Started by the industrial design pioneer Walter Dorwin Teague in 1926, Teague is not exaggerating when it calls itself "the original design consultancy." And it continues to innovate today, with offices in Munich and Seattle, a staff of 200 designers and clients like Kodak, Boeing and Microsoft. Alysha Naples, Teague's interaction design manager, describes the firm's work as looking five to ten years into the future of technology. For Teague's designers, it's not enough to ask what hovercrafts will look like in seven years, but also to anticipate the kinds of problems such technology might create. Naples is in charge of hiring, team-building and staffing projects for her team; when working for clients, she also acts as creative director.
Can you walk us through your process for hiring a new industrial designer?
There are two ways that we do new hires. One is through business planning. At the end of the year, we plan ahead in terms of what we're going to need to keep doing the kind of work that we want to do. We ask ourselves, "Given the work we did last year, were we regularly short in a particular area?" During that process, we also decide if we want to grow a particular area or introduce a new one. And then the other way we hire is when people leave the company or get promoted into another role, and there is an opening that needs to be filled.
Once we decide we're going to hire for a new job, we write the job description and turn it over to the recruiting department. Then the job is posted on our website and on all of the usual design places, like Core77. Then I review each application myself and will either reject candidates if they're not qualified, or put them in a pile of people I'm interested in. From there, I do phone interviews, starting with the applicants who are the best fit or the most interesting. Before I do a phone interview, I ask our recruiters to do a phone screen. They'll screen for things like your ability to work in U.S. We get a lot of really wonderful and qualified candidates from outside the United States, but we've had a hard time with visas; often, if it's a position we need to fill right away, we can't move forward if the candidate doesn't have U.S. work clearance.
Phone interviews are a one-on-one between the candidate and myself. We talk a little bit about Teague, what it's like to work here, who we are and what we do. Then I ask candidates about their interests and why they're interested in working here, and I ask them to walk me through a project in their portfolio that they're most proud of, or that came out closest to how they intended. After that I ask them to tell me about a project—often these aren't in their portfolio—that did not go how they intended.
If I'm excited about the candidate at this point, the recruiting team will set up a group interview in person, and we'll fly them out to Seattle if needed. They'll interview with the entire team, plus a couple other members of the studio that I will pick specifically based on the position. I like to get a balanced set of feedback. Each of the different disciplines in the studio really brings its own lens, so it's really nice to see someone through all of those.
I see all of us here at Teague primarily as problem solvers. At the end of the day, we hope that the solution is very beautiful, but it's really about solving the problem. That's the big thing. I tend to get excited about people who can speak eloquently about their work, who can talk about the decision points in the process and why they made the decisions that they made. It's a lot more important that they are able to articulate the decision-making process than for me agree with the decisions. How well do you explain the process, and do I feel like the decisions made were thoughtful and based on something other than just a gut feeling?
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from my favorite college professor when I was applying for graduate school. I found out I got a big interview, and I went running to her and said, "Here's my portfolio, what do I need to redo to get in?" And she said, "Don't redo any of it. You got the interview, the work is good enough—they really just want to know if you're someone they want to see every day." And I think that holds true. Are you curious? Do you have a sense of humor? Do I enjoy having this conversation with you? Because I work very, very closely with everyone on the team here. I talk to each of them almost every day, and we have one-on-one meetings every other week. A lot of it is asking myself, "Is this person bringing an interesting new perspective or new skills to the problem?"
And what are some red flags that might disqualify a potential hire?
I always ask candidates the question "If you could fix anything in the world, what would you want to fix?" When people can't answer that, I know that they're not right for us. Most of the people who are here at Teague, if I asked them the same question, they'd say, "You might want to get a chair, we're gonna be here for a while." The people here tend to have a really long list of the things they would like to redesign, and the processes they would like to streamline. When I say, "The sky is the limit, what do you want to change?"—and there's nothing there, that person is probably not going to be a good fit.
Once candidates make it to the interview stage, what are the big dos and don'ts?
This is such a cliché, but things like eye contact are really important. As we're interviewing you, we're not only thinking about all the stuff I mentioned earlier, but we're asking ourselves, "Is this someone we would feel comfortable putting in front of a client?" If you don't make eye contact, it can seem that you're not confident in what you're saying. And as a design consultant, being confident about the solutions you're presenting is really important.
We also want to know how well you think on your feet. If we throw you curveball questions, can you handle it? There's certainly nothing wrong with saying, "Hmm, OK, let me think for a second," and then coming back to answer it. But if there's a deer-in-the-headlights look, that's generally a red flag. Our clients come to us because they need an outside opinion. They're often too buried in their own internal politics and goals to be able to see the forest for the trees. So we'll sometimes get really out-there questions that we later find out were based on something that's going on internally. So I don't want to hire somebody who's going to freeze up when the weird question comes.
What is the craziest thing someone has done to try to land a job—and was it effective?
I do have a story, but it's from a previous job. Years ago I worked at Blurb, which at the time was a startup in the field of book publishing. We had a woman interview to be a jack-of-all-trades who would help out the marketing department, do some writing for the blog and also do some product work for the design teams. This woman's father owned a bindery in Pennsylvania, where he did really beautiful, high-quality book binding. And she had him make each of us a hardbound book that had "I Heart Blurb" debossed into the cover; she gave one to everyone that was in the interview. The truth is, she would have gotten the job without that gesture—but it showed that she was so interested in us, and interested in the company, it really went a long way. And she ended up being absolutely excellent at the position.
I think that gets to something larger. You don't necessarily have to make a grand gesture, but having a real interest in and understanding of the company goes a long way. Showing that you're interested beyond just wanting a paycheck or putting it on your resume—but to actually understand what they're struggling with, what they're working on and what they're interested in. That's really important.
There was also a guy in Seattle who brought in a physical portfolio in a pizza box, so it looked like a pizza delivery. The admin guy came back to me and said, "Hey, this was delivered for you." And I'm thinking, "I'm allergic to gluten, why would anybody send me a pizza?" It ended up not being a pizza but his portfolio. He did not get the job. I appreciated the initiative, but the work wasn't the kind of work we were looking for.
What other advice can you offer to industrial designers hoping to work at Teague?
Although we have different offices, clients and accounts, the majority of the work that we do centers around either technology or travel. If you want to work at Teague, I think a really strong interest—I'd go as far as to say a love—for those things will carry you a long way. If you don't love those two things, you're not going to love the things you're working on. Most of us here are either intrepid travelers or giant nerds, or both.
Speaking more generally, I'd advise people to look closely at a firm and the kinds of work they're doing, because it tells you a lot about what they're interested in as a whole. An awareness of that, and asking yourself whether this is the company that interests you, will help you find a job that's a good fit.
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.