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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