3 must-have skills for the design interview 

How to stand out and land your next design job.

Having interviewed dozens of candidates and reviewed hundreds of design portfolios for about 14 years, I’ve gathered a sense of what to look for in hiring design talent. Let me say, right off the bat, that I’m still learning how to better evaluate candidates. I’ll likely never stop. Hiring is the most important thing I do, and it’s hard. There’s a lot at stake. You want to bring in someone who’s talented and responsible, can build working relationships, problem solve, and ideally introduce ideas and approaches to design that wouldn’t occur to you. Overall, my failures have taught me as much as my successes.

Here’s what I look for when hiring:

Problem Solver’s Approach

The very definition of design is ‘solving a problem.’ In portfolios, I need to see the candidate’s ability to communicate the problem they solved with their design. This contextualizes the work I’m looking at and the effort involved. It’s important that I’m able to clearly see the research conducted by the candidate, the evolution of the project (from wireframes to final designs), the reasoning behind specific decisions throughout, and why their final execution is the best solution. This shouldn’t be communicated just through images — the designer needs to explain with text exactly how they achieved the desired outcome.

Design is a team effort, so it’s important an applicant own whatever role they played in the project. To better understand their skill in this area, I’ll often give second round candidates a design exercise that they can work on at home and present to the team. The exercise ranges in complexity depending on the position being filled, but it’s a great way to see their thought process, their approach to design, and how they communicate their concepts. I’ll ask them questions related to the exercise; have them problem solve on the spot. I’ll watch how they work with others.

Are they receptive to feedback? Do they see it as a way of making their designs more on-target? Do they ask questions to better understand everything? Do they go the extra mile, refine the idea, look into other potential solutions? This helps me picture whether or not they’d compliment my team. I’m not hiring in a vacuum; I’m learning about this candidate through a lens that takes into account the personalities of everyone they might work with.

Eye for (Every) Detail

I was taught early in my career that the details really, really mattered. As a junior designer in advertising, it took me some time to understand exactly what this meant. I was under the impression that if the overall concept was present in the design, you were set. I had great managers that forced me to refine my work. They brought to light misspellings, alignment issues, color, brand and type inconsistencies that I’d previously thought were unnoticeable, or didn’t truly matter. I learned to seriously consider the details in the design process. I already felt confident about my ideas; now there were as few distractions as possible to prevent others from understanding them.

This level of refinement should be expected at every step in the candidate’s design process — how they approach and research projects, organize notes, document newer iterations, present the final product, label and archive files. When a designer attends to every aspect of a project, they’re forced to consider the problems that project poses from every possible angle. This demands consistency — the best designers have it.

Fastidious attention to detail requires no talent. Only drive. If a designer lacks skill in any one aspect of design, their drive can help compensate for that. 

If they’re aiming to be a positive contribution to the team, this approach also saves time in the long run. When you clearly organize the workflow and creative trajectory of a project, you build a path for others to follow — be they designers that were just brought on, company leaders looking to better understand your team’s thinking, or members of the team that want to retrace their steps.

Honestly, I’m surprised by how often I see these issues in portfolios. I’m always looking for an overall high level of polish that shows me the designer takes great care with their craft — anything less stands out.

Community Conscious

As designers, we find ourselves — most of the time — working alone. Design is intuitive and requires a good amount of alone time, debating internally what works or what doesn’t. This is how many of us likely first started out, and how a similar number are most comfortable working. But if someone’s looking to design on a team that’s part of a larger company, their ability to work with others is just as important as the work itself. It’s a skill — one that’ll require more of their time than any other.

This is an aspect I pay close attention to when hiring, and the one that’s most often a dealbreaker.

Throughout the interview process, I ask questions to better understand how the designer operates in a business setting. I might have them walk me through a project they worked on as part of a team. What role did they play in setting objectives, planning tasks, and making decisions with a group? Were they ever forced to compromise on a design? Who were the key players — and how’d it pan out?

I want to hire someone who thinks communally not just for my team’s sake, but for the candidate’s sake as well. When a designer works with a variety of people, all of whom have different skills and experiences informing their approaches, the possibilities only multiply. They’re opened to different ideas, and reach conclusions you might not have originally envisioned. So the question becomes — is this a candidate who’s open to improving?

To get to the bottom of the designer, basic mindfulness needs to be considered. Will this person be considerate of deadlines, and how their time management effects others? I need to know if the candidate can balance their responsibilities with the level of autonomy I provide to my team. Digging deeper — how’s their emotional intelligence? The candidate’s level of empathy and ability to understand their emotions has a tremendous effect on those they’re working with. Is the candidate respectful? Sociable? Curious? Are they afraid of change? Can they take feedback as a way of improving? The answers to these questions have a big say in a company’s culture, not to mention the work a team produces.

Thank you.

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