Building a world class design team at YML

I have hired over 100 people in my career.

One of the best was a cartographer, fresh out of college — a cartographer is a map maker, if you don’t know. He was a Frenchman, lovely guy, and I remember his interview well. He said there are not a lot of opportunities in the map making world, but it was his passion. He was a talented designer, his maps were beautiful, and he knew how to code. A project he showed me was an interactive map of Afghanistan and Pakistan, showing drone strikes and the estimated number of casualties at each location. He had sourced the live data from public records, and turned it into a human story. It was very moving. I was blown away. Very humbly he asked, “What could a map maker do here, at a digital agency?” I had to think for a minute, but my answer was “We make maps of the internet.” Sure, it was glib, but it sparked his imagination and the conversation turned to mapping the abstract realm of the worldwide web. He became one of the best UX and systems thinkers I have ever met. He could visualize the tangled mess of connections, user journeys, data points, etc. and redesign them with a simple precision that made me want to cry.

Over the years I have hired many folks with different strokes: architects, fashion designers, industrial designers, even one guy—an embedded programmer—who made parking meters. And they all taught me a valuable lesson: amazing talent can come from anywhere, all they need is a compelling portfolio and a chance to tell their story.

Cool right? Here’s how.

The portfolio

At YML, before we consider interviewing anyone, we look at their portfolio—comparing it to all the other candidates’. A portfolio is your calling card—it should not just show what you have done, but what you can do, what you want to do. We have all seen plenty of portfolios and have a pretty quick read on good vs. bad ones. A good portfolio shows work that’s ambitious and inspiring, and very well executed. Thoughtful, beautiful designs, process breakthroughs, clever ideas, and slick interactions, all jump out of the screen. As do glaring errors, typos, thoughtless designs, awkward process decisions, unworkable interactions, etc.—these will all get a candidate blacklisted, struck off the list of potential hires. Great work is important, but an exceptional portfolio site should be a good user experience too. Consider the audience: busy executives. Trust me, we don’t read much, so don’t write much. Let the work do the talking, focus your words on big, significant ideas, compelling points, quotes and callouts. Curate only your best work, because one bad project gets an instant rejection. If in doubt, don’t show it, or better still, dig deeper and make it great.

Additionally, we prefer real portfolio sites. Dribbble is okay, Behance too, but if you’re shooting for a senior position, you will need a bit more vision, process and/or storytelling to support your work. At best, Dribbble can be very good place to show your interaction and visual design—but at its worst, it’s superficial eye candy. For more on this, read this fantastic article, The Dribbblisation Of Design.

The interview

Okay. So that’s how to get a foot in the door. What’s next? The interview, of course. Here’s a mental checklist we apply to interviewees, when we meet them:

1. Energy: Do you bring it? Do you take it?
For me, this is the number one criteria. I can feel it when I meet someone. Are they inspired? Do they inspire? Is this a job or a lifestyle? We work in small teams, oftentimes in small rooms, with big clients. People who bring energy, who inspire others to do great work, they are the magic ingredient for this model.

2. Empathy: Do you have feeling? Can you connect?
We create products and experiences for people from all walks of life. We must understand them first, so we can design something they want. Empathy, listening, and responding is key to the design process. And it’s important in how we work together as well—we, of course, don’t tolerate jerks—even if they are talented.

3. Culture fit: Do you fit in, but add something as well?
We have a fantastic, inspiring, collaborative, nurturing culture of talented grownups, and we want to preserve it and enhance it. However, we aren’t seeking uniformity. Diverse backgrounds, approaches and opinions are welcome, and help make our work and our culture better.

4. Presentation: How well do you communicate your work?
We look for excellent communicators—both verbal, written and visual—ultimately entrusting them to present our work to clients and internal stakeholders. For entry and mid level positions, just going through some portfolio projects will do just fine — but for senior hires, a presentation is required. A good presentation is a clear articulation of the problem, and the path from strategy to design.

5. Experience: Do you know how to get things done?
This is definitely not a question of length of experience, which is irrelevant. Instead, it’s an assessment of the kind and quality of experience—a candidate’s understanding of the tools and processes, pitfalls and opportunities, common in the job. Inexperienced people won’t hit the ground running, or worse, they can misdirect the process, waste time and resources and negatively affect the quality of our work.

6. Attitude: Are you all in? Do you want it?
Skills can be taught. Attitude can’t. In an industry that’s always changing, someone with a good attitude looks for challenges and is constantly thinking of ways to improve and progress. We want people with positive attitudes that are upbeat, eager, and solutions focused. We find they thrive on feedback, embrace change, and they own it with a smile.

7. Impact: Will you make a difference?
Last, but certainly not least, we want people that we know will have an immediate, positive, lasting impact—on the work, on our clients, on YML. We’re building a world class design team, looking for complementary skillsets, backgrounds and approaches. We don’t want to hire the same kind of designer over and over again. We look for folks who will make our team greater than the sum of its parts.

One more thing

We definitely do not look for an Ivy League education—or any education for that matter. We simply don’t care if you went to Harvard, or never went to school, never studied, come from an underprivileged background, were homeschooled, or are completely self taught. So long as you do great work, have the right attitude, and know how to get the job done, you’re in.

And that’s it. If this sounds like you, or someone you know, get in touch. Also, any interview goes two ways. If you have thoughts on what you look for in an interview, we’d love to hear them.

Good luck!