Hiring the right people is crucial because your team's talent will have a direct and measurable influence on the success of your product. So, it is a no-brainer, you need the best designer to work on your vision. But how do you pick the one? Down the road it will certainly be easier. By then you’ll have a design team lead or an art director to do the hiring but now, however, it’s your job to look through that pile of portfolios and figure out who’s the best match.
Well, to help make the process a little easier these are the things we’ve learned over the years and has worked for us when we have looked for graphic designers to join our team. Hiring in other fields, such as UX, print, illustration, etc. will require you to look at their portfolios in different ways and we will deal with that in future articles.
In the meantime, this list is based upon our own experiences and hopefully, will help you make a better choice of talent. In truth though, an entire book could be written just on this subject.
Print, Illustration, and UI Require Different Skill Sets
A while back, a new client contacted us about the redesign of a web tool that hadn’t even been released yet. A redesign? Already? Unfortunately, it turned out that their first designer had done a less than ideal job.
She was talented, had plenty of great recommendations, but unfortunately her experience was in advertisement design, and not UI. Subsequently, her design didn't resemble a web tool.
There are many fields within the design profession, each requiring a different set of skills, talent, and experience. For example, a designer who focuses on printed catalogues needs to have a deep understanding of print technologies and their limitations. They need to know about the latest design trends in the field and be able to design with the printed, material experience in mind. On the other hand, they probably have less knowledge about designing for screens.
In short, the required know-how is very different so if you need a UI designer, get a UI designer.
Is The Focus Where It Should Be?
Our eyes are naturally drawn to human faces and large and visually loud objects first. Designers (should) plan the order in which the observer's eye will scan the screen. A good design purposefully controls the eye's movement through the major items on the screen. Observe what are the first, second and third things that you notice when you look at a design for the first time. Are they in line with what you would expect from that kind of product? Is there a particular order at all, or are there just too many objects clamoring for your attention and your eyes just jump between them?
In the past, we worked with a number of senior managers in charge of products who wanted everything to be big, loud and to pop-out of the screen. It took our finest communication skills and persistence to convince them that that approach just doesn't work. In fact, designing a page this way will have strong negative effect on conversion rates.
In short, your candidate designer should keep hierarchies in mind when designing, but if they don’t you should be able to notice it when looking at their work.
There is an interesting article by Kara Pernice on this subject called “Scanning Patterns on the Web Are Optimized for the Current Task”. The article features several screenshots that show what the users were looking at, for how long and in which order.
Design Clarity and Semantics
The screen is the face of a software product. It needs to introduce itself to you in a way that you understand. Sometimes the product offers information and sometimes it helps achieving a goal.
User interface design is visual communication and the designer’s job is to send you the right visual messages.
If you look at a project in a candidate’s portfolio and you have no idea what it’s about, then there’s a problem. Sure, yes, there are niche products which you might not easily understand but, all the mainstream consumer and most professional products, should be easily understandable.
Extra point: Aesthetics come after clarity. A beautiful share button, for example, no matter how beautiful it is, is pointless if no one understands its purpose.
Every designer has their own personal style. It manifests in the small details, in color choices, proportions, composition and so on. Even though a good designer adapts their style to the project, the core of their personality as a designer will always be there in every project.
In most cases, when you are browsing through a portfolio you can kind of feel that all the projects were made by the same person.
So why is this important? When you hire a designer, you also hire their personal style and it will affect your project. You need to be sure that it is in line with the way you envision your product.
Details, Details, Details
"The details are not the details. They make the design" So said, Charles Eames, who’s revolutionary designs from the mid 20th century are still featured everywhere .
Be sure to look at the distances between objects, different font sizes, margins, the alignment between close and distant objects, size relations between adjacent items, consistency of line thickness, radiuses or sharp edges, shadows, etc, etc, the list goes on.
A designer should always keep all these details in mind and make a conscientious decision about all of them.
If you can easily notice details that were not thought through in the portfolio, there is a high probability that you’ll have them in your own product too.
Developing a unique style for a project requires both talent and experience. However, carrying the design throughout the whole product, down to the smallest details is a different skill entirely.
Take a look at multiple screenshots of the same project. Would you be able to tell that they are different parts of one product?
Here is an example of what we mean: You ask someone to open a secondary screen or a minor dialogue within a website or app that you are familiar with, without telling you what it is. Can you tell instantly which product it is? If the design has been consistent, you should be able to tell.
Experience in More Than Design Execution
Being the only designer working for your startup requires a wider skill set than being part of a design team under an art director. Essentially a single designer is their own art director.
This means, that your future designer should understand your product strategy, business goals, brand message, story, tone of voice, etc. and should then incorporate these into the design strategy that supports the product.
So what to look for?
Well, an experienced freelancer should already understand the big picture. A designer who was employed in the past as the only designer in a company will probably also have learnt to be their own art director.
Finally, a professional with a past as a design lead will definitely have the right experience. If none of the above is true for the designer you’re thinking about hiring, then you should discuss these subjects with them. Try to talk about the bigger picture, as mentioned above, and see if it is accepted as important considerations.
Responsibilities Within The Project
We once interviewed a designer who showcased a number of brilliant projects in his portfolio. During the interview, he casually mentioned that he hadn’t designed those pages. In fact, he’d gotten the PSD files from other designers and just cut and saved various assets from them.
These kinds of tasks should definitely not be showcased in a portfolio. In this case he was honest about it but if the portfolio doesn't include information about what the designer's professional involvement was in any given project, you should be sure to ask about it.
The Ability to Make Choices
To see a portfolio with a massive amount of projects, where each one offers lots of images to see is great. It feels like the designer has a lot of experience, and has worked on tons of projects.
However, I would be careful with that.
Yes, having a lot of experience is great, but the ability to make hard choices is a core skill for a designer. The designer's process requires making countless design choices every day. There are many possible solutions to every design problem and a tough decision is always needed to be able to proceed.
This is also true for the portfolio. I’m not going to go into exactly how many projects are needed in a portfolio, but let’s just say that not too many. It is also well known that employers spend a very limited amount of time looking at each candidate’s portfolio. Therefore the designer must make hard choices when it comes to which project to show and in what order.
The bottom line is this: whenever you receive a portfolio with tons of projects you should ask yourself: “Can this designer prioritize. Can she make hard choices?”
“The Client’s Implementation Sucked” Is Not an Excuse
In many cases, the client might implement the design differently than the designer intended. This difference can come from business decisions, company politics or by saving on development. In their portfolio, a designer should always showcase their best design work, regardless of the final implementation.
After all a portfolio is an exhibition of the designer’s skills. This means that if a screenshot from the final product is not as good as the design, the image in the portfolio should come from their original design, not the product.
Building a good portfolio takes time, a long time, and it should only promote the designer's best work.
Is there anything else you are looking for when you are going through portfolios? Disagree with any of the above? Need to recruit a designer and would like our help? Get in touch or share your thoughts in the comments below.