Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Who to Hire

Who to Hire
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I’ve never claimed to be a good boss; nor, have I ever said that I’m good at hiring. Doing so is one of the hardest things that I’ve had to, and I struggle to find a set of consistent rules that work. We’ve hired people who worked well here, and others who haven’t. Still this topic has been floating in my mind for a few months.

Not so long ago, Andy Rutledge posted his thoughts on how to hire. Andy writes smart things on his blog, but something about this post rubbed me the wrong way. The point that bugged me most was his assertion that, “flaws of health and fitness are clear indications of other character flaws.” I guess Andy’s never going to hire me, because my gut has plenty ‘o’ jiggle to it. In my mind, that would be his loss.

But, I’m not looking for a job. I’m also not intending to beat up on Andy. Those are his perspectives, and as flawed as I believe some of them to be, it’s his right to maintain them. (And for that matter, most of the other things he notes in his post are pretty reasonable.) Around the time of that post, though, I was asked what my thoughts were on hiring. We’ll likely have to bring some folks on in the next few months. This is what we’ll be looking for.


The first thing we’ll concentrate on is capacity. Actually, we filter for this when we look through resumes. I hate to admit it, but we approach this part of it pretty rapidly—typically, within about ten seconds of looking at a book, we have determined whether we should “skip” or look more closely. This may sound rather abrupt, but it really doesn’t take long to get a feel for things. Our first skim helps us determine if an applicant is up for the position.

If the first indications are all positive, we dig deeper. We look at the role taken on in projects, the challenges they’ve  worked through, the variation in approaches, and a number of other things. It seems that a lot of applicants have great books until you look a little more closely. We’re not so much interested in technical proficiency; we see that as a baseline. What really matters to us is that the folks we bring in have a good grasp of the design process and all those other things that enable crafting effective design solutions.


From there, we’re looking for decent people. I’m not talking about being a “family” or becoming “pals.” This place isn’t a support group; it’s work. We just want to hire people who are fundamentally reasonable and forthright. This may seem like a strange thing to start with, but I get the feeling that you’re asking for trouble if you only hire based on a list of qualifications. There’s more to people than what they say they can do.

We often think about this specific point, whether we’re determining who we employ, partner with, or work for. The fact is: there are a lot of opportunities out there. Why elect to work with someone whose values seem dodgy? Jim Collins talks about having the right people on the bus. That seems awfully smart in my mind.


Regardless of the situation, it’s generally easy to blame someone else. We all do this at some time, and I’m certainly no exception. Thing is, though, when a client’s on the way, the printer is jamming up, and the files aren’t ready, I really don’t want to hear excuses. I just want the problem solved so the client won’t scream at me.

I get the feeling that a lot of people feel the same way. You want to work with those who remove headaches, not add them. The people who’ve fit the best here have generally taken ownership of their work. So when something blew up, they weren’t looking to blame the budget, client, technology, what-have-you; instead, they were taking the necessary steps to work through the problem.

Everyone screws up from time to time. In fact, even those of us with obsessive-compulsive characteristics can be stupid enough to forget to renew our passports. A slip isn’t an issue. (Well, it sucks, but it’s not a deal breaker.) Similarly, providing reasons for something going off the rails isn’t a bad sign. Those who only blame others for their errors, though? I get nervous around those folks.


A good designer (or for that matter, any individual worth working with) understands that talent only takes you so far. If you create effective, on-target work, but forget to press “save,” it likely isn’t worth that much. Designers aren’t artists. The latter explore—sometimes with careless abandon. The former are involved in a less freewheeling pursuit that requires professionalism and a proclivity for good housekeeping.

We receive a lot of resumes and online portfolios that are wildly creative. Neither of those really impresses me. I’m more “wowed” by those who think about the intention of the piece they create and craft it accordingly. So, I like to get a resume that’s clear, well organized, free of spelling errors, and illustrates a strong understanding of the actual usage of this piece. From these sorts of characteristics I tend to infer that the sender will also structure files and folders well, document jobs clearly for developers, structure their day appropriately, and a batch of other things.

Sure, we’re placing a bit of a bet by using these initial cues in one’s resume, presentation, and such, to suppose whether someone is well ordered in their work. Unfortunately, this is sometimes all you have to go with when there are hundreds of applicants to consider. Plus, it seems that ordered thinking (or the inverse) is somewhat permeated in everything an individual touches.


Working in a design studio isn’t a breeze. Most of us aren’t running projects through a mold, and that lack of a defined destination can add pressure. We’re in the communication business. The ability to convey one’s ideas effectively can serve as a bit of antidote to situations that might otherwise run amok. This is evidenced in planning documents that are cohesive and comprehensive, interaction with clients that helps them make sense of our process, and design directions that remain concentrated on established objectives instead of personal tangents.

But clarity isn’t limited to communication. It’s also found in one’s personal desires, career expectations, and general manner of thinking. We’ve met with really talented folks who didn’t seem to want to design anymore. They just weren’t into it, but couldn’t determine what they should do next. Regardless of said talent, we don’t really want to work with people who don’t know what they want.


I was recently involved in an online discussion about designers and ego. In it I remarked that I tend to like the designers I meet. Aside from the rare exception, most are nice, interesting people. (Sure, a grand generalization, but that’s been my experience.) The one thing that can be strange in this industry, though, is the tendency to become a self-proclaimed expert. I’m of the mind that this gets in the way of some folks’ professional development. As I’m sure you’ll agree, no matter how far you go in this industry, there’s an infinite amount of new learning to be done.

One of the things that we’ll be looking closely for are people who have a competency in their work, but haven’t decided that they’ve learned all there is to know. Some will argue this, but I say that as designers we never “arrive.” We’re all just practicing. The ones I admire know what they know and are willing to admit where they fall short. Those I most want to work with supplement this by always working to grow and understand new things.


The last point I’ll reference (although I’m likely missing others) is one that relates to those in design as much as those outside of it. I’m of the opinion that those who aren’t curious have somewhat “gone limp” in life. They’ve reached a point at which they aren’t willing to invest the time to find delight in new things. To me, this is when you get “old” —not when the number beside your name changes.

Look at the collective work of a few different designers and I’m sure you’ll be able to spot those who explore. Some will do so by reading new things or continually exposing themselves to new ideas. Others will keep “looking under rocks” for new ideas and treatments they can toy with. Curiosity is a lovely characteristic in anyone and we’re especially lucky when people who are so inclined choose to work with us. We can learn a lot from them.

Seth’s approach

Of course, all of these are easy things to say, but much harder to identify in someone we’ve just met. Part of that comes down to how screwed-up our method of hiring is. We look at some sheets of paper, meet for an hour, meet for another hour, and then commit to a relationship. Ultimately, we’re forced to make a judgment call in a split-second, and most of us aren’t that good at doing so. If you ask me, Seth’s got a much better way of doing it.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention ideasonideas - Eric Karjaluoto discusses design, brands and experience » Blog Archive » Who to Hire --

  2. Ryan Burrell says:

    As usual, a down-to-earth viewpoint on something that I feel many firms/companies turn into an elaborate ritual, filled with buddy-buddy feelings and ridiculous buzzwords. The idea is simple: we have a job that needs doing, can you do it? A company is a business first and a family second, and while I do feel that the best working relationships are those built on not only professional respect but friendship as well... too much focus can be put on the latter during the hiring phase.

  3. Chris Butler says:


    As usual, there's a lot to think about in your post. As I was reading this I wondered what your blog might look like as a video discussion. Maybe you should try that sometime...

    In any event, the point in here that struck me the most was one you made about attitude. You wrote: " designers we never 'arrive.' We’re all just practicing. The ones I admire know what they know and are willing to admit where they fall short." I love that you chose the word 'practice.' Doctors refer to what they do as a 'practice.' Why don't we? It's not as if we are doing anything at all approaching the risk of medicine, so I think we can afford the honestly tentative reference that 'practice' connotes.

    Also, if you haven't seen it already, take a look at Michael Babwahsingh's post, "10 Years / 10 Learnings" ( His comments are truly smart and genuine, and like your post, I was particularly interested in his third point, "Clients aren’t the problem. Misunderstandings are," which touches on all kinds of issues surrounding the humility we aught to have in our "practice."

    - Chris Butler

  4. Thanks Chris--I'll take a look at Michael's post. :-)

    And as for the video blog, we actually just started one to work with our new book. It's still fledgling, but you can find the first bits here:

  5. Chris Butler says:


    Yes, I watched the one about your recent expired-passport and airline experience. Yikes! What I meant was a video with you discussing some of these ideas with other people (at the risk of conveying the wrong mood, maybe like how bloggingheads does it). You obviously draw out plenty of agreement and disagreement with your ideas, so it would be fun to see you engaging that in person.


  6. It's certainly something we've toyed with. Actually, we explored a long-format design video series a fair amount last summer.

    My one fear with such a thing is length and editing time. We did some video work a couple of years ago and found it pretty tricky. Those conversations are hard to condense and if you don't, it's easy for them to drag and bore people. (Plus, they take forever to prepare.)

    That's why the Speak Human ones are presented as they are: As little editing as possible, and as short as we can make them. I'm curious to see how the uptake is on those.

  7. I agree with the point of curiosity. I believe that the desire to learn and develop encompasses nearly every other point you mentioned. Curiosity says a lot about a persons personality.

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  9. Steven Clark says:

    Not that I'm looking Eric but I fail on the honesty department - I was a bad bad boy in 1983 and spent a long long time in the pokey doing pushups. Am I the same person at 45 as I was at 18? I doubt it.

    But there you go, I gotta record. A bad one. God forbid anybody would hire me with my Bachelor of Computing and industry level qualifications in web design and development, a little experience, large exposure to web standards methodologies in theory and practice, and half way through an MBA (Journalism and Media Studies)...

    I kind of like our society because at least in theory there is the capacity for upward mobility. However, I do find in the employment arena that the year they invented the mountain bike (1983) still outweighs anything that bounces onto that table.

    Maybe honesty and integrity need to be taken in context when hiring? Does this specific incident(s) impact their ability to perform the job and fit into the team today?

  10. Everyone makes mistakes Steven. I have a friend who did hard time for a serious offense. He's a pleasant guy, good parent, and hard worker. I'm of the mind that the past is the past; it's what one does today that matters.

    When I speak about honesty, I'm talking about someone I can trust today. That means I can leave that person in the office and not have to wonder if they're doing freelance work on my dime. We're not looking for flawless people--there aren't many of those out there. We just want to connect with those who are trying to do the right thing.

  11. Pingback: Tweets that mention ideasonideas - Eric Karjaluoto discusses design, brands and experience » Blog Archive » Who to Hire --

  12. This is a really thoughtful post, thanks. My senior design students will be hearing about it! And I love the sections on curiosity and attitude. I have found that I personally learned more since I started teaching (7 or so years ago) and that there is always more to learn. It's so exciting, really, and my professional practice benefits from it.


  13. Two of the points you've mentioned here, capacity and curiosity, struck a chord with me. What if the person hasn't had much background in something he/she is very curious about?

    One thing that always bugged me the most when companies were hiring me is their unwillingness to take a risk and hire a person based on what they're curious about and playing it safe by sticking to hiring based on their professional experience only:

    In my case: as soon as I got hired to teach web programming, the only other job offers I was getting were teaching positions. So I started freelancing, developed a few applications until I finally got hired as a Web Developer. But then everyone was perceiving me as a Developer/Programmer only, while I craved for more creative jobs and projects to work on. So I started my own company, where I could take on any project, work on it from start to end, manage it and design to my heart's content.

    While I do enjoy running my own show, I'd love to work and gain more experience in an actual design agency, be part of a creative team. So now I'm curious to see whether this would lead to me getting a job offer for a creative position in future.

    Curious to hear where do you stand on this?

  14. I'll answer these in brief points; otherwise, I could likely get carried away in my responses. :-)

    You asked: "What if the person hasn't had much background in something he/she is very curious about?" My suggestion is that they just start. Pick up related books and read. Find someone who has a background in it and pick their brain. Or, start a project and learn the hard way. (The latter is my favorite approach.)

    I can understand your irritation with companies "unwillingness to take a risk," but I think you have to be mindful of where the company owners are coming from. In my experience, those who do things will do so without needing an employer's support. So, those who want to do creative work won't wait for employment (or permission) to do it. They'll just find creative projects and do them on their own. I'm most inclined to take a risk on these folks, as they take a risk on themselves.

    But, I don't have to tell you that. You've already gone out on your own and taken the "bull by the horns." My feeling is that having done so will say a lot should you apply for a creative position at a design agency. Good luck in your pursuits!

  15. In response to your Andy quote. Did it ever occur to him that the thing that makes some people absolutely amazing at their jobs might be very serious flaws in other arenas? Why do top CEOs have such troubled marriages for instance?

  16. I can't speak for Andy, but it seems to me that he's confused his personal moral sensibilities as a measure for good hires. I suppose you could say the same about my list, though. Ostensibly, some would be great designers without being curious, but in my experience that's quite rare.

    I agree with your observation. I have a "gut" in part because I'm working my ass off in front of this computer. That certainly could prove problematic for me (personally) in the long term; nevertheless, I'm still a pretty capable designer.

    While most of Andy's comments seemed more grounded, that one felt more judgmental in tone. It may be just me, but I think he put himself on a somewhat slippery slope.

  17. I don’t want to take anything away from what Eric has put forth here from his own ideas, but as to those questions about my motivations, observations, and perceived myopia: Uncompromising values are just that, and a lack of relevant, shared experience does not provide the firm footing that some seem to believe it does here.

    It matters not how good someone is at their job (as a recent-graduate coder or a CEO) if they lack the character components that my experience proves to me matters more than other things. I appreciate that some are comfortable overlooking certain character issues and divorcing mores from mundane or professional activities. I am not.

    Mores and values can never be separated from even the most mundane of activities. Uncompromising standards cannot be equated with relative standards. Those who do not grasp these facts clearly have no common ground on which to have a discussion or a disagreement with me (or anyone else). It is nothing more than trolling to ignore these facts and venture irrelevant opinions in the face of them.

    I agree that it is unfortunate that Eric chose to present his comments in the purposeful context of direct, visible contrast to my own. However, unless there is someone here who understands how morals are directly linked with a person’s every act and who holds with my experience and with uncompromising values, there is not context here in which one can take issue with my expressed standards. Being out of one’s depth and experience is not the proper platform for legitimate debate.

    So with due respect to Eric, there will likely be a far more productive and interesting discussion here if the comments are directed toward Eric’s thoughts on whom to hire rather than my own, which are not represented here. Thanks.

  18. Clayton Misura says:

    So, 'Who to Hire' really just depends on who is doing the hiring.

  19. Knox says:

    "Whom" to hire. Not "who."

  20. @Andy: I appreciate the response, but I want to counter you on what makes this productive and interesting. Anything is open here--aside from offensive or derogatory comments.

    That's why we've enabled the comment thread: to encourage open dialogue. Sometimes people respond with comments that I don't agree with, but overwhelmingly we've found the discussion to be quite enlightened. Plus, I believe most readers here are quite responsible. I suspect they're all reading your post before making comments about it.

    @Clayton: That's how it generally shakes out. Just like everything in life. ;-)

    @Knox: My grammars is whack.

  21. I believe it's not only hard for the ones hiring but for the candidates as well.
    If you go to deep on your details the company might think there are too much irrelevant information there and go for the next CV. Otherwise, if you filter to only show what they want they won't get your full personality.

    It's always a joy to read your posts.
    Can't wait to get my hands on your book.

  22. Claudia says:

    I just found your blog and this was an interesting entry to read. Looking forward to read more.


  23. Marie Poulin says:

    Always interesting to see how other studios "hire"...

    At my old studio we used to send out a very "random" questionnaire that would give us a very interesting perspective on our new hires.
    Questions like, "write an article headline about yourself from the future", "write your obituary", and "Brett or Gemaine?"
    Some people would respond with "I'm sorry I don't understand the question", which gave us a pretty good idea that they probably wouldn't fit so well into our studio dynamic.
    And man were there ever some creative answers!

    We were far more likely to bring in someone who had creative, interesting answers but had slightly weaker portfolios than those that had strong work, but very uninspiring answers the the questions.

    If they had done their research, and checked out our website, they probably would have gotten an idea that we were a small studio with a sense of humour. It's all about context...

    i think the process of hiring will probably always be a bit of a learning process :)

  24. I think ownership would be up on the top for me. If I am taking on a partner for any project I just want to know that we are equally invested. Contractors might be better in this area though. Something about being an employee is fundamentally less enabling. A contractor might have more incentive to do better work to keep the work coming in. Like the texture on the side there BTW.

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