How 3 fast-growing NYC tech companies hire for designers

by Taylor Majewski
May 23, 2017

When it comes to hiring for designers, finding the right people is a defining moment for a growing startup. The best design talent must be able to craft products with the potential to be used by millions of people around the world, catering to the complex interactions people have online. We caught up with design leaders at three successful consumer-facing startups to find out what they look for when hiring design candidates. Here’s what they had to say.

Oscar is a health insurance company that employs technology, design and data to humanize health care. We spoke with Josh Long, director of design at Oscar.

When you're hiring designers, what are the key qualities you look for in a candidate?

We look for a few key characteristics. First, we’re always looking for people that have a genuine passion for design. Passion will push a designer to go the extra mile to make something great. We also want to ensure that they have a strong understanding of aesthetic and functional sensibilities. We believe that a better form will create a better function in a product and vice versa. Another important thing we look for in a designer is a profound sense of humility. This skill set, while oftentimes is overlooked, reflects on the overall product experience. We want Oscar to feel personal, trustworthy and approachable for our members — and that starts with making sure the people behind our products have the right attitude.

What will make a candidate stand out in the application process?

The aesthetics behind a candidate’s sample work are always the first thing that catches our eye. It’s the thing we notice before diving deeper into his/her work. What grabs our attention can be as simple as the way a candidate designs his/her resume or website. We also study a candidate's thought process when they talk about past work. It’s important for a candidate to be able to clearly articulate and validate his/her design decisions — if a candidate doesn’t show strong communication skills, we view this as a potential area of distraction from the rest of his/her work.

What is the interview process like for designers?

We have a multi-step interview process. We start with the usual screener call to get a sense of the candidate, his/her experience and determine whether there’s a strong match between the role and what the candidate is looking for. Once we determine that a candidate is a strong fit, we invite him/her for an on-site visit, which entails a series of group and one-to-one interview sessions. The candidate will go through a variety of exercises, including a Q&A, a design presentation and creative case studies, all of which allow us to test technical, creative and critical-thinking skills. Throughout the process, we also watch for culture fit — we want to ensure a candidate can work collaboratively with the larger team.  

How do you measure for fit on your design team?

How a candidate will fit into our existing design team is an important part of our decision-making process. For example, we view it as a red flag when a candidate over-embellishes on his/her work without mentioning how his/her peers contributed to the effort. Fundamentally, we look for a candidate who loves to learn from his/her peers, can collaborate with people across the organization and have a shared obsession with creating experiences that people cannot live without.

 

Zola is a digital wedding-gift registry that lets couples build personalized pages and includes features such as group gifting and virtually exchanged gifts. While traditional wedding registries have customers register with one retailer, Zola allows customers to build a registry of gifts from more than 450 different brands. We spoke with Nobu Nakaguchi, chief design officer at Zola. 

When you're hiring designers, what are the key qualities you look for in a candidate?

First off, the term “designer” is so broad that it actually ends up meaning very little. What kind of designer are you looking for? A product designer? A visual designer? So before we even begin the search process, we think about the specific role and what our needs are. Then we try to find the person who fits those needs. At Zola, we value experience working in a consumer space and excellent problem-solving skills because, at the end of the day, being a designer in any sense of the term is about understanding the needs of who you’re designing for, what problems they have, and finding solutions.

What will make a candidate stand out in the application process?

Number one: references. Many of our best candidates have come to us through our network of people who we've worked with in the past and their contacts. If you have great references from respected people, that goes a long way. Then having a portfolio that goes beyond pretty pictures and shows you understand the design process is key. And finally, rarely can anything in tech go live with just the designers' work. So I also like to see candidates draft up a case study about a project they worked on and how they collaborated with other disciplines to solve a problem. At Zola, it’s always a collaboration with engineering, marketing and often other teams too.

What is the interview process like for designers?

At Zola we have a strict no-asshole rule, so the first thing I do is meet a candidate for coffee to get to understand their background and assess if they are a culture fit. Then I gauge their interest level in the space and our stage of company while telling them about the responsibilities of the role. That conversation is usually followed by a simple design exercise to get a glimpse into their problem-solving skills. Finally, we’ll have the candidate meet with some folks from other teams — like engineering — to double-check the culture fit. If it all pans out, we’ll make them an offer.

How do you measure for fit on your design team?

We look for candidates who can articulate their process, their solutions, and demonstrate passion for their projects. We love designers who can think strategically, but also execute, zooming in and out constantly when thinking about a problem. Having a background in e-commerce and understanding all of the conversion points around checkout is valuable, but not something we narrowly look for. Ultimately, we want smart people who are eager and hard-working.

 

Eight, an Internet of Things company focused on improving the way people sleep. The company’s IoT technology integrates an ultra-comfortable mattress with an app that senses and analyzes your sleep patterns and bedroom environment. We caught up with Alexandra Zatarain, the startup's co-founder.

When you're hiring designers, what are the key qualities you look for in a candidate?

I look at how they manage feedback and how they share their opinions. Designers are always working as part of a team, and their work is often judged by others. They must be good at listening to the opinion of others and expressing their own concisely and respectfully.

What will make a candidate stand out in the application process?

A designer's portfolio is like their resume, but it's what is not in the portfolio that really makes them stand out. Their ability to collaborate with other team members is crucial, their communication and planning skills. These are key ingredients, particularly when you are hiring for a startup.

How do you measure for fit on your design team?  

At Eight, every new hire goes through a week of trial. We ask them to work with us for a week (or a weekend if they are still at another job). This way both the team and the potential hire can evaluate each other. If we are working with a designer as a contractor, we do reference checks by speaking to at least three of their current or former clients.

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