Starting a corporate design studio? Hire T-shaped designers


Blog article / Thursday, September 7th, 2017

I’ve been involved in the start of several new design studios in the corporate environment, Deloitte Digital being the most recent one (in The Netherlands and in Mexico City).

When you start a new studio (in the corporate environment), there are two main questions:

  1. How are filling our sales pipeline?
  2. Who are we hiring?

This post is about the second question. How do you build up a team? You don’t have unlimited time or resources to hire just anyone you like. You have to make strategic choices to kick-start a fruitful inception of your newly created business. I want to talk a bit about some of the challenges we faced and how to tackle them:

  • Should we invest in specialized talent, or in T-shaped people?
    The answer is simple: T-shaped people. With that, we mean a talented individual who does not have single focus domain (e.g. UI only, UX only, Animation design only, etc.). T-shaped people are like chameleons, they can adapt to the situation at hand, whether it’s doing a client workshop, figuring out a design flow or optimizing a customer journey. The are chameleons because they have mastered the basic principles of design in its broadest sense (i.e. ‘a mix of all’: visual design, product design, user-centered thinking, combining logical reasoning with creative outbursts, knowing how to defend their work, etc.). Of course, specialized individuals are needed too (who doesn’t want to invest in a highly skilled animation director, or UI-expert?). However, this comes later. First we need to fill the pipeline and we don’t know what type of work will come our way. Therefore, we need to be prepared for every scenario. Get folks who understand design in general and don’t get confused by the many different job titles you see on LinkedIn.

    Example of ‘T-shaped designer profile’. Image extracted from: https://www.slideshare.net/Lab80/unicorn-ranch
  • What kind of talent profile are we investing in, first?
    • Look for someone who has worked in a digital studio before (small or big). Freelancers might be suitable too, but be careful: they tend to have a very ‘free mind’ and might lack collaborative power.
    • He or she is an all-round designer that has proven experience (5+ years) in design, preferably in different fields (product/service/UI/graphic). Having worked in different fields stimulates the mind and allows people to combine best practices in the work they’re going to do for you.
    • Make sure he or she is extrovert enough to speak up in front of client, defined his/her ideas and is good in building relationships. After all, it’s still a people’s business and relationships will be the basis for whatever you’re going to produce.
    • He or she should believe in a shared vision. What is the long term plan for the studio you’re creating? Why are you getting out of bed in the morning? What customers are you going to serve? See if his/her DNA fits yours. There’s nothing more deadly than talented individuals who are hard to work with (on a personal level).
    • If you’re looking for specific job titles, look for: creative director, sr. service designer, sr. experience designer, senior UX/UI designer.
  • Should we hire a junior or senior professional?
    Senior. Of course you have budget constraints and one could say that it’s better to ‘mold’ a junior, but trust me: you want somebody who can take initiative, has proven experience, is accustomed to work pressure, difficult (client) circumstances and sees the bigger picture. Next to that, senior people (generally) have produced more work and are likely to be more skilled in combining previous work results into innovative solutions for future clients.
  • What is the relation between self-development and need for utilization?
    Good question 😉 … and a difficult one. I’ve seen people around me being forced to get a 80-90% utilization rate from the very start. This works counterproductive. One should be able to finds its way in the organisation, have time to find out what his/her sweetspot is and how the most value can be achieved. Besides that, when your studio is part of a larger corporation, you’ll need time to ‘fit in’: how can I make best use of the ‘mothership’? What are the inter-departmental dynamics? What’s the culture like? Give new talent time to get acquainted with their new family. However, you’re not running a charity: money needs to come in (and fast). Throw a him or her a challenge to jump on and ask for short-term evidence. After all, you’re building an airplane – all while in the sky.

After all, you’re building an airplane – all while in the sky.

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