When to hire your first product designer

Article by
Justin Tan
April 26, 2022

Most startups launch with a very small team. This approach keeps new companies agile, while allowing them to operate on a lean budget. The few roles that are available are typically occupied by experts in the areas of business management, financial planning, and development.

This ‘bare bones’ approach is common, but it means that a founder or other early team member has to take on the role of a designer as best they can. As a design company, we would love it if every company had the chance to bring a designer in as early as possible, but it’s not often the case—and that’s okay.

What counts is that, even if a designer can’t be part of the founding group, startups make themselves aware of the associated challenges and weaknesses. Startups without an in-house designer may struggle to create consistency in the product's branding, visual language, design patterns, and design system.

Eventually, teams will reach a point—either through revenue growth or product maturity—that they have to stand back and ask themselves: Is it time to hire a product designer? Here’s how you can answer that with ease.

Is It Time to Hire a Product Designer

Depending on your business, you may be able to achieve certain milestones without bringing a product designer onto the team. But, sooner or later, you’re going to find the urgency is increasing to fill this critical role.

Of course, startups know all too well that the ideal time to have someone’s expertise often doesn’t line up with the ideal time to bring them on. In other words, you could probably use the help of a product designer long before it makes good financial and business sense to hire one.

So, the question isn’t, “Do I need a product designer?” because you already know you do. The question comes down to something more complicated, which is, “Is my startup ready to support a product designer?” That’s what we’re about to help you answer.

Questions to ask

Knowing if it’s time to bring on a product designer comes down to two things: Is your business financially ready to support them and are you at a point goal-wise where you can make the most of their expertise? These are tough questions to answer, so try breaking them down into the following.

Is a lack of design experience standing in the way of progress?

If you’re at a point where a lack of a designer is standing in your way of launching, marketing, or scaling, that’s a good sign that your startup is mature enough to fully utilize a designer’s skillset. However, if you are able to hit key milestones (like acquiring your first customers) without adding a product designer to your team, it’s likely ideal to remain lean.

Have design challenges negatively impacted cx?

Design is a key driver of the user experience (UX) and customer experience (CX). Poor design can negatively impact customers by posing navigation issues, branding inconsistencies, or difficulty achieving internal product standards. If design is harming the user experience, it’s directly harming your revenue and your brand’s reputation.

Is design a key differentiator for your company?

Most startups will say that their brand is one component that helps distinguish them from competitors, but is design truly a differentiator for your company? For instance, if all other solutions on the market are not user-friendly, designing a better user interface would create a unique differentiator.

Who should your first product designer be?

Having no designer will lead to issues with consistency, quality, and even scheduling. But, bringing on the wrong designer can pose all of the same challenges and then some. When a startup finally reaches the point where it’s ready to bring a designer onto its team, there’s generally only room for one, which means it’s crucial to choose carefully.

As you evaluate your company’s needs and weaknesses, you’ll likely come to the conclusion that an experienced Senior-level designer is the best choice. This means opting for an experienced full-stack product designer over a specialist. By doing so, this senior designer can tackle a wide variety of projects and tasks now and later grow to become a team lead when other designers are added.

So, how do you choose the right full-stack designer to support your startup’s design needs? Here’s some advice.

Look for a good team fit

When startups choose members for the founding team, finding people with passion and creativity that match the commitment of the founder is always crucial. But, when startups begin looking to hire employees a little way down the road, such as their first designer, they often get caught up in the technical details (e.g., what’s their skillset?) and forget to prioritize this all-important aspect.

When building the founding team, it’s critical that everyone “clicks” and gets along because launching a startup means long hours, stressful nights, and big goals. Even if your startup has grown substantially since then, don’t let yourself forget how important it is to work with team players who share your vision. After all, the first designer you hire will be the only designer you’ll have for a while.

With that said, always consider a person’s working style, willingness to collaborate, and shared passion for your industry and mission. These things may not be the ultimate factor when it comes time to hire, but they will help you identify the best candidates to put on your shortlist.

Consider their background

Most startups will hire a high-level generalist designer, which means they should be flexible enough to take on whatever design project you throw their way. But, even a generalist will have their strengths and weaknesses, so it’s important to consider each designer’s unique background.

If you have thoroughly evaluated your startup’s design requirements, as you should before hiring, you’ll be able to compare what you need to the strengths of a potential hire. If their key weaknesses are in the same areas as your top priorities, you’ll know it’s probably not a great fit even if their personality seems perfect.

Ask for samples

One of the biggest pain points when hiring a designer is that many aspects of design are subjective. This means you could both be looking at the same problem and have a completely different perspective on what the 'right' solution may be. To ensure there is a good long term fit it’s ideal to get a better understanding of the designer’s process and capabilities. To achieve this, consider hiring them for an initial project on a contract basis. In cases where this approach isn’t feasible, design tests or a whiteboard session are other tools to assess a designers capabilities before committing long-term.

While there will always be hurdles as a designer initially tries to understand your requirements and collaboration style, this trial could save you countless hours (and a great deal of money) if it turns out that you’re on two completely different pages with process or quality. We always suggest that design tests be constructed carefully and require only a reasonable amount of investment from the designer. You’ll lose out on great designers if the process is unnecessarily rigorous. A good benchmark is that it should take no more than an hour or so to complete.

Invest in experience

Once you have gone through the interview process and you have shortlisted a handful of designers, how do you choose the right person for the job? Ultimately, you’re best off choosing the designer with a proven history of success across all the key areas that you’ve identified as priorities for your startup.

It’s unlikely that you’ll find someone who perfectly aligns with your priorities, but by seeking out a full-stack designer with the most experience, you greatly increase your chances of a successful outcome, no matter how many different types of projects you throw their way. The next step? Make the investment. Experienced designers cost more, but it’s sure to pay off.

Hire your first product designer

Deciding if it’s time to hire a product designer is always tough for a startup. It represents a major opportunity to improve the customer experience and distinguish your brand, but it also poses an inherent risk. The best thing you can do is evaluate what you need and take your time interviewing a variety of individuals to see who can meet those needs best.

If you’re wondering where to find experienced designers who might be interested in working for your startup, Turtle can connect you with vetted design professionals to help you scale your team. There are also alternatives to hiring a product designer full-time. Turtle can help your startup tap into the design experience you need while leveraging your available resources through freelancers, agencies, and staff augmentation solutions.

If you have a question about hiring product designers, feel free to send us an email at hello@turtleinc.com.