About a year ago I began looking for a new in-house product designer for Toggl. Had I known this would take me on a four month wild goose chase around thousands of portfolios, I would’ve done things differently.

Lessons learned about hiring designers after 4 months and 4000 portfolios

The brief was pretty simple – find an experienced designer who’s highly motivated and believes the world needs more great experiences. So how hard can it be, right? After all, the Internet is full of designers!

It took me six months and 4000 portfolio reviews to find the one.

Things you need to know before hiring a designer

There were things I did and did not know before hiring a designer. Looking back at the whole process now, I can say it’s not rocket science.

There are a couple of key things you should avoid, and a few things you should focus on:

Write a great job description

Writing a great job description is an essential part of the hiring process.

I thought making a list of what/who I need is enough. It is not. That was my first mistake. I focused mostly on technical skills, but these are not the most important ones compared to the needs those skills should fulfill.

I assumed my future designer candidates know what I value and what’s expected – but nothing is self explanatory until you have explained it.

Don’t trust the portfolios

Portfolios lie. Seriously.

It may sound idiotic but I had more than one experience when I was fooled by a shiny and polished portfolio. After an actual test drive and a chat I was sure that I will not get what we expected from the candidate.

Portfolio is a lie

 

You can’t evaluate someone’s skills based on a couple of works from the portfolio (or a few Dribbble shots). Portfolios are meant to make a person look great. In reality, it’s impossible to know what kind of effort the works took, or how long the process really was.

Portfolios also won’t tell you much about how the person works, and whether they’re a good fit overall.

Test their culture fit

Keep in mind that you’re looking for a partner, someone you’ll be working together with. But be wary of the “beer test” – that is, hiring someone based on whether you’d like to go drinking with them.

While getting along with your colleagues is important, you need to remember you’re not looking for a drinking buddy.

Getting along with your colleagues is important, but remember you’re not looking for a drinking buddy.

You’ll want someone who’s great to work with, but also someone who’s not afraid to challenge established patterns. So be humble and be honest.

 

Can you test a designer?

At Toggl we dropped the CVs as a hiring tool four years ago and set up our own automated testing platform — Hundred5 . It’s a tool that automatically picks out the best candidates based on their job-related skills.

It was definitely a ‘wow’ moment because after months of failed hiring campaigns, we got around 100 tests taken in a week, followed by 3 successful hires. We haven’t looked back since – in the past couple of years we have doubled our team size to 60 people using the automated test platform. We’ve found many great developers, marketers and support members. It’s definitely been a success.

Having had a number of hires with Hundred5, I decided to give it a try.

Though I have to admit, I had my doubts. Mainly because I wasn’t sure about how to test a designer, using the same methods/tools as for other roles in the company.

Still, I set up a test for the next designer candidate. My game plan was as follows:

  • Set up a test with around 5–10 questions.
  • Promote the test in different social media sites, create a Dribbble post and send out an email campaign.
  • Find suitable candidates who exceeded the threshold and invite them to a test drive (~30–45 min chat to get to know the person more and give them a small task to solve).
  • Do a full test week to find the perfect match

Generating the test questions was the hardest part for me. I tried to be creative and came up with many good open ended questions which should have helped me decide.

There was only one problem – the test engine can’t grade open ended questions.

I was asked to discard them and try to use simpler, true or false kind of questions. The reason behind it is probably obvious — I needed a smart filter because I simply couldn’t go through hundreds and hundreds of tests and evaluate all the answers myself.

So I created a short test with five rather technical questions about different design and prototyping tools. I also asked them to drop a link to their portfolio.

After a successful email outreach campaign and a Dribbble post (which even ended up in the Dribbble’s weekly newsletter), we got over 4000 test responses.

It may sound like a success, but after going through the first 100 successful tests, it started to dawn on me that simply passing a yes or no test wasn’t telling me anything about the designers.

Even worse –  the portfolios of candidates who actually passed the the score threshold were not at all what we would have expected.

So I started to check the tests that were below the threshold. At first the ones with 70%-80% correct answers, then 60%-70% etc. I ended up going through all of them — over 4000 portfolios — and it took me weeks.

The turnaround

Four months and 4000 portfolios later, I realised I can’t continue like this.

The definition of insanity is, of course, doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result – so the sane thing to do was to abandon testing and go for a more oldschool approach.

I decided to explain who and why we’re looking for, who we are as a company and what are our expectations to our future designer in a form of a blog post. A week later, I had received around 100 emails based on which I found candidates who really inspired me.

A month later, we found a match.

Lessons learned

What did I do wrong? There were definitely things I did and I did not know before hiring a designer.

I knew what I wanted and who I needed but I did not know how to communicate this well enough. Hiring a designer for sure doesn’t work the same way as hiring a developer or any other role in the company.

Hiring a designer doesn’t work the same way as hiring a developer.

FYI, we’re still using Hundred5 for hiring at Toggl and it works like a bliss!

But even with great software to help you, you need to make sure you know who you’re looking for and what you expect from them – and don’t forget to communicate this to your possible candidates.

Explain to them who you are and what they will get from you or from your company. Show them how you work and the things you have done — trust me, it’s so much better filter than asking them bunch of technical questions. For designers that’s simply not enough.

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Know someone who’d enjoy working in marketing? Well we’re looking for a creative content marketer and a mobile app marketer to join the Toggl team!