In the not-too-distant past, being part of an in-house design team was a bit of an anomaly—but times have changed. What used to feel like a rarified, misunderstood—even singular—role has grown exponentially, with companies clamoring to attract talent and expand their design capabilities to pursue better products, happier customers, and stronger financial returns. Despite the volatile economy, designers today have many choices, and few are willing to give up that hard-won seat at the table. That means that when it comes to looking for a new job, focusing on the right fit is paramount, and finding roles that speak to both personal and professional development means a lot more.
We set out to understand why some companies seem to have no problem attracting design talent while others struggle to connect. So, we surveyed and interviewed hundreds of hiring managers and recruiters about their experiences. We wanted to know how they get started courting great talent, and what aspects of company culture are most vital to designer happiness.
Building the sort of magnetic design culture that draws in design talent doesn’t happen instantly. Companies known for their stellar design practices often spend years establishing an environment where designers feel that their skills and input are valued. Organizations like Microsoft, Google, and Airbnb—all of which have established core design principles, tools, and processes that are widely respected, are especially attractive to design job-seekers, as are companies that have actively invested in hiring strong and notable design talent.
In fact, according to our research, companies known for having a strong design culture are 4.3 times more likely to say they are successful at hiring. “There are signals designers look for and try to avoid…they fear they’ll have to explain the value of design and fight for design to get a seat at the table,” says one Product Design Manager at a leading B2B company.
But what exactly are those signals? Some of them are pragmatic and operational, such as having a comprehensive Design Operations (Design Ops) practice, something present in 83% of the organizations that had success hiring. Think of Design Ops as a coach for design teams; they're someone who facilitates, empowers, and organizes the team to do their best and happiest work.
There are also basic (and regular) quality-of-life improvements. That means things like evaluating tools, streamlining the resourcing process, and balancing project timelines, deliverables, and milestones—all things that have been hard won for designers. Of the companies we surveyed, those who made these types of investments are two times more likely to say they are successful at hiring.
And then there are the outward-facing signals. Designers have had to fight for relevance and influence over the years, and companies that publicly elevate their design talent are standing out. Seeing a company’s design leadership speaking at industry events, publishing their perspective, or being sought out and quoted in the media says something about how that business values design and sends a strong signal that designers have a seat at the table. There’s an even bigger impact when the team, not just leadership, speaks about their experiences and projects.
Building a strong design culture doesn’t happen overnight, but showing your commitment to cultivating designer happiness will go a long way to attracting design talent. Knowing where to look is also key.
Posting a job ad on a career site and hoping for the best no longer cuts it—especially when you’re looking for seasoned designers to fill business-critical roles and mentor entry-level design talent. Instead, recruiters and hiring managers should focus on forging real relationships with designers and engaging with the design community as a whole.
Design communities vary in size and focus, of course, so staying on top of what Slack groups to post in and what job boards are buzzing is important. (Mia Blume’s job board for design leaders, Jared Spool’s Leaders of Awesomeness, ADPlist, and read.cv are all great places to start.) But going beyond digital spaces is important, too. Small acts like grabbing coffee and catching up with a candidate can be a game changer and put you on their—and their entire network’s—radar. “If the candidate isn’t interested now, they’ll make a plan to check in next quarter, or maybe get a referral or have them talk to someone else on the team that might help them get interested,” says Kristi Vo, Talent Acquisition Manager for Design, Product, and UXR at Asana.
That sort of personalized effort also extends to attracting a diverse set of design talent. Creating a deliberate, robust pipeline is critical to expanding the perspectives of a design practice and creating a business that speaks to a wide range of experiences. The Diversity in Design Collaborative, an organization MillerKnoll started in 2021 with the vital mission of fostering more diversity in the design industry, has seen its membership grow from 14 to over 50 companies in the last year and counts Dropbox, Gap, Work & Co, and Pentagram as founding members. “We’re finding that there are a lot more nontraditional approaches to trying to elevate design as a career to younger, more diverse audiences sooner,” Rupal Parekh, a partner at Work & Co and member of the collaborative, said. Some of the programs she cited include Useful School, a pay-what-you-can program for people of color seeking to elevate their brand and product design skills, and Pensole Lewis College, an HBCU with a design focus.
Still, one of the most important signals for designers is something softer than organizational heft. “Personal growth” comes up again and again from experienced designers looking for new opportunities. While that may sound like something every professional is looking for, designers have very specific desires when it comes to personal development.
So what does that look like in practice? Designers want to be part of a team they can learn from and grow with from day one, whether that’s getting the perspective of industry veterans or cultivating healthy, mutually educational relationships with their peers. “Some designers want remote flexibility, others want to work in a new domain or a specific domain like crypto or electric vehicles, some want to grow their career or manage more people,” Daniel Wert of Wert&Co, a recruiting firm that counts Airbnb, Google, IDEO, (and Figma!) as clients told us. “But the thing people want most is to work with others they can learn from and grow with. The most common catalyst for a search is personal growth.”
The role of design and designers has transformed over the last decade, with many businesses investing in and building in-house teams for the first time. Design has gone from being a business luxury to something mission-critical, and designers know they have choices in terms of where they want to work, who they want to work with, and what they want to work on. Cultivating a great design culture starts with understanding those questions.
Read more of our research on what sets some companies apart when hiring design talent.