IDEO's 600 employees don't fit neatly into categories because the firm famously works across disciplines, and encourages its employees (and by extension its clients) to unlock their potential in creative ways. This has led to many firsts, including Apple's original mouse and the Treo, to name just two. Founded by David Kelley in 1991, IDEO is a design consultancy focused on helping its clients innovate and grow, and on bringing new companies and brands to life. As IDEO's global head of talent, partner Duane Bray handles anything that involves the company's people and culture—how people find out about the company, how they join IDEO and develop their careers, how they build their internal and external networks, and even what it looks like when people transition out of the firm.
Can you walk us through your process for hiring a new designer?
At a certain point in the year, we'll start to identify what our needs are for any of our locations. This is basically aligning what the market is telling us in relation to our portfolio and the skills that are necessary, and asking, Where are our gaps? When we start doing that, there are three places where we look to fill those needs. The first is looking internally; we encourage people to move around the firm a lot, so often we'll start there. Then we'll also reach out to our network, because we often have folks at IDEO who already have an ideal person in mind. And, finally, we'll post the position. You'll see activity from us on LinkedIn or on our website, doing a broader outreach to the world.
There's always an evaluation process before bringing someone in. It starts with their portfolio, their work and what we understand about their work. Any recruiter at IDEO will tell you the resume is the last thing you look at; the work is always the first. Once we do that and identify candidates, particularly if it's someone we want to hire who doesn't work at IDEO, we'll start arranging a series of conversations with them. There are usually multiple conversations. It's rare that someone comes in for one interview and they're done.
Then we'll start to look at what kind of the conversations we need to have at IDEO. We'll arrange deliberate conversations that cut across boundaries, and sometimes we'll put people through activities. We've done everything from throwing cocktail parties where people come in and we mingle, to putting them through an actual working session where we'll have them join a team. We'll do things to try them on for size, from both a cultural and a professional perspective.
What makes good candidates stand out?
Once we reach out to someone, we've usually seen their work and now we want to talk to them. We're looking for people who are great storytellers. What got them here? How do they solve problems? What inspires them? We often see people who have followed rich and diverse paths to get to where they are. So sometimes that story is really interesting to us, and we look for that. Storytelling is number one.
We also want to know that they're passionate about the role. Sometimes there's a distinction between being passionate about working at IDEO and being passionate about the role we're hiring for. Do they truly love the idea of this job, whether it's at IDEO or somewhere else?
We also look for people who embody our values in some way. Just simple things like being collaborative and being comfortable with ambiguity. Development at IDEO is not a rigid structure; it's much more of a negotiation. Therefore, ambiguity and how you deal with that is important. Then there's the notion of making others successful. We look for people who, when talking about their work or projects, talk about how they were part of a team. It's not just "I did this" or "I had the good idea." Finally, curiosity: We love for them to be curious, to ask us questions.
Duane Bray, IDEO's global head of talent, and a team-building exercise outside IDEO's New York City office
And what are some red flags that might disqualify a potential hire?
Applying for every different job. It sounds odd but it happens a lot: "I want to work at IDEO so I'll apply for every position." I've never met a human being who's qualified to be a research designer, an industrial designer, a business designer, and who happens to be fluent in a bunch of different programming languages.
Also, people who try to Trojan Horse it: "I'll apply for the front desk position and work my way to being a designer." That's a bit of a red flag for us. Or folks who come in to interview and talk for an hour without coming up for air. That usually doesn't bode well, because they have to understand it's a give-and-take.
Lastly, people who aren't authentic. We had someone who came in for a job interview in a suit, and he clearly doesn't wear suits every day because he was miserable and uncomfortable. Well, we don't wear suits either, so it was just awkward. Just be yourself, wear whatever. If he's talented and he came in wearing jeans, not a problem. Authenticity is important.
Once candidates make it to the interview stage, what are the big dos and don'ts?
One thing is fine-tuning their application to the role they're applying for. Being able to speak to experiences that they think are directly important or related to the job.
The other is if they are really curious about what people do for fun. We have an interaction designer at our Boston office, he was coming in as a student from school and you could tell he had the skills and his portfolio was great, but he had this crazy personal project which was an animated GIF dance-party thing. It was this wild project that got everybody excited, and he clearly loved it. It was his favorite piece he had done, and actually it was our favorite thing in the portfolio. He might have edited that out if he gave us only what he thought we were looking for, but instead he took a risk and said, "I love this thing, it's totally kooky and I don't know what it means." Awesome, you're hired. We want to see what inspires and drives people because we have to know how they might feel every day when they come to work.
What is the craziest thing someone has done to try to land a job—and was it effective?
I'll give you some effective and some ineffective. We had a guy who sent us 30 water-bottle caps from plastic bottles he picked up off the street, because he thought they killed sea turtles and that therefore demonstrated he was a design thinker. Needless to say, he didn't get a job. We had a guy who constructed a job-fair booth outside one of our offices and manned it all day to try and get an interview. That didn't quite work either. We had someone who thought about applying for a job at IDEO as "shooting for the target," so it was all gun- and ammo-themed, which just was creepy. Those are examples of trying to stand out without any direct connection, and those things usually backfire.
On the other hand, we have had some folks who have done really nice tongue-in-cheek things. We had one person who wrote her cover letter as a story that unfolded over several Post-it notes. You had to peel them back one by one. Obviously, if you search IDEO on Google, you're going to see photos of Post-It notes readily—she recognized that. We had an interaction designer who researched all the people she had met with during the interview, and sent them each an illustrated, personal notecard that said something about that conversation that inspired her, or highlighted some connection or shared interest. It showed that she really understood us and got the culture. I think when those things come together, it's really powerful. When it's just a "look at me" gesture—sadly, it doesn't always work.
What other advice can you offer to designers hoping to work at IDEO?
We get way more applicants by an incredible volume than we have positions for. So you can imagine why people might want to try to stand out by doing crazy things. But people who come in and their cover letter shows they've done some research, they understand the role they're applying for, they have some sense about our business and what we do—we can more readily imagine them working here and that accelerates things.
If you're curious about us, find us where we are. If there are events we're doing and you live nearby, if we're going to be on a campus somewhere, or if there are IDEO alums at your school, find ways to have direct conversations to make some connection. Help us help you a bit more. Things like that that give us an opportunity to have some sort of conversation, which definitely works well.
Bryn Smith is a writer, graphic designer, and critic based in Brooklyn. She is currently at work on a collection of interviews with legendary designers, and a book about the design studio Open. She teaches in the graduate graphic design program at RISD.