Smart Design is about people. This mantra applies as equally to the end user of a vegetable peeler as to one of the company's 120 employees. Sarah Szeflinski, Smart's "HR team of one," makes sure of that by keeping in touch with everyone who comes through the front door, including the firm's former employees. Since 1980, Smart Design has cultivated a focused, human-centered approach, most evident in its 20-year relationship with OXO, a partnership that has resulted in more than 750 products that exemplify the principles of universal design. Szeflinski divides her time between support and HR for the company's three studios, in New York, San Francisco and Barcelona.
Can you walk us through your process for hiring a new designer?
Logistically, recruiting is centralized through me. I'll write and post job ads to Twitter, LinkedIn, Core77, et cetera. The designers, engineers and researchers then submit their portfolios online. I'll review everything and do a gut check on whether its Smart quality, and make sure they meet all the minimum qualifications. I'll then forward those candidates' materials to the hiring manager to make sure there is interest.
If candidates are local, we generally bring them on-site to meet with a small group of people. If they're not local, we'll usually do a Skype interview first. If that first interview goes well, we'll do an on-site follow-up to meet with a more multidisciplinary team, and they'll get a tour of the studio.
For us, even interviewing is a collaborative process. We like to do small group interviews for a couple of reasons. Everyone hears the candidate answer at the same time, which is a similar approach to how we do design research. Everybody in the interview might hear or interpret the candidate's response a little bit differently, and all of those interpretations are helpful in making our final decision. We also want to give the candidates exposure to a lot of different "Smarties," to really give them a taste of the people and the disciplines that they would work with. It also helps us determine their comfort level in group settings with different backgrounds. We need to make sure that designers can speak to non-designers.
What makes good candidates stand out?
We don't hire stylists at Smart. When we're looking at portfolios and when we're interviewing candidates, we're hoping to learn something about their thinking. Strong applicants are able to show what inspiration and research prompted their ideas, from brainstorming to sketching to rough prototypes to a final design. A lot of designers have beautiful portfolios, but it's really important for us to have an understanding of how they got there. How they worked with people along the way, what thought went into it.
We also want to see a little bit of "magic." That means fresh, new ideas, unexpected surprises. People who are able to articulate an "aha" moment in their design, and people who can tell a good story about it. When we're looking at the portfolio, are you taking us on the journey with you? And when you're coming in to interview, are you a good storyteller? Take us from idea all the way through to final design.
And what are some red flags that might disqualify a potential hire?
At the early stage, I'd say if we're only seeing final designs of a group project. It's difficult for us to gauge their process, their thinking, and what contributions they actually made to the project. We really like to see process.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, people that always talk in the context of "I" raise a red flag. We want to have an understanding about people's individual contributions, but we also want to avoid candidates who seem overly focused on themselves. Smarties always talk in "we," and we like to see that in candidates. We're a pretty flat organization with very little ego. Very rarely would you be doing something alone.
Once candidates make it to the interview stage, what are the big dos and don'ts?
Again, we're hoping that people can tell a good story about their work. Another big do is be nice to everybody. The people in the elevator, the people at reception, everybody. We are a difficult location to get to—all the way between 11th and 12th Avenues in Manhattan—so people are sometimes hustling and bustling to get over here. That sometimes happens with client work too, and that's going to be your normal commute, if all goes well. So we want to know that people have a good attitude about it, and that they're friendly and warm and really themselves.
If people have crossover skills, like a designer being really good at research, or an industrial designer having some interaction design skills, that's always valuable to us. At the very least, even if people don't have that (and it's OK if they don't), we like to see a sensitivity to other disciplines.
A big don't is being unprepared. You should have a general idea about what we do and what we don't do. We always talk to candidates and give them a brief history, so you don't have to be super well-informed, but you should have a general understanding of Smart. We've had people come in and talk to us as if we're in a marketing capacity, or as if we have computer science and website developers in-house. We do have an interaction design function here, but people are confused about what that actually means. This is less of a problem in the industrial design space. Industrial design is our legacy, it's what we're known for, so we don't see those candidates stumble as much.
It's always helpful when candidates come organized. They should know what stories they're going to share, and have them saved on their desktop or laptop. We've had candidates who are thumbing through their portfolios, and it's obvious they haven't thought about what they want to present.
What is the craziest thing someone has done to try to land a job—and was it effective?
We had an intern candidate who created a microsite of their portfolio and it was totally branded and geared specifically to their interview with Smart Design. It showed initiative, it showed creativity, it showed a real interest in working at Smart. That person was hired.
We've also had candidates bring gifts. Nothing extravagant, but gifts of products they like or products that they've worked on. That's definitely a nice gesture. But we've also had candidates who brought gifts and didn't land the job.
What other advice can you offer to designers hoping to work at Smart?
During the interview process especially, ask questions. This is their opportunity to learn about us as much as we're learning about them. It helps us recognize the people who are really interested in Smart, and it helps us recognize the people that are really thoughtful in how they ask questions. That is very useful if you're brought on board.
It might sound silly, but showcasing passion. The most interesting candidates we have, and the most interesting Smarties, they're really passionate about design—that's a given—but they're also really passionate about life. So whether it's cooking or photography or fitness or whatever, personal passion helps them get up on the weekends. If they find ways to show that initiative in both their personal and professional lives—those are oftentimes the most interesting people to interview, and we walk away inspired from those interactions. And they, in turn, bring a unique perspective on projects to the team. We encourage full-time Smarties to pursue outside interests, and we love when candidates are coming in really energized about design but also really energized about something else—it's contagious.
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.