Editor's note: We interviewed Paul Backett late last year, and since then he has moved on from Ziba. We decided to still include his thoughts in this Getting Hired series, as they reflect more than eight years of working at Ziba, and are generally applicable to interviewing at any design firm.
Ziba, which means "beautiful" in Farsi, was founded 29 years ago by the Iranian Sohrab Vossoughi as an industrial design firm. One of the first consultancies to create an in-house consumer insights and trends group, Ziba prides itself on understanding people first and foremost. Headquartered in Portland, Oregon, the company has evolved to offer product, communication, environment and packaging design, plus brand strategy and consumer research. Paul Backett, who until recently led Ziba's industrial design team, was responsible for assembling, leading and driving the I.D. team to create. Though Backett is no longer at Ziba, his opinions reflect working at the company for over eight years.
Can you walk us through your process for hiring a new designer?
This is probably pretty common, but we get a lot of applications. What we like to do is split our applications across teams. The principal industrial designer and I will look at all the senior portfolios that come in. Then a few of our senior designers look at all of the junior and intern applications. Every few weeks we get together and ask if there's anything interesting that's come though. If there's something that's really wonderful, we forward it on to each other and have a look pretty quickly. It really is a team effort. If we see someone that we like, even if we don't have an opening, we like to talk to that person. One of the important things about finding talent is building relationships. It's getting to know people and starting a conversation for when the right working opportunity comes along.
We like to talk to candidates over Skype (unless they're local), because so much of what we do is about having a personality, caring about what you do and being able to talk passionately about your work. And if there are people we are considering for a position, then we absolutely bring them to our "house." It's important for us to get to know them, but also for them to get to know us in a lot more detail.
At that point, we also make sure that the whole team meets the person who's applying for the position. It's a bit of a rite of passage. Everyone that has a job here has come to visit Ziba for a day-long interview. It can be quite daunting, but I think it's a great thing to do. A little bit of pressure is sometimes good. It's very important the whole team meets the candidate. That's everyone that we have from juniors through seniors, principals, and myself.
What makes good candidates stand out?
I also teach at the University of Oregon, and I'm always giving my students advice on how to get into good design firms. My number one thing is, it's all about your body of work. I don't, in a way, care where you're from, where you studied, or what grades you got. Your work really speaks for you. Having great ideas is just a base; everyone can come up with great ideas. What we love to see in a portfolio is really that you can showcase your skills. We're a very visually based company and we're immersed in making as much as possible. So we love to see great sketching and modeling skills. We're less excited by glossy renderings and CAD work. It's old-fashioned in a sense, but I love to see the core skills of an industrial designer.
In a portfolio, it's really important to think about pace. This goes for anyone, not just recent graduates. Don't take a cookie-cutter approach to sharing your work, like "Here's my research, here's my inspiration, here's my refinement, here's my solution." Use different projects to showcase different skills. Some projects might be focused on killer sketching; some might be more about visualization. Process is really important at Ziba. It's not about the final solution, but how you got there. We love to hear about the challenges that people come across as part of that story. Failures even. Things that pushed you to the next level are key. That's really what we do here. We're approaching difficult problems, and we don't always get it right the first time. We have to go down lots of paths and make difficult decisions along the way.
And what are some red flags that might disqualify a potential hire?
I'm always shocked by how many applications we get without any work, even though it's very clearly stated on our website that work samples are a requirement. I really can't do anything with just a resume. We do love when people take the time to put together a PDF presentation rather than just sending their website. When you build a portfolio, all the things I talked about in terms of showcasing your skills—pace, process, challenges—all of that can be built into a portfolio. Whereas a website is sometimes not as compelling.
One of my big red flags at the interview level is when people spend all their time trying to sell you their idea. I tell my students we're not inventors. We don't sit in dark rooms and come up with ideas out of nowhere. We understand the world, we understand real problems, we understand real people and we create solutions. That's what we love to see. How people show that they understand those things, and then how they create the solutions. Sometimes I'm much more interested in how you got to your idea than the idea itself.
Once candidates make it to the interview stage, what are the big dos and don'ts?
Showing real stuff is great. We love it when people come with boxes of things. We're inherently hoarders, and every single person's desk has tons of boxes underneath with all the cool stuff we've been collecting for years. It's great when people come with samples and physical products they've worked on. The opposite of that is we can't stand it when all we see are glossy renderings. It's often very clear that the person who designed that object has never held it and understood it as a physical form.
When it's face-to-face, there are some really important things, like showing passion. Being excited about your work and caring about what you've done is important. It's not about being a salesperson, but there is an element of that in our job. We have to talk about our ideas and convince our clients we're taking them in the right direction. So we need to see that from the people we're interviewing. Also, make sure you're telling stories about your products and not just talking about features. Talk about benefits, emotional needs and how it connects with real people. Take the time to talk about how you got to your solution, including all the decisions you made along the way. All of those things are essential.
I think the design industry is changing. Designers are less defined by their specific discipline than ever before. Especially with students and with recent graduates, they don't necessarily want to be classified as industrial designers anymore. They want to play in different places. We love seeing beautifully designed portfolios that are great communication design, or industrial designers who are trying to understand digital interaction and apps. But one thing that's important is understanding your majors and minors. Sometime we see portfolios that are too broad and too shallow. It's important to have that strong major, and then show a passion and a curiosity for other areas.
What is the craziest thing someone has done to try to land a job—and was it effective?
I don't know of anyone that has tried a crazy tactic, but one thing that's really important is to be persistent. Sometimes it's just about the right place at the right time. We're all really busy people, and we get hundreds of applications. Finding good people is always about building relationships, and the more direct contact you can have at a company, the more that sets you up for success. It's not just launching in and pitching yourself, but getting to know someone. Get in front of someone. If you can get in the door and have a face-to-face conversation, I think it puts you at such a considerable advantage. I'm always happy to talk with someone about what they love about design. That tells me more than looking at their website. Milk your contacts and be persistent. I ask people to send me something every month. You never know, the "right place, right time" might happen.
What other advice can you offer to designers hoping to work at Ziba?
Be honest and be yourself. Don't try and take on someone else's persona when you're trying to talk about your work. From a tangible point of view, sweat the details. I think every single element of a portfolio says something about you, and sometimes it's the weakest point that says the most. If you put in a crappy sketch or model, that tells me the level at which you're willing to present yourself. Caring about the details is essential.