In-house Observations: The Art of Targeting Talent

In Search of the Genuine Article Part 2

by Ed Roberts

In part 1 of this post, I confessed that the Antiques Roadshow in its search for the genuine article is one of my guiltiest pleasures to watch. I also shared a few thoughts on the importance of being professional, encouraging and gracious after receiving a resignation letter. Whether you feel caught off guard or relieved, your behavior after receiving this letter can help maintain, destroy or even build your reputation within the tight-knit, local creative community. I also mentioned that in order to find the best candidate, thorough research and solid preparation are two foundational components that will help you achieve your goals. Hopefully these steps and those to follow will give you a framework to customize your own path towards acquiring the genuine article.

Step 3. Know what you want and ask for it
I’ve tried many different tactics over the years in attracting candidates. Crafting both funny and cool job postings have led to disastrous results in my hiring practices. It wasn’t the fault of the person I hired. The fault fell squarely on my shoulders for not conveying in the job description those specific requirements needed to perform successfully. Design, writing, strategizing and production are highly valuable and technical skills in our industry. Because software, online training and “how-to” books are readily available to novices, I immediately begin weeding them out by requiring candidates to have graduated from an accredited college with a degree relatable to the position, several years of solid work experience and an online portfolio of tangible project samples.

Step 4. Conduct a 30-minute telephone interview
After reviewing and weeding candidates, five or seven will undoubtedly rise to the top. At this point in the process, you may believe you have a good feel for each person’s skill, talent and maybe even personality (through Facebook, LinkedIn, Youtube, etc.), but unfortunately you may not. Many creative teams today are multidisciplinary, making it hard to distinguish how much each individual contributed to the final solution. Get a solid feel for each candidate by conducting a 3o-minute telephone interview. Below are questions I ask each candidate:

1. What is the greatest strength and asset you’ll bring to our organization?

2. What is your greatest weakness?

3. What was your favorite position and how did your supervisor help make it so?

4. How have you redefined your job role and output to meet a company’s changing needs?

Step 5. The practicum
After the phone interview, I invite each candidate to voluntarily complete a practicum. The practicum is loosely based on a past project that was successfully solved, implemented and closed by my team. I inform each candidate that their solution will be used by me to review how they solve similar problems encountered by my team on a daily basis. I also mention they will gain insight into the types of projects I assign, manage and support throughout the development process. I stress to each candidate that they are not to spend any personal funds on the completion of the practicum. I then provide them with a thorough creative brief and all supporting materials needed for completion. Once the practicum is submitted I contact each candidate and take as much time as they need for me to hear their thought processes, offer constructive feedback and inform them of the next steps in the hiring process. Then I narrow my search and invite three candidates to meet with me in person. During this meeting the candidates are able to present their portfolios at their own pace and I answer any of their questions. I also ask each candidate the following questions:

1. Describe the amount of structure and feedback that you need to excel?

2. How do you balance your career with your personal life?

3. Paint a picture of the corporate culture you’ll create if hired?

4. What was your least favorite position and how did your supervisor impact your career during that time?

5. Where do you see yourself in five years?

Step 6. The panel interview
I’ve narrowed my search down to two candidates; either person could potentially be the genuine article. At this point in the process it’s important to see how well these individuals interact with my internal clients. So I ask five managers from different divisions (one being HR) to participate in the panel interviews and develop two questions to ask the candidates. These managers are provided with each candidates résumé, portfolio links, the practicum’s creative brief and their final solutions. I provide each candidate with a list of names, titles and divisions of each manager participating in the panel interview and encourage them to ask questions. At the end of each interview I debrief with the managers and listen to their thoughts on who they believe would be the best fit for our organization.

Final thoughts
Selecting the genuine article is admittedly a very detailed and arduous process. Four months into my current job, I had to fill two major positions on my team. I followed these steps and nine months later we received four ADDY awards—among others—for work we produced together. I can’t guarantee these steps will win your team awards. I can guarantee that you’ll feel confident in your selection of a winning addition to your team.

11 thoughts on “In-house Observations: The Art of Targeting Talent

  1. Daniel Green

    I appreciate your thoughts here, Andy. I like most of it. However, if I’m reading your article correctly, it sounds like the “practicum” comes dangerously close to asking a candidate to perform spec work. I’ve taken myself out of the running for positions when such requests have arisen, because I find it to be fundamentally disrespectful to a designer’s time, talent, and experience.

    1. Sara Moon

      I agree with Andy’s approach and have followed a similar method of having candidates perform timed assessments prior to the actual interview for more junior level positions. Just to make sure they do in fact have the basic skills required. I now need to fill a senior position and don’t think the same approach will provide the kind of insight I might need to make a good choice. I also agree that requiring a practicum might be offputting to talented candidates. Where is the balance? Or is that just the nature of the interview process?

  2. edr3

    I believe speculative work in its purest form—like plagiarism—is intellectual property theft. It harms the unsuspecting creative financially and if unchecked can devalue the standards that govern the design industry. My issuing a practicum is less about the final solution and more about gaining insight into the candidate’s cognitive skills and the unique processes they cull to solve a problem, specifically one previously solved by my team. I’m also able to observe if the candidate truly likes to work collaboratively or is instead a lone wolf during the development process. There are valuable nuances that are revealed in this process that aren’t in a simple reference check or a canned portfolio presentation. I invest a great deal of my organization’s money into the professional development of my team. The economy—such as it is—requires that I hire right the first time. My goal is to secure the best person for my team and keep them happily employed for a long time.

  3. Daniel Green

    You’ve addressed one aspect of spec work that I agree with.
    However — fundamentally speaking — how is the practicum any different from a potential client requiring a group of competing design firms to “solve a test problem” for them — without pay — without even giving them the opportunity to first pitch their work in person — with the outside chance that one of them might get hired?

    1. Mark Maddalena

      Don’t forget that the author stated the “practicum” was based on an already completed creative project (although we must trust that the author is truthful about this), which is the clearest distinction from spec work in this case.

      1. Daniel Green

        The fact that the “practicum project” was already completed by the in-house team — and therefore would not be used in the marketplace — doe not change the fact that professional designers are being asked to provide work without compensation.

  4. edr3

    Hey Daniel,

    I appreciate your comments, passion and concern for the issue of spec work. I’m currently attending a conference session and will address your concern later today. I will not try to change your mind because the issue of spec work is a serious one.


  5. edr3


    I agree with the AIGA’s fundamental position on speculative work, “Students and professionals may draw different lines on what constitute unacceptable practices. In each case, however, the designer and client make the decision and must accept the associated risks.”

    The AIGA also makes an interesting distinction, ” We realize that there are some creative professions with a different set of standards, such as advertising and architecture, for which billings are substantial and continuous after you select a firm of record. In those cases, you are not receiving the final outcome (the advertising campaign or the building) for free up front as you would be in receiving a communication design solution.”

    The practicum is not a requirement, it is a voluntarily exercise where the hiring manager and the candidate agree to work on collaboratively. The practicum process is completely transparent and the development processes are controlled by the candidate. It is the constructive exchange of ideas and overall insight gained by both the candidate and hiring manager that should be the desired outcome of the practicum, not the solution. In speculative work the desired outcome is always about getting to a free, usable solution.

  6. Daniel Green

    Thanks for your reply, Andy.
    The experiences that I have had with a “test project” were such that — with the tiniest of briefs — a designer would not be able to demonstrate any insightful interaction with the client, the process, or the problem at hand. The solution, by the nature of the request, could be only be superficial, at best, and would do nothing to demonstrate the breadth of a designer’s abilities beyond craft…a trait which should be evident in the portfolio.
    I’m glad if the practicum approach, as you have defined it, has worked for you.
    However, speaking personally, I’d prefer to have a regular round of interviews, and — if the hiring body wanted further insight on what it’s like to work with me and how I solve problems — to hire me for a freelance job.
    Thanks again for your thoughts.

  7. Sarah

    I also have questions about the practicum, especially when you say you’re looking to see if the candidate is a lone wolf or a team player: do you give them the same assets as your team? Can they use your stock photo site? Can they brainstorm with the other team members? Does the brief outline the history of the department requesting the project, as well as the project goals?

    1. edr3

      Hey Sara,

      In the post I mentioned that candidates who agree to participate in the practicum are given a thorough creative brief and any assets needed to complete the practicum to their satisfaction. I usually offer my direct contact information and encourage each candidate to use me as a resource throughout the process. The only restriction I impose on each candidate is they are not to invest money into the completion of the practicum. Outside of that one restriction each candidate has total control over how they choose to work with me through the practicum process.

      The creative brief given to each candidate contains the scope, audience, tone, required elements, desired takeaway messaging, deadline etc., all the same information that would normally be shared with my team. I have fielded questions about various departments, stayed late brainstorming with candidates upon request and fielded questions on weekend mornings sitting in my kitchen. I have received results in the form of rough sketches, detailed outlines in Word documents and mounted, tight comps. At the end of the process both the candidate and I gained valuable insights from our collaboration. Candidates that moved from the practicum process to the panel interview said they felt better prepared for that final interview.