How to Attract the Elusive Design Recruit

This post was first published on the WSJ’s ‘The Accelerators’ blog on Feb 7, 2014, as part of their month of design-related essays for entrepreneurs.

Good designers are incredibly difficult to find. Ask any entrepreneur. In the last 10 years, as Silicon Valley’s big tech companies have followed Apple’s lead and switched on to the value of design, they’ve also turned up the heat in the war to recruit the best designers. Can an entrepreneur compete with the resources of these multi-billion dollar monsters? Yes, you can. What you may not know is that the Googles and Facebooks of the world, for all of their legendary perks, have attributes that are quite unattractive to good designers. The agile, disruptive startup has more advantages than one might think. Here are a few points to highlight in your pitch to that elusive design recruit.

1. Work directly with the founders

Designers idolize the greats like Paul Rand, Dieter Rams, and more recently Jonathan Ive. Part of what made these design legends so successful was that they all worked directly with CEOs and founders. There were no layers of managers handling communications between Ive and Jobs when the two were iterating on the iMac. Most big tech companies have not evolved to this point. Occasionally you might read about, say, a tech CEO cranking out a logo with her best designers over a weekend, but generally designers have to fight for time with decision makers and when they finally get that time, they have to sit and watch while someone else presents their work. There are no big tech companies that have a designer – and not someone who only manages designers – who reports directly to the CEO. But you just can’t avoid this situation in a startup. Founders, if they aren’t designers themselves, simply have to work directly with designers in order to define and iterate on their product.

2. Building from the ground up

During my time at Google, I – along with hundreds of other designers – designed features for products like AdWords and Search. Not only were those user interfaces subjected to many design hands, but they had been around for years before I touched them. Could I honestly say that those product designs were “mine?” At a large company, there are so many people involved in the process of building a product that an individual’s contributions can disappear. Certainly there is something rewarding about being part of a large team that has broad impact, but it can be difficult in such situations to avoid feeling like you are just iterating on someone else’s achievement. That is, in fact, what you are doing. Many good designers want to experience the joy of building something from the ground up, to be able to point at something in the world and say with complete honesty “I designed that.” And that’s an opportunity that a startup uniquely provides.

3. You have the keys

Big tech companies have teams of engineers guarding their codebase. They’ve spent years investing in the development of their product, so it makes sense for them to guard that product carefully. But this creates problems for designers who care about seeing their work through to completion. The best designers want the ability to craft the most minute aspects of the interactions they define, and are driven insane when their work is implemented by engineers with less maniacal attention to detail. During my time at Google, there were a few cases where designers were given access to the codebase, but these were the exception rather than the rule. Startups tend to have much more flexibility. In general, you’re able to at least give designers access to make modifications to HTML, CSS and javascript. Some engineers may also be happy that they don’t have to focus so much on the front end.

4. You control your destiny

Almost all big tech companies are engineering-driven. And this has given the world many incredible innovations. But frankly what good designer wants their perspective to be considered secondary to an engineer’s? Your startup may also be engineering-driven, but startups tend to be small enough that the culture is still evolving. Having a good designer — someone strong enough to get co-workers excited about the value of their work, — come on board early in a company’s lifecycle, has every opportunity to balance a technical culture with a passion for elegantly connecting humans with that technology. And doing so isn’t just good for designers. As Apple, Square and Nest have shown, striking the balance between amazing design and remarkable technology is also good for business.

Graham Jenkin

Graham Jenkin

Graham Jenkin was an inaugural Google “Great Manager Award” winner where he led UX for Ads and Commerce. He was recently COO of AngelList and is currently co-founder and COO of CoinList.

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