A 100-year-old multinational company, Philips began quite modestly as a Netherlands-based producer of light bulbs. Now based in 126 countries around the world, the firm continues to make products that improve lives but with a much broader scope: shavers, kettles and coffeemakers in its consumer lifestyle division; ultrasound machines, X-ray equipment, patient monitoring devices and defibrillators for the healthcare industry; and everything from household bulbs to office illumination and street lights in the lighting division. Sean Hughes runs the global healthcare team, overseeing 100 designers across seven studios.
Can you walk us through your process for hiring a new designer?
It starts with a business need. We may see that there's increased effort needed in R&D, or that new business has come along and design support is needed. Then we'll start the recruiting process. We usually start locally, so it's either the direct manager or the hiring manager (one of my designers) who is responsible for posting the vacancy. They would post it on a number of websites, including Philips.com. We also use our internal network to review any other candidates in the pipeline: candidates we saw in previous interviews, or candidates who sent us work we found interesting. We often get people who are sending us their CVs and portfolios speculatively, and we do look through those.
We have to see a portfolio. For me, the easier it is to digest, the better. Ideally, it's five or six sheets of paper, not a CD-ROM or a website, but something we can pass around and archive easily. Then we'll make a shortlist based on the portfolio and CV.
Depending on where the candidate is located, we might start a first interview on the telephone or via Skype. If we're still interested, we'll fly people to the location to meet the local team and have a face-to-face. They'll meet with the hiring manager, one or two colleagues and some people from the business. By the time we've arrived at that stage, we're pretty interested in the candidate. We've already established the capabilities of the designer, and it's more about professional fit. Do they share the same approach that we have? Are they a good fit as a human being for our organization and culture?
What makes good candidates stand out?
Fundamentally, we like to see designers have the ability to draw, communicate and edit information. We love to see nice sketches and hand drawings, as well as designers who can tell a compelling story about how their product or communication came into being. We like to see the process—so, how did you arrive at the end result? If you're making an MR machine, we like to see the directions that you explored, things you researched, a process of design development. Why it made sense from a business as well as a design perspective.
At the end of the day, I'm running a design team that's part of a business and we want to make great design, but we want to make great business as well. So we need people who have an understanding of how design can work to make the business more successful. Communication is crucial. You have to be able to hold an audience, tell a story verbally and visually, and communicate what is vitally important in a corporate environment.
Sean Hughes, Philips's chief design officer for healthcare. Right: the Simply Go portable oxygen system
And what are some red flags that might disqualify a potential hire?
Lack of communication ability, or being unable to succeed in a team. The design department has to work with the marketing department, and it also has to coalesce with the engineering department. We need to make sure voices are heard in this highly networked environment, where design is one of a number of disciplines that work together to bring a new product to market. You can't just take a single perspective to get a decision made. It's important to be able to work within all of those different pressures, to maintain the design intent but mold it based on the new information you're getting as the product moves from an idea to a reality. We're not just making a design and throwing it over the fence. Some candidates might be interested in delivering the design and running away, but we can't because there are colleagues further down or up the chain, and we're all responsible for the end result. Design is just one component.
In terms of practical advice—again, with the portfolio, if I have to watch a DVD or visit a website, that's not ideal. Whereas if I can pick up a piece of paper or look at a PDF file, I can easily review it and make some judgments. Make it convenient. When I used to run the design team in Hong Kong, we were inundated with people wanting to work for our studio. To deal with that, on Friday afternoons we set aside one hour for the senior group of design leaders to get together and go through a stack of printouts. We'd review them very quickly, in or out. They'd get quickly separated and we'd come to an agreement, "OK, out of that stack of 30, those five are the most interesting." Then we'd keep them on file until an opportunity came in. You need to stand out in the right way. Think about how you prepare your portfolio: tell a story, have good headlines and copy, and no spelling mistakes.
Once candidates make it to the interview stage, what are the big dos and don'ts?
I'm always surprised when a designer walks in wearing a shirt and tie. Maybe it's different because we're Philips and it's a corporate environment, but that's not our dress code and we have a more relaxed approach. Appearance is very important and it says a lot. At the same time, I don't want people turning up in flip-flops and shorts either. Somewhere in the middle is the expectation.
We want people to tell us a nice story about themselves and share rich experiences. We want to hear what they've learned. How did I succeed or fail, and how have I taken that on board for the next project? Things that have gone really well are nice to see, as well as things that haven't been as successful. It's about being reflective and analytical, and understanding context. Being able to separate yourself and make a good analysis is important. Because we're a big, dispersed organization, each one of our people is an ambassador for the function of design and the intellectual approach that we would like to radiate. So I want to be certain that even if they're stationed 2,000 miles from me, they're still going to be a good ambassador.
We also look for people who have a degree of empathy and can put themselves in other people's shoes. The ethos we take to healthcare design is to put the patient at the center of everything we do. If you're designing a consumer product, you probably have a lot of exposure to that product in daily life. You know intimately how a mobile phone works, for instance. With an ultrasound or MR machine you're not going to have a lot of exposure; your tacit knowledge of those devices is rather limited. So you have to work harder to understand how these things work in a patient experience, but also from a clinical perspective. It's a slightly more involved level of user experience. It's having empathy and understanding, and using different perspectives to drive design decisions rather than using your own ego.
What is the craziest thing someone has done to try to land a job—and was it effective?
I can't think of anything. Perhaps because we don't have a lot of openings for fresh graduates, and most of the hires we have coming in at the junior level probably interned with us—meaning we've had a couple of goes and it's gone well, and then we have an opening and we can hire them into the team.
What other advice can you offer to designers hoping to work at Philips?
Regularly check our careers page for vacancies and then follow that procedure to get connected to us. That's the most official way in, and that's where all the vacancies will be. Also, we do attend conferences and events. Don't be scared to walk up, shake a hand and put your CV under somebody's nose. There's nothing wrong with a bit of personal self-marketing.
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.