Built by Charles W. Pelly and Ray Carter in the early 1970s, DesignworksUSA has been a creative consultancy for over 40 years. The firm was acquired by BMW Group in 1995, but its portfolio extends far beyond the automotive industry with projects in consumer electronics, medical equipment and transit—including planes, trains and yachts. Lisa Olivia is responsible for global talent management for the firm's three studios, in Los Angeles, Munich and Shanghai, which together employ about 130 people. Before joining DesignworksUSA, Olivia was the director of global design recruitment at Nike for 12 years.
Can you walk us through your process for hiring a new industrial designer?
Generically, we identify a designer we're interested in either through an advertisement or through networking. Then we would request a resume and a portfolio. The portfolio is obviously very important in the review process because there needs to be a certain talent and skill level evidenced through the work, the sketching and the rendering. And the designer's previous experience needs to be relative and applicable to our current opening. Sometimes it's hard to articulate—you see a strong portfolio and you just know.
After reviewing resumes and portfolios, we invite viable candidates in for an interview if they're local. If they're not local, we might start with a phone interview or a WebEx conference. If they pass that first test, then they'd come in for interviews with our design directors and some other team members who can meet with them, ask questions and make an assessment of their talent and skills. When designers come on-site here with their portfolios, part of the process is walking us verbally through the portfolio to articulate their design process and their design thinking, and how they came up with solutions to different projects. Then, depending on the situation, they could come back a second or even a third time before we make a selection and extend an offer to the best candidate.
What makes good candidates stand out?
The portfolio is the critical piece in the process. We're looking for designers who can articulate their process well in their portfolio. It also depends on what kind of designer we're looking for—we have visual interaction designers, graphic designers, industrial designers, transportation designers, et cetera. In the case of industrial designers, we're looking for strong sketching and rendering skills, fresh thinking—and it can be a plus if someone can also demonstrate strong 3D skills. Ideally, a portfolio demonstrates a lot of different solutions, so we can see that you can think of different ways of solving a problem.
Because designers don't always have the chance to walk us through their portfolios, they really need to make sure that their work can speak for itself. They need to think of someone paging through or clicking through on their own. Can someone else follow it? Does it make sense? Is their thought process well articulated?
Lisa Olivia, DesignworksUSA's global director of collaboration and knowledge management. Right: packaging design for hello, a "seriously friendly" oral care brand
And what are some red flags that might disqualify a potential hire?
How well someone edits the portfolio. If a designer includes everything he or she has ever done, it's just too much. As a designer it's really important to know what's strong, what isn't so strong and what you should be showing this company.
Always bring along a sketchbook that you can pull out if necessary. Sometimes a designer will come for an interview with only a portfolio and then someone will ask, "Can we see your sketching?" If you're coming for an interview, just bring it with you. You don't have to pull it out, but at least it's there if we ask for it.
Once candidates make it to the interview stage, what are the big dos and don'ts?
In general, be on time. What can hurt designers is if they're not prepared. Someone says, "Tell me about your process," and they're just very brief. If they don't articulate their process or their inspiration very well, they're just not in tune with the way they think. You need to practice your interview, either with a friend or even by yourself out loud. Sit there and walk through your portfolio and pretend someone is asking you questions. Be able to walk someone through it and tell them about your process in detail.
When you go to the interview, it's always good to ask how much time you have. Sometimes you have an hour, sometimes you have two hours. And it's always nice to ask the team, "What do you want to see?" Sometimes it might be a team of people who just want to see your two favorite projects, or spend time talking about one in particular. Also try to be sensitive to the verbal questions you're getting and use them to gauge how quickly or how slowly you need to walk through your work. You want to make sure you get to your good stuff. For that reason, make sure you have your very best work at the front of your portfolio, in case you run out of time.
DesignworksUSA recently updated Singapore Airlines' first class cabins; the new design debuted on select flights last September.
What is the craziest thing someone has done to try to land a job—and was it effective?
When I worked at Nike, someone came in for an interview and printed up T-shirts with his face on the back; the front said, "I met with John Doe and all I got was this lousy T-shirt." I thought it was so clever. He gave those to all the people he interviewed with. He was a good designer and wouldn't have been hired otherwise, but he did get the job. I think it depends on your audience. You have to gauge the relationship you've had with the recruiter up to then. For example, the T-shirt guy and I had a long-standing networking relationship built up over several years. So he knew me and maybe there was a certain comfort level.
I hate to make generalizations, but I think the design world tends to be more informal. A big gesture might demonstrate your creativity, whimsy and playfulness, and it might be more welcome in this realm than in other industries. I would think a lot of companies hiring designers would welcome that kind of thing, as long as it's not something that's offensive or politically incorrect.
What other advice can you offer to industrial designers hoping to work at DesignworksUSA?
I think we're attracted to designers who have a great depth and breadth of experience in industrial design. We do BMW work but also a lot of third-party client work, so it's best if someone can demonstrate that they've worked on a wide variety of products. Anything from consumer electronics to medical equipment to transit projects. A diverse portfolio is most attractive to us. We really believe in a multidisciplinary approach with lots of cross collaboration, so we're looking for designers who can move from project to project to project.
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.