How to Source, Vet, and Hire a Product Designer in 2023
Hiring a product designer can feel daunting - but it doesn't have to! In the post, we share how NUMI approaches vetting, sourcing, and enlisting the best designers in the world without breaking the bank.
Recruiting a great, affordable designer can be daunting. Especially if you’re not a designer, and even more so if you’ve never done it before.
We’ll break down step by step how we source, vet, and interview designers at NUMI. This guide is our “secret sauce” to finding top-tier designers, that meet the standards of startups backed by Y Combinator, Andreessen Horowitz, .
Outbound Sourcing via Communities
Generally when it comes to sourcing candidates - outbound sourcing is better than inbound sourcing. Why?
Candidates most likely haven’t heard of your brand**.** Why would the best ones magically find you and think you’re better than any job they apply to?
You’re better off asking reaching out to designers that impress you rather than waiting for them to find you. Where do designers hang out? They flock to different online communities, depending on their discipline.
- Product Development and UX Leaders
- User experience (UX) design, Product Design, Service Design
- Mixocord Art and Design
- Designership Community (gated by purchase of Figma pack)
How to Get Replies from Designer Outreach
Let’s say you just found a designer who you’re really excited about - how do you reach out to them? Using the same tactic you’d use for any other form of cold message: make it about about them.
Pay a specific and thoughtful compliment to an item in their portfolio. Ideally, this is something deeper than just “Your designers are really pretty!”. How you complement their portfolio piece will show them how you think about their work and design in general.
Many designers have spent their entire careers being pigeonholed as visual artists, despite the deep structural thinking that goes into their work. They are allergic to working on teams that see their work this way.
So don’t fall into this trap of just focusing on the visual aspects of their work when you reach out! It makes you look bad. Not being able to engage with their thought process sends the signal that you don’t see design as anything more than graphics and aesthetics. These are important, but they are not the foundation of good design. Show the designer you can see deeper than the visuals of their work, and you are much more likely to get a positive response.
How to Build Inbound Interest from Designers
While outbound sourcing will likely bring you a much stronger pool of candidates, it is a lot of work. You can complement your outbound messages with some inbound sourcing as well, via posts on job boards. There are several job boards that designers frequently check for opportunities. Note that unlike outbound messaging, inbound sourcing usually costs money per job post. If you have the budget to spend, inbound sourcing can be an effective way to broaden your search.
- LinkedIn Jobs (free, offers paid promotion)
LinkedIn jobs has been a great source to get more applicants, especially if you’re hiring for a remote position. LinkedIn reported that in 2022 remote vacancies received 50% of all job applications on its site, despite only accounting for 20% of job listings.
- RemoteOK (starts at $490)
RemoteOK is a popular job board visited by over 2,000,000 remote workers.
- Flowremote (Free or $250 / mo)
If you’re looking for a Webflow designer specifically, Flowremote is a great place to post your job. They have an audience of over 5,000 Webflow designers and developers.
- Dribbble Job Board (from $249 / mo)
Dribbble is a great community for finding creatives. While it may have had many product designer in its community in its early days, its center of gravity has shifted towards creatives, graphic designers, and illustrators.
- HackerNews WhoIsHiring (free)
While HackerNews may be focused on developers, it has become the water cooler of the entire tech industry. Over a million readers visit it every day. And on the first of the month, they create a WhoIsHiring post that anyone reply to with a job opening.
- DesignerNews ($99 / mo)
DesignerNews is the design community’s answer to the more developer-focused HackerNews. It’s not as active as HackerNews, and posting on the job board costs a bit. But the viewers of the job will be a much higher concentration of designers.
- Reddit r/DesignJobs (free)
Founded nearly a decade ago, the r/DesignJobs subreddit has over 130,000 members. Its active user base is much smaller, probably because a small percentage of the subreddit is actively looking for new work at any time. But if you’re looking for another free place to post your job, it’s worth a shot.
How to Assess a Designer’s Portfolio
First, a note—be aware but don’t fixate on the visual appearance of the portfolio. Especially if you’re looking for designers before your Series B. It’s way too easy to get sucked into the visuals of the portfolio and miss the substance. Three step process:
- Deep dive
Skim the Designer’s Portfolio
The first step is to skim the designers’ full portfolio - quickly scanning to get a pulse. Do you notice any themes in the kinds of problems they work on and the way they approach those problems?
Examine the Designer’s Tenure
After you skim, take a closer look at 1) the companies they’ve worked at (and how far those companies went) and 2) what responsibilities the designer owned in their case study at each company. These two factors combined reveal a tremendous amount.
First, the quality and stage of the companies they worked with tells you the standards they were held to. Did they work at a big tech company on existing projects? Or did they work for a nameless startup with no online presence? Or did they work as the first designer for a startup that ended up going through hyper-growth while they were there? These are all different caliber teams and very different standards that they would be held to.
Designing successfully at these different teams also looks immensely different. You should bias towards designers who have worked at teams of your stage before. Each stage has different needs and different degrees of specialization. Someone who worked at Google on a team of designers is going to have a very different working pattern from someone who was the only designer at a 20 person startup.
Deep Dive into a Few Design Projects
Pick 2-3 pieces in their portfolio and examine them in detail. You should be able to tell the entire story about what they did. And really, it should read like a story. Can the case study answer the five basic questions:
- Who were they working with? Who were they handing off their work to? Were they primarily working with a product manager or were they collaborating directly with engineers?
- What were they responsible for delivering? Did they own design end to end or were they handling a specific part of the design function? Can you tell clearly where their contributions stopped (did they own everything from marketing collateral, to UI and user research)?
- Where was the company’s market? Not just geographically, but the customers they served. What industry were they in, and what types of customers did they serve in that industry? This context helps you see how good they are at speaking their customers’ language. Some designers are “polyglots” and can design enterprise billing solutions for hospitals as easily as they can design habit tracking apps for consumers. Others go really deep in one customer’s “language”, perhaps developer-focused tooling.
- When in the product’s lifetime did they do their work? This context is crucial because it gives you hints about the stage they worked in, the infrastructure that was available to them, and more.
- Why did they have to complete the work they did? What were the KPIs that they were trying to design for? Was it increasing active users? Or increasing revenue per user? Or improving conversion? The way they describe the “why” will reveal a lot about how they understand design’s role in .
- How did they solve their team’s problem? It’s not enough to see a final artifact. You should be able to see the entire journey. Beware attempts to over-package the “how”. A lot of design portfolios will include constructs like word clouds, personas, mood journeys, etc. A good designer will use these constructs to communicate their process to you, rather than rely on these constructs as a crutch to develop their solution.
If their case studies are missing any of this information, that’s great stuff for you to fill in on a call with them.
How to Interview a Designer
1. Talk me through the single hardest design project you’ve ever delivered, and how you did it
Very similar to a portfolio review, you’re asking them to walk through the journey of a project they did. There are details in every project that are much easier to learn from a conversation.
- What roadblocks did they run into along the way?
- How did they collaborate with their teammates? How did they settle disagreements on their team?
- What was harder than they expected?
- What they would do differently if they had to do it all over again?
2. Can you walk me through a Figma file for a recent, significant project you did? Look for:
- Consistent conventions for naming layers and pages
- Use of symbols for repeated elements rather than each one being its own component
- Names of elements aren’t simply recycled from another client
- Ask to compare that to the delivered product. What discrepancies are there? What accounts for the discrepancies between Figma and Webflow?
This is like the designer’s code sample. It’s the under the hood implementation of their completed projects. Organized designers with organized thinking create organized Figma files.
3. Can you walk me through your accessibility checklist (also known as pre-launch checklist, user-first checklist, design guide checklist)?
- How structured are their acceptance criteria?
- What’s important to them for delivering a quality final product?
- Is there anything you think is missing? Ask them about it
4. Can you tell me about a time where the analytics data and your intuition on how customers would use the product differed? How did you resolve it?
Every designer has run into a situation where the analytics dashboards didn’t match their expectations. You should unpack:
- Where did their intuitions about the customer come from? How much of it was based on customer conversations vs their own hunches
- Did they investigate how the analytics were collected?
- Which one ultimately was right, and what did that mean for their future product decisions, as well as how they measured those decisions?
There are so many great designers out there waiting to be discovered. To find them, you’ll need to get out there and join their communities. You’ll need to show that you value their work, and are not merely wow’ed by its visual polish. And when you find someone who excites you, you’ll need to make sense of their past projects.
All of this is totally possible if you’re not a designer. But it will take time and effort.
If you want to save this headache, NUMI can help. We’ll pair you with a designer that’s a fit for your needs and your taste, sourced and vetted by us.
And if you’re not happy with their work, we’ll happily find you another match (note that this almost never happens because we know what we’re doing 😉).
If you want to hear more about how to find underrated designers before they blow up, check out how NUMI does it here: