Building Design Teams From the Ground Up

Constructing a design organization at an early-stage startup

Ask anyone who’s done it: growing a design team isn’t a linear process. Early-stage hires usually have to do a little bit of everything, when the primary mode of operations is “all hands on deck.” As your organization grows and matures, areas of specialization will emerge, and design ops, research, and cross-functional leadership becomes critical. But how do you know who to hire, and when? And how do you find and attract the people who will thrive in your organization?

We’ve gathered wisdom from some of the best in the business: Olivia Anderson, Head of Product Design at Honor; Daniel Farsi, Head of Product Design at DICE; and Blake Reary, Staff Interaction Designer at Google and former Director of Design at Ironclad; along with Enrique Allen, Co-founder of Designer Fund. With their expertise, we’ll walk you through the nuts and bolts of building up your dream team of designers — from planning to hiring to compensation.

Key topics we cover:

  1. Build a (flexible) roadmap
  2. Define qualities for success
  3. Find and attract the right designers
  4. Nail the interview and hiring process
  5. Clarity, compensation, and closing the deal

Step 1: Build a (flexible) roadmap

Aligning priorities is the name of the game in early-stage startups. Nearly everything is in limited supply: from time, to people, to funds. So before you start adding to your team, it’s critical to understand the business growth plan — even though it may be murky. You’ll need to make a case for expanding your team in a way that supports the overall strategy of the business, not only to get buy-in, but to set your team up for success.

“You need to understand the driving forces behind all the metrics that your business might be tracking. What's next for the business?” – Blake

“Looking at the business case is crucial. Are we focusing on efficiency and margin? Are we focusing on growth? How does design support that goal and what's the roles and skill sets that we need?” – Olivia

Connect business strategy to design ROI

Is your strategy reliant on broader brand recognition in the market? You may want to hire a designer with super strong visual and marketing chops. Are you spending a ton on acquisition and losing potential customers in your pipeline? Maybe you need a killer UX designer to help tighten up your flow. That said — it’s important that early hires have broad enough skillsets to align with changing priorities. That may mean your early designers are generalists and looking to broaden their own experience and skills.

Blake Reary
Crisply articulate what it is you need this person to do for you and communicate that with your different counterparts so that they deeply understand the role. Blake Reary, Staff Interaction Designer at Google; Former Director of Design at Ironclad

Build strong relationships

You’ll likely need to make the business case for hires with folks outside of your own department. Building solid relationships with engineering, finance, recruiting, marketing and leaders in other key departments will make it that much easier to understand their priorities, and how to get them on board.

While at Ironclad, for example, Blake needed to hire a web designer who could support the marketing team on changes they wanted to make to the website: “I spent time with the head of marketing to understand pipeline targets and with the finance team to understand the company’s bandwidth for contractor spend versus headcount spend, which helped attach a real dollar value to the potential of the hire.”

“It's really about building a tight connection with all of the different stakeholders across the business.” – Blake

Take a long-term view

Thinking through specialized roles belongs in your longer-term roadmap. Don’t jump into specialization — or a bunch of senior hires — too early. Eventually, mature design orgs will typically (but not always!) need to bring on specialists including:

  • Brand designers
  • Design research specialists
  • Design ops leaders
  • Product designers and UX specialists
  • Project managers

“The smaller you are, the harder it's gonna be to forecast what exactly you're going to need. But I think it's really key to be doing that exercise as anything shifts from the high level in the business.” – Olivia

Outline what factors will help you know when it’s time to start hiring for these roles and departments. Is it just about scale? Funding? Product readiness? Try to define the trigger points where you can say we’re ready to hire a new type of designer.

“As soon as your capacity starts to go down (ideally before that happens), and as you stop being able to be a thought partner and do some of the bigger strategic work as a designer, you really do need someone who’s more senior to come in.” – Olivia

Step 2: Define qualities for success

Now it’s time to actually add to your team. What should you be looking for in new team members? For any rapidly changing environment, it helps to be collaborative, entrepreneurial, and comfortable with ambiguity. As for design teams specifically, more often than not a mid-level generalist (with at least a few years’ experience) is an ideal early hire. They’ll need:

1. Technical chops

“We initially looked for a designer with some coding background, someone who could have a fluent conversation with frontend devs and who could move quickly in the design tool of their choice.” – Daniel

“Sharpening any technical skills will help you take designs farther and improve collaboration with engineers. Designers at early-stage startups are often constrained by engineering bandwidth, so the more they can build themselves beyond a prototype, the better.” – Enrique

2. A wide variety of skills

Generalists’ skills will vary, but ideally, they can work on your core product flows one day, conduct user research to better understand your audience the next, and maybe jump in and design the pitch deck for your next round of funding.

Olivia Anderson
The best hires have an expansive view of what a designer is supposed to do — they already have the mindset of wanting to do things outside of their lane. Olivia Anderson, Head of Product Design at Honor

3. Room to grow

We actually didn’t want someone who was too experienced, because we wanted them to grow into the role and the requirements.” – Daniel

4. Speed

“Speed means knowing what to prioritize, when to sweat details and when to compromise. How can an early designer accelerate product development, prototyping, shipping and testing, and getting to insights, instead of being a bottleneck?” – Enrique

💡 For more insights on the qualities to look for in your founding or early design hire, check out Demystifying the Founding Designer Role.

Step 3: Find—and attract—the right designers

Even if you have a crystal clear sense of what you need, you still have to find candidates who want to work with you. Obviously tapping your personal network is the first place to start, but eventually you’ll exhaust your network. Here are a few ways to make sure you aren’t returning to the same well over and over again, and that you don’t miss the opportunity to work with amazing designers that are outside your own bubble.

Expand your search parameters

Don’t try to go it alone: whether within your own team or through a recruiter, you may need to try a few different tactics to diversify the resumes in your pipeline.

1. Connect with candidates in design communities

“I think community is a big part of it, especially if you’re trying to expand outside your normal circle. Communities will expose you to more diverse candidates and diverse designers” – Blake

2. Collaborate closely with recruiters

Communicate with recruiters and treat it as an ongoing collaboration. Talk to them about what they should be looking for, why you didn't like a candidate.” – Daniel

Whenever I kick off with the new recruiter, I will make a list of the very specific companies that I think have designed parallels and explain what those parallels are so they can understand the pool that we're actually looking for.” – Olivia

3. Participate in events

We invested in hosting events and showing up in our niche. We wanted to be able to interact with people we otherwise wouldn’t have encountered and also put our personality out there” - Olivia

4. Implement “sourceathons”

At Facebook back in the day, we hosted sourceathons where we carved out recurring time on the calendar for multiple designers on the team to get together to fill the top of the funnel, whether it was scouring our networks, Dribble, or Twitter. Sometimes there’s not an easy shortcut around it and it takes time.” – Enrique

Step 4: Nail the hiring & interview process

Hiring can be overwhelming: rounds and rounds of interviews, trial design exercises, and what can feel like (for the designer) doing a bunch of free work and a massive distraction (for the team). It’s important to streamline your process so that it’s rigorous while still respecting your candidates’ and team members’ time. Here are some specific process ideas from our panelists:

Create a hiring process that fits your team

Try implementing performance-based hiring, as Blake suggests: “create a list of objectives co-create with your counterparts, a list of objectives of what you expect this designer to do in their first year. Then structure all the interview panels and conversations around can we get a signal on whether or not this person can do that?”

  1. Initial screen: A simple get-to-know-you. Are there shared values or common interests that make them a good fit?
  2. Portfolio review: Invite the candidate to present their portfolio with time at the end for questions.
  3. Critique or design exercise: Look for an understanding of how a candidate may make design decisions: how do they evaluate what’s working and what isn’t working, and can they be thoughtful, articulate, and kind in the process?
  4. Cross-functional partnership session: Discuss specific real-world scenarios with product partners, and have a rubric or follow-up questions ready to go.
  5. Founder / executive session: At this point, it’s probably more like a sale than a hurdle. If this is your dream candidate, make them excited about the opportunity ahead.

Create a simulation

Honor designed interactive simulations into the interview process, having candidates go through multiple scenarios that mirror real projects: “We really try to just stimulate the kind of interactions that we have on a day-to-day basis to test if the designer is really prepared, comfortable, and able to make harder trade-offs,” says Olivia.

  1. Kickoff: Talk about the problem space and success metrics. Reveal only the tip of the iceberg to see how much they dig.
  2. Sketches: Give some time for them to work through the problem and sketch some solutions. They’ll meet with an engineer and designer for feedback.
  3. Presentation: They share where they ended up, and what they’d work on next.

Going through this simulated project flow gives a really good sense of how people collaborate and approach problem-solving under pressure.

Step 5: Clarity, compensation, and closing the deal

Hiring is a two-way street. Knowing what you need and who will be successful in your organization is a start. But you also have to offer an attractive proposition. What’s it like to work on your team? How can designers grow there? What’s the overall balance look like, and how does compensation compare to similar roles?

The anti-sell

Being upfront and transparent is the only way to make sure both sides are aligned going into negotiations. That’s true of the nuts and bolts like equity and compensation, and also about what candidates are and are not looking for. It can be challenging to convince designers to join early-stage startups, especially when competing with big companies, established design teams, and (often) higher salaries. Olivia suggests using the “anti-sell” — being real about what the opportunity entails and pressure testing what candidates say they are and aren’t looking for in the interview process — to identify those who may not really want to be at an early-stage startup.

Daniel Farsi
It’s important to make sure that you’re really talking with candidates about what they might face realistically when they join the startup. Daniel Farsi, Head of Product Design at DICE

Hiring senior designers

When it comes to hiring and recruiting senior designers, Olivia notes that providing them with enough runway to grow and remain challenged is crucial: “You have to understand what's interesting and valuable for that senior person. What are they gonna bring to the table and what would attract them to the opportunity? And actually make space for that.”

Getting clear on compensation

All three designers spoke to the importance of having compensation conversations as early as possible so nothing comes as a shock later in the process. Olivia also recommends that hiring managers give an “equity 101” to help candidates get a full picture of what the offer entails, letting them know: “This is a riskier situation for a higher reward. And if that feels right for your phase of life, then that's excellent, if you have this lingering thought in the back of your head, you should really think about it now.”

*“I think it’s important early on to set clear bands that are fair for the team. So if a candidate doesn’t fit within that band, they won’t be able to negotiate and get a higher pay because the bands are set. This helps clarify what we can offer.”* – Olivia

💡 To make more competitive and equitable offers to candidates, check out Pequity's data-driven compensation management platform.

Wrapping it up

To sum it up: constructing a startup's design team at the 0 to 1 level requires proactive and creative sourcing, close collaboration with stakeholders across the company, and transparency at every touch point. In order to yield the best candidates, the hiring process should be ever-evolving—becoming more streamlined and refined as both the team and company scale.

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About the Contributors

Olivia Anderson is the Head of Product Design at Honor. She considers herself a product person with a design background and is passionate about problem solving, product strategy and coaching product leaders in both.

Daniel Farsi is the Head of Product Design at DICE, where he leads a growing team of designers. He’s focused on providing rituals, processes and focus to his team so that they feel empowered to do their best work.

Blake Reary is a Staff Interaction Designer at Google and formerly the Director of Design at Ironclad, where he led the design team and helped scale the company from $100MM to $3.2B. Previously, he was at companies like Thumbtack, Palantir and Mode.

Enrique Allen is the Co-founder of Designer Fund where he invests in tech startups with founders who value design like Stripe, Gusto, Notion, Omada Health, Netlify, and Commure. Previously, Enrique was a designer at venture capital firms 500 Startups, Facebook’s fbFund, and Venrock.