How to hire a graphic designer for your team
Are you thinking about hiring a graphic designer? First, learn what a graphic designer’s role is, what skills a designer should have and what questions to ask when interviewing a designer.
What does a graphic designer do?
Graphic designers communicate ideas and solve problems. They do so by taking information and presenting it in its most simple, visually compelling form. That might mean creating an informational chart, designing a logo, an advertisement, signage, typography, printed media, a poster or product packaging, among other responsibilities.
Many traditional graphic designers today cross over into other types of design or creative skills, including product design, UX and UI, photography, photo editing or even video. Others specialize in specific areas of graphic design such as identity design (branding), print design or typography design. Whether a graphic designer should be specialized or a jack of all trades is debated among the community, but either type of designer can be successful in the field. A designer with diverse skills (such as a designer who can code), is prized in some companies and agencies today for their ability to see a project through every phase and collaborate well with different teams. However, the job description for graphic designers varies depending on the company and the team.
Most designers today work in advertising agencies, brand agencies, as independent freelancers for various agencies and companies, in-house at a company or organization, or at startups. However, graphic designers are needed in nearly every industry, from publishing houses to non-profits.
What to consider when hiring a graphic designer
1. An online portfolio
A portfolio is non-negotiable. Today, professional designers have an online portfolio. If a designer doesn’t have a website and wants to send you a PDF or Dropbox link showing their work, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a bad designer. But it does say something about their care for their craft and understanding of modern design expectations.
In their portfolio, look for projects relevant to the work they’ll be doing on your team. (Ideally, they will curate their portfolio for the position they are applying for.) Just because a graphic designer is extremely talented at logo design doesn’t mean they can, or want to, redesign your company website. The amount of projects don’t matter as much as the work itself. An experienced designer may only have five or so projects in their portfolio. Those five case studies alone will reveal their skill.
While reading their case studies, look for insights into how they work: How do they approach a challenge? How do they solve problems? How do they work within a team? Do they make it clear what role they played on the project and give credit to their collaborators? The way they talk about their work will reveal their process, their attention to detail, their attitude and their passion for what they do. If they’ve only dumped a bunch of photos on the page without any explanation, that reveals just as much.
2. Hard skills
Naturally, you want a designer with the skills relevant to your work. Not all designers have the same skillset, and that’s what’s exciting about the field. However, generally speaking, a graphic designer may have any combination of these skills:
- Branding: This isn’t about just designing logos, although that’s part of it. A designer skilled in branding typically builds entire identity systems a client can use to tell their story and position themselves.
- UX and or UI design: A traditional designer may or may not be skilled in digital design, but many are. Long before UX design was a specialty, web design (what some now call product design) and everything that goes with it was part of the job. Foundational skills in UX/UI are useful to all modern designers, whether they specialize in it or not.
- Print and packaging design: While this may not be applicable to all design jobs, most graphic designers understand how to prepare graphics for print, from ensuring the quality and sizing translates, to exporting their work correctly, to directing printers and publishers to produce a perfect final product.
- Coding: Designers don’t necessarily need to know how to code, but a basic understanding of HTML & CSS will make them more helpful to the team and successful in their role.
- Software skills: If a designer is skilled in any of the above areas, they are likely familiar with the most common graphic design tools, such as Adobe Creative Cloud (including Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign) Figma, Sketch or Procreate. If they’re not familiar with your team’s design tool of choice, it shouldn’t rule them out. Most designers can easily pick up new tools and adapt on the job.
- An understanding of typography: You can tell quickly how skilled a designer is by the way they use typography. Tiny details like the spacing between letters and lines in a paragraph make all the difference between amateur and professional designer.
3. Soft skills
Aside from obvious skills like creativity, problem solving and critical thinking, a good designer should possess all or most of these skills:
- Excellent communication skills: A designer who can communicate clearly within a team and to clients is a must, especially within an agency or startup setting where things move fast and miscommunication can easily derail an entire project.
- Presentation & pitching skills: The ability to sell an idea sets great designers apart from decent ones. Presenting the work is nearly as important as the work itself.
- Concepting: An understood part of designing is the ability to ideate concepts based on the project goal. A designer should be able to take a challenge, brainstorm ideas around that challenge, effectively communicate those ideas and turn them into visual concepts.
- Data analysis: Designers take confusing, complicated information and simplify it to its most easy to understand form. That requires an ability to understand and organize content, data and numbers and make them beautiful without losing their meaning.
- Strong collaboration skills: It doesn’t matter whether you’re hiring an independent freelancer to jump in on a project or a full-time designer. Any designer should be a team player, with an understanding that teamwork makes all of the work better.
- Strategic thinking: A designer should always be thinking about the bigger picture, from the client’s goals to the copy to the development handoff to the final results. A good designer can explain the reasoning behind their design decisions.
- Attention to detail: The best designers care about every pixel. They obsess over perfecting their typography. They know subtle differences in color make all the difference. They see a project through to the end to make sure it’s executed properly. A designer who uses filler text without considering real copy, or hands over messy design files to their team, or doesn’t properly organize their own files, or only completes part of a task and overlooks other important requirements, may not be a bad designer. But they will be a frustrating one to work with, and they might make costly mistakes.
- Time management skills: Creativity works best with limitations, and the best designers know deadlines are part of that. An experienced designer should be efficient, with the ability to discern when a project needs a quick concept and when it’s time to dive deep and refine. A good designer is aware of how their work affects their team, and manages their own time accordingly to get the job done in the time they said they’d do it. The best designers project manage themselves.
What to ask when interviewing a graphic designer
Planning to interview a potential graphic design candidate? Here are a few important questions to ask.
Q: Tell me about the project you’re most proud of in your portfolio.
This will tell you what they consider “success.” Does a project make them proud if they personally like the style? If it meets the client’s goals? If they realized they thrived in a leadership role? None of these answers are wrong, but they are revealing.
Q: Can you tell me about your most challenging project?
Here you will learn how the designer approaches problems and works their way through them. It should also give you an understanding of their attitude and outlook on life. All of which matters, especially when they’re working on a team.
Q: How do you approach a new project?
The designer should walk you through their process, explaining what questions they ask their team, what answers they need to get started and what goals they prioritize for their work. This should give you insight into their level of experience and expertise.
Q: How do you prefer to receive feedback on your designs?
This should give you a sense of the designer’s communication style and importantly, ego.
Q: How do you handle conflict with a client?
A good designer knows that while a client doesn’t always know how to solve the problem, they do know their own business. So it’s usually a mix of education, collaboration, conversation and compromise – on both sides – that resolves conflict in a healthy client / designer relationship.
Q: What is good design, in your opinion?
You will likely get a simple answer at first, such as “Good design is design that solves a problem.” But press them to expand further. A designer that is passionate about what they do should have an interesting answer, even if it’s not one you necessarily expected.
How to get a graphic design job
It all starts with a strong portfolio. But before you can have a portfolio, you need the work to show in it, right? If you don’t have much experience yet, don’t worry:
Just start designing – whether that means freelancing, doing experiments or taking a class
The beauty of the design field? You don’t need any sort of certification, permission or formal education to join it. While a course or university can only help, it’s become increasingly easy to be a self-taught designer, thanks to the internet. You have free design tools at your disposal, countless YouTube tutorials, books and online guides that can teach you everything you need to know. The rest comes from your own curiosity and experimentation.
If you don’t have clients or a paying job yet, make your own. Give yourself a design challenge every day. Design one screen for a fake app. Offer your services to friends, relatives or local businesses. Every small project counts at the beginning. And every project leads to another project. And all of those projects will feed your portfolio.
Creating your graphic design portfolio
An online portfolio is a must today. Thankfully, creating a portfolio isn’t as hard as we imagine it to be. It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting out as a designer or you’ve been doing it for years. To launch your portfolio, you only need two projects – just two! Choose the projects that make you the most proud, and the work you’d want to do again. And if you’re applying for a specific role and a specific company, keep that in mind while choosing your projects. Try to choose the best projects that align most closely with the work you’re applying to do, so the company can see you have the skills and experience for the job.
Once you’ve chosen your two projects, it’s time to write your case studies. Think of each project in terms of phases – from the challenge to the concept to the solution – and write a few sentences for each phase. Your case studies don’t have to be novels, and shouldn’t be. Break it up into bite-size paragraphs for each phase so people can easily scan it to read. Include images for each phase so there’s context as we read through it. And, importantly, be sure to give credit to your team and explain your role in the project.
From there, make a simple homepage to show off your projects. And finally, create your About page. Show some personality here! Tell us what music you’re listening to now (you can easily update this every few weeks) or what funny nickname your family gave you or what you do in your free time. Give us a small window into who you are so you stand out in our mind compared to every other design portfolio.
How to prepare for a graphic design job interview
- Update and review your portfolio - If you haven’t already updated your portfolio, back up and read the paragraph above this one. If you have, now’s the time to review it again. Make sure all the links work, that it’s loading fast, that everything looks as it should. Then read your own case studies and get familiar with their structure. Chances are, the person interviewing you will ask you to walk through a project in your portfolio during the interview. If your site’s not working or you forget the details you wrote, it will make you stumble during the interview and shake your confidence.
- Do your research - Seems simple, but it’s easy to forget when you’re applying for many jobs at one time. Once you’ve secured an interview for a specific design job, research the company extensively, read the application thoroughly, read all the case studies on their website, research their competitors, their press, any blog post their team members have written – until you have the job, make it your job to understand the company and the position. This will allow you to speak naturally and confidently in your interview. It will also help you ask good questions, because you’ve done your homework and know the answers to the obvious ones.
You can be sure, whether you’re applying for a graphic design job or a plumbing job, that the interviewer will want you to ask THEM questions. Knowing you’ve done your research and prepared thoughtful questions shows you care about this role – not just getting any job.
- Reflect on your process - The person interviewing you is going to ask how you approach a challenge. They’ll want to know how to prefer to work with clients. How you resolve conflicts with clients or your team. They’ll want to know how you measure a project’s success, and how you approach a project from the start.
Think back to specific projects and take note of what you expected, how you handled yourself, what you wish you would have done differently, what you think you did right. Think of what you’ve learned from those you admire, from classes you’ve taken, from books you’ve read, from other designers you’ve observed. All of this informs you design philosophy, and reflecting on it before your interview will allow you to express it confidently in your interview.
- Relax! Easy to say, hard to do, right? But hopefully, if you’ve thoroughly prepared (see #1 - #3 above), you can rest easy in the confidence that you’ve done everything possible for this interview. Now it’s just about being your charming self. Watch a standup comedy special before leaving for the interview. Listen to your favorite podcast. Dance out the nerves in your living room. Set a confident, positive tone for your brain going into the meeting and you, and the person interviewing you, will feel the difference.