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  • Writer's pictureallisonsarno

8 steps to Hiring the Right Designer for Your Startup or New Business

If you are reading this post chances are, you understand the critical role that design plays in creating a compelling and user-friendly product and brand experience. Hiring your first designer is a significant milestone that can elevate your startup's visual appeal, user experience, and overall success. In this post, I'll outline a step-by-step guide on how to hire your first designer, ensuring a smooth and effective hiring process.

1. Define your design needs and goals:

Prior to embarking on the hiring process, it is essential to clarify your design requirements and objectives. Take into account the specific areas where design expertise is needed, such as user interface (UI), user experience (UX), branding, or marketing material. Additionally, assess whether your budget allows for hiring a single designer or multiple designers to fulfill your goals.

This knowledge is crucial as it determines whether you should seek a generalist or a specialist. If your budget only permits hiring one designer and you would like them to work on various design deliverables encompassing both product and marketing, then it is advisable to hire a generalist. A generalist will have diverse skills in different design disciplines and is capable of seamlessly transitioning between tasks, such as designing app screens one day and creating Facebook ads the next.

Alternatively, if your intention is to prioritize a specific discipline, such as product design, and you plan to outsource or employ a separate designer for other areas, it is recommended to hire a specialist. A specialist's expertise is concentrated in a narrower field, allowing them to excel in their chosen discipline due to their intense focus and specialization.

Suppose you currently require a generalist but anticipate the need for a specialist in the future. Here's my (slightly unbiased) opinion: If your business or product is in its early stages, it is advisable to hire a generalist for the following reasons:

  1. Cost-effectiveness and efficiency: It is more economical and efficient to utilize an in-house designer to handle a variety of design projects instead of engaging separate contractors or agencies for each project.

  2. Versatility of a generalist: A generalist is adept at designing diverse elements, be it an app interface or marketing collateral. Most generalists enjoy the opportunity to work on different types of projects.

  3. Ensuring consistency: By leveraging a single designer across your business, you can maintain consistency across different platforms and achieve a cohesive brand identity.

  4. Future scalability: If you hire the right generalist early on, they can eventually oversee your growing design team and manage the integration of specialists as needed.

That said, if your design requirements in a specific area are substantial and crucial to your business's success, and you can only hire one designer, opt for a specialist. In such cases, you may need to supplement with freelancers for design tasks outside their specialization.

2. Write a clear, accurate and reasonable job description

Writing a clear and detailed job description is essential to attract qualified candidates. Clearly outline the responsibilities, qualifications, and desired skills for the role. Additionally, highlight your startup's mission, vision, and culture to give candidates a sense of your company's values and what they can expect from working with you. Outline your expectations but also be realistic. Don't try to hire a designer that can also write code and your brand manifesto.

3. Evaluate resumes

Firstly, aesthetics matter. If a designer's resume appears as if it were created in Microsoft Word, it's best to move on. A designer's resume should reflect their approach to design—which is hopefully elegant and visually appealing. It should exhibit a clear hierarchy, well-organized typography, and meticulous attention to detail.

Regarding the content, carefully evaluate how their experience aligns with your specific needs. Exercise caution when encountering designers with less than 5 years of experience who label themselves as principal designers or "creative directors".

Don't overlook experienced candidates. While it may be tempting for a startup with a limited budget to hire fresh graduates with minimal experience (and low price tags), these emerging designers often struggle without the guidance of a mentor or senior designer and may take significant time and bandwidth to manage. An experienced designer is often more cost-effective in the long run due to efficiency and self-sufficiency.

4. Review design portfolios

A design portfolio is an essential component of any application process, and it can be presented in various formats such as a PDF, website, or any other curated showcase of work. Here are a few things to look for:

  1. Aesthetic appeal and attention to detail: Is the displayed work visually pleasing and executed with meticulous attention to detail? Does it showcase a high level of craftsmanship?

  2. Professional and clear presentation: Is the portfolio presented in a polished and professional manner, allowing for a clear understanding of each project?

  3. Relevance and recency: Is the portfolio reflective of recent work? Does it demonstrate an understanding of current design trends and practices?

  4. Integration of design aesthetics and user/business considerations: Did the designer take into account both the visual appeal and the practical aspects of fulfilling user needs and aligning with business objectives?

  5. Role and involvement: What was the designer's role in each project? Did they contribute to conceptualizing the ideas or primarily support a senior designer? Understanding their level of autonomy and responsibility is crucial.

If you find it challenging to evaluate the portfolio on your own, consider enlisting the assistance of a designer friend or colleague.

5. Interview effectively

Here's your opportunity to access the cultural fit as well as their strategic mindset. Ask open-ended questions to gauge their problem-solving abilities and how they approach design challenges. Additionally, assess their communication skills, collaboration potential, and cultural fit within your startup. Have them talk through the portfolio work they're most proud of and discuss how they envision working with your team.

6. Consider a design exercise

To further evaluate a candidate's skills and suitability for your startup, consider assigning a small design task or a trial project. This will allow you to assess their design process, attention to detail, and ability to meet deadlines. Typically, this exercise is given to a small selection of candidates and completed by the designer at home in his or her own time. Here are a few guidelines to considering when asking applicants to complete a design exercise:

  1. Don't exploit designers for free work: If you are not planning on paying for this exercise, then give the designer a design task that is related to your business and design needs but NOT something you would ever actually use or need. An example might be a made up product or feature. This is not your chance for free design.

  2. Compensate fairly: If you wish to give your designer a trial project or something more "real", compensate them fairly as you would a freelance designer or contractor.

  3. Time-box the exercise: In either case, this exercise should be time-boxed and considerate of the candidates' time and availability. But also be realistic. Don't tell them to spend two hours on an exercise when in reality it will take 10.

  4. Create a brief: You should provide them with a clear creative brief in writing just like any other project.

  5. Have them present: Be sure to have each designer present their solution allowing you to see how they articulate their design decisions.

  6. Give feedback: Finally, provide feedback after the assignment no matter the outcome.

Having been on both sides of the hiring process the "design assignment" is an exercise I know well. While at Ava, we decided that this would be a part of hiring process after initial interviews. I created a creative brief for a fictitious product. In this case it was a marketing campaign for Ava Menopause, a product that did not exist and we had no intention of launching. I wanted to learn how the candidates would approach a product that was outside of their realm of personal experience and whether the topic could truly inspire their creativity. The level of effort and approach the candidates took differed significantly between the candidates and had a huge impact on our final hiring decision. Whether their final output was on brand was irrelevant to me, but I was able to get a great sense of their approach to projects, their design skills and style which led me to hire two talented designers.

7. Check references

Contact the references provided by the candidate (and others if possible) to gain additional insights into their work ethic, collaboration style, and ability to deliver results. You will especially want to understand what they are like to work with? How do they handle deadlines and a fast paced environment? Are they ok with ambiguity? Can they accept feedback and leave their ego at the door?

8. Compensate fairly

You've found your dream designer, the perfect match for your startup needs. That's a huge accomplishment. Now, it's crucial to solidify the partnership by valuing their exceptional skills through a compensation package that includes a competitive salary and stock options. Throughout this process, you've likely realized that while there are numerous aspiring designers out there, only a select few possess the talent and expertise you seek. It's likely that your preferred rockstar designer will have other opportunities available, so make their offer truly enticing.


Hiring your first designer is a crucial step in building a visually captivating and user-centric product. By defining your design needs, crafting a compelling job description, evaluating portfolios, conducting interviews, considering trial projects, and compensating fairly, you can find a designer who aligns with your startup's vision and contributes to its success. The right designer will not only enhance your product's aesthetics but also play a vital role in creating an exceptional user experience that will set your startup apart from the competition.


About the Author

Allison Sarno is a product and branding designer based in Zürich, Switzerland. She specializing in lean design for startups and emerging brands. Have a project you'd like to discuss? Reach out at


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