How to build a design dream team for your digital product business

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Will Jones Executive Creative Director
5min read

I was recently asked by a client: ‘how do I hire a design team?’

A lot of young tech-led businesses have brilliant people at the helm who have worked with designers and know what good design looks like, but aren’t designers themselves and don't want to make mistakes when initial hiring falls into their lap.

We went through this ourselves when we grew our own design team, and through the nature of our work at 11:FS we’re involved in creating new businesses that eventually all face exactly this challenge.

Where to start

Let's assume you've proven product-market fit, you've reached the point financially where you can start to invest in the talent that you hope guides the company to world domination in the next three to five years.

First, look to get in your most senior design hires, these are often the hardest to recruit and the most important for the performance of your design team.

While it’s tempting to start with more junior hires to get the ball rolling and save on budget, in that scenario your more senior hires will undoubtedly want to unpick all of their work when they arrive. The longer you run without design leadership, the more legacy design debt there is to work through as the product matures.

The longer you run without design leadership, the more legacy design debt there is...

It's hard to imagine you've got to this point without a designer in your midst. Can your early design talent step up? Can a contract designer go perm? Or do you need to bring in someone new with proven experience?

Graduates might seem like an appealing way to get started, but only take grads if you’re able to give them strong design oversight and mentorship. Be willing to invest in their education (and be prepared to wait a year for them to come good…)

So, in sum:

  • Start your search for a strong design lead now. It takes longer to find them than you think…

  • Build a team of less senior designers underneath them.

Is there an ideal team shape?

While there is no ideal team shape, if you think in 'squads' you'll be able to build a model that scales.

I appreciate this is a universally-accepted concept, but so we’re all on the same page - we’re talking about mini-teams that each tackle a different feature or aspect of your product build, made up of different disciplines including at least one designer within each.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but the number of designers and squads you need is dependent on many factors, but primarily should aim to create design progress that matches your pace of engineering.

With that model in mind, we can simplify things – there are really only three key types of product design hire you initially need to worry about:

1. Product Design Lead/Principal

Hiring a strong design lead should be your number one priority. You will need someone dedicated sitting across squads to:

👁 Ensure functional and visual consistency, setting the design direction

✅ Own the 'write to' permissions for the design system

🎯 Take a strategic look ahead and a holistic look at architecture, patterns and future-proofing

🗣 Ensure the voice of the customer informs design decisions

This is a more elevated position within your product design team, but still very hands-on. Think of it as your ‘leader of the doers.’

If you only have a couple of squads you can get away embedding your lead/oversight role in one of them, but the key is to make sure they have the mental bandwidth to evolve a broader vision of the end-to-end customer experience and the whole product you are building, or your experience will become disjointed and siloed.

2. Product Designers

Your product designers will translate your product vision into the build-ready user experience, testing and iterating to make it better. They’re responsible for:

🗺 Plotting navigation patterns, end-to-end flows, states and variants for user journeys

✏️ Designing screens linked to the design system components and marked up for development

🧪 Preparing usability testing prototypes and iterating designs

🫂 Working shoulder-to-shoulder with product managers and developers to ensure designs meet user needs and acceptance criteria

Modern product businesses don’t thrive on traditional, narrow design roles with everyone in their little box. In a small growing team, in particular, you need designers with a broader skill set than purely ‘UX’ or ‘UI’ or ‘service design’ – you likely don’t have the luxury of carrying a specialist. A great hybrid designer can blend UX skills, and user interface design polish, with an understanding of the systems and processes that make a product succeed.

Modern product businesses don’t thrive on traditional, narrow design roles with everyone in their little box.

If you can’t find that unicorn (and it’s not easy), then don’t overlook the importance visual appeal plays in the success of new products. There can be a tendency to over-index the architect and not the artist. Aim to build a good balance of logic and artistic flair across your design team.

3. Head of Design/CDO

Companies with design representation at the top tend to bake a much stronger understanding of customer behaviour and product experience into their strategic decisions. While the other design roles listed here will help you execute great user experiences, your exec-level design role will help connect user-experience improvements with the intended resulting uplift in conversion, customer retention, reviews, cost-to-serve etc. – ultimately they’re responsible for the commercial impact of design.

This role can also help to join up the wider brand across platforms, so you’re not saying one thing through social ads, only for customers to experience something very different, and often awful, when deep in the bowels of your product flows.

While perhaps not essential from day one, this can be a crucial role for your business as you scale.

  • Think in squads

  • Ensure your oversight role(s) have the mental bandwidth to think strategically

  • A product designer will not create your marketing or brand, understand what skill-set you actually need

  • Your design output must match the pace of engineering output

What to look for in good candidates

A portfolio is a must-have when reviewing design candidates – a CV alone will not tell you anything more useful than a LinkedIn profile.

If a candidate is unable to show any previous work due to NDAs this likely means they haven’t worked on anything that has 'gone live.' This isn’t necessarily a huge red flag, there are some great product designers that have only worked on early-stage propositions that never see the light of day, but most great candidates have seen the grizzly business end of pushing a product out of the door.

Spotting a good candidate

For a product design role, there are the obvious prerequisites of customer focus, logical explanations of UX decisions, visually appealing designs, and uncluttered screens. But a standout candidate frequently also has:

🎓 Some formal design training

👩‍👦 Good design leadership in previous roles ('sole designers' may have picked up bad habits or progressed slower without good oversight)

📇 An understanding of design systems and how to scale component sets to find efficiency and consistency

⚙️ More than just ‘brochureware’ in their portfolio

🤼 Worked in multi-disciplinary squads to release successful product features

📊 Good examples of how they use data to learn about and iterate features

Interview red flags

In an interview scenario, designers expect to spend at least 50% of the time talking through past work. The other half should be a mix of exploring what they might bring to the role and selling the opportunity to the candidate.

As a designer walks through work, there are clear red flags to watch out for:

⛔ They only describe 'what’ it is, not why or how

⛔ They don't involve the end customer in their description of the process

⛔ They aren't able to walk through an end-to-end journey

⛔ They only talk about design systems

⛔ They use non-inclusive language when describing the customer

Attracting Talent

Getting design candidates through the interview process is just the final part of the dance - first, you have to attract talent.

Getting design candidates through the interview process is just the final part of the dance - first, you have to attract talent.

For a lot of less mature businesses, attracting talent can be hard without dangling equity or inflated salaries. When checking out your company, designers are hyper-critical of both job ads and any of your public platforms they can view. A whiff of corporate bullshit or poor aesthetic and you’ll spook them.

Ultimately, designers are a precious bunch. We think we're special, we’re too bothered by the look and experience of everything and concerned about how the world values our output. We also want to be surrounded by other designers that give a shit, within a company that values design. Designers sound awful, don’t they?

To be considered an appealing proposition for designers you need to tell a compelling story that satisfies concerns covering the work they'll be doing, the growth opportunities and the wider team they'll join.

What do designers look for in a new role?

🎨 The work

  • Is the work interesting and varied?
  • Do they understand the product they’ll be designing?
  • Will their efforts make a material difference to real people?
  • Will the product go live?
  • Is there a customer-centric approach to product design?

🪴 Their growth

  • Is this an opportunity to learn and take on more responsibility?
  • Will the company invest in their growth?
  • Is progression possible and what are the available paths upwards?
  • Will they be able to increase their profile in the wider design community?

🤝 The team

  • Is there strong design leadership? (For more junior hires)
  • Social proof (have designers with good CVs taken jobs?)
  • Are you taking steps to interview a diverse talent pool? (If you're using non-inclusive language in your job ad this is immediately a bad look)

The chances are your public platforms are designed to target your customers, not appeal to the whims of designers. And rightly so. Despite a lot of companies aiming to embrace the same purpose and virtues internally and externally, public platforms are usually not designed to answer many of the questions above that candidates are looking to answer.

It can be useful to spin up additional materials or a web page with this hiring goal in mind. See this one we created for ourselves to tell the story of design at 11:FS.

  • Make sure you satisfy designers' concerns around work, personal growth and team culture, rather than a generic job ad

  • Consider producing design-focused materials to sell the role to candidates

Growing a design culture

Finally, a healthy design culture within an organisation reaps all sorts of benefits, but primarily instils a greater appreciation for the value of user experience with regard to the company’s overall success.

A good designer will bring processes for problem-solving that have wider applications, and a connected design culture can help consistently drive brand through every interaction and platform.

Above all though, good design culture is key to attracting and retaining top design talent and ensuring everyone is producing their best work for a product they care about.

How to encourage a design culture

Establishing a design culture starts with founders and company leaders truly believing in the value of design, and appreciating that design is more than aesthetics. Beyond that, though, some basic practical steps that help drive a design culture should include:

Establishing a design culture starts with founders and company leaders truly believing in the value of design...

  • Establish a cadence of informal get-togethers with a design focus, shared virtual and physical spaces

  • Encourage people to share and appreciate art, design and influences from outside of your day-to-day focus or industry

  • Talk about design and celebrate within your 'town halls.' Don’t just focus on revenue and performance figures

  • Allow the design team to publish and give them a platform to tell an external story about why the product works so well

And that's that!

Look, we know building a team is hard, even with the right advice and the best luck in the world. If you’re looking to pick up the pace or make a start on your product design but are yet to build up design capacity, talk to us about our Design Accelerator that's part of our Ventures offering.

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 Will Jones
About the author

Will Jones

Will leads the design tribe at 11:FS, pushing the quality of our design thinking, brand development and experience design. Will has spent the last decade at agencies such as DigitasLBi, driving creative projects for world-leading companies within fintech and beyond.