Training Designers for the Web

Hiring a talented in-house designer who understands interactive can be a real challenge. The elusive designer/developer rockstars do exist (I’ve met them), but unfortunately they’re scarce, often get snapped up quickly and can demand daunting salaries.

So what’s a small, agile digital design studio to do? Should they look for someone with an amazing eye for typography, or someone that can code the latest HTML5 markup and write Javascript? After eight years of running an interactive studio, I’ve discovered some of the best ways to get the most out of hires—and out of my own design career.

Bluecadet’s story

My partner Troy LaChance and I run a digital design studio, Bluecadet, in Philadelphia. Here we have an extremely talented crew of designers, developers, project managers and strategists. Everyone works hard to understand the latest trends in digital design, so they can read and interpret a wireframe, size up a design and read HTML markup.

Bluecadet’s redesign for the Doctors without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières “Starved for Attention” campaign to end malnutrition was featured in Communication Arts.

But it wasn’t always this way. When I first established Bluecadet as a one-man studio in 2005, I was struck by how hard it was to find a rockstar interactive designer. Even in Philadelphia, which has no shortage of top-notch design schools, studios and programs, finding someone who could design for the web was a challenge. Many candidates’ design skills weren’t very impressive—it seemed they had split their time between learning a bit of markup, a bit of code and a bit of design. They were somewhat versatile, but not refined enough in any one area that I felt needed them.

A better approach to finding the perfect hire

Bluecadet seeks a number of attributes when we’re hiring a designer. Primarily, we look for versatility, obsessive attention to detail, and the ability to organize complex information. We look for careful use of color, typography and grids. We want to see a smart concept parsed through multiple revisions. A designer should be able to explain and defend the decisions behind their design, so we look for good communicators as well.

A current Bluecadet design, for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Website.

Many of the people I interviewed (who were both designers and developers) weren’t as refined as what I was imagining—none of them were my rockstar perfect candidate. Some design skills take a full course of study to learn, and finding someone who had put in the time to master these skills was my top priority.

I had to pick which was more important to my start-up studio—design or development— and focus my search. So I adjusted my approach: Instead of looking for the perfect Interactive Designer, the job title became Junior Designer, and I attuned my requirements accordingly.

I began looking for someone who had the right qualities already under their belt: stellar design, good communication skills and a hunger to understand. I stopped looking for the whole package and instead focused on what was most important: a good designer who was ready to learn the rest.

Outreach and recruiting

Making Web Designers

Learn more from Josh Goldblum in the DesignCast Making Web Designers: Transitioning Designers from Print to Interactive.

Where to find the people with those skills? Fortunately, Bluecadet has an edge when it comes to location: Some of the best design and art schools in the world are located in Philadelphia. It pays to capitalize on their proximity: I began building relationships with local schools, got to know the professors that produce the best students, and asked them to send along their favorites. Even before we had a staff, I was partnering with design schools, doing some teaching and speaking to their students. Meeting them paid off—I found the pool to draw potential hires from, and they found me.

Of course, it also helps to be a studio that attracts good talent. Potential hires needed to feel like they were going to get something great out of a career with Bluecadet. The fact that they would get to work with great museum and nonprofit clients, such as MoMA and National Geographic, and handle amazing content everyday, like the Mural Explorer, made Bluecadet a big draw.

The Mural Explorer is a Webby-award-winning interactive multimedia experience that allows users to explore and, for the first time, fully experience the mural art of Philadelphia.

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Soon, great portfolios started coming in, a terrific selection of talented designers. Of course, they were just that—designers. Having a bit of interactive design experience was a plus, but it wasn’t strictly necessary. I wanted them to have a basic understanding of markup, not so they could code but more because I wanted them to have a vested interest in digital design. I wanted to make a long-term hire for Bluecadet, someone I could develop and teach. I ended up hiring an insanely talented print designer.

After the hire: Creating the right culture for interactive design

I think the best way to welcome and teach a new employee is to create a culture of learning. We worked together to apply the new hire’s already great design skills to interactive design projects. I gave her the opportunity to work on big projects from the start, then sat down with her to critique them. I’d let her work on a problem, then show her how others were solving similar issues in smart ways.

One of our new hire’s early interactive designs. Live Hope Love is an interactive documentation of living with HIV in Jamaica, commissioned by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

I gave her a basic understanding of technologies, both their capabilities and their limitations. She learned about browser constraints and opportunities, how to prepare her designs (and PSDs) for developers, font options for the web, and all sorts of best practices. The goal was to simply make her a fan of the industry, so the thirst for knowledge would come as she worked and realized what she didn’t know.

She had the tenacity to learn on her own and worked to make herself an expert. There’s so much information about interactive design best practices available: tons of great blogs, conferences, training videos. Design communities like Dribble are great for feedback for designers without teams. Teaching her where to look and giving her time and encouragement helped her improve without a ton of direction.

Click the picture above to see images from our process. We begin a design with mood boards, which help us select a design direction. Wireframes then illustrate the layout of the main features and functionality of a website.

When my now-partner Troy joined the team, he moved her even further. He gave her design feedback and taught her to use sophisticated wireframing and site structuring methods, eventually creating the processes that govern how we do things today.

Once she was trained, she became our design rockstar—the mythical interactive designer with great visual composition chops. Best of all, she can now take our new hires under her wing in our learning culture of turning junior designers into rockstars.

One of our rockstar’s latest designs, which she created for a kiosk touchscreen for the National Museum of American Jewish History.

Retention

Once we have our rockstars, we want to hold on to them. To do that, it’s important to recognize and reward their personal development. As they develop new skills, we make sure their salaries reflect the growth. (We don’t keep salary reviews to a rigid schedule, because their learning doesn’t adhere to one, either.) We know our designers become more valuable and increasingly attractive to other firms as they learn more. Even if we weren’t putting so much energy into building our staff, I believe it’s still better to keep talented workers well compensated than have to start anew.

Bluecadet has grown a lot in the past years, but we still retain our original small team, adding new junior workers as we go, each of whom start to learn from the bottom, just as my first hire did.

We’ve learned that our tendency toward perfectionism helps us as long as we focus on the designs and trust that the rest is teachable. The approach is rewarding for Bluecadet and the people who make up the team, and we see the results in the interactive designs our print-turned-interactive designers can now whip together.

Learn more from Josh Goldblum in the DesignCast Making Web Designers: Transitioning Designers from Print to Interactive.

5 thoughts on “Training Designers for the Web

  1. adustan

    good read. i have recently jumped to full time interactive design after 7 or 8 years of primarily print and branding. i really dig how the elements of time and interactivity play into digital work; really gives the designer so much more to play with. it should be easier to find studios who value and develop designers like you seem to.

    like i mentioned, my strength lies in the visual design and content organization/navigation aspects; i have a base understanding of the development side, but would never consider myself an actual web dev, but i can communicate and work with them. my current gig was looking for the rare and elusive designer/developer combo but was unable to find one . . . most of their prospects were too heavy on dev and not enough design. they brought me on knowing i can do the design and am progressing my knowledge of the dev side, like you mentioned you did at the beginning of this article.

    and i really liked how you mentioned “obsessive attention to detail” . . . i really enjoy working on tiny pixel details of buttons and other layout features, like type treatments, etc . . . if only the developers would care about those seemingly “trivial” details as much as i do!

    1. vdeanda

      adustan, how did you make the transition to interactive? I’m a motion graphics/interface designer with 8+ years expertise and having a hard time making the crossover. Most studios want the designer/developer rockstars. I’ve dabbled in development and have a basic knowledge of HTML/CSS, but I’m no hard core coder. I don’t want to be a jack of all trades and master of none; how do you find that balance?

      1. adustan

        im not any sort of developer or coder either. i just like to design for digital spaces, and figure out how the end user is going to interact/use it.

        i have developers that would build most of the stuff i make, except for flash-based projects, then that is something i can actually build out. (but not for too much longer apparently; )

  2. Josh Goldblum Post author

    Thanks for the kind words- glad you like the work, keep an eye out we have a bunch of new projects launching in the next few weeks. I will definitely cover some the issues your mentioned on my designCast next week. That said, I think the big trick to transitioning from motion or print to interactive is to separate out the structural issues from design issues. That means thinking about wireframes and content curation as an important part of the process and not jumping too quickly into pushing pixels or writing code. Also, there are various levels of development and developers. HTML markup and CSS is pretty straightforward, tweaking and extending JQuery/Wordpress/etc- a bit harder, writing custom Javascript- harder still, writing object oriented code/ Objective C / PHP/Ruby is pretty far down the rabbit hole. I think its important to take on these skills gradually and build incrementally rather than throwing yourself at a task suited to a seasoned dev and blowing your confidence.

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