A Founder’s Guide to the Design Hiring Process

A stellar hiring process makes hiring the right designer a breeze — but where do you start, and what signals should you look for when filtering design candidates?

Why you absolutely need a hiring process

The most common mistake we've seen is founders rushing into finding and interviewing designers without a well-defined hiring process in place. Not only does this impact your speed of hiring but you'll also risk a poor first impression and impact closing rates when it comes to high-calibre candidates.

Make the wrong hiring decision, and the cost of not hiring the right designer is too high — you’ll waste thousands of dollars, precious time, and negatively impact your company's trajectory/morale.

On the flip side, hiring the right designer will pay dividends for your business — they’ll drive business value, product momentum, save engineering hours, and build a product your customers genuinely love. A great design hire will pull their weight and have an overarching impact on your company beyond just the design function. This is our end goal when it comes to helping you hire a product designer.

Speed is your biggest hiring advantage as a startup — which is why having a defined process in place can help you move quickly and even make hiring decisions in as fast as 7 days.

What to look for when interviewing designers

Apart from the basic foundational soft skills usually required in startup roles (e.g. communication, collaboration, autonomy, bias to action, etc.), here’s what we’ve seen in exceptional early-stage designers:

  1. Visual design — most great UX designers are also great visual designers. You can see the attention to detail in their work. 🌶️
  2. Inquisitive — they will question business assumptions to deeply understand both the business and your customers better.
  3. Tastefully Scrappy — they have a sharp ability to balance both speed & quality of work
  4. Storytellers — they can tell a cohesive story on why and how they worked on something.
  5. They ship — they’re able to drive projects all the way from problem discovery → ideation → release and can work effectively with senior engineers.

For a leadership position, additional qualities can include:

  1. Resourceful — ability to manage both technical & design resources effectively
  2. Product Sense — they can drive impact beyond design from a product/business lens as well.
  3. Selective — they can let fires burn and areselective about the problems they choose to focus on

With these traits in mind, we've reverse-engineered a hiring process to give you well-rounded insights on design candidates.

A template for your hiring process

Our overall goal here is to get a holistic perspective on a design candidate’s approach to solving problems, navigating complexity, managing tradeoffs, and driving impact. Here is what we recommend as a starting point — we'll dive into each step in detail below:

  1. Phone Screen (20 mins)
  2. Hiring Manager chat (30 mins)
  3. Assessing Design Quality (1 exercise)
  4. 1:1 coffee chats with co-founders/teammates (optional)
  5. Decision & Offer

Step 1: Phone Screen (20 mins)

The goal of this step is to learn about a candidate's story and gauge high-level culture fit. Use this call to understand their strengths, their background, and the type of role they're looking for next. Ask yourself — is this someone I'd want to work with and alongside for the next 10 years?

Step 2: Hiring Manager Chat (30 mins)

The second call is a more technical chat focused on the specific requirements of the role and how a specific candidate's skillset aligns with it. For example — if you're looking for a designer who is scrappy and can ship new features quickly, you can talk through how they would go about executing an idea from paper to production. If your role requires a more strategic or product-focused designer, focus the conversation on that instead.

Step 3: Assessing Design Quality (1 exercise)

Similar to engineering white-boarding exercises or take-home assignments, there are three options we recommend to gauge a candidate's design quality. We suggest you pick only one of these for your process in the interest of balancing the time & effort involved for both parties. For each, we've written in-depth guides on how to conduct them effectively:

  1. Portfolio Presentation (1 hour live): Recommended approach which lets you dive into a candidate's real-world experiences to understand their thought process and impact.
  2. Design Critique (1 hour live): This approach focuses more on a candidate's ability to think through challenges and opportunities in a product from a cross-functional lens.
  3. Paid Design Challenge (4 hours async + panel): This approach is more time & resource-intensive on both sides, but provides insights on how a candidate might navigate a challenge that is relevant to your startup.

Step 4. 1:1 coffee chats with team members (Optional)

This is an optional step at the end of the process, allowing you to build trust and confidence with your candidate while selling the team and opportunity to them. You can offer to set up optional 1:1 coffee chats with your co-founders and other team members. This can also be used a tool after an offer is made to help seal the deal.

Step 5: Decision & Offer

By the time you reach this step in the process, you should have all the signals and intel to make an informed decision on the candidate. One of the questions we've found helpful to ask the candidate before making an offer is, "What's most important to you in an offer? (Eg: salary vs. equity, specific benefits, etc)". We recommend making just one offer — the best one you can genuinely make as a startup to the candidate. This helps frame the offer in an equitable lens - one that doesn't expect or require candidates to negotiate in order to earn an offer that fairly reflects the value they bring to the team.

Roles you can apply this process to

This template process can be used as a template for the following types of design roles:

  • Head of Design
  • Founding Designer
  • Junior-Mid Level Designer
  • Product Design Lead
  • UX Designer
  • Interface Designer

You can tweak it to fit the specifics of your role - for example, adapting the focus of the interviews depending on whether it's an IC-heavy or management-heavy role.

Working with design experts

We've used the interview processes and tactics in this guide to successfully help venture-backed founders effectively hire for key design roles. We hope this guide is helpful in your process. No two startup design roles are the same, so depending on your needs, the role, and the type of design candidate you're looking for, there are often more context-specific adaptations that can be made to strengthen your design hiring process. At DesignBake, we focus exclusively on helping founders with design hiring and would be happy to support you in finding the best possible designer as well.

If you have more questions about design hiring processes, please feel free to drop us a note, and we’d be happy to help out!