using a portfolio head-hunting approach. More will be to come later in the article around the upsides of taking an outbound approach to finding the best candidates.

Defining design culture and team dynamics

Building a design culture where the team truly thrives is vitally important to have a successful design organisation. Leadership and peers further along the journey provide the infrastructure to enable new starters to grow to their full potential. Whilst for design hire #1 this might not be in place, having a plan for how the organisation will support designers is vital to deliver the right message in interviews and screening calls. Reviewing your values that correlate directly with design is essential before the interview process. Gathering stakeholders and solidifying the benefits provided to designers is the best way to ensure the opportunity is best placed.

Establishing an elevator pitch for your design culture will give candidates a strong impression that this is the best palace for the next step in their career. The company design culture must be pitched with truth and genuine intentions. The competition is fierce for the best candidates, therefore using key sound bites that differentiate your company will be attractive and inspire confidence.

Example sound bites to pitch in screening:

  • “We have a strong design culture to help you with professional development. Each designer is given unlimited access to vetted courses to level up their UX, motion or UI capabilities”.
  • “We are a design team of 5 expanding rapidly. We actively conduct peer design reviews and learning sessions so people can share their knowledge with others.”
  • “We have a number of UX specialists on our team who previously worked at Google, Apple and Microsoft.”
  • “On projects, you’d get to work with multiple designers and collaborate on design solutions. We don’t isolate designers and instead believe in collective thinking”
  • “Keeping variety in your day-to-day design work is important for us. You’d have the opportunity to work on our mobile app, marketing website and SaaS platform.”
  • “Systems are important. We work in Agile design sprints and use UX methodologies such as the Double Diamond to build based on user needs rather than assumptions.”

Platforms to outreach to designers

Cutting past the noise and getting to the best requires a different approach to normal recruiting. Forget job boards and relying on inbound to try and fill the role. Candidates will press easy apply for 100s of jobs at a time and mass apply looking for one of the opportunities to land. As a general rule of thumb, the best don’t need to directly apply, they have options. These types of people are already in permanent or contract roles and will need convincing to jump ship and join your company. Taking a personable approach is the way forwards. To get to the top 1% outbound is your best friend.

It’s worth mentioning that outbound is nothing new. Recruiters have been doing this approach for years to fill roles. Their approach of using a sales style method to get directly to the talent and start a conversation is how they move candidates to new companies. Taking a leaf out of the recruiter’s book is one of the ways as an agency we’ve managed to devise a leading talent acquisition system. However, recruiting for design is unlike any other role. The level of preciseness to match a portfolio style to your company’s intended output is something a hiring manager with a keen eye for design needs to do. Relying on experience or references is the fastest way to get to the bottom of the pile. Instead, leveraging the power of interpreting a portfolio is the best way to truly understand the level of a designer’s potential.

Stage one of setting up for outreach is to create a mood board of the standard of design you are looking for. With visual styles variating significantly from editorial to modern SaaS UIs, you need to know what represents your company’s brand. The mood board can be created in FIGJAM or any tool where you can prepare visual references. An important consideration is using visual references from real products out in the market. Doing product design for commercial usage yields a different style from fancy concept shots that designers often produce. Gathering materials from the best in design will set you a strong standard to adhere to. If you’re in device hardware, you could choose Apple or banking Revolute/Monzo would be compelling options. Once the mood board is created with 10 – 20 visual references, show it internally to other members of the team to align and sign off

Stage two of outreach is to sign up for Dribbble and Behance. Both of these sites enable designers to upload their work and share it with the wider design community. Great pride is taken in ensuring that their digital portfolio is up to date, with the best reflection of their work given their individual skillset. The power of sourcing talent from design portfolio sites is you can quickly scan through portfolios at scale, taking a sniper approach to qualifying the level and style that matches your company’s requirements. Each platform has ways to reach out to designers inside the interface, enabling you to contact 100s of designers at scale.

Stage three, before reaching out is to write an outreach sequence. A series of messages to send to the designers to provoke a response. The first message should be relevant to them, their work providing praise, and then a hook on why this opportunity is relevant. Following the first message, send another two with a two-day gap in between ensuring that you don’t convey desperation. The follow-up messages should provide new USPs and copy on the role that may resonate for the individual.

Example outreach messages:

Message #1

“Hey {first}, I came across your profile whilst on the lookout for {typeOfDesigner} to join {companyName}. Impressive work on your portfolio! Partially the {workSame X}. In short, we’re a leading design agency in London looking to expand our design team. You seem like a great fit. Would you be open to discussing this further?”

Message #2

“Hi {first}, I trust things are busy but thought it would be worth following up. We’ve had a lot of interest in the role so far, but based on your portfolio our Lead Designer would be keen to chat. Is this something you’re open to?”

Message #3

“{first}, we are concluding interviews this week and thought I’d give you a final chance to apply for the exciting {UI/UX} designer role. You can see more here: {jobURL}. We’re looking forward to seeing your application come through.”

Message – book screening call

“Hey {first}. Thanks for getting back to me. Glad to hear it would be of interest. Happy to share more about the opportunity. Do you have 15 minutes for a quick phone call today or tomorrow? If so, please share some times and your number.”

Process for reaching out on Dribbble:

Dribbble has a recruiter search feature, which gives you powerful access to scan through portfolios at scale with advanced filters such as location, experience level and salary expectations. The first package for $300 per month (the price at the time of this article) enables you to unlock the full range of functionality to reach out to designers.

Paid Dribbble method:

  1. Subscribe to “Designer Search Access”. See designer search here
  2. Set your advanced filters on the left sidebar to match the hiring criteria
  3. Scan the portfolios to look for alignment to match the defined mood board
  4. Open portfolio items from intriguing designers to check match
  5. Choose a message and add the first message in your outreach sequence

Free Dribbble method:

This method works well but has a slight downside as you can’t define the salary expectations for the individual. Nevertheless, the method will still work to sift through portfolios and reach out to the top 1%.

  1. Find a designer’s account that has a large following and top-tier work
  2. Navigate to About in their profile
  3. Choose “Following”
  4. Set the location and skills parameters
  5. Scan the portfolios to look for alignment to match the defined mood board
  6. Choose a message and add the first message in your outreach sequence

Follow-ups:

Follow-ups are an essential part of the process. The context here is you are poaching talent, so the individuals are likely to have a busy schedule with their full-time jobs. Make sure to leave a few days’ gap between messages and send the follow-ups to those you have reached out to.

Conclusion

Getting the best talent requires a revised way of thinking about outreaching designers. New methodologies focused on cutting through the noise enabling you to directly get to the individual with a compelling proposition. Companies across the board are still relying on inbound LinkedIn jobs and using platforms such as indeed. Being a sniper and seeking the best will enable companies to acquire designers who match the style of your brand, and fit well with a growing company culture.

It’s worth noting that for the process to work seamlessly, laying the foundations first is the most critical step. A well-thought-out job specification gives you the space to think about the characteristics of the individual and what gaps they will fill in your organisation. Messaging can be constructed about the mission and north star for the design teams to inspire future candidates. Most of all, a culture can be defined where designers cherish their work and actively want to provide the best possible work for your brand.

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