How To Hire A Product Designer

A guide by ZURB to help you find the right product designer for your company

Designers Are In Demand

The competition for talent is hot. As companies turn to design to set themselves apart, it always seems that there aren't enough designers to go around.

This can be daunting if you're not a designer. How will you know if they're any good? What exactly does a designer do anyways? And how will you convince them to work for you, instead of Facebook or Google or Twitter?

You don't have to figure it out alone.

At ZURB, we've helped over 200 companies design better websites, services and online products since 1998. We've learned a lot from building our own teams and are here to help you build yours.


What You’ll Learn From This Guide

Whether building your first design team or growing an existing one, this guide will help you:

Understand How Design Helps Your Business Win

You'll see how design transforms the way your company solves problems. You'll know when good design is making a difference. You'll be able to make a stronger case for investing in design.

Attract Designers To Your Company

You'll hear what real designers look for in a company. You'll see why having a design-led culture is crucial to attracting talent. Finally, you'll learn how to write a job listing that gets attention.

Hire The Right People

You'll identify the different types of designers and what skills they bring to the table. Then, you'll learn how to pick the best candidate with a simple set of screening and interviewing techniques.

Ready? Let's start by getting on the same page.

What Is Product Design?

Product design is a set of problem solving processes and methods used to make better products for people everywhere.

Product Design Evolved From Industrial Design

Industrial designers have been finding innovative solutions to business challenges since the early 1900s. Their principles and techniques strongly influenced what product design is today.

  • Lathe
    The Industrial Revolution

    1750-1850: Machines began replacing human and animal labor, allowing the mass production of consumer goods and a dramatically higher standard of living.

  • Henry Ford

    1908-1927: Thanks to assembly line production, the Model T became the first affordable car and popularized the automobile.

    1910 Ford Model T
  • Bauhaus School of Design
    Bauhaus School of Design

    1919-1930: This German school heavily influenced modern design by integrating technology and the arts. Walter Gropius, an architect and the school's founder, believed that mass-produced goods could be affordable and beautiful.

  • Henry Dreyfuss

    1936-1950s: Dreyfuss is credited with popularizing industrial design for consumer products such as the Western Electric 302 telephone and Polaroid SX-70 Land camera. His autobiography, Designing For People, is considered a classic by today's designers.

    Western Electric 302 Telephone
  • Pennslyvania Railroad S1
    Raymond Loewy

    1930s: Loewy was a renowned industrial designer whose iconic works included the Pennslyvania S1 steam locomotive and the Studebaker Avanti automobile

  • Dieter Rams

    1950s, 1960s: Dieter Rams helped turn Braun into a household name. His work is credited with influencing Apple's line of consumer electronics.

    Braun SK-61 Turntable
  • Infobar2, by Naoto Fukusawa
    Naoto Fukusawa

    2000s: Fukusawa established IDEO's Tokyo office. Notable works like the MUJI CD player and the Infobar (pictured) have won him over 50 American and European design awards.

  • Apple

    1980-present: One of the few modern day companies that champion design, Apple is known for iterating on hardware products faster than many companies do on their software.

    Apple iPod

Problem Solving With Design And Critical Thinking

Product design leverages two forms of thinking to build better solutions.


Design Thinking

Design thinking reinterprets a given problem by questioning assumptions and brainstorming multiple solutions. When we complement critical thinking with design thinking, more innovative solutions emerge.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking helps us solve a problem as given. We evaluate solutions to choose and implement the best answer. School teaches us how to be effective critical thinkers.

A Process For Rapid Learning

Great product design is driven by a fluid process that emphasizes prototyping, collaboration, and iteration.



Prototypes are used to simulate possible solutions. Prototypes should be made as quickly and cheaply as possible — this allows you to explore multiple solutions and uncover unforeseen problems before you commit to an expensive bet.



Collaboration is about getting feedback, whether you're showing a prototype to a teammate or beta testing with a real customer. Without feedback, you can't make informed decisions about how to proceed.



Once you've learned your mistakes and successes, it's time to try again. No one ever gets it right the first time. James Dyson built over 5,000 prototypes to find the winning vacuum design.

What Design Isn’t

Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about design. Here are some of the most common.

“Design is making things pretty.”

When many people think of design, they think of outputs like icons, logos, colors and typography. What design really does is solve problems by achieving a understanding of the user. Who's using your site? What do they care about? How can you motivate them to take action? Design answers these kinds of questions.

“Design is art.”

Design requires creative direction, but without a solid grounding in analytical and logical thinking, design can't solve real business and social problems. Aesthetics can't fix a broken solution on its own.

“Only designers can design.”

Design practices are accessible to everyone. If you can pick up a sharpie, you can create prototypes and receive constructive feedback on your ideas. You can do a lot to begin solving a problem, even if you don't have a team to build the final product yet.

Why Should My Company Care About Design?

Communicating the business value of design can be tricky. Here’s a few starting points for you.

Design-led Companies Consistently Outperform Competition

A UK study of 61 design-led businesses found that those business outperformed the FTSE 100 by over 200%, over a decade. Not only did the design portfolio index rise more in good times, but it fell less in bad times.

  • Design Portfolio
  • FYSE 100
  • Emerging Portfolio
  • FYSE All-Share
UK Design FactFinder - FTSE 100 vs Design Index

Intangible Qualities Create Tangible Results

Well-designed products and services benefit in measurable ways over average competitors.


Higher Customer Retention

Happy customers are more loyal and look around less for alternatives. The abundance of choices makes switching painful for customers, but rewards companies who earn the loyalty.


Lower Support Costs

Users should be able to use your products without an instruction manual. Intuitive products minimize calls from confused and frustrated customers, which means more profit.


Customer Evangelists

The best products inspire customers to talk about how awesome you are. Word of mouth marketing continues to be more credible than any company-created campaign.

Design Is The New Differentiator

Design helps you stand out in a crowded market. It’s instructive to look at how influential companies and groups are allocating their time and money.


The Designer Fund is a community of designers who invest in companies founded by designers. The Fund connects their companies to mentors, accelerators and venture capitalists.


Facebook has an internal design recruiting team that finds and connects with design talent. Top execs have even sent personal invitations for key hires.


Bessemer Venture Partners hired Jason Putorti, co-founder, as their Designer in Residence. Jason helps portfolio companies with product design and marketing.

Design Pays Off

Startups with designers as co-founders create billions worth of value. Here are some numbers from the The Designer Fund portfolio companies, whose biggest names include Lotus, YouTube and FeedBurner:


The net worth in company acquisitions.


The total venture capital raised by designer founders.

Who Do I Need?

You need a designer, but what will she actually bring to the table? Let's take a look.

4 Types Of Product Designers

On the technical side, these are some of the most common design roles:


Interaction Designer

Interaction design — often abbreviated IxD — focuses on user behaviors and motivations. IxD asks why and what the user is trying to accomplish, regardless of whether your solution or a competitors’ exists.

Graphic/Visual Designer

Graphic design is at the heart of a web site or mobile app’s look and feel. Graphic design involves a variety of tools including typography, color, icons, and images.

User Interface Designer

If interaction design is focused on the why and what of a user’s experience, then user interface design is focused on the how. Every product has a user interface, whether it is a computer, car radio, ATM machine or your microwave. The focus here is on form. The user interface for a car involves the steering wheel and pedals. The user interface on a laptop consists of its keyboard, screen and trackpad.

Front End Developer

Last but not least, we have front-end web development to round out the spectrum of product design specialties. Developers use technologies like HTML5, CSS, and Javascript to create living interfaces that are fast and reliable, working as designed.

Whole Mind Thinkers

Great Product Designers solve problems using both their right and left brains, which respectively excel at design and critical thinking.

While the design process is often written as an ordered list of distinct steps, design in practice is much messier — it involves jumping forwards, backwards, and generating lots of ideas for different stages at the same time.

Left Brain Critical Thinking Right Brain Design Thinking
Logical Intuitive
Sequential Simultaneous
Literal Visual
Optimizing Generative
Analyzing Holistic
Left Brain Critical Thinking Right Brain Design Thinking
Logical Intuitive
Sequential Simultaneous
Literal Visual
Optimizing Generative
Analyzing Holistic

How Do I Attract Designers To My Company?

Now you know who you need to hire and why, the next question is HOW to attract them. The next three points are crucial, no matter what your company size or industry is.

Understand What Motivates Designers

We surveyed 120 designers on what makes them happy at work. We found they consistently valued company culture, their projects and flexible working schedules.

We asked them to elaborate on the top values. Here's what they said.


Why does company vision matter to designers?

"If your own personal ambitions and visions don't line up with a company's visions, your time at that company probably won't last nearly as long and you might not enjoy your time there.
Dylan-baumann @dylanbaumann

"Vision brings culture and life to a group. It is what keeps us going and provides a foundation and our hope for the future."
Matthew-sanders @mattsanders
"If you believe in a company, it will show in the quality of your work. My choice in companies is heavily influenced by their vision because I want to fully believe in the tasks that I spend 8+ hours a day working on and thinking about. If you don't believe in a company, you are wasting your time as well as their time."
Jason-lang @lang
"Because the company ethos shows up in the work, and the work never lies."
Lane-fujita @lanefujita

"Vision is something only proactive companies have. Proactive companies want to make good work and believe in doing more than cashing the check at the end of a project."
Ryan-burke @ryanburke

What makes a project interesting to you?

"A combination of the impact the project is going to have in someone's life/business and the team I'm working with. Both very important features :)"
Vanessa-colina @vcolinau

"I have a nurturing relationship to projects, and prefer the projects where I'm able to watch things evolve out of my efforts into something much larger."
Alexander-parker @buyalex
"Fitting to the client's needs, from a user centric approach. On the other hand, my main goal is to translate the client's pitch through the interface design, so it has to convince me."
Antoine-gaulupeau @colorjunkie

"A project's ability to be not near cutting edge but beyond it, while still maintaining direct, reachable and measurable goals."
Jake-chapman @imjakechapman
"I like to work in a project where i get chance to try and use latest technologies."
Jitendra-vyas @jitendravyas

"I think projects are interesting when they present a challenge and have the flexibility/time/budget for a creative solution."
Ryan-swarts @swartsr

Why is company culture important to you?

"A company culture that values design as a sustainable competitive advantage can get designers involved with more responsibilities regarding product and strategy decisions."
Yuan-wang @yuanwang1
"Positive company culture allows easier communication with my colleagues and helps me to focus on important parts and responsibilities of my job."
Michal-manak @manakmichal
"Many companies offer similar salary and benefits, so a great culture can really set one company apart from another. It promotes a positive working environment and is what makes people really love their job."
Chris-obrien @cod

Designers Think Alike

What we found lines up the intrinsic motivations discussed in Daniel Pink's book, Drive.


People want to contribute to something bigger than themselves. Meaning-driven designers treat external rewards as side effects of doing important work.


People want to direct their own lives. Designers are makers who work best when given the power to choose what to work on, and what pace to work at.


People want to get better at what they do — it's no exception with great designers, who seek challenging work to develop their skills.

Build A Design-Centered Culture

Designers prefer companies who treat design as a core strategy, not as a line-item deliverable on a project manager’s spreadsheet. Designers have enough work to do without having to constantly sell their work to design skeptics.


Encourage “Why?’

Understanding motivations and reasoning is crucial to good design. This means that everyone should be able to question a feature proposal or strategy. Why is this important? What other alternatives have we considered?

Use Failure To Win

Design-centered teams aren't tiptoeing around mistakes. They find the wrong answers quickly so they can iterate towards the right one. Iteration is where learning happens, but learning can't happen without mistakes.

Collaborate, Don’t Silo

No one is an expert at everything. When designers, engineers, marketing, and sales have open channels of communication, ideas flow and inspire better solutions. After all, everyone’s in it together.

Write A Great Job Listing

Use these three ideas and keep it short.

Don’t Ask For A Unicorn

Too many listings call for unicorn designers who do everything. They are packed with buzzwords, and signal to designers that you don't really know what you need. Figure out what your team needs and how much code your designer needs to be effective.

Talk About Your Work Culture

As our survey showed, company culture and passionate coworkers are among the top factors in designer happiness. What's the company vision? Why do you care about what you do? Who is your new designer going to work with?

What Are They Really Going To Work On?

Focus on the results, not artifacts of their work. Interaction designers know that they’ll be sketching wireframes and creating mockups already. How will they make a real difference in your company?


How Do I Pick The Right Designer?

Effective screening and interviewing will help you pick a talented designer.

Screen Your Candidates

Whether you're searching on Google or reviewing candidates from ZURBjobs, you'll want to qualify your potential interviewees. Here's how.


Do You Like Their Style?

Find a designer whose visual style gels well with your project. If their portfolio doesn't immediately grab your attention, keep looking.


Do They Write Well?

Great design needs clear communication within the team and in the end product. Read their blog and portfolio. Are they easy to understand?


Do They Have Side Projects?

Passion for design tends to manifest in the form of side projects, whether they're built as startups or strictly for fun. What have they created?

A Word On Design School

Unfortunately, students and industry veterans agree that design schools aren't preparing students for the real world.

While some schools like Stanford's Institute of Design have more up to date curriculums, most can provide insular experiences at best. Consider offering internships to help designers develop the experience they need.

Keep an open mind and avoid using college degrees as a filter. After all, great designers like Jason Putorti (Mint), Rebekah Cox (Quora) and Danny Trinh (Digg, Path) are all computer science graduates.

I'm finding that the impressive academic credentials of most students don't add up to the basic skills I require in a junior designer.
Gadi Amit, New Deal Design
Most curriculums have not incorporated stuff on usability, mental models, user psychology etc. Most acquisition of such said knowledge is based on self-intiative and desire.
Winnie Lim, via Quora.

Master The Design Interview

It's where you'll see how well the designer puts theory to practice.


Learn Their Design Process

Use the portfolio to elicit stories about how the designer works. What was the business challenge? What kinds of solutions did they explore? How did they deal with the unexpected?

Great design doesn't happen by accident or naked intuition. Great design is driven by a strong process.


Make Them Sell Their Work

Great designers know that design doesn't sell itself. Presenting work, justifying decisions, and getting feedback are all essential parts of the process.

Ask "why?" frequently as they discuss their work. Do they stay level-headed and persuasive when challenged?

Where Can I Learn More?

Here are some books to get started. Don't just read the books, though — put the ideas to work in your own company or side project!

Business Model Generation

Business Model Generation looks at business creation with a design lens. You'll find an entire section dedicated to applying design practices like research, ideation and prototyping.

The Non-Designer’s Design Book

This design book beautifully illustrates visual design principles with before-and-after redesigns of newsletters, ads and web sites.

The Back of the Napkin

Dan Roam's book will challenge your limiting beliefs about what it takes to draw, then teach you how to use sketching to find better problem solutions.

Get In Touch

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